Jazz Institute of Chicago

Classic recordings—Chick Corea

Classic recordings—Chick Corea
by Stuart Nicholson

Now He Sings, Now He Sobs
Blue Note CDP 7900552.
Chick Corea (p); Miroslav Vitous (bs); Roy Haynes (d).
New York City, 14, 19 & 27 March 1968.

Matrix. My one and only love. Now he beats the drum—now he stops. Bossa. Now he sings—now he sobs. Steps—what was. Fragments. Windows. Pannonica. Samba yantra. I don’t know. The law of falling and catching up. Gemini.

The Italian-American home into which Corea was born in 1941 was filled with music. His father, Armando Corea, had a dance band and at an early age his son was exposed to the European tradition as much as the bebop masters. Pursing formal classical studies with Salvatore Sullo, Corea began playing jazz gigs around his hometown of Boston while still in high school. When he arrived in New York in the early 1960s, he had developed an impressive technique that was backed by thorough musical education.

He enrolled in Columbia University intending to pursue an academic career but dropped out, wanting to play jazz. After a brief period of indecision he returned to Boston to prepare for an audition for Julliard, and, although accepted, he stayed for just two months before finally deciding his future lay in jazz.

On the New York scene, he first worked with the Latin bands of Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria and Cal Tjader and in 1965 he recorded Standing Ovation at Newport with Herbie Mann (Atlantic 1445). However, his first appearance on a straight ahead jazz album was with trumpeter Blue Mitchell whom he joined after Mitchell left Horace Silver following two weekend engagements at Birdland in March 1964 to form his own band with tenor saxophonist Junior Cook. On The Thing To Do (Blue Note BST 84178), from July 1964, Corea contributes "Chick’s tune," based on the chords of "You stepped out of a dream," which combined attractive melodicism with the prevailing hard-bop certainties.

Corea’s playing with Mitchell revealed his careful attention to Bud Powell and Horace Silver, but he would quickly add more contemporary influences, particularly the modal chord voicings of Bill Evans (he would later compose "Waltz for Bill Evans" in 1969 as a tribute .[i]) and McCoy Tyner.

On Mitchell’s Down With It (Blue Note BST 84214) from 1965 and on two tracks on Boss Horn from 1966 (Blue Note BST 84257) it is apparent the diverse strands he was absorbing were now coalescing into a coherent style. Corea’s original "Tones for Joan’s bones" that appeared on the latter album was a sophisticated ABCAD structure with contrasting sections and provided the title cut for his debut album as a leader on Herbie Mann’s Vortex label, [ii] also from 1966.

By now Corea was incorporating the influence of the French Impressionists, combining Debussy-esque washes of color with darting runs, bittersweet dissonances and sudden changes of tempo. Evidence that he had evolved a fresh, original style by the time he was invited to join Stan Getz’s Quartet (as Gary Burton’s replacement) in early 1967 is clearly apparent on Sweet Rain (Verve 815 054-2), recorded 30 March that year.

Here, Corea emerges as a talent to watch. He contributes two originals, "Litha," that makes use of fourths in the melody line (a particular characteristic of McCoy Tyner’s playing—the composition was inspired by John Coltrane) and "Windows," the latter another interesting ad-hoc form that presented the following 48-bar structure:
A (8 bars) + B (8 bars) + C (8 bars) + D (8 bars) + E (16 bars).

Corea’s imaginative flair for composition, producing highly original, challenging songforms for improvising has seldom been rrecognized but nevertheless over the years he has written some 500 songs, many of which have entered the jazz repertory.

After touring extensively with Getz in 1967, Corea was working as an accompanist for Sarah Vaughan in 1968 when he recorded Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. It presented an extremely fresh approach to the piano trio and numbers among the finest in the genre.

Corea’s accompanists were among the most accomplished in jazz; Haynes had been a member of Getz’s quartet during Corea’s tenure with the saxophonist while Vitous had played with Corea in Donald Byrd’s group, an association that is documented on Byrd’s The Creeper (Blue Note BN LT-1096)[iii] from October 1967.

Corea cites an interesting reason for the choice of sidemen, "I think I used a bit of the idea that later on I noticed Miles would use. It’s not such an unusual thing for a musician to do, especially in improvised music —to choose your partners as a priority over choosing your music."[iv]

"Matrix" is a modified twelve-bar blues where the tonality of the IV chord in bar five of the progression and the II chord in bar nine is restrained. It would, incidentally, be recorded by Bobby Hutcherson four months later on Total Eclipse (Blue Note BST 84291).

The theme, a refraction of Monk-like phrasing (another Corea favorite), is stated with great rhythmic freedom within the twelve bar cycle. During his 16 chorus solo he frequently makes use of long, unbroken lines that extend as long as six bars in length (specifically, in choruses 4, 5, 10, 13 and 15) that are contrasted with short bluesey figures (particularly in chorus 6 and 11).

Throughout, he makes frequent use the pentatonic scale and often plays ‘outside’ the changes, in fast, twinkling side-slipping runs or by deliberately using dissonance to build tension. It sets the tone for the album where loose, freely stated ideas are exchanged by the group whose horizons are the limits of their imagination.

Although Corea was an admirer of Bill Evans, he did not use silence to the extent that Evans did and there is less interaction among the group than the give and take to be found in The Village Vanguard Sessions (Milestone 47002), for example; Vitous functioning in a more orthodox time-keeping role. Even so Corea’s highly developed sense of rhythmic freedom permitted a feeling of discourse even if the rhythms implied or stated were often quite specific.

"Now he beats the drum - now he stops" begins with a reflective interlude largely built around a tonal center and contains interesting chord voicings that suggest contemporary classical music. Then follows a medium tempo fantasia based on the chords of "How Deep Is The Ocean" whose harmonic complexity is blurred by Corea’s harmonically ambiguous rootless voicings suggestive of slash chords.

The title track is another well constructed Corea original. It opens with a march-like introduction in 4/4 that leads into a jazz waltz and the exposition of the melody. Like much of Corea’s work it is full of interesting touches:
Intro (4/4): X (13 bars)+ X 1 (first four bars of X) + Transition (3/4 to end): Y (8 bars) + A (16 bars) + B (20 bars) + A (16 bars) + B 1 (First 12 bars of B)+ solos.

Corea’s solo was taken over a simplified 16 bar sequence of chords quite different to the harmonies for the theme, albeit preserving the dominant B minor tonality. Corea’s improvisation grows organically out of the theme, indeed, the mix of improvised and written blend into a seamless whole. Agile and spirited, Corea’s playing often implied a double-time feel with his rush of ideas. He had a crisp touch with a very smooth, even execution. Vitous responds with agile, imaginative bass lines and Haynes, a veteran of Charlie Parker, Lester Young and John Coltrane groups reveals his enormous versatility within the context of this highly contemporary performance.

"Steps—what was" begins as an extemporization out of tempo, drawing on Debussy-like washes and dissonant splashes before launching into a ‘time—no changes’ passage at a brisk tempo that contains some of Corea’s most inspired playing of the session. Little wonder that his playing made such an impression on musicians when the album was released. This passage then leads into a long solo for Haynes, beginning on cymbals, and then gradually incorporating his whole kit before returning to his cymbals to prepare for the entrance of piano and bass.
"I remember taking the recorded tapes and listening to them and doing a bit of editing to get a longer Roy Haynes drum solo," recalled Corea in 2001. "He played an open drum solo and I liked it so much I wanted it to be longer so I took another take that we did and spliced the two drum solos together and then sent the tape to Roy and asked him what he thought and he couldn’t tell the difference!"[v]

In contrast to the first passage, the trio unites on a pre-set composition, "- What was," on their re-entry following Haynes’ solo. This would reappear in October 1972 as "Spain" from the album Light As A Feather (Polydor 2310247), one of Corea’s most famous compositions. In this early incarnation, melody and form have been settled on, although a more formal presentation of the melody would come later.

Corea’s attraction to spontaneous group interaction is revealed on "Fragments," "The law of falling and catching up," and "Gemini," the latter alternating between episodes by the pianist and Vitous that veers into abstraction. Originally recorded as two separate pieces, each a piano solo followed by a bass solo, called "Apple Juice" and "Tomato Juice," they were later spliced together by Corea and the resultant "Gemini" is suggestive of the musical direction that would claim his attention from 1968 to 1971.

The configuration of the original LP issue was "Matrix; Now he beats the drum - now he stops; Now he sings - now he sobs; Steps—what was and The law of falling and catching up." As can be seen, a considerable amount of material went unreleased until the CD appeared in 1988.[vi]

This ‘new’ material serves only to underline what an exemplary group this was, with, amongst others, arresting performances of Corea’s "Windows" and Monk’s "Pannonica." The unusual construction of "Windows" has already been discussed. Corea’s use of 3/4 time reflects the influence Bill Evans, whose use of the meter helped usher it into repertoire of many contemporary jazz musicians.

The exposition of the theme is stated very freely without a repeat before Corea moved gracefully into an improvisation full of rich melodic motifs and shimmering flourishes. His left hand was never intrusive, frequently using figures voiced in fourths (as he does throughout the album). In giving prominence to his fleet right hand, he favored the higher end of the piano which together with his light touch added to the feeling of bright, sparkling improvisation.

"Pannonica" reflects Corea’s love of Monk’s music; an AABA tune with three 8-bar sections and a quirky extra bar in the final ‘A’ section to make it 33-bars long, Corea does not allow Monk’s personality to overwhelm his playing in the way many pianists seem to do, by playing in Monk’s style. Instead, he honors the spirit of Monk’s composition by improvising on the theme, taking motifs, inverting and reversing them and developing them without straying beyond his own musical personality, but wittily signals we are in Monk territory by a sparse use of Monkian dissonance.

It is interesting to note that when this trio was reconvened after a recording hiatus of 13 years, they produced a double album with one LP devoted to Monk’s music and the other to spontaneous interaction, Trio Music (ECM 1232/33).

"When I did "Now He Sings, Now He Sobs" in the Sixties we just did the recording and no performances live at all, there were no gigs," recalled Corea. "But we liked the record so much we kept our associations, and it wasn’t until the late Seventies, ’77, ’78, something like that, that Roy and Miroslav and I started to accept trio engagements, actually perform and do gigs as a trio that culminated in that album for ECM."[vii]

When Now he Sings, Now He Sobs was released it set a standard among contemporary musicians with its free flowing, yet highly disciplined performances; indeed, many pianists learnt the album note for note, such was its influence. Six months after recording the album Corea was invited to join Miles Davis’s group after the group’s regular pianist Herbie Hancock failed to show up on time after taking a honeymoon in South America. Corea’s tenure with Davis lasted two years and his first recording with Davis was to finish off Filles de Kilimanjaro (Columbia CS 9750) in September 1968, an album that had been begun with Hancock in the group the previous June.

After leaving Davis, Corea formed a piano trio (later joined by Anthony Braxton on saxes) to explore spontaneous interaction. This he abruptly ended and during a brief spell with Getz formed an acoustic ensemble called Return to Forever. The eponymously titled album[viii] again highlighted Corea’s compositional gifts, but after one more album by the group, Corea launched himself into a glossy version of jazz-rock with involved high-tech runs and a certain pomposity using orchestral devices inspired by classical music.

Corea anticipated what became known as fusion, a highly commercial jazz-influenced variant of pop music that appeared to transform an art form back into a commodity by responding to commercial logic.

In later years he sought a free pardon back into acoustic jazz—his album of duets with Gary Burton from 1979 is highly recommended[ix]—and among an increasing variety of musical projects that consumed his later career, from jazz to classical, in 1984 he toured with Vitous and Haynes, resulting in Trio Music, Live In Europe (ECM 1310).

i. Chick Corea: Early Days (+Denon 33C38-7969).
ii. "Tones for Joan’s Bones" (Vortex 2004).
iii. Which, incidentally, includes the first appearance of Corea’s composition "Samba yantra" which appears on this album as one of the bonus tracks not on the original LP configuration.
iv. Piano & Keyboard, January/February 1998, pp 31.
v. Interview with Stuart Nicholson, 14th March 2001.
vi. It was again reissued in 2002, this time a 24 bit remastering, with an additional track, as Blue Note 38265-2.
vii. Interview with Stuart Nicholson, 14th March 2001.
viii. Return to Forever (+ECM 1022).
ix. In Concert, Zürich, October 28, 1979 (ECM 1182/83).

Stuart Nicholson is the author of five books on jazz and is the only European jazz writer to have received two Notable Book of the Year citations from The New York Times Review of Books. His latest book Reminsicing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington is published by Northeastern University Press. He is also co-author of The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism with Max Harrison and Eric Thacker.

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