Exclusive: Jazz Legend Chick Corea On Creativity, Inspiration And His New U.S. Tour


The worldview from Los Angeles

Chick Corea performs at CAP UCLA at Royce Hall on October 3 at 8 pm

When celebrated keyboardist, composer and bandleader Chick Coreareturns to UCLA’s Center for Art Performance at Royce Hall next month, it will be a homecoming of sorts, summoning some of the jazz great’s favorite memories.

“I’ve played UCLA a lot, and always love it,” Corea told me in a recent phone call. “One really great moment from Royce Hall from a long time ago was when my Return to Forever quartet was pumping hard in the mid-70s, and we decided to give Stevie Wonder a plaque in braille as artist of the decade. We wrote some lovely things, and Stevie sat in with the band on what was really one of my favorite performances ever.”

Corea, 78, most recently performed there with Bela Fleck in 2014, and this time joins virtuoso jazz bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade in support of a new 3-CD release called Trilogy. The show is scheduled for Thursday, October 3, at 8 pm at Royce Hall, with tickets starting at $29.

The 22-time Grammy Award winner spoke with me about his U.S. fall tour, various creative inspirations and the state of jazz, circa 2019.

You’ve been touring forever. Is every tour different? What’s the vibe of this one?

Chick Corea: The vibe is always who you’re playing with, so it’s whatever Christian, Brian and I come up with. We’re tweaking up our repertoire, and I have some new things I’m going to try. A Budapest organization knows I’m a fan of Bela Bartok and I accepted a commission to write a piece of music for a trio in commemoration of Bartok. We’re performing part of that on this tour. Mostly we want to have fun and make the audience feel good.

At 78, how are you still learning and growing?

Chick Corea: As far as I’m concerned, if I’m not learning I’m dead. To always learn something new, to add to your abilities, this is what life is all about. I don’t evaluate myself. That’s for critics and writers like yourself to decide. But I feel I’m a better pianist now than I was ten or fifteen years ago. I’m better at orchestrating. I’m definitely more proficient outside my familiar range of instruments, like trumpets and rhythm section. For instance, I have a commission to do a trombone concerto for The New York Philharmonic, so I’m studying orchestration for that.

What’s your biggest challenge as a musician at this stage of the game?

Chick Corea: It’s funny. I’ve worked for years to bring my music more smoothly to the public, and to take my edgy stuff and make it pleasurable. You want to please the audience, and hit the right spot for them. So that’s it. The challenge is always myself. Trying to get something going that’s interesting to write and to play, but that also will connect with the public. That’s always the challenge. But the way I overcome it is to go out and play every night. That said, the physical parts of touring are always tough. That’s a challenge for anyone. I just try to ignore it.

Anything new in music that’s exciting you right now?

Chick Corea: I love my go-tos, but someone I’ve been checking out recently is Kamasi Washington. I met him last week at the Tokyo Jazz Festival. His band played the afternoon we played. I came home and took a deep listen to his music, and it’s fantastic. I’m also listening to more classical these days–studying for new pieces I’m doing by immersing myself in the orchestral music of Bartok, Stravinsky, even Mozart.

Is jazz still relevant in 2019?

Chick Corea: I leave overall statements like that to folks like you who write about music. But here’s what I can tell you what I’ve seen from traveling and observing: The state of creativity and of young people coming up is very large, and very dynamic. What hits the public media is not always what real life is all about. I get the sense that music and art in general are so native and natural to people, it’s something you can’t do without. And now with the Internet and the way communications happen instantaneously, young musicians can get deep secondhand information through YouTube, Apple Music and other services. The musicians coming up tend to be more in communication about styles and forms and the playing I see with students and young musicians is incredibly varied and interesting. The creative spirit of music is in very good shape. I just don’t know about the word “jazz,” that’s all.

This being Forbes, I have a business question. Nobody ever says, ‘Hey kid, you wanna get rich? Go become a musician.’ Especially a jazz musician. What did you do from a business standpoint to stand out as a success?

Chick Corea: I’ve never had a problem working. I’ve been playing in bands and working on various projects for a long time now and I don’t find any problem with that. I think the exchange as a musician is that what comes back to you depends on what you put out. Sometimes that can cost you. This last band I had, The Spanish Heart Band, was a nine-piece flamenco-music ensemble with a full crew. I kept thinking, this is going to be expensive to put on road, and it was, but the recompense was that we got a huge positive response. I love that. When you really focus on something new and energizing that’s fun for you, it pays you back.

Last question. What do you do to stay inspired and creative? Are you a golfer or anything?

Chick Corea: Oh, I am the most non-golfer sorta guy you can imagine. That’s not me. I’m a swimmer. I swim every day. Mostly, I find inspiration through music and painting. My other artistic line is as a graphic artist. I doodle. I have a collections of paints and colored pencils and am constantly doodling. If I’m working on a piece of music, I’ll take a break and go over and draw something abstract in the direction I’m going, and you know what? One creative endeavor usually helps the other. It’s hard to explain. That’s how art works, I guess.