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TERRY GROSS, host:

In 1971, Chick Corea had recently left Miles Davis' loud electric band to pursue avant-garde jazz in the quartet Circle. A year later, he'd formed his Latin-influenced, jazz-rock fusion band, Return to Forever. In this transitional period, Corea went into the studio to record a number of solo piano pieces. In 1983, he recorded a follow-up.

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says these albums are some of the improvising composer's best work. Later this month, they'll be reissued in a new mini-box called "Solo Piano."

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KEVIN WHITEHEAD: The 1970s was a breakthrough decade for solo jazz piano, with Keith Jarrett, Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill and others using the format to build cathedrals in the air. But solo piano is also a good sketchpad for the improvising composer. It lends itself to informal, impromptu music-making, almost like thinking out loud.

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WHITEHEAD: In the early 1970s, Chick Corea was wrapping up one phase of his young career and easing into another, moving away from so-called difficult music toward more readily accessible stuff. On the 1971 sessions reissued as part of a three-CD solo set, you can hear Corea drawing on music he'd already made, including the Latin jazz he'd played starting out, and the percussive, telegraph-key rhythms he'd rapped out on electric piano with Miles Davis. But Corea found a way to combine drum-like, repeated notes with unabashed lyricism. He also sounds inspired by a beautiful-sounding piano.

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WHITEHEAD: Chick Corea's "Solo Piano" mini-box on ECM starts with two albums originally issued as "Piano Improvisations Vols. 1 & 2." That title raises a question about what it means to call something improvised. On pieces like that one, Corea's clearly using some preconceived materials, even if he's sorting them out in real time. Of course, jazz musicians improvise on existing themes, too, and Corea plays a couple tunes by other composers. "Trinkle, Tinkle" is by that godfather of percussive piano, Thelonious Monk.

(Soundbite of song, "Trinkle, Tinkle")

WHITEHEAD: By 1983, when Chick Corea made a sort of sequel to "Improvisations" called "Children's Songs," he was doing formally what he used to do informally. The pieces had the same kind of charm and light touch, but instead of shaping them in performance, he came to the session with 20 miniatures written out.

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WHITEHEAD: Corea says his untitled children's songs are meant to suggest kids' playfulness and the way they always keep moving. Many have a simple melodic quality, despite the technique they may call for. And since children are compact bundles of energy, he keeps all the pieces under three minutes. The shortest is barely 30 seconds, exquisitely small, like dollhouse furniture.

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WHITEHEAD: Chick Corea's vintage solos show how composing and improvising are two sides of the same coin. Whether he approaches the keyboard with a sheet of music in hand or with an open mind, Corea draws on his love of melody, his hard-earned keyboard technique and a range of influences including modern jazz, Cuban music, jazz-influenced French composers like Darius Milhaud, and even ragtime. And composed or improvised, Chick Corea's solo pieces have this much in common: They're designed to make the piano sing.

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GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed "Solo Piano" by Chick Corea, a reissue of his albums "Improvisations 1 & 2" and "Children's Songs." It will be released later this month on the ECM label. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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