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Q&A

Playing in His Key

As he turns 60, jazz pianist Chick Corea talks about his music, career and faith in Scientology.

August 18, 2001|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

C\o7 hick Corea turned 60 on June 12, and he's been spending most of the year considering what that magic number means to him. The turnings of decades are always momentous anniversaries, of course, but 60 is an especially potent occasion, with senior citizenship looming on the horizon, and entry into what the French describe as the Third Age about to begin.

Corea has already had enough accomplishments to fill out a career for most artists. Along with Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Keith Jarrett, he is one of the major jazz piano voices to emerge in the post-John Coltrane era. Extremely versatile, he has been loath to settle into any single arena of music, working as a sideman with Miles Davis (performing on such seminal albums as "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew"), and forming the much admired Return to Forever group and his own Elektric Band. He has appeared as a soloist, in duo settings with Hancock and, most recently, with his group Origin, and with his current acoustic piano trio.

That's a full plate, by any estimation, but Corea still feels there is much to be done in the area of composition and playing. Recently, we sat backstage at Catalina Bar & Grill while he mused upon the transitional aspects of his 60th anniversary.

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Question: When did it first hit you that this birthday would be different?

Answer: I think it was when we visited Japan and they got into a Chick's 60th birthday celebration. They have a word--actually a whole process--that goes along with it. They see the life cycle culminating and then starting again at 60. They gave me a gift--a kind of satin coat and a tam that are supposed to symbolize a baby's clothing. Like a new life type of thing....But as the year's been progressing, it's really interesting how that idea is manifesting itself in my life--that some things are coming to a conclusion, as I'm looking forward to the future in a new way.

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Q: Does that new future mean a change in the way you manage your career?

A: Yes. Management-wise, I'm slimming everything down, taking all major responsibilities back on to myself and reorganizing in a much simpler fashion. And I'm going to sell my studio here in Los Angeles. The studio was a groove and fun for a while when I had a lot of productions going on with guys in my band, and my own productions, and so forth. But now I'm kind of refocusing all of my energies back into composition and making music....I need to get away from the effort it takes to be a part of a record label and keep a studio going.

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Q: You actually kept the studio active here even though you moved to Clearwater, Fla., a few years ago. How does it feel to be back in L.A.? You lived here, after all, for quite a while.

A: I sure did. I moved here in 1976. But I still love L.A., and my wife Gail does, too. In the years we lived here we managed to find the spots we like to go, and endless friends.... And you can't beat the climate here. But, you know, L.A. has never been a big audience place for me to play....New York is a much bigger audience for me. And in our tours of Europe recently we've been drawing crowds of 10,000 and 15,000 people.

But I'm still fascinated by L.A., which seems to me like the last outpost of culture. You know, it begins with Japan and the Orient, moves across Western Europe, makes the hop to New York City and across America until it reaches the West Coast--the last outpost. It really has that kind of feel to it.

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Q: How did you make the decision to move to Clearwater?

A: The main draw was the fact that Clearwater is the largest religious retreat in Scientology. It's called Flag Land Base, the place where L. Ron Hubbard put the highest level of training and courses and study, and it's turned into a totally international spot for Scientologists.

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Q: About 10 years ago, maybe around the time of your 50th birthday, you described the extent to which Scientology had impacted you as person and as an artist. Does that still hold?

A: Not only does it still hold, but it has expanded. I first got interested in Scientology for pretty personal reasons. I wanted to clean myself up, I wanted to tweak my awareness, I wanted to learn about the nature of the spirit. I wanted to learn about things like immortality, about detaching oneself from a body, about the philosophy and the nature of life, and so on. But what the subject very naturally led me to ... is that life is made up of people. And the very first thing I started to look at was others--not even myself. My whole life is about my relationship with people.

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Q: How did Scientology affect that view?

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