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Chick Corea, solo in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Lynn Goldsmith/Special to The Aspen TimesChick Corea plays a solo piano concert Friday at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.
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ASPEN – When Chick Corea comes to Aspen for an appearance Friday at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, it is part of an unusually short tour – just four quick dates, from Canada through Colorado and ending in Utah. The brevity of the tour doesn’t have much to do with scheduling, and it certainly shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the 68-year-old jazz great is slowing down. In fact, Corea’s calendar is packed into the foreseeable future, with projects including a one-night jaunt to Mexico at the end of the month; a two-week stand at New York’s marquis jazz spot, the Blue Note, in May; and a tour of Europe in July.

No, the current run is limited to four nights because they are all solo performances – Corea alone with his piano – and that is all he can stand of making music on his own. “I can’t take much of it,” he said from the airport near his home, in Tampa, Fla. “In small quantities, I like to do solo piano. Four or five concerts is enough.”

The thing Corea can never get enough of is collaboration. Working with other musicians is what feeds him, creatively; running down a partial list of people he has made music with, or will be on the road ahead, he said, “I put myself in a situation like that, and I just bubble to life.”

The range of musicians Corea has worked with is staggering, even by the standards of a venerable jazz master. And the range of styles and approaches he has explored is equally impressive. A native of Chelsea, Mass. who initially fell in with a group of Latin-jazz players, Corea earned his first notoriety playing with the stars of 1960s Latin jazz: Herbie Mann, Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaria. In the late ’60s, as a member of Miles Davis’ revolutionary electric band, he took a leading role in creating funk-jazz. With Corea on the Fender Rhodes electric piano, Davis’ band cooked up such influential landmark albums as “Bitch’s Brew,” which ranked No. 94 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 list of the greatest albums of all time. Corea took the fusion of jazz and rock and ran with it, forming his own electric group, Return to Forever, whose members included guitarist Al Di Meola, bassist Stanley Clarke and the Brazilian couple of percussionist Airto Moreira and vocalist Flora Purim.

Corea has cultivated long-lasting relationships with the 84-year-old drummer Roy Haynes and the 37-year-old bassist Christian McBride; the vibraphonist Gary Burton and vocalist Bobby McFerrin. In 2007, he released “The Enchantment,” an album of duets with banjoist Bela Fleck. He has worked repeatedly with fellow jazz legends like guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Herbie Hancock, and as the leader of the bands Origin and Chick Corea New Trio, he has helped introduce such musicians as drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Avishai Cohen.

Corea ventured outside the jazz realm with the piano concerto he composed in 2000, “Corea Concerto,” and played with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. His second concerto, “The Continents,” premiered at the Vienna Jazz Festival in 2006. Among his current projects is the Five Peace Band, with guitarist John McLaughlin, saxophonist Kenny Garrett, drummer Vinnie Calaiuta and McBride on bass. The group’s self-titled two-disc live recording won this year’s Grammy Award for best jazz instrumental album.

When Corea last played Aspen, in 2006, as part of Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Winter Jazz series at Belly Up, his combo, Touchstone, included three musicians from Spain.

“The purpose for me is to get together with other wonderful players and creative minds and cook something up,” Corea said. “So that’s what I’m always looking to first – good combinations, where the spiritual energy just clicks. One of the richnesses of my life is my associations with other musicians. That’s what brings music to life for me.”

• • • •

Which is not to say that solo piano performances occupy a lower rung for Corea. But they do occupy a different creative space, and one that Corea doesn’t visit with such frequency.

Corea said that, for the audience, the solo concerts can be a special kind of experience. “It allows me to communicate in an intimate way, with just the audience, with nothing else,” said Corea, who released a pair of albums – “Solo Piano – Originals” and “Solo Piano – Standards” – in 2000.

But perhaps the best reason for Corea to play unaccompanied shows is to have a chance to commune with his instrument. “It gives me an opportunity to be by myself, find out where my muse is at,” he said. “I try things out, improvise. It gives me a chance just to be a pianist.”

Corea treats the solo setting as a special place for creativity to pour out. Not having to focus on the interplay with other musicians, or on compositions that have already been written, Corea in the solo setting can allow new ideas to emerge. The solo performances are such a sacred creative opportunity that he hesitated to talk about what tunes he might play, even what styles he might explore.

“I don’t even attempt to describe it,” he said. “The fun in playing solo piano is to improvise. I just want it to flow. I usually dip into the standards, might try some classical music. And some nights I just improvise the whole night, off the top of my head. It’s a bold adventure into areas unknown, and learning new things with new rhythms and new melodies. Or playing standards, and getting a new viewpoint on familiar material. I tend to learn quickly what I’m doing and where I’m at.”

Looking beyond these four nights of solo gigs, Corea sees the stuff that lights him up. There are trio gigs with McBride and Garrett. He and Haynes will join Czech bassist Mirolsav Vitous to revisit “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs,” the acclaimed album the trio recorded in 1968. He and Burton are preparing new arrangements of standards. And there is the desire to find new musicians to play with; at the top of that wish list is Stevie Wonder, whom Corea calls “a great jazz player.”

Those projects will take Corea back to what he lives for – putting the emphasis on musical exchange, rather than the internal musical dialogue.

“My attention is always on what the other guys are doing,” Corea said of his collaborations. “I don’t pay any attention to my own playing.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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