Chick Corea, Jazz Fusion Pioneer, Dies at 79

Keyboardist-composer Chick Corea, who attained stardom as a fusion pioneer and distinguished himself as a do-anything player across the jazz spectrum and beyond, died Tuesday from a rare form of cancer, his Facebook page announced. He was 79.

Rising to prominence as a sideman in Miles Davis’ groundbreaking electric bands of the late ’60s, Corea co-founded the avant garde unit Circle before becoming a commercial force in his own right with the stormy ’70s fusion group Return to Forever.

He also distinguished himself in duo performances with pianist Herbie Hancock and vibraphonist Gary Burton; led his own Elektric Band and Akoustic Band; and ventured into contemporary classic music at the turn of the millennium. He founded the all-star unit the 5 Peace Band with another Davis sideman, guitarist John McLaughlin, in 2008.

A prolific record-maker with nearly 90 albums as a leader or co-leader to his credit, Corea racked up a staggering 22 Grammy Awards (and a total of 63 nominations) and three Latin Grammys. He was named a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master in 2006.

Born Armando Corea in Chelsea, Mass., Corea was encouraged to play piano by his father, and began his studies at 4. His early influences were bop keyboardists Horace Silver and Bud Powell, but he also favored the classical works of Beethoven and Mozart.

Playing professionally from his high school years, Corea had little patience for formal music education, dropping out of both Columbia University and the Juilliard School. However, he stayed on in New York, and performed in Cab Calloway’s band.

As a sideman, Corea made an impression backing trumpeter Blue Mitchell and flutist Herbie Mann. Of Spanish heritage, he also worked in the Latin jazz units of percussionists Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaria. One of his most attention-getting early appearances was on tenor saxophonist Stan Getz’s Latin-tinged 1967 album “Sweet Rain.”

Corea was a leader starting in 1966, recording for Atlantic and Blue Note. However, his work in trumpeter Davis’ band – a virtual finishing school for the musicians who went on to lead the rock-infused jazz fusion movement of the ’70s – truly moved him into the top echelon of jazz players.

Succeeding Herbie Hancock in Davis’ long-running quintet, he appeared on the unit’s 1969 album “Filles de Kilimanjaro.” He also played an important role in the expanded electric lineups that cut “In a Silent Way” (1969) and the two-LP “Bitches Brew” (1970), the platinum-selling collection that codified the sound of fusion. He was also prominently featured on Davis’ live albums recorded at the rock ballrooms the Fillmore East and Fillmore West.

Though Corea had flirted with a more distorted electronic sound in the Davis band, he stepped into full-blown dissonance with the highly experimental unit Circle, which he co-founded with bassist Dave Holland, a fellow Davis sideman. The group, which also included multi-instrumental reed player and composer Anthony Braxton, cut several free-swinging albums for European label ECM, for which Corea also recorded a pair of exploratory solo albums in 1971.

On ECM, Corea also issued “Crystal Silence” (1972), the first of several lyrical duo recordings with Burton. But another group he debuted on the label, Return to Forever, would become the keyboardist’s true ticket to fame and commercial success.

The group bowed with an eponymous 1971 set that featured bassist Stanley Clarke and the husband-and-wife team of vocalist Flora Purim and percussionist Airto Moreira (another Davis vet). One more former Davis sideman, drummer Lenny White, joined on the 1973 album “Light as a Feather,” which debuted Corea’s best-known and most-recorded composition, “Spain.”

However, it was the quartet of Corea, Clarke, White and guitarist Al Di Meola that proved the most durable and popular Return to Forever lineup. The group’s major-label hits “Where Have I Known You Before” (1974), “No Mystery” (1975) and “Romantic Warrior” (1976) all ascended into the top 40 of the pop album charts. “No Mystery” won Corea his first Grammy, for best jazz instrumental performance.

After “Musicmagic” (1977), which featured only Corea and Clarke in an expanded lineup, and a 1978 live album, the pianist retired the group handle; the Corea-Clarke-White-Di Meola iteration reunited for a world tour and live album in 2008.

In the wake of his commercial ascent with Return to Forever, Corea embarked on a successful solo career. His 1976 Polydor album “The Leprechaun” reaped two Grammys (for performance and arranging) and rose to No. 42 on the pop albums charts; the Latinized “My Spanish Heart” (1976) and “The Mad Hatter” (1978) also climbed the charts.

Among the players on the latter album was pianist Hancock, with whom Corea was profitably paired on two duo albums in 1978-79. He worked increasingly in intimate duo and trio formats for much of the following decade. He regrouped with Burton for a pair of albums (one of which, 1980’s “In Concert Zurich,” received a Grammy); performed alongside the classically trained pianists Friedrich Gulda and Nicolas Economou; partnered with flutist Steve Kujala; and formed Trio Music with bassist Miroslav Vitous of Weather Report and veteran drummer Roy Haynes.

His more straight-ahead efforts of the early ’80s included “The Griffith Park Collection” (1982), on which he was joined by saxophonist Joe Henderson and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and Return to Forever’s Clarke and White, and “Echoes of an Era” (1982), on which that unit backed Rufus front woman Chaka Khan on a selection of standards.

In 1986 Corea debuted his new Elektric Band with guitarists Scott Henderson and Carlos Rios, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Dave Weckl. The rhythm section would carry over into the group’s ’90s incarnations, and would also back Corea on two albums by the unplugged trio the Chick Corea Akoustic Band.

Corea partnered with virtuoso jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin on “Play” (1992) and the classically based improvisatory work “The Mozart Sessions” (1996). He moved definitively into the classical realm with “Corea Concerto” (1999), on which a sextet and the London Philharmonic Orchestra essayed a self-composed piano concerto and a Grammy-winning orchestral arrangement of “Spain.” (Another classical set for quartet and chamber orchestra, “The Continents,” was released in 2012.)

In all Corea collected 14 Grammys in the new millennium, winning multiple awards in 2007, 2012, 2013 and 2015. His trophies recognized duo work with Burton; a 2011 reunion with Clarke and White; an album with 5 Piece Band, a unit featuring guitarist John McLaughlin, saxophonist Kenny Garrett, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta; and a 2014 trio session with McBride and drummer Brian Blade.

A member of the Church of Scientology since 1968, Corea appeared on “Space Jazz: The Soundtrack of the Book Battlefield Earth,” a 1982 album credited to church founder L. Ron Hubbard. In 1993, Corea was barred from performing at a concert in Stuttgart, Germany, because of the country’s official opposition to Scientology; the government subsequently softened its stance after objections from members of the U.S. Congress.

Corea is survived by his second wife Gayle Moran and son Thaddeus.

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