RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Jazz pianist Chick Corea is celebrating his 75th birthday with a marathon of live performances. He's been on the road all summer and has finally settled into an eight-week run at the Blue Note club in Greenwich Village. The birthday bash features 15 different bands playing music from every phase of Corea's long career. Reporter Tom Vitale takes a look back.
TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Chick Corea walks through the door of the Blue Note on West 3rd Street, greets the staff, walks past the Yamaha grand piano on the stage to the drum set, where he begins to play.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)
VITALE: Corea to play drums when he was 8, four years after he started playing piano. Back at the keyboard, he says he thinks of his fingers as drumsticks or mallets.
CHICK COREA: I think of the piano like that, like a great big marimba or a percussion instrument. (Playing piano). All right? (Playing piano). There's so many possibilities of putting it together when you've got 10 mallets and 88 drums.
VITALE: Corea's touch on the acoustic and electric piano is what sets him apart, says New York Times music critic Nate Chinen.
NATE CHINEN: It's almost like his fingers bounce off the keys. I mean, that's true on an acoustic piano, and it's also true on a Fender Rhodes, which - he's one of the greatest Fender Rhodes pianists ever. You know, his touch on that instrument is really distinctive. You know it's him within a note or two.
VITALE: And Chick Corea's touch is the perfect complement to the music that's come to define him.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "SPAIN")
VITALE: Armando Chick Corea was born in 1941 in Chelsea, Mass., just across the river from Boston. His father was a bebop trumpet player, and his grandparents on both sides were Italian immigrants. Yet in high school, Corea gravitated to Latin music when he joined a dance band.
COREA: The conga player was the one who really introduced me to Latin music. He showed me (playing piano). He showed me how to do various things with Latin music.
VITALE: It's remained the constant throughout his career, and so has the influence of another musician, Miles Davis.
COREA: I first heard Miles in 1947 as a 17-year-old trumpet player playing on one of these 78 rpm with Charlie Parker. I listened to every piano player that played in Miles Davis' recordings from 1951, when he made his first solo recording, all the way through his whole career.
VITALE: In the late 1960s, Corea joined Miles Davis' band, where he helped pioneer a sound that came to be known as jazz-rock fusion, including playing on the groundbreaking records "In A Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew."
(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "BITCHES BREW")
VITALE: Around the same time, Corea began a lifelong involvement with the Church of Scientology and the controversial teachings of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard.
COREA: I discovered something that I was really looking for, which is how to understand myself and other people and how we operate, how we tick. And ways to keep oneself free and fresh.
VITALE: Corea's musical restlessness led to the free-form quartet Circle after he left Miles Davis.
(SOUNDBITE OF CIRCLE QUARTET'S "QUARTET PIECE NO. III")
VITALE: Then the pianist shifted gears again to form the group that would become his most popular band, Return to Forever.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "LA FIESTA")
VITALE: The group began as a mostly acoustic project, but then Corea decided to amp it up with an electric guitar and synthesizers. The 1976 album "Romantic Warrior" sold a half million copies.
(SOUNDBITE OF RETURN TO FOREVER'S "MAJESTIC DANCE")
LENNY WHITE: We played live in Central Park at the Wollman Skating Rink. Now, the Wollman Skating Rink held 7,000 people. And when they found out that Return to Forever was going to be there, they broke down the gates and there was about 12,000 people.
VITALE: Lenny White was the drummer for Return to Forever in the mid-1970s.
WHITE: There was this power in the music, to be able to present highbrow, intelligent music like that and have 12,000 people screaming their heads off like they were at a rock concert.
VITALE: Although he loved connecting with audiences, Chick Corea moved on again to a series of new projects that he's continuing today - duets with pianist Herbie Hancock and vibraphonist Gary Burton, acoustic jazz combos and an electric funk band. Again, critic Nate Chinen.
CHINEN: It's interesting. When you look at the full spectrum of the career, one thing that strikes you is - is there anything that he hasn't actually attempted?
VITALE: It's all about collaboration for Chick Corea.
COREA: And the particular music that I love is not just casual interaction with other musicians, but actually creative interactions with other musicians. And it means everything.
VITALE: That love of creation is what the 75-year-old pianist says keeps him going.
For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND GARY BURTON'S "NATIVE SENSE")
MARTIN: And we have news this morning about another great pianist. Sad news, though. Leon Russell has passed away, that according to his website. Russell was a much sought-after session musician who blossomed into a full-blown rock star in the 1970s. The Grammy Award winner played with everyone from Doris Day to George Harrison to The Rolling Stones. Five years ago, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Leon Russell was 74 years old.
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