Jazz-rock fusion isn't easy music. For one, there isn't much space for your ear to catch its breath. For another, unless you were in your teens in the late '60s and early '70s, the music will likely sound like noise. But for those who heard this music with peers just as their sensibilities were being formed and think back to this period with fondness, fusion has a robust, explosive feel that was in sync with its time. At the forefront of this movement was Chick Corea.
Chick Corea's Return to Forever band was founded in 1972 and actually had two different phases in the beginning. On Return to Forever and Light as a Feather in 1972, Chick created a decompressed, mellow sound that was spiritual and introspective, infused with Brazilian influences. But starting in 1973, the band shifted hard toward psychedelic rock, with Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, Where Have I Known You Before and No Mystery. The emphasis was on technique, energy and power—all with a cosmic overwash.
In Part 3 of my three-part interview with Chick, the pianist, who is appearing at New York's Blue Note for virtually the entire month of November, talks about the early days of jazz-rock fusion:
JazzWax: Your first Return to Forever band in 1972 had a gentle, neo-Brazilian vibe. Why?
Chick Corea: I wouldn’t say gentle. Some of it was pretty exciting, like Captain Marvel. But I’ll agree that it was mellow music. I was coming off of 2½ years of playing with Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter and Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland, where the music was highly experimental, wild and edgy. It was a blast. But that experience took me into new interests, along with Dave.
JW: How so?
CC: With our band Circle in 1970, we took the experimental concept even further. In that group—Anthony Braxton, Dave, Barry Altschul and me—we played whole concerts where the music was improvised from beginning to end. There was no song form—we did away with it. We went into space where we made up the music as we went along. That was incredibly invigorating and fun.
JW: What happened with the group?
CC: After a while, I felt I was missing the connection I got from audiences when I offered them something more lyrical. I wanted to play things that were lyrical. That’s what led me put Return to Forever together in 1972 for the music I had written.
JW: What caused the shift in Return to Forever to a much more dynamic and bombastic sound, starting with Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy?
CC: It was a quickly evolving thing with me and Stanley [Clarke]. The band had personnel changes that were needed. When we hooked up with drummer Lenny White, we played a week at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco in 1972. We did that just to try out the trio, and the trio took on a kind of fire. I was playing just a Fender Rhodes, and Stanley played amplified upright bass.
JW: But along the way in 1973, the music became much more ferocious.
CC: That was because of Lenny’s playing. Lenny’s a different kind of drummer than Airto. We also had the idea to find an electric guitarist. When I heard what John McLaughlin did with the electric guitar, I thought, “Man, I’d like to write for that sound.” So we went out to find an electric guitarist. The result was hiring Billy Connors, who played some lyrical guitar on that first record, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy.
JW: Where did you find Connors?
CC: We found him that week we played in San Francisco. One of our intentions was to audition guitarists, but only a couple of them came by to the Keystone Korner while we were there. Billy was the one we liked, so we hired him. As a side note, when we were recently in San Francisco on tour, Stanley, Lenny and I went by 750 Vallejo Street where the Keystone Korner stood. We asked some people what remembrances they had of the club.
CC: We were making a little documentary. Not many people remembered the club. A cop walked by who looked the age, and I asked him. There was a police station right next to the old club. The cop said he sort of remembered it.
JW: What was driving you in '73 to create much more dynamic music?
CC: Stanley [pictured] and I were just following what we had begun to do, which was to write. The first piece I wrote for what I call the "Grand Sound" was Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, the opening piece for that record. We all remember the first rundown of that song at our first rehearsal.
JW: What happened?
CC: The hair stood up on my arm. It was so exciting and it worked so great and everyone was so enthusiastic about it. It really set a new direction, and it developed from there. The venues we were playing were bigger and the audiences picked up on the vibe. There was a synergy going on between what we were creating and how audiences were digging it. That kind of grew.
JW: What happened the day of that rehearsal?
CC: First of all, Lenny wasn’t able to make it. Though he did play on the trio I had for a while, he still had some commitments to the group Azteca in San Francisco. So I went back and got my friend [Steve] Gadd [pictured] to play. Steve was there at that rehearsal along with Billy Connors. We also put in a percussionist, Mingo Lewis, who we also found in San Francisco. He played conga and bongos.
JW: Where was the rehearsal held?
CC: At a loft I was renting downtown in New York. When we took the chart out, Steve just kind of ate it up. Gadd is like the ultimate professional musician as well as an incredible creative master at his instrument. He took a hold of it right away. It took me and Stanley and Billy a little longer to learn the notes. But when we started to get it together, like after a couple of runs, we started to put it into tempo and got rid of the sheet music. That’s when the thing took fire. [Pictured, from left: Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, Chick Corea and Bill Connors]
JW: What happened?
CC: Well, when we got rid of the music, we played the tune from beginning to end with energy, and that just blew me away. It blew everybody away. We knew we had something new.
JazzWax tracks: Say what you will about this period of jazz, but Chick Corea's albums remain radical expressions that caught the ear of listeners who were looking for sophisticated music. Many of these listeners had the jazz albums of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin sitting by their turntables next to LPs by Jimi Hendrix, Yes, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
These early jazz-rock fusion albums by Chick remain bold experiments that embraced rock but never renounced jazz's instrumental fervor or its improvisational roots:
- Return to Forever (1972)
- Light as a Feather (1972)
- Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (1973)
- Where Have I Know You Before (1974)
- No Mystery (1975)
JazzWax clips: Here's the title track from Light as a Feather with Flora Purim on vocal...
Here's Song to the Pharaoh Kings from Where Have I Known You Before. See, not so crazy or out of control. Just different.