2021 – When jazz and rock fused in the 1970s, he was at the forefront of the movement. But he never abandoned his love of the acoustic piano.
The pianist, composer and bandleader Chick Corea at the Blue Note in Manhattan in 2012.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times
By Giovanni Russonello
Feb. 11, 2021
Updated 6:08 p.m. ET
Chick Corea, an architect of the jazz-rock fusion boom in the 1970s who spent more than a half century as one of the foremost pianists in jazz, died on Tuesday at home in Tampa Bay, Fla. He was 79.
The cause was cancer, said Dan Muse, a web and marketing manager for Mr. Corea.
Mr. Corea’s most famous band was Return to Forever, a collective with a rotating membership that nudged the genre of fusion into greater contact with Brazilian, Spanish and other global influences. It also provided Mr. Corea with a palette on which to experiment with a growing arsenal of new technologies.
But throughout his career, he never abandoned his first love, the acoustic piano, on which his punctilious touch and crisp sense of harmony made his playing immediately distinctive.
By the late 1960s, Mr. Corea, still in his 20s, had already established himself as a force to be reckoned with. He gigged and recorded with some of the leading names in straight-ahead and Latin jazz, including Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Mongo Santamaria and Sarah Vaughan. His first two albums as a leader, “Tones for Joan’s Bones” and “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs” — both released in 1968, and now considered classics — earned rave reviews.
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But it was playing in Miles Davis’s ensembles that set Mr. Corea on the path that would most clearly define his role in jazz. He played the electric piano on Davis’s “In a Silent Way” (1969) and “Bitches Brew” (1970), the albums that are widely considered to have sounded the opening bell for the fusion era.
Mr. Corea helped found Return to Forever in 1971, and spent much of the rest of the decade touring with the band, which became one of the most popular instrumental ensembles of its era.
Reviewing a performance by Mr. Corea in 2006 for The New York Times, the critic Nate Chinen reminisced on the innovative sound that Mr. Corea had honed with Return to Forever three decades before.
“His Fender Rhodes piano chimed and chirruped over Latin American rhythms; female vocals commingled with the soothing flutter of a flute,” Mr. Chinen wrote. “Then the ensemble muscled up and morphed into a hyperactive fusion band, establishing pop-chart presence and a fan base to match. To the extent that there is a Return to Forever legacy, it encompasses both these dynamic extremes, each a facet of Mr. Corea’s personality.”
By the time of that Blue Note show, Mr. Corea’s career was entering a chapter of happy reminiscence, full of reunion concerts and retrospective projects. But he continued to build out from the groundwork he had lain. In 2013, for instance, he released two albums introducing new bands: “The Vigil,” featuring an electrified quintet of younger musicians, and “Trilogy,” an acoustic-trio album on which he was joined by the bassist Christian McBride and the drummer Brian Blade.
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He kept up a busy touring schedule well into his late 70s, and his performances at the Blue Note in particular often combined reunions with longtime associates and collaborations with younger accompanists, mixing nostalgia with a will to forge ahead. Those performances often found their way onto albums, including “The Musician” (2017), a three-disc collection drawn from his nearly two-month-long residency at the club in 2011, when he was celebrating his 70th birthday in the company of such fellow luminaries as Hancock, Clarke and Bobby McFerrin.