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Chick Corea Looks Back on His Long History With Latin Jazz

On the surface, legendary jazz pianist Chick Corea is an Italian guy from Boston. But since his start at Birdland on the bandstand of Latin jazz icon Mongo Santamaria, the Grammy-winning keyboard visionary has always harbored a deep love for the rhythms emerging from the neighborhoods of Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side of New York City. 

"Four doors up from Birdland on Broadway was the Palladium, where you could hear people like Tito Puente, Machito, Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri," Corea recalls of his first gig upon arriving in New York in the early '60s. "I used to jump out of my gig during breaks] and go stand in front of the bandstand at the Palladium. So the jazz scene that I came up in was very much a part of what I call my Spanish heart."

And after spending much of the late '60s and early '70s bringing jazz to the FM rock crowd both in Miles Davis' electric band and as the leader of Return to Forever, in 1976 Corea recorded the album My Spanish Heart, a collection that expounded upon his roots in Latin jazz through his work as one of the forefathers of fusion. He would revisit the theme again in 1992 with Touchstone, a rather underrated title in his extensive catalog of music that further extended his Latin jazz range and scope.

On his new album Antidote, he revisits both of these albums with an excellent new ensemble he's named the Spanish Heart Band. It is a group of musicians and artists spanning the last 40 years in jazz, Latin pop and flamenco: Trumpeter Michael Rodriguez and trombonist Steve Davis form an unstoppable horn front line; Marcus Gilmore follows in the footsteps of his grandfather, Roy Haynes, as a master drummer; collaborators of the late flamenco legend Paco de Lucía are present in Niño Josele, guitar, and Jorge Pardo, saxophone/flute; and Chinese Butterfly musicians Carlitos Del Puerto, bass, and Luisito Quintero, percussion, return after working with Corea on that 2017 title. The band is further augmented by the fiery footwork of rising star flamenco dancer Nino de los Reyes and guest appearances by the acclaimed Panamanian vocalist Rubén Blades and gifted singers Gayle Moran Corea (Chick's wife) and Maria Bianca. 

Together, this improvisational team comes together to bring the best material from both My Spanish Heart and Touchstone into a new century. Billboard was fortunate to spend some time on the phone with Corea in June, just a couple weeks shy of the release of Antidote. Currently in Europe, Corea will perform with the Spanish Heart band at a host of club dates and jazz festivals in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands before heading to Japan in late August.

How did this Spanish Heart Band come together?

I just wanted to put a tour together of this special band. So once I assembled the band and I saw that it was really gonna have this Latino/Afro-Cuban/flamenco flavor, it began to come into focus. Two of the three musicians are from Spain. Two of the guys, Niño Josele and Jorge Pardo, they were integral parts of Paco De Lucia's band. In fact, Jorge was one of the founding members of Paco's band and was with Paco for 30 years, and he's played in my bands before. So this group I put together had this spirit, so I figured I'd draw out some songs from the '70s the fans might recognize and then write some new ones along with rearranging the older ones so they come up fresh. That was the way I went into it, and it was fun rearranging the old stuff.

The new version of the title track for My Spanish Heart is very interesting, in particular…

Yeah. "My Spanish Heart" has a totally new take on it. I put a groove into it and I wrote lyrics, which Ruben Blades sings on. He does a really, really nice rendition. I enjoyed working with Ruben a lot.

What was it about Touchstone that inspired you to revisit the material for Antidote?

One of the songs that I wanted to draw from Touchstone was "Duende," which originally was recorded with strings and Lee Konitz playing the melody on saxophone. But for the new rendition, I wanted to do a complete reworking of the song. Actually, it's one of my favorite little orchestral tracks of the record with the way everybody played my notes. You know, the musicians in this band, this Spanish Heart Band, they're so adept at both playing written music and improvising their own way that I can give them a score that I write and I trust they won't just read the notes. They'll make the phrases their own and deliver the notes the way they really feel and even change things around to suit the expression. So all of the written music, and previously written music, comes out very organic and expressive. I really liked that.

You've been listening to Latino music since you were a kid. What was it that got you into it that young?

I knew almost nothing about it, because before that point my dad's record collection consisted of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell and Billy Eckstine, big band stuff and so forth. And that was his taste, which I loved as well. I would try to play that music. But then there was a dance group in my area headed by a Portuguese trumpet player named Phil Barboza. And he had a quartet with timbales and conga, and he used to play dances. So he heard about me, somehow, and hired me, this young kid. And all of a sudden I'm in a band with a conga player and a timbale player, and I knew nothing about those rhythms. The conga player, his name is Bill Fitch and is a great, great conga player who later played with Cal Tjader and did a bunch of other stuff, fortunately sat me down and introduced me through recordings and he played a little piano himself. So he showed me how to play those Montuno grooves on the piano and played me some Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri records. And I was really captured, because it was a great complement to this seriousness of the jazz that I was into up until that point.

Do you feel Latin music exists in all of the music you create?

Yeah, I mean, that's up to you to listen and figure out. But that flavor, I find, is mostly in everything I do; it's a part of me. I don't know how to differentiate it. Before My Spanish Heart, I worked with Mongo Santamaria in 1961 and I wrote some arrangements for his band. I recorder with Cal Tjader, and wrote a couple of Latin tunes for his group in the '60s as well. I worked in Herbie Mann's band, which had a pretty heavy Latin vibe at the time. So I had a lot of experience like that, but then I met Paco De Lucia in the early '70s and that was really a great association. We became friends and he introduced me to all the flamenco rhythmic and cultural traditions. I'm blessed with great friends that teach me how to do things. 

One can imagine the gravitas of returning to this Latin music from your back catalog at a time of great duress at the American southern border, right?

The spirit of the album is that the music that we bring to people as musicians and artists is an antidote. That's kind of the idea, and the lyrics lend themselves to that idea. Ruben expanded on that idea when he improvised his Spanish rap on "Antidote." Musicians and artists, we don't like war or cruelty. We're into humanitarian efforts and bringing creativity to people. It's always been our mission; it's not that it's anything new. But it was nice to dedicate a whole album to that spirit.

It seems like there is a great boom happening for Latin music in the pop, R&B and hip-hop worlds with acts like Bad Bunny, J Balvin and Ozuna. Do you keep up with any of the new music going on beyond jazz at all?

Not as much as I should; please send me some links to stuff! But to me, the culture of this music goes back to the Middle East. It goes back to the early beginnings. Spanish language cultures go deep in the world, and they cover a lot of cultural ground. We just scratch the surface, but the rhythms tell all. The rhythms just get going and it brings you out and gets you moving. My flamenco dancer, Nino de los Reyes, is a tap genius as a flamenco dancer. So he's going to be a part of the live set that we're going to do, because he's tapping on the record. On "Yellow Nimbus," there's a solo of his, and at the very end of the record on a piece called "Admiration" there's a final sendoff with Nino doing a solo tap thing, which is really nice. No effects, it's just feet on wood. 

You also interpret Stravinsky's A Fairy's Kiss on the new album. What led to that?

I'm in the process of writing a trombone concerto for my friend Joe Alessi for the New York Philharmonic. So I was investigating and studying up on orchestration. And one of my favorite pieces in terms of orchestration is Stravinsky's ballet The Fairy's Kiss. So I was listening to it over and over again, and there was this one piece called "Pas De Deux," and it's pretty traditional in ballet to have that section of the ballet where the lead guy and the lead lady do solos and then do a duet together. But the "Pas De Deux" on this particular piece The Fairy's Kiss, I liked it so much that I started converting it into a piano piece. Then I heard it connect with my song "Admiration," so I used it as an intro to the song. 

One thing that's always surprised me was how little you have moonlighted on rock and pop albums in your years. Have you been solicited a lot from artists in those realms to collaborate?

I have a little bit. I made some recordings with Cat Stevens many, many years ago; I did two songs on his album Izitso: "Bonfire" and "Was Dog a Doughnut?" I performed a little bit with the Foo Fighters more recently on the Grammys and so forth. Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz came down to the Blue Note a couple of times when my group was playing, and Alicia sat in and tore it up. I've also had a lifetime friendship with Stevie Wonder; I've sat in on his gigs and he's sat in a number of times on my gigs. Stevie was one of the first musicians that I totally loved who was considered a pop musician back in the '70s. He and his music are so creative that, in my mind, he was always like a jazz musician.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of ECM Records, where you have recorded several classic albums in the past. Do you have a favorite memory of working with them in the last 50 years?

ECM, to me, is Manfred Eicher, and I have a long-term friendship with Manfred going back to when he was first beginning to make records. I think some of my early records are some of the very first albums he ever made when he had his office in an electronics store, and his funding was coming from the hardware store it was connected to. He created this beautiful scene during his life using completely his own tastes in music and makes it work. He keeps a very high quality of technical recording and presentation. I have about 15 projects on ECM and they keep offering them too. They are all available, which is great.

As someone who also comes from an Italian-American family, we had an Uncle Chick, or Chicky as they called him. How did you wind up being the Chicky of your family?

My given name is after my dad, Armando, and my middle name is after my grandfather Antonio. But I had an auntie, I'm told because I don't remember it myself, that when I was a tot, like not yet walking, my Aunt Marie would come by and she would pinch my cheek and say "Chicky, chicky, chicky, chicky!" because she couldn't bring herself to call this little tot Armando. She was this Irish lady, and Chicky was her thing. Then my high school friends started calling me Chick and it's been that way ever since.


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