Concerto for dude and orchestra

You name it, Chick Corea has played it. So taking centre stage with the LPO next week doesn't seem that strange... By Linton Chiswick
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The Independent Culture

Chick Corea is in Paris. To protect his privacy and reduce the risk of a fusion stalker discovering his whereabouts and harassing him in a hotel corridor, he has booked into the Holiday Inn under an alias. Curiously, he has chosen the name of a cult American novelist and merry prankster.

Chick Corea is in Paris. To protect his privacy and reduce the risk of a fusion stalker discovering his whereabouts and harassing him in a hotel corridor, he has booked into the Holiday Inn under an alias. Curiously, he has chosen the name of a cult American novelist and merry prankster.

"I finally found out a few months ago that the name already belonged to someone," he explains from his hotel room. "Somebody pointed it out in a paperback shop. Funny, huh? I might have to change it again."

When he visits London next weekit will be to play what might be his strangest British date in a 40-year career. In a highlight of the London Philharmonic Orchestra's jazz-influenced season, he will bring two extended pieces scored with the orchestra in mind. "Spain" is a dramatic, large-scale arrangement of a composition he first recorded in the early 1970s with his Return to Forever fusion band. In its latest incarnation it features not just the orchestra, but his current jazz group, Origin, and includes passages of improvisation. Grander though will be the UK premiÿre of his now 10-year-old Concerto No 1 for Piano and Orchestra, a refreshingly tuneful and very American work which he has recently recorded, along with "Spain", for Sony Classical.

It isn't so strange that Chick Corea should decide to write for an orchestra. He has played his music in virtually every other musical setting, from the loose, acoustic and avant-garde to snappy, digitalised pop-jazz. Nor is he the first jazz musician to yearn for the extra potential afforded by the tamed beast that is the symphony orchestra (think of Ornette Coleman's "The Skies The Limits" or Sonny Rollins' saxophone concerto). It's the decision to perform a Mozart piano concerto (No 20 in D minor) alongside his own tunes that sounds like both a risky musical manoeuvre and an odd contribution to the LPO's nod to jazz.

And it must have felt a little like bobbing for apples in a piranha tank when he and the LPO visited Vienna last spring, to perform the concerto in a land where Mozart is both a religion and a chocolate. Inevitably, the Austrian critics wrinkled their noses. "The jazz musician performed Mozart's D Minor piano concerto more conventionally than expected, one could hardly hear anything new," sniffed Neue Kronen Zeitung. "It wasn't a good evening for Mozart," complained Die Presse, both in their April Fools' Day editions. (Interestingly, they enjoyed his own compositions better.)

But Corea has been playing classical music in the privacy of his own practice room for most of his career. When we were listening to Return to Forever in the 1970s, Corea was studying Bartók, Stravinsky and Berg. A decade later, when Corea's evenings were spent rattling concert halls with his steroidal Elektric Band, who would have thought that by day he was developing a love of Mozart's music? (Unnoticed by most jazz fans, pianist Friedrich Gulda had encouraged Corea to perform and record Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos back in the mid-1980s.)

I ask Corea whether in his experience the ultra-conservative and restricted world of classical music portrayed in the popular media is still a reality.

"Oh, without a doubt," he insists, laughing. "But I'd probably go berserk if I tried to consider all of the expectations of people, especially playing Mozart. So I kind of put the whole thing aside and try to play the Mozart the way I love to play it, and the way I know how to play it. And there seems to be enough fun had to go on and do the next performance. But I'd certainly call it a highly opinionated area."

The transition can't be easy; even for a pianist with Corea's technical prowess. Latin music, the jazz avant-garde, fusion and contemporary jazz are all about improvisation - reacting to your band and audience a different way every night. Classical soloists learn the music and then seem to employ a different, subconscious area of concentration during a performance, sometimes reporting how after a performance they've been surprised to remember thinking about the most mundane extra-musical details while making the most sublime sounds. Has Corea had to train a different part of his mind to interpret someone else's work?

"That's a strange comment to me. Mind wandering on stage means boring, or something. But we're talking metaphysics now. And, do you want to define mind? Remember you're talking to a Scientologist. In fact, without any technical terms, I find that when I'm performing the best possible state of mind is no thoughts at all, just action. Anything other than that is a distraction."

Chick Corea's association with Scientology stretches back to 1968 and is well-known. In America there are high-profile Scientologists in most aspects of arts and entertainment. In Europe, Corea's religious beliefs have been treated with suspicion, and so the fact that his own piano concerto is "dedicated to the spirit of religious freedom" probably won't go unnoticed.

"Around the time the concerto was written I was in the process of allying with other minority religions in order to gain a religious validation. Just to be able to practise one's own religion. It's a practice that's still going on. And, yes, especially in Europe."

Corea's own concerto may well prove to be the concert's highlight. Energetic and involving, and with influences from Bartók to Copland, it is tailored to Corea's piano sound. Every note is scored; but the music's relationship to the pianist's jazz style, and particularly his articulation which swings lightly, even in this context, is unmistakable. In fact, it's hard to imagine another pianist playing the same piece, especially a classical musician with a more literal approach to interpreting the dots on the page.

"That's OK, because everything's changing. We're constantly trading off essences and licks and techniques and tastes; learning from one another. We'll just see. In time, hopefully the piece will be performed and another pianist will find another way to do it. Which, I guess, is all ... part of the game."

The Corea Path

IT WAS Chick Corea who popularised the lovely, watery sound of the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Joining MilesDavis in the late Sixties as the trumpeter was inventing jazz rock, Corea provided the band with a mixture of harmonicabstraction and rock pulse which proved vital to Davis's new music, and he became internationally associated with theinstrument.

After a brief flirtation with the avant-garde, Corea spent most of the Seventies and early Eighties solving the mysteriesof the new fusion. With a series of bands called Return to Forever, he placed his intricate, exciting electric pianoagainst a background of Latin music, hard rock and string arrangements. In the Eighties, his Elektric Band andAkoustic Band featured some of the most musically muscular young virtuosi on the scene, and bristled withaggressive energy, pushing the music to an eye-watering level of technical accomplishment before it became so tight itsnapped like a rubber band, launching a handful of solo careers.

Corea never lost touch with the acoustic instrument, but the piano has undoubtedly grown into his central area ofactivity during the Nineties. For the moment at least, Chick Corea is keeping it real.

Chick Corea and the London Philharmonic Orchestra appear at the Royal Festival Hall (0171-960 4242) on 3 November. 'Corea.Concerto' is out now on the Sony Classical label