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Chick Corea: Keeping Vigil

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When established artists tour, they face a conundrum: whether to play old favourites or exciting new material. Chick Corea, piano virtuoso and innovative master of jazz fusion, has found an ingenious solution. The Vigil tour rolling into Burton Cummings Theatre September 23 will be no mere retrospective. It will be a bold reimagining of the standards of an illustrious 50-year career, alongside plenty of brand new compositions.

Born in 1941, Corea is among the post-Coltrane greats who kept jazz fresh, creative and inclusive. Son of a Dixieland trumpeter of Spanish descent, Chick grew up in Massachusetts, started piano at four, and got a good classical foundation. By high school, he led his own trio. He moved to New York, played with Cab Calloway, and first recorded with Mongo Santamaria. He performed with Sarah Vaughn, Blue Mitchell, and Stan Getz—and later composed nearly all the tracks on Captain Marvel, one of Getz’ best albums.

1966 marked Corea’s first solo release, but 1968’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs set him apart. With agility and fine touch, he incorporated atonal dissonance into the open trio sound and experimented with the uncommon extended technique of striking the strings and the body of the piano by hand. Also in 1968, he joined Miles Davis’ historic avant-garde Electric ensemble, which combined elements of rock and free jazz. There he began playing the Fender Rhodes electric piano which would become an integral part of his sound. Eventually, he formed the avant-garde ensemble, Circle, pushing against traditional jazz limits, using atonalism and extended technique.

In 1972, Corea founded Return to Forever, the seminal fusion group that propelled him to fame. Blending Spanish-inspired melodies with Latin, rock and funk, their first albums revealed a Brazilian influence and included such famous material as “Spain” and “La Fiesta.” 1973’s Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy went heavily prog-rock. In 1976, Corea took a big risk with My Spanish Heart, later accepted as one of his best; it orchestrated flamenco-inspired fusion with airy vocals, electric violin, horns, acoustic and electric piano, and synthesizer.

Corea played duets with Gary Burton, Herbie Hancock, and Bobby McFerrin, among others. Since the 80s, he’s focused on the ensembles Elektric and Akoustic and the Chick Corea New Trio, spanning traditional to avant garde to fusion. He also composed a contemporary classical piano concerto and a string quartet. Recently, he’s taken to mentoring talented young pianists like Hiromi Uehara.

The Vigil tour is a new synthesis of Corea’s musical career. In a recent video, he explains the concept this way. As the culture changes, one constant remains: “the precious communication line between the artist, what he’s creating, and the audience.” In September’s concert, he will likely switch between synthesizer and acoustic and electric pianos. Expect rearrangements of material from the Return to Forever and Elektric bands, as well as tunes from the new album.

The Vigil band includes bassist Carlitos Del Puerto, multi-reed player Tim Garland, guitarist Charles Altura, percussionist Luisito Quintero, and drummer Marcus Gilmore, grandson of Corea’s early drummer Roy Haynes. “I have many great young musicians I want to learn from,” says Chick. “They’re really keeping the culture of music alive. They’re really keeping ‘The Vigil.’”

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