As part of our deep dive into the best jazz piano players of all time, we take a look at 10 iconic albums by Chick Corea.
A musician and composer whose career has bridged the gap between original jazz legends and the 21st Century jazz scene, there’s plenty of great music to choose from!
Armando Anthony Corea is one of those legends who’s dipped his toes (and often more) into just about every part of jazz’s community pool, shallow end and deep end alike.
His career is one defined by restlessness, always bouncing from one collaboration to another and continually playing with sounds whenever possible along the way.
He’s always enjoyed finding ways to make noises from a piano besides merely hitting the keys. The analogue sound of the instrument is also often joined by synthesizers, sometimes run through a processor to change and shape the tone further.
Having grown up learning percussion alongside the piano, he also has an instinct for rhythm that helps ground the music when things start to get weird.
This malleability has made him a fit for a wealth of different groups – the rotating bebop collective of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the electric experiments of Miles Davis, the jazz-rock fusion of Return to Forever, his own Akoustic and Elektric groups and many others.
The music is similarly expansive, stretching beyond jazz to include Latin, samba, classical and much else.
Rather than going through a series of changes in overall style, as figures like Davis and John Coltrane are famous for doing, Corea tends more to go back and forth (and sideways) to suit whichever ideas or musical partners the moment might call for.
Such a range means that there’s usually something for anyone, at least if you know where to find it.
Here we offer a cross-section to help you sample ten of the highlights.
Geno Thackara is a sometime arts journalist and full time music fiend. He can often be found checking out new bands and shows in and around Philadelphia, at least when there isn’t a pandemic going on, and the rest of the time is most likely busy with a keyboard or a book.
Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968)
As the son of a Dixieland bandleader who soaked in bebop from a very young age, Chick Corea had plenty of musical background to build on before his recording career even started.
He began gigging around town while still in high school and soon cut his teeth behind the likes of Stan Getz and Herbie Mann.
After stepping out with a quintet on his wildly ambitious 1966 debut Tones for Joan’s Bones, he led a somewhat more focused outing with its followup Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.
His trio-mates here were cutting-edge bassist Miroslav Vitous, whose semi-avant-garde grooving would soon become a key part of Weather Report, and the endlessly versatile drummer Roy Haynes.
While it fits alongside much of the hard bop in which Blue Note Records specialized during the 1960s, Corea’s sophomore LP let the group do plenty of stretching in a dynamic 40 minutes.
The all-original program almost progressively breaks down as it goes along, starting out fast-grooving and hot, then playing increasingly fast and loose with consonance through the second half.
Haynes and Vitous get multiple showcases to their instruments, while Corea eventually closes things out by plonking strings from inside the piano.
Chick Corea, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul worked as a free-jazz group several times in the early 1970s, mostly under the name Circle (first as a trio and later joined by Anthony Braxton on reeds).
This wasn’t always obvious: their earliest recordings were initially shelved and only released under Corea’s name a few years after the band was inactive.
However things were labeled, though, Circle was always based on an equal give and take among the members.
Tackling Corea’s loosely sketched pieces or diving into free improvisation, they meandered in ways challenging and thought-provoking, sometimes leaving melody behind in pursuit of abstract sounds.
A.R.C. was credited to the trio rather than Circle, and while there’s some of the same ear-stretching experimentalism to be found, it doesn’t require so much a taste for the far-out avant-garde.
They set out their stall with a partial deconstruction of Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” and drift into a mostly-original program that skews the idea of harmony in much the same way, from the tumbling cascades of the title track to slow-floating abstractions like Holland’s “Vadana.”
While it’s still not for everyone, this is a good starting point for listeners curious to stretch their ears without going off the edge.
My Spanish Heart (1976)
It’s a sort of three-way tug-of-war on this one: Corea’s interests in Latin music, classical and electric fusion come equally to the fore and manage (for the most part) to blend rather than clash.
His compositions pack their dancing and stomping into tidy five-minute slots without any more extensive meanderings. Even the side-long finale suite of “Spanish Fantasy” is tidily focused rather than meandering.
The ambitious experimentalism here comes more from the tonal palette than anything else.
“Love Castle” sets the scene with Corea’s grand piano weaving with Stanley Clarke’s fretless electric bass, before a wordless chorus of voices steps in for an interlude and some juicy electric synth rounds it off.
Corea wields a vast mini-array of organs and electric pianos throughout, not diminishing the romantic heart of rumba and tango, but overlaying them with the wonky organ sounds of the fusion age for a groundbreaking mix of flavors.
Romantic Warrior (1976)
Return to Forever was the outlet where Chick Corea’s electric side had first emerged and quickly flourished in the early ’70s.
Through the decade the group earned a space among the prime icons of jazz-rock fusion, and their most universally acclaimed peak came near the end of their run with an outing that’s fully electric (in every sense of the word).
Corea and Clarke are complemented here by the crisp fluid drumming power of Lenny White and Latin-tinged guitar of Al Di Meola. It was a group whose makeup made for dazzling interaction and exceptional chemistry.
Starting with a jokingly-titled “Medieval Overture” jam-packed with synthesizers, Romantic Warrior bridges old-timey elements and new sounds at high volume and higher complexity.
Corea’s keyboard tones range as wide as ever, while the group’s precision makes their note-perfect interactions sound effortless.
Simpler moments aren’t unheard of; the title track allows for a little touch of flamenco from Di Meola and some straightforward grooving solos from Corea and Clarke before the ensemble builds to a cooking finish.
Still, the epic closer “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant” encapsulates the album’s aesthetic the most. The piece’s intricacy rivals that of any prog-rock outfit you could name, much like the light-speed tempos they break into on several occasions, and the guitars and keyboards flit through dizzying electric tones constantly throughout.
During a time marked by musical excess, this recording was more than able to hold its own with the brightest and loudest.
Despite the oddest what-were-they-thinking album cover of Corea’s catalogue, Friends makes a nicely defining and straightforward return to earth after some of the crazy explorations that came before.
It’s a simple quartet session at the core; most pieces groove for several minutes and allow everyone room to wander, while the focus is on fun and interplay rather than far-out abstraction. Steve Gadd keeps a strong Latin streak to the rhythm, not just overtly in the centerpiece “Samba Song,” but a more subtle spice for the expansive title track as well.
Corea’s piano tones are kept to a couple electric tones here without going completely off the wall, and Joe Farrell whimsically capers on flute and saxophone to match.
There’s plenty of playfulness throughout and even a little drama when the closing “Cappuccino” gets rumbly.
Even then, the bright celebratory tone stays on top for this group of friends.
Children’s Songs (1984)
The first “Children’s Song” had appeared on Return to Forever’s second outing Light as a Feather back in 1973, and similarly simple and playful ideas would often crop up among Corea’s compositions from time to time.
This solo recording can feel somewhat odds-and-sods, because of course it is: the songs are of the short-and-sweet variety and had previously appeared as interludes among more adventurous pieces. Nonetheless, Children’s Songs makes a noteworthy outlier. It’s rare that this side of his personality gets a dedicated showcase of its own.
The pianist’s classical leanings heavily inform these miniatures without making things sound ponderous or, well, overly adult.
Bright playfulness remains at the heart of everything, even as the songs become progressively more intricate and sophisticated throughout. Whatever smarts lie underneath the structures and harmonics, they never overwhelm the simple emotions.
The late 1980s began a string of recordings labeled under Akoustic Band and Elektric Band, and at first it isn’t immediately obvious that they’re really the same group.
John Patitucci and Dave Weckl make a rhythm section whose versatility can match Chick Corea’s own, and so it seemed like too much fun not to see what they could do in both “jazz” and “fusion” camps.
It turns out the fusion recordings haven’t aged terribly well, with their heavy layers of bright guitars, 1980s MIDI keys and electronic drums.
The Akoustic Group made a refreshing back-to-basics outlet in response: no other players, no electrics, and a repertoire based around familiar jazz standards.
The organic date of Alive emerged as the strongest set from the trio in unplugged mode.
Some listeners always seem to be put off by Weckl’s always-busy drumming in any context, but arguably this is the recording where his clattering is least excessive and he makes the best fit. Patitucci’s bass anchoring is both tricky and solid to match, and the group’s interplay is fun and clever enough to carry the day.
Origin: Live at the Blue Note (1998)
The approach was still entirely acoustic for this next working group, this time expanded to a sextet and geared toward originals rather than standards.
Now with a dazzling array of horn power – Bob Sheppard and Steve Wilson provide nine instruments between them – Chick would sketch out more impressionistic pieces to let him push and pull with the triple-horn line in all kinds of directions.
The group debuted with a solid week of live gigs at the Blue Note in New York City, the full run of which was released as a box set for those who really can’t get enough.
For the essentials list, though, the single Origin compilation is the item to convey the state of Corea’s music at this point in the late ’90s.
The by-now-familiar elements of swing, bop and samba (among others) are recognizable here, dressed up in different clothes and with plenty of patient extensive jams to give the sextet room to wander.
Five Peace Band Live (2009)
Outside the jazz world, you’d have a hard time finding a lineup with so much star power and so little ego; in the electric fusion realm that generosity is still a prime key to success.
Corea and fellow fusion legend John McLaughlin are listed as co-leaders, which makes sense considering their fame in Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra (respectively).
Nonetheless it’s a top-notch and equal ensemble, with fellow Miles Davis alumnus Kenny Garrett holding his own on sax, and a most formidbale rhythm section in Christian McBride and Vinnie Colaiuta.
There’s a nod to their collective history with the classic “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time” medley: Herbie Hancock drops in on the track, which he and Corea and McLaughlin had all originally recorded with Miles Davis back in 1969.
Even then, their new take is no less loose and fresh than the range of originals on offer.
Five Peace borrows three McLaughlin pieces from his Fourth Dimension group while a pair of Corea’s bring a little more traditional bop flavor to the fusion table. The group cooks hard and fast through them all, prodding each other at blistering pace and taking off into dazzling flights more than once.
Compiled from an extensive world tour with another exceptional working trio (this time including McBride and Brian Blade, also jazz giants in their own right), this massive set sprawls over three and a half hours without wasting a moment.
Old-time standards and Chick Corea staples alike get taken apart and rebuilt for ten minutes or twelve or maybe thirty – however long it takes for the players’ finely attuned interplay to run its course.
Nylon guitar and flute make beautiful tonal additions in a couple spots, especially Corea’s own “Spain,” which unspools into a magnificent tour-de-force for the entire group (and audience).
Otherwise it comes down to three eloquent minds who never seem to run out of things to converse about. An impressive feat for an artist at any stage, let alone one in his early 70s, this is a career-spanning set that only showed the pianist still looking forward more than backward.
Thanks for joining us for this trip through 10 of the best albums from jazz piano legend Chick Corea!
We heard the news of his passing (RIP Chick!) a few minutes after publishing this article, so we hope that it will give you some great ideas for (re)discovering a lifetime of great music.