Chick Corea must be one of the most prolific artists in jazz. It’s not just the volume of his output which spans almost fifty years but its sheer variety of format. Along with Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock he is one of the few jazz artists after Miles Davis to command a mass audience beyond the relatively small number of aficionados of the genre and become something approaching a household name.
He is widely admired by musicians for his ingenious compositions, unfailing melodic lyricism, rich polytonal harmonies, supple rhythmic complexity and terrifyingly crisp articulation. Critics in the jazz world – often suspicious of “fusion” and popular success – have sometimes damned him with faint praise.
He is known as a Scientologist and is usually cited on a short list of its famous practitioners that otherwise includes movie and pop stars. In the way in which his music is associated with his faith and the works themselves often use its tenants or texts as programmatic underpinning he brings to mind composers like Messiaen and Bach.
On December 9, 2008 I spoke to Chick by telephone while he was at home in Florida.
MI: In the last few days an idea has been coming at me from a couple of directions, and that’s the concept of “longevity” and if you like “late style”. On the weekend I was listening to an interview with [composer] Elliot Carter who has just turned 100 and is still writing many pieces a year.
CC: No kidding? Wow!
MI: Now, you’re a long way from that age but nonetheless I do see from my calendar that in two or three years you’ll be seventy and in the population a lot of people by that stage retire from what they do, but I don’t see any sign of you doing that. So I wanted to ask you about that process of one developing one’s art over many decades – as you have – and whether there’s particular characteristics that come out in a “later” period, the “wisdom of age” or however one puts it.
CC: Well you know I consider that one of the successful things that I do that keeps me fresh is – I never think about myself. So, I don’t answer questions like that, I don’t ever look at it, I don’t try to analyse my life or see whether something is this period or that period. I mean I look into my music sometimes and review something I did in the past just to see if I can improve on it or something like that. But in terms of trying to make evaluations like that I kinda stay away from it and it keeps me fresh in a “new unit of time” all the time, you know? Which is the creative moment. Like – what to do, what project to take on, what new thing to learn and that kind of thing.
MI: It makes sense and of course it’s really the job of others to make that kind of analysis of an artist’s work.
MI: But nonetheless how does it feel now compared to the 1960s?
CC: Well, there’s two feelings. One is that the music and my love for it grows and grows. And that’s of course the life-giving and joyous factor. The body gets a little bit older, and that’s the other factor. And also as the society – I don’t know what word to use – changes, let’s use a nice, mild word like “changes”, you know, the way music is presented is changing all the time and I have to always come up with new ways to deal with that. But my life is basically travelling, because I love to perform. I mean I’ve never made a living or had an idea to make music sitting at home writing, although I love to write music. But I’ve always written music as a vehicle to play, myself. Like I don’t write music for others that much for instance. It’s just I write music for my bands or my collaborations or whatever I’m doing you know, so my life is basically on the road that way. But it’s the creation of music that keeps me going.
MI: As a composer you’re very prolific though so I imagine that if as you describe it you travel a lot then you maybe can write on the road? Do you write very fast? Are you facile as a writer? Do you ever get blocked?
CC: I’ve always written fast. I came across the idea years ago that when I have an idea of something I want to put down or some kind of a composition I want to make or some kind of a theme that I want my band to try to improvise on or whatever it is and it’s that the first ideas that come are the ones I always take. I don’t sit down and ruminate and say “Well let’s see, let’s try another idea now, now how about that idea? Now there’s an idea, maybe I should test these ideas out”. So what I do is I take the one that seems the easiest to come out – the most natural to come out – and then I work with it. And I guess the result is that way the compositions kind of flow out. Then I can review them after that and I can say “Well, nah, I’m going to try this other direction now”. But when I do try a direction I try to complete it and just see where it goes.
MI: So perhaps what you’re describing is as close as you can get to improvisation with a pencil in your hand.
CC: Kind of, yeah. In fact – I don’t know how technical your readership is – but more and more what I’ve done to compose certain pieces is to improvise the notes in, now that we have tools on the computer that will take the notes that way. I can improvise the notes in, do a quick edit on them and then have a composition that’s quite pleasing to me.
CC: I still sit down and write with pencil and paper though a lot of the time.
MI: It’s got a nice feel about it hasn’t it?
CC: Oh yes.
MI: Funnily enough you anticipated another question I wanted to ask you when you alluded to the times as they are now, the society if you like. You said you don’t analyse yourself as such but I wondered about analysing the society you’re living in. With you making music through the 1960s up until now – and we’re completing another decade soon – I wondered how you feel the society, or if you feel the society has changed in the way that it impacts on creative artists and how they make their way through it. Have you perceived any changes?
CC: Absolutely, without a doubt, one hundred per cent. In fact when I’m asked to comment on the “health of music” of the “health of jazz”, you know, people want to know “Is jazz dead or alive?”, that kind of silly question. But it’s not so silly and in actual fact the answer to that has everything to do with the environment and the society, not with artists. Artists are always there, they’re living, they’re breathing, they’re creating, they’re trying to do something. But it’s how the community, or the city, or the society itself “promotes” music or gets behind art and that kind of thing. And to me in the years that I’ve been alive I’ve just seen it get gradually worse and worse and worse and worse. It’s really on a nose dive. We’re going away from the individuality of expression and we’re going toward a kind of homogenised “control” with people in the media thinking what the public “should” listen to or what they think the public will like. And so in order to really find individual creative music you have to look outside the normal paths usually.
MI: So what advice would you give to those artists that perhaps – or most probably – don’t have the degree of success that you have, or indeed the talent for that matter? How would you counsel them in counteracting or reacting to those almost suppressive forces that you seem to be describing?
CC: Yeah. Well you know the first thing to do is you become aware of it – you don’t fight it, that’s for sure – but to me the equation is always the same no matter how tight or loose the society is, which is you work, you create and you keep on putting your message out no matter how much resistance there is. You just keep doing it. Every one of my musical heroes, musicians that I admire and artists that I admire, they all do that – they just keep going, you know? I was just reading a biography of Art Tatum, I love Art Tatum’s piano playing and I got curious about his life a little bit. He lived in some interesting times, through Prohibition and the First and Second World Wars as you know. He did as most of us do which is, he just kept going. He just kept playing his music, finding outlets, finding people who would present him. And at the same time the trick is to keep one’s musical integrity while doing all of that. So the answer is always the same, it’s just maybe a little harder these days.
MI: And it seems to me that many artists have credited something beyond their own musical abilities in the kind of steadfastness you describe. They have had to have the inner personal skills, inner convictions – matters of philosophy, matters of faith if someone’s comfortable with that word, an inner life or a spiritual life if someone’s comfortable with that word. And you yourself have publicly credited Scientology many times with doing that for you. Is that something that really does inform your music in the way one might say that Bach’s music was informed by Christianity?
CC: I don’t know about Bach’s relationship to Christianity. But I do know that among the inspirations in my life and people I learn from, L. Ron Hubbard who’s the founder of Scientology and who’s written some incredible works has been constantly inspiring to me so that’s for sure. But you know, the part about faith and religion and how it interacts with the artist is very interesting to me because after all of these years and seeing how there’s so much potential conflict in people of different faiths trying to get someone else to believe what they believe I’ve come to the very bedrock of what I believe is the best way to approach that whole subject. Which is basically to respect everyone’s beliefs, whatever they are, whether they be religious beliefs, philosophical beliefs, artistic beliefs, you know, artistic tastes because that’s what makes the world go round and that’s what makes life interesting is that people have their own opinions and expressions and way they like to do things, you know? And I think that applies to religion, it applies to art and it applies to life in general.
MI: That’s really interesting because it actually leads me into another question that takes it back to music again and the question of taste that you mention. In our “world of jazz” if you like as it stands there are a lot of “taste” issues around. For example your music will be incredibly well received here – with John [McLaughlin] of course in the band – but nonetheless there are elements in the jazz community that have issues with “fusion” or a certain way of presenting the music –
MI: – the complexion of the music. And as someone who has been very inspired by your music I’ve sometimes despaired somewhat with people who would hear say for example Dave Wekl’s drumming style and the second they hear that they don’t want to hear anything else just because of the complexion of his drumming, despite him being a very creative artist.
CC: Yeah, well you know I apply that same philosophy of the freedom of a person to have his own taste, I apply it to everybody. I apply it to the audience, I apply it to the critics, I apply it to other musicians. People are free to like what they like, or not like what they don’t like and to change their minds at any point in time. And it’s actually one of the basic human rights that should really be acknowledged very, very strongly which is the freedom to think. And the idea that respecting the rights of others that way, and people’s ability and freedom to think, is what will make some peacefulness in the world, you know? [laughs]
MI: But you’re almost saying there that you respect the right of someone to be disrespectful, if you like. One could say that. Would you say that?
CC: Well, nah, I don’t respect the person being disrespectful but I understand that it can happen and, you know, there are various ways you handle that. I particularly ignore like just carping criticism, I just ignore it.
MI: Yes exactly, and the people who hear things that way won’t show up and the ones that hear what you’re doing will be showing up in droves. We’re very much looking forward to having the band here. Can you say anything about this particular collaboration with John McLaughlin and the band on the musical level that could characterise it?
CC: Well, it’s a complete adventure and very exciting to me. I’ve always wanted to learn more about how John makes music. He’s an amazing artist and an amazing musician and so the best way to do it is to work with him [laughs]. And that’s exactly what I’m doing and I’m learning a ton of new things and it’s a great pleasure. It’s a very exciting band and I’m looking forward to coming to play.
MI: Well many, many people are doing likewise here. Chick it’s been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you for your time.
CC: Yeah, well same here, and thanks for your interest, man. And good luck with your music.
MI: Thank you Chick.