Chick Corea was my hero. He was a badass musician with his own musical language—lots of perfect compositions, an incredible harmonic sense, an incredible rhythmic sense and an incredible melodic ability. Some fortunate musicians can check a couple of those boxes, but to have all this in one guy was remarkable, or maybe was incredible.
He also set a template for an artistic career that mirrored his desire for constant motion and interaction. Week to week, he could bounce from fusion to intimate, almost classical duets, Latin music and straight-ahead jazz.
I heard an NPR remembrance where they said, “You may not have liked everything he did but, due to his diversity, there was something in his catalog that any listener could find to love.”
I first found his music in jazz appreciation class during high school. The song “Spain” instantly hooked me, and I would say that hearing that recording altered something fundamental in me—in the same way that hearing Earl Scruggs for the first time changed my course. It pointed the way toward a type of jazz and a way of soloing that a banjoist could conceivably emulate. But, most of all, I just loved it.
I first saw Chick perform live in 1975. At the time, he was playing with Return To Forever, his groundbreaking rock/jazz fusion band, which happened to feature three other virtuosos: Stanley Clarke, Lenny White and a very young Al Di Meola. To see this band live was a religious experience. Not only was my mind blown by their crazy compositions and their insane solos, but it was also just so much fun. They were having a blast and so was everyone at the packed Beacon Theatre in Manhattan, which happened to be about three blocks from my apartment.
As I watched them speak so fluently on their instruments, it occurred to me that every note they played also existed on my banjo. I rushed home and stayed up all night, madly mapping out scales, modes and arpeggios that had suddenly come into focus for me.
As the years went on, I continued to follow Chick’s music, always picking up on his new projects and learning so much from them—not only about the notes, but also about how to be free about what you do, how to follow the muse and how to avoid getting stuck in what people want you to do.
Fast forward 13 or 14 years later: We had gotten to know each other some, and he had even played on my first Tales from the Acoustic Planet album. I was thrilled that I had gotten to record with my hero, and I wasn’t gonna bug him anymore.
And that’s why it was such a wonderful surprise to hear from him that he would like to do a duo project together. But, in retrospect, it makes sense that he would be interested in playing with me: he liked finding new avenues to explore.
Thus began the best part of my experience with Chick and his music: the years when we got to be partners and musical foils, when he became an on-the-job mentor to me and, best of all, when we became good friends.
Having a musical partner like Chick, who I respected so much—and was a little scared of—was challenging. I wanted to defer to him, but I knew he liked the right amount of pushback.
In general, whatever he said went in the beginning. But, as the years moved along and he became more confident in my abilities, he would give me tasks—“Béla, you make the setlist, study the live tapes for good versions of things and report back, write something for us, teach me some bluegrass.” I got to travel the world with Chick, playing places like Russia, Spain, England, Mexico, the Czech Republic, Japan, Croatia and Bulgaria, as well as throughout the U.S.
For many years, we mostly focused on the music from The Enchantment recording. It never got old because we’d only tour occasionally and, when we did tour, it was usually only for just a few weeks. When we’d meet again a year or two later, the music still seemed fresh because we had both changed by the time we got back to it.
Last year, we toured again and, for the first time, we changed it up a lot. We each brought new and old compositions, and we covered Thelonius Monk and some Scarlatti. When the tour ended, I said, “Hey, when can we get together and record this stuff?” And Chick said, “Hey, we just did!” He’d been recording the whole tour. He felt like what happened live was always gonna be better than what we did in the studio.
Chick had a yearly birthday run at the Blue Note in New York. When I heard that my pal Victor Wooten was playing with Chick, John McLaughlin, Lenny White and Kenny Garrett, I decided I had to come see that show! I asked the road manager Kris if he could set me up with a ticket, secretly.
But, soon after, I got a call from Chick and he said, “Hey, you can’t come to my birthday party and not bring your instrument!” So now, instead of stealthily sneaking in to listen, I was thrust into the middle of this true super band. Chick knew I was a big McLaughlin fan. We had never played together, so he made that happen. I even got an extra ticket to bring my friend Sam Bush, who happened to be in New York City that day. So it was incredible, once again.
Even in the pandemic, Chick was looking for ways to stay creative, engaged and inspired. He participated in a huge number of extended workshops on consecutive days. We also did some neat recordings together during that time, sending files back and forth.
He was always doing great stuff. And remember, he was 79 years old! He made all the rest of us look bad on a regular basis and we loved him for it.