It's all in the fingers

Last updated 05:00 06/06/2014
Chick Corea
JAZZ HANDS: Chick Corea went from playing drums to the piano, and has never looked back,

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When American Chick Corea plays Wellington tonight, it really will be an opportunity to see one of the world's best jazz pianists.

Corea, nominated for 59 Grammy Awards and winner of 20, is that good. For the concert he will perform as a duet with vibraphonist Gary Burton. Burton is arguably as proficient with his instrument as Corea is with his, and they have played together since 1972.

"Gary always plays his heart out on stage," says Corea, 72. "We hope to bring our music and create some smiles at the festival."

Corea's professional career began while still a teenager in the mid 1950s, but his diverse approach to jazz means he's still most often associated with jazz fusion - where it incorporates the likes of rock, funk and R&B.

One reason was Corea playing on two of Miles Davis' ground-breaking albums - 1969's In a Silent Way and 1970's Bitches Brew, and live offshoots Live-Evil and Live at the Fillmore East. They marked Davis' "electric" period and incorporation of rock.

Corea says it was a significant change in direction for him. "Before joining Miles, I had been pretty much a purist in my tastes. I loved Miles and John Coltrane and all the musicians that surround them. But I didn't look much further into rock or pop," he says.

"When Miles began to experiment, I became aware of rock bands and the energy. It was a different vibe and more my generation. It got me interested in communicating that way - people were standing because they were emotionally caught up in what they were hearing. I related to that.

"When I was in Miles' band I became aware that jazz was changing and that this thing called fusion was emerging. He allowed us to experiment and for me, I learned how to be a band leader."

Corea's earliest influence was his father, a jazz trumpeter. But Corea chose the piano by accident. "I was playing drums in a band during high school and one night the piano player didn't show up so I ended up playing piano as my band mates felt pretty strongly that that's where I belonged."

"I've just always like playing the piano and have continued to like it the best except maybe the drums - both are percussive instruments - so that's probably the attraction."

His first professional gig was with legendary singer and bandleader Cab Calloway. "I was about 16 years old - I was called to do a gig with Cab's band for a week at the Boston's Mayfair Hotel. That was my first real stepping-out. I was stunned," he says.

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"All of a sudden I had to wear a tuxedo and it was like a big show with lights on the stage. Kind of scary, you know? It was a little daunting but Cab was cool and he was a lot of fun. After a little while I got into the swing of it and started really loving being out on my own like that."

Corea studied music at Columbia University and Julliard and by the early 1960s was playing with jazz giants including Herbie Mann and Stan Getz.

"That was part of my musical ‘schooling'. I feel very fortunate to have had those experiences which developed my own style."

As the 60s progressed he became a band leader, recorded his debut album and worked with singers including Sarah Vaughan. "The voice is like another musical instrument in a band; you accompany each other in an instrumental band - same with vocals."

But Davis also changed Corea's approach to his instrument, telling him play a Fender Rhodes electric piano.

"I got to mixing my instruments more and more. Like Miles, I wanted to communicate to a broader audience incorporating electric instruments with rock/jazz."

He's released experimental albums, founded bands and a record label.

"It was part of my desire to want to help other musicians. It was a way for me to help them get their music more in the public eye."

He's also got to explore classical, including composing a piano concerto and performing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

"I have always been an admirer of Mozart's music as well as Bartok [and] I had performed the music of Mozart with several orchestras as well as Bartok's music on solo piano concerts," he says.

"When I admire other music or learn from other musicians it all kind of gets understood and filed somewhere - or nowhere - and it all helps to create a particular taste."

THE DETAILS Chick Corea & Gary Burton Duet, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, tonight, 8.30pm.

- Wellington

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