Playing in His Key

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

C hick Corea turned 60 on June 12, and he's been spending most of the year considering what that magic number means to him. The turnings of decades are always momentous anniversaries, of course, but 60 is an especially potent occasion, with senior citizenship looming on the horizon, and entry into what the French describe as the Third Age about to begin.

Corea has already had enough accomplishments to fill out a career for most artists. Along with Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett, he is one of the major jazz piano voices to emerge in the post-John Coltrane era. Extremely versatile, he has been loath to settle into any single arena of music, working as a sideman with Miles Davis (performing on such seminal albums as "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew"), and forming the much admired Return to Forever group and his own Elektric Band. He has appeared as a soloist, in duo settings with Hancock and, most recently, with his group Origin, and with his current acoustic piano trio.

That's a full plate, by any estimation, but Corea still feels there is much to be done in the area of composition and playing. Recently, we sat backstage at Catalina Bar & Grill while he mused upon the transitional aspects of his 60th anniversary.

Question: When did it first hit you that this birthday would be different?

Answer: I think it was when we visited Japan and they got into a Chick's 60th birthday celebration. They have a word--actually a whole process--that goes along with it. They see the life cycle culminating and then starting again at 60. They gave me a gift--a kind of satin coat and a tam that are supposed to symbolize a baby's clothing. Like a new life type of thing....But as the year's been progressing, it's really interesting how that idea is manifesting itself in my life--that some things are coming to a conclusion, as I'm looking forward to the future in a new way.

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Q: Does that new future mean a change in the way you manage your career?

A: Yes. Management-wise, I'm slimming everything down, taking all major responsibilities back on to myself and reorganizing in a much simpler fashion. And I'm going to sell my studio here in Los Angeles. The studio was a groove and fun for a while when I had a lot of productions going on with guys in my band, and my own productions, and so forth. But now I'm kind of refocusing all of my energies back into composition and making music....I need to get away from the effort it takes to be a part of a record label and keep a studio going.

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Q: You actually kept the studio active here even though you moved to Clearwater, Fla., a few years ago. How does it feel to be back in L.A.? You lived here, after all, for quite a while.

A: I sure did. I moved here in 1976. But I still love L.A., and my wife Gail does, too. In the years we lived here we managed to find the spots we like to go, and endless friends.... And you can't beat the climate here. But, you know, L.A. has never been a big audience place for me to play....New York is a much bigger audience for me. And in our tours of Europe recently we've been drawing crowds of 10,000 and 15,000 people.

But I'm still fascinated by L.A., which seems to me like the last outpost of culture. You know, it begins with Japan and the Orient, moves across Western Europe, makes the hop to New York City and across America until it reaches the West Coast--the last outpost. It really has that kind of feel to it.

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Q: How did you make the decision to move to Clearwater?

A: The main draw was the fact that Clearwater is the largest religious retreat in Scientology. It's called Flag Land Base, the place where L. Ron Hubbard put the highest level of training and courses and study, and it's turned into a totally international spot for Scientologists.

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Q: About 10 years ago, maybe around the time of your 50th birthday, you described the extent to which Scientology had impacted you as person and as an artist. Does that still hold?

A: Not only does it still hold, but it has expanded. I first got interested in Scientology for pretty personal reasons. I wanted to clean myself up, I wanted to tweak my awareness, I wanted to learn about the nature of the spirit. I wanted to learn about things like immortality, about detaching oneself from a body, about the philosophy and the nature of life, and so on. But what the subject very naturally led me to ... is that life is made up of people. And the very first thing I started to look at was others--not even myself. My whole life is about my relationship with people.

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Q: How did Scientology affect that view?

A: L. Ron Hubbard uses the word "communication" to identify the importance of people giving and sharing ideas--but in the way that they really do. A communications course in college is usually about the mechanics--satellites and computers and so forth. In Scientology, communication is the study of how actual people relate to one another, successfully or not. And you learn that communication is a skill that one can increase, and is not just part of one's fixed personality. It's something to really experience. And it's [liberating] when you can realize that ... you can improve your ability to communicate with people, and that life around can improve if you do it better, if you learn it better.

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Q: Nonetheless, you have been a Scientologist long enough to realize that it is still viewed questionably by many, both here and elsewhere. And that a number of European countries refuse to recognize it as a religion.

A: Sure. And we found that out firsthand in the early '90s, when we began to have some pretty visceral experiences with the German government. That was a hard condition to confront, when people are saying they don't like you because [of what you are], and [engaging in] name calling. It's not an environment you feel comfortable going into. But the actual truth was that when I confronted it and went into the environment, I found that the audiences themselves were not really part of it. Sure, they had the [negative] PR from the newspapers and the government. But when I got in front of them, they were totally there for me.

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Q: Still, you haven't returned to Germany to perform since 1993.

A: No. But the good news is that I'm going back in October to play 13 solo piano concerts all throughout Germany. And that's happening because I persevered in approaching the situation by doing a really positive, straight-ahead, friendly sort of protest. By going to the U.S. government, appealing to the basic principles in human rights that are written not just into the U.S. Constitution, but the German constitution. For that period of time, every time I'd go to D.C.--three or four times a year--I'd go around and connect with congressmen. And it actually produced effects--dialogue between the State Department and the German government. And good things resulted. Then, when the Kohl government changed, things seemed to calm down in relation to me and Scientology, anyway.

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Q: In December, the Blue Note Club in New York City is planning a three-week celebration of your birthday in which you will perform with different musical associates from your career, with a new ensemble every few days. Among the names I've seen in the program are Herbie Hancock, Gary Burton, Bobby McFerrin, Joshua Redman. That's quite a lineup.

A: It is. And it came about after a lot of resistance from myself about doing anything resembling a reunion. I've turned down--you can't imagine how many--offers to do reunions with Return to Forever, with the Elektric Band, with other ensembles. There's nothing wrong with any of that, of course, it's just that it's always been my interest to make something new. But this time it came from a slightly different angle--not so much a musical angle, but a celebratory angle. So I put out a couple of feelers to some of my friends, and the responses came back so quickly, that it really got me going. I realized it could actually be fun.

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Q: So if you had to describe what you expect to be happening once the celebrations are over, and you finally arrive on the far side of 60, what would you say?

A: I plan to make my life in the next few years an example of all the basic principles I've been talking about. I'm going to restructure things. You're going to see me working on my piano concerto, taking a vacation, keeping everything nice and balanced. Of course, that's a dream right now, but if you print it, it'll be public, and I won't have any choice but to stick to it.

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