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You May Categorize It, But Corea Disputes It

September 06, 1987|LEONARD FEATHER

Chick Corea left his Los Angeles home last week with two contrasting projects on his schedule: a strictly acoustic two-piano summit meeting in Zurich with the classical and jazz pianist Friedrich Gulda, followed by a tour of Brazil, Argentina and Chile with the group known as his Elektric Band.

It's all in the game for Corea, who during a 25-year career has touched every base: sideman with Latin bands (Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaria), electric keyboard expert on several Miles Davis albums, leader of his own abstract group Circle, followed by the Return to Forever band that moved from Brazilian-flavored jazz to high-decibel rock.

There have been countless other ventures, in jazz and classical music and various other idioms, but Corea today as always is leery of being categorized.

"The idea of playing with Gulda is fun," he said. "Actually, not long ago, when Gulda was doing concerts with Joe Zawinul, I ran into him in Munich and he asked me to join them. We played every kind of duet--me and Gulda, Joe and Gulda, me and Joe--as well as some trio things, and it was on nationwide German TV." (In 1984, Corea and Gulda recorded Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra.)

The group had gone ahead and was planning to meet him for the first leg of the 2 1/2-week tour.

Corea's sidemen in the Elektric Band came to him with powerful credentials. John Patitucci, who plays every kind of electric and acoustic bass, has achieved more at 27 than most bassists can in a lifetime. Dave Weckl, at one time one of New York's hottest studio drummers, brings just the right mix of sonic richness and percussive nuances.

"We began as a trio in April of '85, but in 1986 we did a whole year with a quartet, adding this brilliant guitarist, Frank Gambale, who's 28. But I felt a certain lyrical and melodic element was missing, and we just added Eric Marienthal, a very lyrical blower from Sacramento. His saxophone makes me feel comfortable both in the writing and playing departments. I'm going to be able to write for the next record with a known quantity." (The quintet's first recording, "Light Years," is on GRP Records GRD 9546 and is selling briskly.)

This quintet marks one of the most potentially successful ventures in the eclectic wanderings of Corea, of whom it has been said that he doesn't just think big, he thinks broad. Moreover, he does not predicate his actions in terms of any specific musical nomenclature.

"For a long time," he pointed out, "the word jazz itself carried a negative connotation. The record companies tended to equate it with a limited marketing possibility. Well, some of us wanted to be promoted like a good commercial product along with the Pepsi-Colas and Colgate toothpastes of the world, so we avoided the word jazz . Today, though, this has changed; the word has become more respectable than it was when I had Return to Forever."

In recent months, the jazz sales charts in the trade magazine Billboard have been subdivided, with separate listings for what is called "Contemporary Jazz" and "Jazz," the former devoted to fusion, electric, often pop-oriented music and the latter to standard acoustic sounds. Corea finds this no less confusing.

"What does contemporary mean? According to the dictionary it means happening now. So this means that Twisted Sister's latest record is contemporary music! And what does fusion mean? I mean, Wynton Marsalis' music is fusion, isn't it? He's using old, traditional orchestration but he fuses this element with a new kind of piece, or he may employ a very classic tone on a strictly 1980s work, which is another sort of fusion."

A few months ago, Corea played several concerts with vibraphonist Gary Burton (who plays an amplified instrument, the vibraphone, but is considered a part of the acoustic, non-fusion jazz scene). "One of our gigs," Corea recalls, "was in Glasgow, where the Modern Jazz Quartet was on the bill.

"Man, what a classic bunch the four of them are! Now there you go with two more wild terms. They use modern but this is essentially the same kind of music they established in 1952. And they call it jazz but it's mostly written music. They played this beautiful suite of John Lewis', and even Percy Heath's little bass figures and ostinatos were written out, so is that jazz?"

"My feeling is that we should eliminate any word that has an association with time, such as modern or contemporary. I remember, years ago, contemporary used to mean 'tending toward the avant-garde'; now it means almost the opposite, 'leaning to pop'!

"Let's face it, when we're dealing with terminology we don't have a real set of standard dictionary definitions. It's all right to use a term like electric jazz for the group I have now, or acoustic jazz , because that has a clear significance, but beyond that point I draw the line."

Because of his use of various keyboards and synthesizers, and Patitucci's similar adaptability on various electric and acoustic basses, the Corea quintet is one of the most chameleonic in its field. He may call it electric jazz , may even spell it with a K (for kopyright reasons?), but it doesn't stop there.

"I don't want to pursue this false concept of two different worlds. In fact, I'm planning to incorporate the acoustic piano into my electric band.

"I'll tell you something that wasn't broadly publicized, because it's not our main focus, but we did a tour earlier this year with a trio, acoustically--just myself, John and Dave, playing some dates in Italy."

Why would he want to do that when the three of them were known as the Elektric Band?

"Sometimes," said Corea, "there are very practical reasons for accepting offers that won't accommodate an electric group. The difference is simple--it's 10,000 pounds of gear and a crew of 15!"

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