Q&A: Chick Corea Answers Some "Big Questions"

​With clear, relentless devotion, Chick Corea has been creating music for more than half a century. His journey has landed him in bands with such greats as Miles Davis, Herbie Mann, and Chaka Khan, and his own vision has moved him to put together more ensembles than most musicians have songs -- his discography alone would add significant weight to your iPod. Among his most popular projects has been the recurring Return to Forever. In the '70s Return to Forever was one of the pioneers of the jazz-fusion movement, they made a brief appearance in the '80s, and now after decades of inactivity the project has returned once again and will play Boca Raton on September 10.

The current formation of the band, which has been comprised of various musicians throughout its history, includes core members Stanley Clarke (bass) and Lenny White (drums), along with Corea Elektric Band vet Frank Gambale (guitar) and Jean Luc-Ponty (violin), who has worked with Frank Zappa, Stanley Clarke and others.

In his years of being a band member, band leader, and visionary artist, Corea has seen and done a lot. Though that much may be needless to say, hearing the man rap about all that is pretty interesting. When County Grind had the good fortune of talking with Corea, he answered some "big questions" about some of the more subtle and basic aspects of his artistic approach -- including freedom and communication -- and how those concepts apply to his current project. He also had some words of encouragement for the hard working artists of the world.

County Grind: The first thing I wanted to ask you about is communication, which is something you have talked a lot about. Are there any specific actions you have come to take in order to nurture the communication process in the live music setting? And what are some of the most frequent obstacles that you have found to arise and how do you deal with them?

Chick Corea: Well, it depends on how you think about what communication is. To me, when I hear that word, or when I use it, it means "life." Communication is life. How alive we are is how well we communicate, how much we communicate, and so forth. And you know, this band is made up of musicians that have long and very productive histories together. I've been together with Stanley [Clarke] since 1970 or so, when we first played in Joe Henderson's quintet together. Actually it was a sextet, we played in Philly. And I've known Lenny [White] since even earlier than that. I played with Lenny in the recording studio with Miles Davis on the Bitches Brew sessions.

So, the three of us have a long track together and we've communicated a lot, we've shared a lot of experiences with all of the versions of Return to Forever. So this aspect of communication isn't something so studied, it's something that just is part of our way we live together, the way we work together, the way we make music and so forth. And the way we nurture that is to keep on improving things that we do. And so we're on a tour now -- 70 concerts -- and we started out with a basic program, a set of tunes, and every night we're trying something different, we're improving, we're fixing the sound, we're changing the arrangements. All of that is communication. We're working out how to best invite the audience into what we're doing. All of that, you know?

And part of the game is using the obstacles. We have distance, we have sound, we have time, we have money, we have to feed the bodies, we have to rest the bodies, we have to use microphones -- all of those are obstacles. But, you do them. It's part of life. That's why I say communication is like life. It's something that you sort of have to get good at.

How about the idea of freedom in music. At first glance someone may think that some of the music you've done -- such as the avant-garde stuff -- is more free than some of the composed stuff.

In my mind "freedom" is another big, big, wide, wide, general word. To me, the most freedom, the kind of freedom I talk about when I think of freedom is freedom of choice. A particular kind of music is not "free" or "not free." It's one's choice to do it. The kind of music we play is pretty free because we don't ask anyone for a licence to do it. We just do it. We don't ask a record company, we don't ask a producer, we don't ask the audience, we don't ask our mother or father, we don't ask our wives [laughs], we just do it 'cause we choose to do it. And, to me that's pretty free.

A common complaint among artists is that they are not free to create art because they have to do other work in order to support themselves. There seems to be a lack of infrastructure -- in our society, communities, or in the personal lives of the artists -- needed to support artistic activity. And there are myriad other obstacles as well. As someone who has been able to bring so many various artistic visions into reality, what message might you have for artists who are facing obstacles of all sorts?

I see, I see. You're asking real big questions, man. But, I appreciate your thought on the matter. It's a matter of just continuing to do what you love to do. Like, when you talk about infrastructures -- every person, every family, every band, we have to build our own infrastructure. You build it by communication. That first thing that you said is really the building block. You make agreements. You know, true communication is how you make agreements. You say "Okay, let's put a band together. Let's do this, let's do a tour, let's do a record, let's get a gig, let's go here, let's go there, let's see how this works." And just hundreds and thousands and thousands of communications and decisions are made. And if you keep your vision focused on what you love to do and what you want to do and you don't diverge from that, you can make it through.

We do something with this group that everyone in the group loves. We love to give pleasure to an audience. That's our basic challenge. We use all of those, what you termed as obstacles, and we use them all to try to bring something beautiful to an audience, something that they'll take home, and make them feel good, bring pleasure to them. And we keep the quality as high as we possibly can night to night. And those are the challenges. There's a new challenge every day to be overcome.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by all the stuff that you would like to do artistically?

That's just a matter of managing stuff day to day. It's a day to day process. You lay out what you want to do and then you get it done. I try not to take on, in a daily basis, so much that I can't accomplish what's in front of me. I mean, you do one thing at a time. You get it done well. If you do everything that you do well, then the result is going to be good.

Well, I appreciate you fielding my big questions, You're an inspiration and since I had the opportunity I wanted to put them to you.

Yeah, it's perfectly fine, man. I understand these are the big questions to get answered. And I wish you a lot of luck along your way.

Return to Forever. With Zappa Plays Zappa. 8 p.m. Saturday, September 10, at Mizner Park Amphitheater, 590 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $35-$95. Click here.

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Travis Newbill