Interview: Chick Corea

The "Bushido" Code of Jazz

In December of 2009, Chick Corea, in company with Lenny White and Stanley Clarke, played a run of six nights at Tokyo Blue Note. Culturekiosque's C.B.Liddell caught up with the jazz/ fusion keyboard legend to find out his thoughts on playing one of his favorite venues as well as "the code" that has guided him since his early work with Miles Davis through to the present day.

CBL: It seems to me that jazz is essentially about keeping it fresh. This means that with a well-known piece of music, each time, you've got to take it somewhere else, because people have already heard it one way. This means that the relationship with the audience is key, which means understanding what they know and improvising within their capability to comprehend. Do you agree?

CC: It's a good viewpoint, but there are many ways to think about these things, maybe as many ways as there are people who think.

CBL: As an international performer jetting in, how are you able to take account of what the local audience is ready for? Or do you think the onus is on the local jazz audience to catch up with wherever you are as a performer?

CC: I like to create a friendly atmosphere with audiences no matter what the physical time or situation. I like to bring the audience something beautiful, maybe entertaining. I leave it up to each member of the audience to experience the music the way they do, as this is a very subjective and personal thing. I always bear in mind that the "audience" is made up of individuals, each one with his own tastes and own way of thinking about and living life, and also enjoying music.

CBL: A few years ago, at the Tokyo Jazz Festival you had a very effective piano duet with Hiromi Uehara on Spain. It started at a place where everybody knew what it was and what was going on and developed from there, and there was a great sense of you and Hiromi playing off each other and taking the piece to a new place in front of the audience. Having Hiromi there also meant you were more in touch with even the less sophisticated parts of the audience as everyone was following the changes in an organic and connected way. What did you learn from that experience or how did it feel?

CC: It was a lot of fun playing with Hiromi. She has the great quality of interpreting everything she plays in her own way, and so I always felt comfortable exchanging musical phrases with her. I felt like I was exchanging with someone who had their own viewpoint about music and life. In a way she was predictably unpredictable.

CBL: This also showed the importance in jazz of musicians playing off each other. As long as they start somewhere that the audience "gets," the interplay, as long as it's not too exaggerated or accelerated, can take the piece of music almost anywhere with the whole audience on board. Will you be taking a similar approach this trip with Lenny and Stanley?

CC: Each musical performance is new and each musician I play with is unique. So I don't try to predict what will happen too much. I know I will be playing with incredibly creative partners. If we establish an atmosphere of creativity and adventure, I know that "things will happen." There must be enough things that are not set down and are not decided in order to create enough friendly motion and randomness to make it interesting. And usually I find if it's interesting to the musicians, it will be interesting to the audience.

CBL: A lot of people might remember the work you, Stanley and Lenny did with the late, lamented Joe Henderson. How is just the three of you going to differ from having Joe along for the ride? He was a wild player, so would it be true to say that without him, it's going to be a more sedate experience?

CC: We'll play, you'll listen, and then you'll decide what the experience is for you.

CBL: What do you see as the biggest strengths of Stanley and Lenny?

CC: They are both brilliant improvisers and rhythm masters.

CBL: With any good combo, there's always a mysterious X-factor. Can you put your finger on it with these guys? In a way, you're all percussionists, as your piano style is heavily percussive. Once a good rhythm groove is established it must be pretty easy to get in and out of each other's shoes. Or is there more to it than that?

CC: No need to say more about an "X factor" than it is an X factor, and, as I said, we must leave so much up to the spontaneity of the moment. To try to describe music, one must be a poet, otherwise there's no point in trying except to chat a bit. I like to let the music speak for itself and let each person decide what he thinks about it.

CBL: What sort of shows can Tokyo audiences expect?

CC: Technically, it will be an acoustic trio, and we will play our nightly interpretation of standards and some of our own compositions.

CBL: I'd just like to ask one question about Miles. Bitches Brew is one of those albums that sounds great now that we've had plenty of time to sit down and give it our attention, but at the time it must have helped create the image of jazz as something a bit too esoteric and self indulgent. How do you remember that time? Were you with Miles all the way or was it a case of "only following orders," and then thinking afterwards, "Man, Miles was right?"

CC: There is a code of ethics amongst the musicians I play with. It's unspoken, but you can tell what it is after you've been around it for a while. I have my own code and part of it is to take whatever offerings my fellow musicians are making and try to make something beautiful and interesting out of those offerings. I really have learned to not evaluate what is "right." I can only know when I like it or I don't, and this especially applies during a performance. With Miles, there was never anything I didn't like about what he was trying to do, and he never gave me orders. He only led the band by example, by playing the way he played, passionately and straight forward without asking anyone if it was ok what he was doing. He had a lot of integrity in that regard. During my stay in the band, he let each musician find his own voice within the music. The other part of the code is "everyone has his own tastes in music and art." It must be this way for Life to be Life. Each member of the audience, each musician playing the music, the writers of music, the DJs, the restaurant owners, the cab drivers, the young children — everyone has this right — freedom of expression, freedom to think for oneself. These are God-given freedoms. They're part of "the code."

Colin Liddell
7th March, 2010
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