To note Chick Corea’s 70th birthday, I’d like to share an interview from two years ago that was conducted for the now-dormant webzine http://www.jazz.com. [June 12, 2015: I’ve added a link to an interview I conducted with Chick Corea for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program on Nov. 5, 2012.]
Chick Corea (May 26, 2009) – for jazz.com:
“I like all kinds of sounds,” Chick Corea told me some years ago. “I’m always realizing over and over again that the instrument itself is just a vehicle for the actual guts-and-blood of life, which is creating something and communicating it to other people. They’re just instruments. An instrument is a tool with which to do something. I’m interested in the instrument, but I’m more interested in the effect. Sounds are sounds, and a musician uses sounds to paint music with. So I keep trying to use whatever instrumental techniques I have to create effects.”
This remark is particularly apropos to Corea’s musical production across his seventh decade, during which he’s navigated multiple stylistic environments, moved back and forth between electric and acoustic feels, written books of music for various duo projects with old and new friends, recontextualized iconic units from his past, and also created new ensembles. The most consequential of the latter is Five Peace Band, Corea’s collaborative venture with John McLaughlin in observation of the fortieth anniversary of their mutual participation on the transitional Miles Davis albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, the dates that established the template within which, over the next decade, the movement known as Fusion took shape. Spurred by the prevalence of electric guitar in ‘60s pop culture and by the presence of electronic instruments barely out of the beta-testing stage, Corea (Return to Forever) and McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra) plugged-in along with such fellow sons of Miles as Herbie Hancock (Mwandishi and Head Hunters), Tony Williams (Lifetime), Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul (Weather Report), setting up experimental hybrids of jazz with contemporaneous mass market dance-oriented music, specifically rock, soul, and funk, as well as folkloric idioms from India and African- and Iberian-descended diasporic cultures. Towards sustaining that spirit, they convened fellow Milesian Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone, Christian McBride on bass, and either Vinnie Colaiuta or Brian Blade on drums, presented them with a corpus of original music, and developed their interpretations during a seven-month world tour that transpired over four legs, and concluded at the beginning of May.
Above all else, Corea is a musical storyteller, whose vocabulary contains a global range of reference—Bach and bebop, Bartok and the blues, Mozart and montunos, Ravel and rumba, Stravinsky and samba, all tempered with the Spanish Tinge. The hybrid is uniquely his own. He is also a master of his instrument, able to caress a lyric passage with the delicacy of a bel canto singer or articulate a wide repertoire of grooves with the precision and grace of a tango dancer. His hands are completely independent, and he tosses off fleet embellishments with no apparent effort. But he’s no showoff, and never deploys his enviable technique as an end unto itself. Again, whichever keyboard he uses, the intent is to treat it as a sound carrier, a tool of his imagination.
It is apparent that Corea’s music is the sum total of his personal biography, which began in 1941 in Boston, where his father, Armando, a trumpeter, led a successful dance band. Coming of age, he soaked up the radical bebop and compositional strategies of Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver. He put his lessons to use on jobs with his father’s band and with Boston’s community of progressive musicians. He moved to New York in 1962. While studying Bartok and Stockhausen at Juilliard, he played Afro-Cuban music with legendary conguero Mongo Santamaria and funky bebop with trumpeter Blue Mitchell. In 1966, he made his first recording, Tones For Joan’s Bones. That year he hit the big time with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, and in 1968, upon a recommendation from drummer Tony Williams, a Boston friend, he joined the Miles Davis Quintet. During his two-year adventure with Miles, Corea went electric and stretched form to the limit. Then for a year he explored ways of improvising freely on abstract musical in an acoustic experimental quartet called Circle, with Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. During that time he returned to melodic lines and harmonic progressions on two intensely meditative solo albums for ECM. Late in 1971, he plugged in again and made a commitment to melody, structure and consonance with Return to Forever, the fusion super-group that made him a mega-star.
We caught Corea while he was enjoying a little down time before embarking on his next journey, a summer tour of Europe that will find him playing solo and duo. In the fall, he tours again, this time in trio with bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White, both RTF partners.
“At first, I thought that the trio was the trio and the piano is the piano and the 4/4 tempo is the 4/4 tempo,” he told me in the conversation cited above. “But as I began to experiment and put my attention on the way a lot of different artists make music—ethnic music, classical music, written music, improvised music—I finally realized that in the field of art there are no ultimate authorities with rules that say you must do it this way or that way. I guess slowly the conviction grew in me that whatever material I could use that would make a creation bright and interesting was valid. The fun is the joy of creating.”
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You’ve been touring almost continuously since the beginning of last year—two marathon tours over the 14-15 months.
Yes, the Return to Forever tour and the Five Peace Band kind of butted up against one another. But it hasn’t been consistently out on the road. There are a couple of one-week breaks here and there. But for the most part, I pretty much keep my suitcases ready to go at every point.
Do you enjoy the road?
As the years go on, actually, the travel part of the road gets harder and harder. So we need to use more and more organizational energy to try to keep that part of it livable. But the payoff is the nightly playing—playing music with my partners, and playing music to live audiences everywhere. That’s my lifeblood. So in that sense, I would never stop touring. That two or three hours a night is what I live for.
Five Peace Band, which I saw twice at Rose Theater in April, seemed really to be set up for creative music-making. I know you’ve discussed this eight million times, but could you first discuss FPB’s genesis and the various steps by which it coalesced?
Simply put, it’s been a goal of mine for decades to get together with John McLaughlin for a musical project. We would always cross paths, or talk occasionally, as friends will, and there’s always been a very mutual high respect and admiration between the two of us. John is such a magnificent and unique musician. One of my criteria for wanting to get together with specific other artists is my desire to learn something new, and expand myself musically. John is one of those musicians with whom I felt I could do that. I wanted to get more inside his musical universe, to play with him—and learn. I love to learn new things. So with that desire in mind, maybe a year-and-a-half before we began the tour, and actually before we began to talk about even the Return To Forever tour, I began to present John with this idea. I had more recently worked with Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, and Vinnie Colaiuta in various situations. I had never worked with Brian Blade before. But they were also at the top of the list for musicians whom I love working with and with whom I wanted to work some more. So in my head, I kind of put together a dream band. Gee, who do I want to go out on the road with and spend some time? Those were the guys.
Just before I presented the initial idea to John, I had dropped the idea to all three guys—to Christian, Vinnie, and Kenny—in a casual way. “What would you think about it if we could get together with John?—blah-blah-blah.” “Yeah, man, let’s go for it.” So I kind of had their interest up on it before I even approached John. When I told John, it didn’t take too long before he said it was a great idea, and all we had to do was find a schedule. I guess we settled on that period of time only some weeks after that—the end of last year through the beginning of this year.
It was a seven-month tour in four legs.
Yes, approximately that.
You’ve mentioned that each band for you is a body of music, a body of work. How did the body of work for Five Peace Band take shape? Was there an overriding concept for the repertoire?
For the kind of music that we were playing with that band, and the kind of music I like to play in a small group, I regard the compositions as kind of game plans. Different games. Different areas you can go in that have certain rules and certain freedoms that make a certain game that we would like to play.
Actually, the first thing John and I talked about was what the repertoire would be, and it turned out to be several new compositions by me and several compositions that John chose off of his recent recordings. However, that was only a small percentage of the input that finally resulted in what the music turned out to be. When we got together all the guys at the first rehearsal, and then the first couple of gigs that we did, the atmosphere of whatever that was that we did together got pretty firmly agreed-upon. Like how far we would stretch material, how much freedom we would take in developing it, and all of that, started to settle into a groove after four-five-six concerts.
For instance, I’ll give you an example. When John and I discussed it, John said, “Maybe we should have different guys soloing on different songs, so that not everybody solos on every song.” He also said, “For me, I’d like to keep the solos kind of short and not like the old days.” I said, “Well, ok, let’s give that a try.” Heh-heh. That idea immediately went by the wayside, including John liking to stretch out himself. So it turned out that the game plan became anywhere from 15-minute to 45-minute renditions. Actually, 15 minutes was short for us. At the very end of the tour, even after you saw us (or maybe in New York as well), we were playing five tunes a night.
I think you played six in New York in a three-hour concert. You went past the union closing time! It sounded like you were tailoring the originals for the individuals in the band.
Well, the most tailor-made was “Hymn to Andromeda.” I wrote that suite with everybody’s feature in mind, as it turned out. But the other pieces? I wrote “Disguise” kind of just to add a mood to the band. But I did write absolutely with those musicians in mind. That’s the fun of writing for me, to have musicians to write specifically for who I love to play with.
You’ve mentioned a number of times how deeply the drums feed you, how attuned you are to rhythms. On FPB, you deployed two drummers with very different approaches to stating a beat and navigating the kit. In fact, it almost sounds like two different bands, Band A and Band B. I’m wondering how you conceived of it with Vinnie Colaiuta vis-a-vis Brian Blade.
Well, the conception was one thing, and what came out was a slightly other thing. I conceived of it only because those guys were the musicians I desired to work with. The other part of it, I guess, is that, because the way the tradition of a jazz rhythm section has developed through the decades (not all the time but a lot of the time), the drummer can really set the atmosphere of the group, especially if those playing with him give him the freedom and openness to do that, and encourage it to happen—which, in this case, is the case, because John also, like me, loves the drums. He could play with just drums all night. So both Vinnie and Brian, when they took hold of the music, really set an atmosphere and an energy for our renditions. As you noticed, which is pretty obvious, the two styles couldn’t be any further apart! [LAUGHS] The same set of compositions came out completely-completely different when Brian added his touch to the band. Especially what Brian did. After working with him for a couple of tours, he’s become one of my favorite drummers of all time. He thinks as a composer, and he carries the tradition not only of Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes and Tony Williams, but he also…I don’t know… In my mind, he kind of holds the torch of the creation of jazz drumming. But he does do what might be considered, in more conservative music, radical things. Like playing very quietly! [LAUGHS]—or not playing at all, or playing very edgy and bombastically, all within the same framework. He’s very expressive. He came in and the whole set turned around. I’m hoping at some point we can extract from those last couple of tours another live set. Marketing-wise, it’s kind of funny because it’s all the same tunes, but they came out so different, they’re worthy of being produced, I believe.
Another interesting thing is that the way FPB mixed electric and acoustic feels, although my impression is most of your recent band projects have been one or the other. Am I completely off on that comment?
You can never be off on anything subjective. It’s the rule of communication. It’s the ethics of communication, is what I feel. It’s a better conversation on what it is you actually observed than to try and pander.
I’m not trying to pander.
No, I know that. Maybe “pander” was the wrong word. I meant try to be nice. But it’s interesting you mention it like that, because since maybe halfway through my experience with the Elektrik Band in the ‘80s, my goal has been to produce a band sound and a group sound that easily accommodated both the nuances of acoustic music and the impact of electric music. I like both sounds. Keyboard-wise, I like playing both ways. But drumming-wise and texture-wise and communication-wise, I like the stage texture to be such that we can always hear each other comfortably, and in order to do that, each musician has to develop a pretty wide dynamic range. It’s actually quite a technical feat to be able to do it. But it requires a drummer like Brian to be able to do something like that. Fortunately, John is probably, up to now, the only guitarist I’ve ever worked with who can do that with a solid-body electric guitar sound. He can play within the context of a delicate acoustic piano, and he can play with the impact and energy that was produced when he’s playing with Vinnie Colaiuta playing full-out! Being able to do that enables me, as a player and a composer, to explore a really wide range of emotions in music.
I guess Christian McBride also was doing something that very few bassists can do, transitioning between the electric and the acoustic seamlessly and with tremendous virtuosity. That’s also a characteristic of John Patitucci and Stanley Clarke, with whom you’ve played extensively.
It was the first time I’ve played with Christian with his electric playing, and I was very happily surprised. He’s a master at it. He’s also a master at being able to blend the instruments. This problem of introducing electric instruments onto an acoustic stage… We do play in concert halls, and this has been happening since the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s always-always been a problem, as soon as you bring a P.A. system and drums with impact, and other instruments with impact, and amplifiers and so forth. The first mistakes that have been made and the horror that’s been created from acoustic stages with the use of electric instruments through the years is…well, it’s legendary, isn’t it!? [LAUGHS] It’s produced a lot of writing in print. But it is an actual problem. That’s one of my high interests, because it’s an actual living, physical problem that impinges on the creativity of the musicians and the enjoyment of the audience, and it’s really one that needs to be solved fully.
FPB’s creative approach fit in with the marketing of the band as a response to the fortieth anniversary of Bitches Brew, and the mutual intersection that you and John McLaughlin shared during that period with Miles Davis, with whom that kind of attitude towards nightly performance before large audiences was the default mode.
Were you thinking about that approach as an overriding template from performance to performance?
Well, John and I certainly wanted that from the very beginning. We talked about it, and we didn’t need to talk about it a lot, because, in fact, it’s what we both wanted as far as the blend on stage and the dynamic range of the music. That is, we wanted to be able to easily include the piano and the saxophone, and to play with a wide dynamic range. We strove for that, and I think, to a great degree, we accomplished it.
I’ll apologize in advance for asking this question, as I know it’s come to you 18 million times. But looking back on your days with Miles Davis, and particularly Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way, since these experiences so palpably influenced Five Peace Band, how do you now perceive that time?
All experience to me is… Life is a cumulative thing that’s lived day by day, hour by hour, and you just keep living. Life is always right now, you see. So you just keep going, you live, and you have experiences. For me, what I think I try to do, and I believe what all people try to do naturally, is take with them successful actions, successful things, things that please them. Things that I liked, I take with me, and try to leave the things that were painful or unsuccessful behind—and just keep going. But it’s hard to evaluate, and maybe unproductive also to try to evaluate particular things in the past and how they were influential. So when I think about my period with Miles, and Miles generally, as the universe of music that he is, it’s hard to pinpoint things, other than to say generalities.
Fair enough. I asked because you don’t seem to let go of experiences in your musical production, as is evident from the Rendezvous in New York DVD set, where you revisited and updated so many different bands. I find it interesting that you’re able to create new contexts in which these old relationships can continue.
I know what the truth of this is. The truth is that the experiences themselves are not what’s important. What’s important are the people in them—the relationships. Any friend that you had for a long time, for years or whatever, the important thing is the friendship itself more than the individual experiences. The communication. The thing that you had with that person, with your wife or your family or your musical partners—that kind of thing. For me, my life is as rich as I have friends and musical partners and family, and people who I love and who love me. The pay for life is living. The pay you get for the thing you do that we call “life” is the actual pleasure of living, and the pleasure of living comes about by the pleasure of relationships with people.
You did tell me once that each one of your bands turned into a little family. Perhaps that’s another way of saying the same thing.
Yes, it’s associations with individuals and groups that is what makes life, life. It’s what makes it pleasurable. So the thing of “returning to the past” or “reexperiencing” something, or the terms like “reunion” or “recreation” and all that kind of thing, I put them aside, because it’s all the bric-a-brac of the past, and what makes life exciting is always doing something new. Always. If I have a rich relationship with John McLaughlin, for instance, or Kenny Garrett, or my other musical associations, that is a richness that never goes away. If, hypothetically, Miles Davis took on a new body and came and played with us now, it would be a new creation. Do you know what I mean? That’s really the excitement of it.
That sixtieth birthday party that I had at the Blue Note with all of my musician friends brought me to the extreme realization of how important my friends are to me. That experience really brought it home. So rather than trying to be cool and hip and say, ”Yeah, I never return to the past; I always do something new,” which would irrationally equal that you never wanted to talk to your old friends again, is stupid. So I actually started to actively go back and find my old friends again, because the relationships were so rewarding—and the rewards have been coming. These two projects, Return to Forever and the Five Peace Band, are examples of that.
Let’s talk about the 2008 Return to Forever tour, then. There’s a new double-CD and also a 2-CD anthology of the old music. Anyone who is interested in RTF can saturate themselves in that body of music. Now, the edition of Return to Forever with which you toured last year wasn’t the only one. I know you’ve talked extensively to the press on this project, but please trace the genesis.
Return to Forever was probably, and probably always will be my breakthrough into having a band of my own. Not working for another bandleader, but either working in partnerships or with my own music. It was the first time that I did that, and it was a return to myself. It was a return to my own universe of music. In a sense, the concept of that band will always be special to me. Yes, the band has had many versions. RTF-1 I call the band with Flora Purim and Airto, and Joe Farrell, and Stanley Clarke. RTF-2 consists of the bands with mainly Stanley, Lenny White and myself, along with Billy Connors, then Al DiMeola. RTF-3 was shorter-lived but still was a creation that lasted a year to 18 months, the big band that Stanley and I had with Music Magic, with Gayle Moran, my wife, and the brass section. Getting back together, especially with Stanley and Lenny, brought that whole experience back to life.
Why the choice of Al DiMeola as the guitar voice?
Stanley, Lenny, and then Al were the guys who were in communication with me about wanting to keep the band alive. That version of the band was the one that had the most road experience together in the ‘70s. We made more records and did more concerts than any other version of the band, and created a wider repertoire. I guess it’s the version that most people remember.
Within that band, you created some of the compositions that are most associated with you, compositions you’ve revisited in many forms—an efflorescent burst of composition. Did the formation of RTF spur you in that direction?
You’re talking about the time of the ‘70s. Well, I was on a roll of the creation of that sound, and also on a roll of enjoying creating my own music, creating my music with musicians who turned out to be partners, like Stanley in particular and also Lenny. So the compositions kept rolling out. It was like having a personal orchestra to write for, and I took as much advantage of that as I could.
One of the most noted characteristics of the band is your use of Spanish and pan-Iberian rhythms within the flow. You’ve mentioned that your experience playing with Afro-Caribbean bands, a la Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo, had a big impact on the way you think about music—although you would move away from that approach for several years when you joined Miles and then did Circle and the trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. But Return to Forever seems like a logical extension of what you were doing in those earlier bands.
There’s a natural magnetism that any person has for certain cultural things, certain artistic things, certain ways of doing things. In music, that’s always been my sort of geiger counter. That’s been my pointer. It’s been the thing that has led me into studying certain kinds of music, or learning from certain kinds of musicians. It’s the reason why, for instance, in the ‘50s, when I was growing up, or even in the ‘40s, when I was still a young boy, I was attracted to musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. There was a magnetism to it, an interest that led me to that kind of music, rather than, say, Elvis and rock-and-roll back then, which I pretty much completely bypassed. It held no interest for me. So in a way, all through my life my interest and attraction has been towards jazz music, but also towards Latin music. Especially when I got to New York in the early ‘60s, the salsa scene, or the Latin jazz scene that was going on was very magnetic to me. I have great pleasure-moments of the stints that I did at the old Birdland at 52nd and Broadway, because five doors north on the same side of the street was the Palladium. On practically every break took from the gigs I had at Birdland, I’d be at the Palladium, checking out Tito Puente and Machito and Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri. I had and always retained this attraction for Cuban music, Puerto Rican music, South American music, and then finally, in the early ‘70s, for what we call the flamenco music, from southern Spain. Whether I’m writing music directly out of that rhythm and dance spirit, like I did with Touchstone, or whether it’s just an echo of a flavor, it will always be there for me.
The Latin music is an extroverted dance music, and that was a great complement to the seriousness of jazz that I was into. Jazz and Classical music of the ’60s was already a serious, almost introverted kind of performance. Jazz musicians never looked at an audience and were quite serious in demeanor, especially on stage. Go to a Latin dance, heh-heh, and you’re back into the joy of life again, you know. It really was the complement I needed in my life to open me back up again to communication and sociability and the importance of an audience. That’s mainly it.
There’s a couple of different definitions of serious, and I don’t want to confuse the two. When you say “he’s a serious professional,” that means that the guy is really competent and ethical about what he does. He puts his nose to the grindstone, and he really works hard and he gets a product. That’s what that definition of “serious” means. There’s another definition, which is the one I’m talking about, which is the seriousness that one gets when one becomes very serious about a subject, and it’s kind of heavy. That kind of seriousness to me is anti-art. You see someone on stage who is a little bit too introverted with his own scene.
Latin music took me out of all that, and I’m happy for it! Actually, my jazz heroes were always kind of extroverts. Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong were extroverts. Miles was a total covert extrovert. He looked like he was introverted, but he never was. He was really communicating to an audience all the time. And Coltrane, even though he didn’t tell jokes from the stage, was very warm with the audience, even though he didn’t say a lot on the microphone.
You once told me an anecdote of spending a long run at the Apollo when you were playing with Mongo Santamaria opposite Monk…
Yes. It’s a story I often tell when I’m trying to describe to other people that era or talk about Monk in particular. That’s definitely one of the things I experienced that shows what his humorous personality was all about. That’s one of my great pleasure moments.
That was in the early ’60s, about a five-week stint at the Apollo Theater that Monk’s quartet was on when I was playing with Mongo Santamaria, so I got to be around him a lot and watch him play.
Did that have a big impact on you?
Totally. Completely, yeah. The man was just doing something completely unique and uncompromising, and it wasn’t that flashy. It was just…hip. [LAUGHS] On this particular occasion at the Apollo, I was watching him through a hole in the curtain, which was right by his piano, and he played this set. He had Charlie Rouse, John Ore and Frankie Dunlop. His first tune, he played “Rhythm-a-ning.” He played the tune, he stated the melody, and they played the tune all the way through with long solos. The drums soloed, bass, saxophone—everybody soloed. It must have been a 10-12-15 minute piece. He stopped, and the people loved it, and they applauded, and Monk took a breath, and sat there for a moment, and then he started the next piece—which was [SINGS REFRAIN OF “RHYTHM-A-NING] He played the same tune, same tempo, and they played the tune all the way through with solos fresh as a daisy, rhythm beautiful, everything was great, the audience loved it, and they applauded. And yes, he took a breath, and played it a third time. Same tempo, same tune. It was just hilarious. That’s audacious! It’s of the moment. He thought, “I’m going to play this again.” Who knows how he came around to deciding that? But there was no question about it, because once he launched into it… These guys, Bud and Monk, had a power of certainty about what they were doing that made their creations so unique.
I don’t want to put you in the position of comparing yourself to them, but the quality you evoked in that last comment does seem to infuse your musical production over the last number of years. In any way, can we take it as a self-description?
I stay completely away from self-descriptions, as you know. They are unproductive. But I can tell you that that quality of, oh, you can call it artistic certainty or just your own knowingness about what you like… When I teach music or when I talk to music students, that’s one of the high concepts I try to get across in a simple way, is to trust your own judgment, to think for yourself, to know what you like and know what you don’t like. It’s the basis of all artistic creation. You cannot create based on some idea that someone else gave you that you’re just using without it being your own. I have noticed that the kind of artists and people that I get interested in, that I get attracted to, that I like to learn from, are ones who have that quality in abundance. You’ll find that same quality in every artist who is creating their own way, their own individual expression. That’s the quality of life. That’s the thing we struggle to keep alive. You can take that idea into reviewing social issues, and how society develops or de-develops, based on whether individuals are thinking for themselves or not. That was the whole idea of our founding fathers, for instance, if you want to take it into that subject. It’s the thing we love about the idea of democracy or a republic, in a social way—that it involves people thinking for themselves and interacting with one another, taking responsibility for life as individuals. It’s an attractive quality. It’s a basic spiritual quality. The more of it you have and can develop, the more life there is in life.
Bud and Monk were musical adventurers in New York. They were New Yorkers, just like I sort of was; I was a Bostonian, but I came through New York as well. There’s the whole wide world, and here’s this thing called music and jazz and improvisation. They were the guys who for me on the piano held on to a creative motivation, a world of music that they heard that they immersed themselves in. They became their compositions in music. That’s all they did, and spent their life that way. What they created was inspiring. So it was sort of like having someone who was doing something that I wanted to do, so they became mentors and teachers and inspirations, and I ended up spending a lot of time with their music.
Were you around in the summer of 1964 when Bud played Birdland?
Yes. He came back, and I heard one night of him playing at Birdland. It was very emotional to watch him play. It pissed me off in a lot of ways, in the sense that he was obviously mutilated by the psychiatric community. But through it all, he was still there, and once he got his hands on the piano, there it was, Bud’s music. John Ore was there that night, and I think J.C. Moses was playing drums.
But you didn’t get to spend any time with him.
No, I never got to meet my hero.
Talk about approaching his music as a fresh avenue of creative expression.
Well, it’s totally a deep repertoire of music. Bud wasn’t ever acknowledged enough as a composer. He was as a pianist. But his compositions stood on their own as great works. Some of the musicians would play some of his music; Miles recorded some of his tunes. So I had incubated the idea for years of doing a Bud Powell project where I performed all of his music. I had already done that with Monk, but it didn’t get called a Monk project. But there was a recording I made in ’81…
On ECM with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes.
That’s right. A record of all Monk’s music. So I did my tribute to Monk, and this was my tribute to Bud.
Speaking of trios, let’s talk about the trio you’ll be playing with starting in the fall, which is the Return to Forever rhythm section, but as a trio. Is it a new entity unto itself?
It’s definitely a new entity unto itself, although it’s an old entity that we’ve done before. There’s a glorious week that Stanley and Lenny and I will sometimes reminisce about, which was kind of the inception of RTF-2, the electric version. It was a trio gig at Todd Barkan’s old club in San Francisco, the Keystone Korner. It was Stanley on his amplified upright bass, and Lenny on a small kit of drums. He used to have this bass drum that we called an oil can, because I think it was basically an oil can—it was a wild 18-inch bass drum. That week I played exclusively Fender Rhodes. I didn’t have a synthesizer or a piano. I just played Rhodes all week. One of the intents of that week was to audition guitar players for the eventual quartet that we wanted to play in together. But from that point forward, that rhythm section has become like an old, comfortable shoe that you put on. Working with those guys, that same warm pleasure is still there now. So we’ve decided to explore it some more.
This summer, you’ll be touring Europe mostly solo, and a couple of duos with Gary Burton and one with Stefano Bollani in Perugia. Speaking of Gary Burton, you made Crystal Silence right at the time that Return to Forever came out, beginning this dual track between what people have called your “acoustic chamber jazz” and more dance-oriented, beat-oriented music. It’s a very long-standing duo. It’s 37 years since then. You’ve reunited on a number of occasions, most recently Native Sense: The New Duets in 1997, and The New Crystal Silence in 2007. Talk about the mutual attraction.
It can be easily explained. I think of that magnetic artistic connection that I make, that I go and befriend someone like Gary, who is this magnificent musician who makes a particular sound. We first played together, on a couple of gigs when Gary first founded his own quartet after he left Stan Getz—Steve Swallow had brought me on Stan’s gig after Gary left. Anyway, I was working other gigs, and that wasn’t a preferred gig. But when we played our duet together, something clicked that was really pleasurable to both of us. We started discovering how pleasing it was to just play piano and vibes together. We didn’t need anything else. We weren’t thinking, “Well, this is nice; let’s get a bass player and a drummer and do some gigs.” It was, “Wow, this is kind of nice; let’s do this some more.” When we first got together, that idea was encouraged along by Manfred Eicher, who heard us play, and immediately, with the genius perception that he has, or the genial perception that he has sometimes of something that strikes him as interesting, he offered us a contract to do a recording. That was the beginning of the duet. Just like my association with Stanley Clarke, it’s one of those lifetime relationships. You go into it, and an infinity of music is possible. It’s amazing how Gary elicits all that music out of what I’ve thought of as a metal thumb piano. Through the decades, I’ve found myself constantly going back and playing with Gary some more, and we’ve always come up with a new idea of some other area that we want to explore, until recently we finally realized this orchestral project. I think we touched on it years ago when we did Lyric Suite for Sextet, and we played the duet with that wonderful string quartet. It seemed such a beautiful sonic setting that I never forgot about that, and I always wanted to use strings again with the duet. So here we had the opportunity, and we thought, “let’s go for it,” and we created those orchestral arrangements for the duet and did that last record. So the duet just keeps going on.
We have another idea now, another recording that we’re going to finally do, or a set of music we’re going to develop, that we began developing during that last tour, which had to do with, well, standards, and songs that I’ve always wanted to try to play. Like, for instance, the repertoire from Birth of the Cool, Miles’ record. I’ve always loved those songs, and not too many guys play them. Gary and I started exploring Bill Evans’ wonderful repertoire. Things like that will be the direction of our next project.
Duos seem to be a particular love of yours, and your most recent duo recording is Duet with Hiromi. It’s very far-flung, very sprightly, and seems to have been a mutually energizing project. You even did some Bill Evans on it—“Very Early.” You did Monk’s “Bolivar Blues.” Many things. You also recorded not long ago in duo with Bela Fleck.
Philosophers and poets have eulogized (is that the right word, “eulogized”)…have poeticized about the beauty and microcosmic aspect, universal aspect of the relationship of two people. It’s the basic act of communication, living communication, one person directly with another person. In music, it certainly is the most intimate ensemble and, in a way, allows for everything that I like about music. It’s got an incredible amount of space and freedom, just because there’s only two people playing, of course. But then it’s got this intimacy of just a straight communication line with one other person, which can be explored infinitely. So when I find compatible partners like Gary, or like Bobby McFerrin, or more recently like Hiromi or Bela Fleck, it’s a great joy.
Also, the other kind of mechanical aspect of the duet is it’s very practical to tour with.
But it’s interesting that you seem to have created separate books of music for Bela Fleck and Gary Burton, and each partnership has taken on its own tonal identity.
Yes. That’s the beauty of it. Recently, I got together with Bobby McFerrin; we jammed a little bit and started putting together ideas for another project. When I step into a musical universe so huge as that, gee, all of these kind of new, fresh things occur. So it is a great way to make music.
Stan Getz seems to have been such a pivotal job for you. So much music you would do subsequently spun out of relationships that you formed in that band. In fact, you also seem to influenced his own musical production for a number of years after.
I felt that Stan always wanted to learn new things. He had already developed a beautiful lyrical style and had made his fame with “Desafinado” and the Bossa Nova. But he always wanted to try new things. That’s why he loved playing with Roy Haynes, I think, and that’s why he started to like playing my compositions. Stan was a wonderful performer. He taught me the lyrical side of music and the quieter side. I was coming from playing free music, and Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and Stockhausen and Bartok were my mentors. When I got the gig with Stan Getz, I had to learn how to deliver up something a little bit more lyrical and compact. He didn’t want 15-minute piano solos. He wanted two choruses. I learned a lot doing that.
Classical music seems to be the foundation of a great deal of what you do. Were you studying classical music from very early on?
Not really. As a matter of fact, when I first was getting into music and playing the piano, classical music seemed conservative to me. I didn’t get into the sound of it at first. What really attracted my attention was the jazz big bands, the trios, Charlie Parker’s music. When I was 8 or 9, my dad sent me to have piano lessons with a local pianist in Boston, a wonderful man named Salvatore Sullo, who played every year with the Boston Pops. He thought it was kind of silly that I played jazz. I auditioned for him and played “Perdido,” and he said, ‘Oh, like Dizzy Gillespie,’ and he blew air into his cheeks or something like that. He introduced me to the piano music of Chopin and Bach, the easy pieces, and I became interested in Classical music through the piano music more than anything else. But I didn’t intensely study it. My interest in classical music was more analyzing orchestral scores as a composer. I fell in love with Stravinsky’s and Bartok’s music, and that was my first passion with Classical music. But it wasn’t until the early ‘80s that I became interested in what we term ‘classical music,’ meaning the music of the 18th century—Mozart’s music, for instance. Then I decided that it would be a challenge and really fulfilling to try to perform some of that music live, and that’s when I started to get involved.
Could you tell me something about your father, about what sort of musician he was? It’s obvious that you were hugely influenced by him in your musical path.
My Dad was a real sweetheart and a great father. He let me have my own mind, as my mother did. They encouraged me in every creative effort I ever had. When I wanted to stay out late and hang out because of the musicians, they let me do it. Plus, he was a very, very good musician. He played very soulful horn. He played trumpet mostly. He played a little bit of piano. He played bass. He played some drums. He played violin earlier on in his life.
Was it a lead trumpet sound?
No-no. He was always the second trumpet player who played the jazz solos. He was the soulful guy. He was always up on the times. He had another trumpet player friend, and they used to listen to Miles play. I used to catch them. I’d come into the house, and they’d be in the back room where I had my hi-fi set, with Miles records on, smoking cigarettes, and with their elbows on their knees, close to the speakers—crying sometimes! He was a sweet man. He had a band. I used to sit in with his band. We played a lot of dances together as I grew up.
Was he a full-time professional musician?
Yes. He was a working musician. He had a successful band during the Depression. He played radio shows, and played at the hotels. His band played at the places where the guys would go and hang after the theater gigs, that sort of thing. They’d sit in with his band. But later on, as he got older, he didn’t have his own bands any more, but he continued to get calls for work around town.
When you were younger, were you part of that very hip Boston scene? You’re a little older than Tony Williams. I’m thinking of people like Sam Rivers and Jaki Byard and Hal Galper and Alan Dawson and Herb Pomeroy…
I connected with some of those guys. I used to go listen to Herb Pomeroy’s band play, at that club he played every Tuesday night, and I knew Herb a little bit. I played with Paul Fontaine and Jimmy Mosher. I played with Tony a little bit in Boston. I worked at Conley’s a lot—I worked there with Pony Poindexter and Sonny Stitt. My school friend was Lennie Nelson, one of the young great drummers around town—unknown but great. And Bobby Ward, another wild drummer from that era. Roy Haynes I never knew as a Bostonian, but Tony I connected with.
So in a sense, your father taught you to be a professional, just by example.
Exactly. And how to live a life where you did something that you really loved, and where that was good to do, not something that was considered frivolous.
Was your father a first-generation American, or did he come here from Italy?
No, he was a first-generation Italian-American. He was one of 13 kids, and his father and mother only spoke Italian. So when I sat on my grandfather’s knee, he used to tell me stories in Italian. I didn’t understand a word he said, but I used to dig it.
Did he play Italian music also as part of his…
That was corny for him?
It was corny for him. He was a jazzer. He wore loose shirts. He used to buy a new white shirt… I used to see him do this—I’d hang with him. He’d take the shirt home, and the sleeves would always be way too long for him. So he’d measure it like about 2 inches above his wrist, which is where he felt comfortable, and he’d take it off, and he’d cut both sleeves with scissors.
You like to wear those baggy, guayabana shirts yourself.
Was your mother also musical?
She was a great mom. She was not a singer or a musician or anything, but she supported us, and went in the candy factory and worked her butt off and bought me a Steinway piano. She was the greatest.
So she really sacrificed for you.
She totally worked her butt off. She kept both of us in line. I was the only child. So she cooked for me and my Dad, and kept the house clean, and kept us going and encouraged us, and she was the best.
Perhaps as a wrap-up question: I’m not sure if you gave yourself this name or if it was given to you—“The Chameleon.” Who did give you that name?
I have no idea. But it’s used sometimes to describe people, isn’t it, “the chameleon.”
It is, and it seems like a wonderful cognomen for you. It’s very descriptive of your ability to project your own personality within so many diverse situations consecutively. I read an interview where you mentioned Dustin Hoffman as a model, because he’s so good at portraying different characters, as opposed to DeNiro, who is always great, but, you said, pretty much always DeNiro.
Years ago, when I would try to describe what it’s like to invest myself in different musical directions, that was the first analogy that I came up with. I thought, “well, maybe I’m the Dustin Hoffman of music.” But that’s apt, and that’s the way it goes. My desire as a musician has always been just to learn—always to learn something new. I think learning and growing more aware and more skillful is an infinite process. I don’t think it has a ceiling. So in order to do that, it’s always necessary to find something I can’t do, that I want to do, and then just go there. I’ve never had a sense of trying to be myself, if you know what I mean, or try to create my own sound, or my own way. I’ve never had my attention on that. I don’t care what I sound like, because it’s not where my attention is. My attention is outside of myself, and I’m always happiest when it’s that way, and whatever comes out, comes out. So what tends to happen is, I find myself playing a lot of different roles, or being a lot of different ways, or expressing a lot of different emotions, and it makes life interesting and rich for me.
It’s a great way of staying young, too. Mentally.
I guess, yeah! How about that?