Chick Corea has helped pioneer the use of electronic instruments in jazz music - now 49 LPs down the line, he believes there's still more ground to cover. Scott Wilkinson talks to a musical legend.
With 49 Albums to his credit, and appearances on countless others, you might think Chick Corea has said all he can say. But Inside Out re-establishes him as an innovative composer and performer.
MAD HATTER STUDIO IS NESTLED IN A secluded corner of Silverlake, a suburb of Hollywood, California. From the outside, you can pass it by without realising that much musical history has been made there. On the inside, however, the warm wood-panelled walls are adorned with album covers and artwork representing a career that spans over two decades.
An entire organisation occupies the building, primarily dedicated to the music of one man - Anthony Armando (Chick) Corea. His prodigious musical output is born of compositional, performance and improvisational skills that seem almost too good to be true (as evidenced by his seven Grammy awards and 26 nominations). He has also remained a pioneer in the use of music technology, playing and programming the most sophisticated devices available throughout his long tenure as one of the most celebrated composers and keyboard players of our time.
His latest album, Inside Out, represents a culmination of Corea's artistic vision for his Quintet, the Elektric Band. "Each record has gained in group-playing richness", he says with understandable satisfaction. "And this one has a particular group-playing impact to it.
When I wrote the music, I knew that the group was going to gel like this, because it had been feeling really good, even though it had been a year since we played. I knew that the band was going to be ready to cook."
Corea was right about that - the playing on the album is incredible. Not only is the ensemble tighter than ever, each member of the Elektric Band - Corea on keyboards, John Patitucci on bass, Dave Weckl on drums, Frank Gambale on guitar, and Eric Marienthal on sax - is a monster soloist in his own right.
In addition to Inside Out, the Elektric Band has three studio albums and one live album under its collective belt. The playing and writing on all of these recordings spans tight grooves and exotic harmonies and melodies with equal ease. A wonderful trio also lurks within the band, bringing Corea, Patitucci and Weckl together to perform and record as the Akoustic Band.
One very interesting aspect of Inside Out is the manner in which it was conceived and produced, as Corea is keen to explain. "This one started without any kind of image references, verbal concepts or physical concepts of space and time, no poetic images or whatever. I approached the composition as an improvisation. Once I started composing I composed the whole record in about six days, because it was a flow and I just kept going with it. Then the music flowed as an interaction of the emotions of the musicians.
"After the recording was finished (a week later), we started looking at illustrations and trying to work out a way to ground the music in some kind of concept or imagery, and that's how we developed the list of titles and the cover. For a long time, the pieces were known as 'Comp 1', 'Comp 2', 'Comp 3', 'Comp 4', 'Comp 5', and 'Comp 6'. When we were first listening to the music, some of the thoughts were toward grandiose and classical titles, like 'Fantasy' and 'Symphony', but I thought 'I don't want to stick it into a formalised classical atmosphere', even though some of it might remind you of classical music. So we came up with these titles that are more in keeping with the spirit of the tracks."
Many parts of the album reflect an aura of chamber music while others seem symphonic in their scope. His comments led me to think (and ask) about musical categories. How would Corea categorise his own music?
"It depends on with whom I'm communicating. I might use the word 'jazz' with some people, but not with other people because of what they think jazz is. Of course, it degrades a work of art to try to say what it is, because the actuality of it is itself. So, the way to describe music is to put it on and listen to it, and that is the music."
But aren't categories important and useful in some cases?
"That's a very interesting question", he ponders. "Life and commerce would tend to lead us to the answer that they're indispensable for problems like which bin to put the record in. But from my viewpoint as an artist, all that categorising does is label a creation that has already been created and define how it gets associated with other creations. The function of art and creation is to make something new, and you have the choice of drawing upon old forms or not. It's possible to make something that doesn't come from an association with something else. But if someone else looks at it, they may say, 'Yeah, that looks like a tree to me'. So, for me, the usefulness of categorisation is practically nil.
"I like to talk about music in terms of its emotions", he continues. "For instance, I might describe an intense piece of music, or music that moves slowly, or music that makes me feel incredibly serene, or music that makes me feel like dancing. These are the kind of descriptions and categorisations that mean something to me. Even so, it's such an individual thing that what would make me dance might not make the next guy dance."
THE LEVEL OF TECHNOLOGICAL SOPHIStication on Inside Out is no less astounding than on previous Elektric Band albums. This time, however, Corea took a slightly different approach.
"I put together a certain number of synth sounds that I played from the Yamaha MIDI Grand during the basic tracks, and I had a pedal that would bring in these sounds. I could have just the acoustic piano when the pedal was off, or I could bring in these additional textures with the pedal.
"I recorded the complete piano performance of each basic track directly into the Synclavier sequencer, which was locked to tape by SMPTE. After the basic tracks were done, I revised all of the synth sounds in the sequences and orchestrated my piano part. I could take those MIDI performances and then turn them into synth tracks. It turned out to be a very interesting way to get the initial feel of the basic track performance, along with later thoughts of orchestration.
"I've also discovered that the degree to which I understand the workings of a piece of gear is directly proportional to how well I use it."
"I often have thoughts about how particular phrases would sound better with this sound or that sound after I hear my basic track performance. Sometimes I've attempted to replace the original performances with synth overdubs. But this way, I retain the original performance.
"The other thing that was somewhat unusual for me, although I've done it a little bit before, was that I worked with a programmer, Jay Oliver. The way in which we interacted was interesting: I gave him an idea of how I wanted certain patches to feel and respond, rather than how I wanted them to sound. We came up with some very interesting programming, especially on the TX816."
Concurrent with the release of Inside Out is an extended tour of the US, Europe and Japan. The American leg of the tour is already underway, and the band should be in Europe between 18th September and 9th November before heading out to the Far East.
As you might imagine, touring with so much technology poses its own set of problems. "The better we get at it, the simpler we make things", Corea reports. "One of the things that makes it difficult to use synthesisers live is the amount of gear that gets put together. It was getting so heavy that it was becoming impractical to tour with so much equipment, requiring more setup time, road assistance, technical assistance, and so forth.
"What we had to do was rethink our whole touring system. Dave's setup at the drums and my keyboard setup are the most complex. Patitucci doesn't use any synths, and neither does Eric. Gambale uses some stuff occasionally. So it's really the keyboards and the drums. Dave and I simplified our setups this past year, carved the weight of the whole thing in half while maintaining the level of sound sophistication.
"Unfortunately, one of the things that I had to do was eliminate the Synclavier from my touring outfit. The delicacy and size of the instrument demanded a lot of care and setup. I was mainly using the Synclavier for sequences, so one of the things we did was record our sequences on DAT - although I won't be using many sequences this year. As far as sounds are concerned, I eliminated certain synths and did some sampling on the Kurzweil 250."
WORDS FROM A MAN WHO'S BEEN THERE and back. But surely technology has made a greater impact on Corea's music than simply giving his roadies hernias.
"Synthesisers, sequencers and samplers have been in my area of music for a long time. I enjoy them because there is a bubbling of creation that happens. But it takes a commitment and an investment of time to learn a new piece of technology. And I've also discovered that the degree to which I understand the workings of a piece of gear is directly proportional to how well I use it. It's possible for me to hire Jay Oliver and say 'I want a blues sound here and I want a trumpet sound here', select the sounds, and then just overdub them. However, it's another level entirely when I actually go into the instrument myself and learn something about programming it and how I can elicit sounds.
"Whenever I've spent time programming, I've always come up with sounds and ways of music that are an expansion for me. So, that's my key. I can use sounds built by others and that's totally valid - I do that all the time - but when I get into it myself, my own music definitely expands."
How much influence, then, does the musician have on the development of technology? In Corea's position as a Yamaha endorsee, I imagined they would ask him what he thinks of a new instrument idea, or what he'd like to see in a new instrument, but this - curiously - is not the case.
"It's more or less after the fact that I'm asked to have a look at an instrument, and those considerations are then used for the next product. I think that's pretty much how it goes. Unfortunately, I've never gotten too close up in the development of an instrument, although I continue to think that it's a really good idea. I guess it's just time-consuming and it would cost a lot of money for the companies to really get deeply involved in doing that."
But feedback from musicians is a valuable thing when designing a musical instrument, isn't it?
"Yeah, I think so", he agrees. "On the other hand, if you put yourself in the instrument builder's place, you'll notice the variety of different ways in which musicians use and approach instruments. I think that the manufacturers basically try to see what would make an instrument with the biggest attraction. I know that some of the things I like about certain instruments is not necessarily what someone else wants.
"I'll give you an example. I don't particularly like keyboard controllers with weighted keys, with the exception of a real piano like the Yamaha MIDI Grand, because they're kind of a crutch. There's a weight on each key, but the weight is only there to make you feel like it's a piano. But when you play an organ keyboard like the DX7 type of keyboard, it's fulfilling its purpose, which is that of a trigger. All it needs is a velocity and points at which it's on and off. I like synth keyboards with a very loose, on/off action, but that's personal to me. I think the consensus is that players like to have a weighted keyboard."
"I can use sounds built by others and that's totally valid - I do that all the time - but when I get into it myself, my own music definitely expands."
COREA EXPRESSES HIS GRATITUDE TO L Ron Hubbard in the liner notes of many of his albums. "Hubbard's been a big influence on my life since 1968 in a lot of different ways", he says forthrightly. "Aside from developing Dianetics and Scientology, he's also an incredible writer of action, adventure and science fiction. But it's his artistic sense and human sense that are constantly inspiring to me. He found an ability to reach out to so many people with very sophisticated ideas that it set a standard for me."
Corea illustrates his point, recalling his own background.
"My musical background is in jazz and improvisation. When I was in school, most of my schoolmates were listening to Elvis Presley, and later the Beatles and so forth. Meanwhile, I was studying the music of Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, and then Miles Davis and John Coltrane. When I began to perform in front of audiences, I found that there was a certain way in which I could communicate and reach people based on this style. But it left out, I don't know, 95% of the populace. So, I became quite interested in what art has to do with communication.
"Hubbard set a fine example for me with his own writings and some of the writings that's he's done on art. For instance, he wrote a series of essays called the Art Series, which is a magnificent statement of the basics of art. He includes the human factor in his philosophy about what music is. He defines 'art' as a word that summarises the quality of communication, not so much as some kind of a technical thing. And to me, that's actually what it is; music is a communication, even if it's only a communication to me or those who like jazz, it's still a communication. It's sharing an idea and a feeling between one person and another. My study of Hubbard's works keeps me learning new ways and paths, and ideas about how to expand myself spiritually as a musician as well.
"If I'm able to come to an understanding of my intentions as a musician and how I want to communicate and how I want to make people feel, I think it puts my attention on what is actually occurring. This makes technique a servant to communication, rather than the other way around. It takes an edge off of me trying to be such a perfectionist as a technician, which results in me playing the piano technically better.
"You can watch any great skilled artist - dancer, pianist, whatever - and you go 'wow!'. But how much attention do they have on their bodies? None. Look at Baryshnikov throwing his body around the stage. Is he thinking about which way his hand moves? God, no. He's communicating this wonderful emotion through the movement of his body, you see. So, that kind of thing is clearer to me thanks to Hubbard. It's basically what I needed to become a more well-rounded musician, because I grew up in the pursuit of technique."
COREA'S CHOSEN TOOLS WITH WHICH TO communicate his musical ideas, at least in the context of the Elektric Band, are the synths, samplers and sequencers that have become so sophisticated. But what does he see in the future of these instruments?
"I like the trend of new ideas. I think it's great when a guy in a company has a new idea for a piece of software or hardware, or a new instrument or whatever. The world keeps getting filled with these things, which doesn't bother me at all. On the other hand, I don't like planned obsolescence. If I had a company building instruments, I would want to plan an infinite existence into them. For instance, New England Digital have created the Synclavier and they keep on refining it, but the basic instrument is still the same. You can rely on it being there. I like that aspect of it.
"If any electronic guys are listening out there who are developing these ideas, one thing that I would like to see happen is a simplicity of use, fewer wires - fibre optics is a great new direction - and a simplicity in the user interface. You can't expect all users to understand the fine intricacies required to put new devices together. There should be a department in these companies that considers the user before a product is designed. The product can then be made comfortable to use. It's a weak area, I feel."
Then what of the trend towards controls such as "brightness" that are appearing on some instruments? Such controls alter several individual parameters within the instrument simultaneously while allowing the user to manipulate a musically significant aspect of the sound with a single control - technology is simplifying instruments as it evolves.
"There will always be lots of levels and types of instruments - some that are easier, some that are more difficult. It depends on how deeply someone wants to get into it. For instance, I don't know that I would be completely content with a knob that said 'brightness' without the ability to go in and tweak the six parameters that it controls. It would be nice to have an instrument with both options available.
"There is one thing I'd like to see", he continues hopefully. "I recently purchased a Macintosh Portable computer, which has helped me stay productive on planes and in airports where I spend a lot of the year. So, now I've got music notation software and a couple of sequencers. But in order for me to use the laptop as a sequencer, I would have to attach a MIDI interface, an external synthesiser, and so forth. Can you see me in my plane seat trying to get all of this stuff together? But it's possible to put all that in the computer itself. That's what I'd like to see. I'd like to be able to plug my headphones directly into the laptop, take the alpha-numeric keyboard out, replace it with a little two-octave music keyboard, and sequence with a set of sounds on the hard disk. I could actually do some composing and sequencing while I'm on the plane without having to carry around a bunch of additional gear. Now, I don't know how big a market there is for that kind of a setup, but that's something I would like to see for the musicians on the road."
And what about Corea's own future?
"1990 is going to be a year of performance for us with Inside Out, and some new Akoustic Band repertoire. In fact, we're going to try to include a few trio pieces in the Elektric Band concert, since the three of us are there anyway.
"Compositionally, I'm working on a piece for Eric Marienthal's new record, which I'm also going to play on with him. I'm also working on a piece for Dave Weckl's new record. It's a special track that he's invited Steve Gadd to play on. So it will be the two of them, plus Anthony Jackson on bass and Jay Oliver playing synths. I'm going to carve a piece out for that ensemble, which should be a lot of fun."
Corea was eager to get home and get to work on these projects after our conversation. But he was scheduled to give another interview over the phone to a Japanese magazine. As he was leaving an hour later, he told me that the interviewer had said the new album is so perfect, he was afraid the band would break up. I was as pleased as the Japanese to hear this wasn't likely - somehow, it just wouldn't be jazz without Chick.