Straight, No Chaser : Chick Corea Prefers to Focus on Creative Simplicity of Jazz Instead of Mechanics and Styles of Playing


Chick Corea, one of the primary creative forces behind the electronic jazz fusion of the ‘70s, is talking about “carrier waves.”

“Carrier waves?” So what’s that? Some kind of music in cyberspace?

Corea laughs at the reaction for a moment, then continues, clarifying: “Carrier waves. That’s what I call them. You know, all the mechanics, the techniques, the styles of playing and performing. The delivery stuff.”

Ah hah. The ever-thoughtful Corea, who constantly ponders music from a broadly philosophical point of view, is not simply being obtuse or talking about new electronic gadgetry, he is defining the difference between technique and inspiration.


“It’s what I call the routines of performing--carrier waves--because they’re just something to be used like tools. They’re there to be utilized and combined and molded in various ways.

“But their only real purpose is deliver the message and the feelings that we want to get across to an audience.”

Pianist-composer Corea, who opens a weeklong run at Catalina Bar & Grill tonight, has been giving a lot of consideration to many aspects of performing lately. And with good reason. This year alone, he has rendered pop and jazz standards in a series of solo piano concerts in Europe, played the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 with orchestras in San Francisco and Japan, worked with duos, quartets and quintets, and performed his own piano concerto in Italy and Sicily.

No wonder he’s talking about “carrier waves.”


“I think the important thing,” he says in a phone call from a rare few days of vacation in Florida, “is that, no matter what kind of music you’re playing, you don’t get distracted by the carrier waves of technique and method.

“What you’re really looking for is . . . to try to get across to the audience, right now, what you’re feeling, what you want them to feel, what you’ve got in your mind.”

Corea has been remarkably successful at doing precisely that throughout a career that stretches across gigs with Miles Davis in the ‘60s, his own seminal fusion group, Return to Forever, in the ‘70s, and a series of Elektric and Akoustic Bands in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Along the way, he picked up eight Grammy Awards for music ranging from steaming, straight-ahead improvising to cutting-edge electronic jazz.

A longtime Los Angeles resident, Corea and his partner, Ron Moss, operate their own recording facility, Mad Hatter Studios, and record company--Stretch Records. Corea’s wife, Gayle, is a singer and keyboardist, and his two grown children, Thad and Liana (from a previous marriage), are both musicians.


At the moment, Corea is especially concerned with the fine subtleties of performing, of not being distracted by “carrier waves” because, like many other contemporary artists, he is thinking in acoustic terms. He has just released a new CD, “Time Warp” (Stretch Records), his first quartet recording in more than a decade. And the group that he will bring to Catalina tonight--his current working ensemble--is focused on making real-life, unsynthesized sounds.

But it has taken a certain amount of effort for the 54-year-old Corea to direct his younger musicians through what is, for them, less familiar territory.

“I grew up in the ‘60s with acoustic blending,” he says.

“Then I came through an era in the ‘70s when the acoustic environment was completely replaced by an electronic environment, with electric jazz bands like Return to Forever completely abandoning the acoustic approach. Things like detail and nuance and subtlety in the music were set aside for other effects.


“Well, the guys in my quartet--saxophonist Bob Berg, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Gary Novak--grew up in the electric period. And in order to try to get them to play acoustically, and get that nice delicate sound, we have to constantly remind ourselves of what we’re doing.”

The results seem to be justifying the effort. Heard at the Monterey Jazz Festival two weeks ago, the Corea quartet displayed an energetic ensemble togetherness that was underscored with a brawny, mainstream rhythmic muscularity.

Although Corea is delighted with the “nice, easy hookup” he feels with his group, it would be thoroughly atypical for him not to have other expressive vehicles waiting in the wings.

And he does.


There is, first of all, the need to support his new album, an unusual, 11-section, conceptual work that serves as an illustrative score for a fantasy story (included with the recording) written by Corea. Does the production’s combination of music, story and colorful cartoon art, which is included on the cover and in the album notes, suggest a visual as well as an audio potential? Say, a video version?

“Hmmm,” Corea says. “Maybe. We’ll see.”

Another project has been in the works for 15 years.

“It’s taken a while,” he says, “but I’ve finally gotten into it--selecting and recording some of the compositions of Bud Powell that I’ve liked all my life. You listen to his albums and say, ‘Wow, listen to that. Let me hear more of that.’ Well, I’m going to put a group together and render that music.


“There’s so much there, even little compositional gems, and I think it’s kind of natural to want to go back and pick up some of the very powerful, very creative things that he was doing. Not literally the way Bud sounded, of course, but to present them in my own way.”

The far-reaching eclecticism of Corea’s creative curiosity traces, he believes, to the impression that Scientology has made upon his thinking. He has been one of the entertainment world’s most visible Scientologists for years, and he is quick to emphasize its abiding relevance in his life. I constantly refer to [Scientology founder] L. Ron Hubbard,” explains Corea. “His writing and his lectures are [a continual guide] to me. They’re every bit as flowing as a John Coltrane solo--just his way of putting across what are ultimately incredible, mammoth simplicities, but which take a lot of explanation, and looking at, and experience, and testing out to get the full value of.”

Corea also stresses the significance of his “personal belief that creativity is innate in us,” that it is something “that will flower if given a receptive environment.”

“Here’s the way of the world,” he says. “A little child is wide-eyed and bright and ‘innocent'--naturally open to life in a creative way. Then kids get put out into an environment where they begin to see some conflict, and they think: ‘Hey, I’d better watch out. I can’t bring this mud pie in here just because I like it. There’s other factors.’ And they grow up and lose the connection with that innate creativity.”


“And that’s really what I’m talking about when I mention carrier waves,” Corea says. “All the stuff about technique and styles and method is a kind of illusion. What really matters is very simple. The trick for the musician is finding a way to get back to that innate, creative simplicity.”