In a different field, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea could have been rivals. Born just a year apart, the pianists both hit the New York jazz scene in the early Sixties, and by the end of the decade, they’d grown into two of the genre’s brightest young talents — and two of the musicians best equipped to lead the way into the plugged-in fusion era. But even after Corea replaced Hancock in Miles Davis’ live band in 1968, the pair developed a close working relationship — and equally strong friendship — that would endure for the next 50-plus years, until Corea’s death from cancer last week.
The two first worked together on some of Davis’ earliest electric sessions, weaving a rich sonic web of interlocking Fender Rhodes lines on album tracks and outtakes from game-changing records such as In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and On the Corner. Then, in 1978, after both had established themselves as superstar bandleaders — Corea with the blazing, prog-like Return to Forever and Hancock with the spacey Mwandishi group and furiously funky Headhunters — the two embarked on a tour featuring the uncommon format of an acoustic piano duo. As documented on the albums CoreaHancock and An Evening With Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea: In Concert, their performances were both astoundingly poised and wildly experimental, and clearly fueled by mutual admiration and a healthy sense of fun.
Hancock and Corea would connect frequently over the years, occasionally appearing on one another’s records and at shows, jamming together onstage with everyone from Carlos Santana to Stevie Wonder, and reuniting as a touring duo as recently as 2015. Reflecting on his musical and personal kinship with Corea on Sunday, Hancock said they’d both hoped there would be plenty more collaboration to come.
[The news of Corea’s death] hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t believe it when somebody from Chick’s office called me a couple hours before they were going to make the public announcement about his death. I knew nothing. I don’t know anybody that did know he was ill.
I don’t actually remember when I first met him but something’s forming in my head now that says that I met him at a party that [drummer] Jack DeJohnette was also at …
I live in L.A. now but I used to live in New York at that time, and the word was getting around that there was a new guy in town, Chick Corea — a young piano player that was playing his behind off. And then I heard [his 1968 debut] Tones for Joan’s Bones, and I heard [his second album, also from 1968] Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, and I loved what I heard. It was swinging and lyrical and [had a] great sound and beautiful ideas, so I was dying to meet him.
[When I found out he had replaced me in Miles’ band], I knew he could play and I knew he could do the job. [Then when we started working together with Miles in the studio], I loved it — it was really great, because it just gave me more food to not necessarily duplicate or be influenced particularly by the notes that he chose, but the direction that Chick would choose at any given moment, it would open the door for something other than that, and at the same time, kind of complement it. So it was an interesting challenge for all of us because sometimes it was three keyboard players. There’d be Joe Zawinul playing on another keyboard, so we had to just improvise — I can’t really use the word accompaniment, but an environment, I would say. Create an environment where we’re all different flora and fauna in that environment, and to be a part of that kind of thinking and that type of direction was exciting to me because nobody else was doing that.
We all respected each other; we learned from each other. So there was never any kind of animosity. I remember going to see Miles with Chick in the band, and that was the first time the electric piano was used live with Miles. It was Chick playing the Fender Rhodes piano. I played the Fender Rhodes on some records with Miles but never live in concerts or in clubs. It was great; I loved it.
I loved [Return to Forever]. I loved what he was doing. I loved Mahavishnu Orchestra and what [guitarist] John McLaughlin’s band was doing. Weather Report was already formed. I loved what they were doing; it was great. And the whole phrase “jazz-rock” was part of the vocabulary. That was a new thing — the influence of rock on jazz — but I didn’t come from rock, I came from funk, and there was nobody else really doing that with jazz, so that’s what I did with the Headhunters band.
I think [the ’78 duo tour] was Chick’s idea. I remember the first time that we got together to figure out what we were going to do. I went to his house [in Los Angeles] and he had two grand pianos there. And it was really funny because we started off to play something — I don’t know what tune it was, some standard or something — and we were both very careful. I didn’t want to get in Chick’s way; he didn’t want to get in my way. And little by little, we started taking a few more chances, and a few more, and nothing seemed to be in anybody’s way, so we just went and started to go for it. And we were both laughing; it was so much fun that we were having, just teasing each other with what came out of each other and stimulating each other in that same way. Before we even finished one of the tunes, we had to stop because we were laughing so hard, and then we both said, well, I guess we don’t need a lot of rehearsal [laughs].
Because as soon as he touched the keys, a light would go on somewhere inside my being of what to do next or what not to do next, and I guess he felt the same way. It just came off like it was supposed to be that way.
Chick was always playful; there was this kind of joy in his playing, and almost a childlike playfulness, like we’re playing in a sandbox, and it brought joy to me and then I would feed something and it would bring joy to him. We were like two kids. That was so inspiring and encouraging. There was never one hint of competition; it was all inspiration. So I could get inspiration from two [places]: I could get it from myself and from him. And I think he felt the same way.
We fit together so well. It was so easy for me to take a solo within the duet, where Chick would be accompanying my going off and soloing on top. And the way he would accompany, what I felt was total support. And not just hanging in the background, but there was a sense of encouragement that was coming from him, and no matter where I went, he always had just the right thing for whichever direction I took. So I was free to fly wherever I wanted to go, and he would fill it in with all the necessary things to make it a part of what happened before and to give it substance and support harmonically and with the different lines that he would play maybe going in the opposite direction. And it was always a joy. He made it so easy. That’s what I couldn’t understand — how is he doing this? Like he read my mind. It was so great.
Let me tell you about one of those [concerts]: We played the Montreaux Jazz Festival — I think we played it twice, if not more, and it must have been maybe the second time we played the festival, we had to do five encores. People would not let us go. And by the way, one of the things that Chick would periodically do is go in the piano and either pull the strings or hold one down while he played the note for that string, which gave a different sound. And then I got into that game too, and maybe it’s the scientist in me, but I started to say, well, there are overtones in there; if I could get the right node with my finger on the string, I’d play one of the overtones of that note. It would be a different pitch.
So I started doing that, and I’ll never forget, during the same concert, I would end up under the piano, playing the wooden part of the frame of the piano. Chick was on top of the piano and he was doing something inside the strings, and the audience, they loved it; they were going wild. We had them in our pocket by that time. But it was fun for us and it was daring for us to go in those directions. We were playing and having fun but we were serious. We were getting paid and we had an audience out there that had paid their hard-earned money to see us. So it wasn’t just clowning around; we were trying to make music and trying to make fun at the same time. Why not?
You know what we did for the fifth encore? We walked offstage and said, “We’ve got to go back ’cause they’re still going crazy. “I said, “OK, Chick, why don’t we just put two chairs out in front of the audience and play games with them?” So we did that. We didn’t even go to the pianos. We sat there and we did anything that we could, from body sounds, striking parts of our body with rhythms, grabbing our throat in a certain way to make a [makes a wavering noise] sound. We tried to do it some kind of musical but fun way, and they loved all of that, too. [Laughs] And then we started, like, doing gestures without making sound, with our faces or with our hands. It was almost like a ballet, in a way. It got really crazy, but the audience loved all of that. So I’ll never forget that. That was a monumental memory that I have.
After doing that [first] tour and then maybe four or five years later, we did another tour, and then in the relatively recent times, we always continued to talk about doing duet tours throughout the rest of our lives. Even after those [most recent duo concerts], periodically Chick would call me and say, “Hey, man, when are we going to do the next one?” And then he passed away.
Chick and I talked about — as a matter of fact, the conversation started from Chick saying to me that he had been working on some Mozart pieces and he thought it would be fun, because he knew I had studied Mozart when I was younger, if we went out and played Mozart duets and figured out a way of doing that. And I told him yeah, that would be fantastic, and that might have been the next tour that we would have made.
Chick and I always felt like we were brothers. We always talked that way; we always encouraged each other that way, and we always just felt that way.
Chick was always a loving person. He was always encouraging people. He always wanted to share whatever he had, especially with young people. And he was also a student himself, always trying to learn things, and he was a Scientologist, so that was a learning experience. And we both talked about religion, because I was trying to tell him about Nichiren Buddhism that I practice — I’m an SGI member, Soka Gakkai International — and so we did that a little bit.
Most of our conversations were about music. We didn’t talk a lot about political issues or the news of the day. Chick had a funny thing about that. He didn’t seem to want to be bogged down by some of those things. And it wasn’t easy to talk to him about some of those things because he wasn’t following them in the newspaper or online. His primary focus, as far as I could tell, was always music and always about the heart and about the value of the arts, and how important the arts are as nourishment for the human spirit. And I totally agree with that.
The first thing that pops into my head right now [as I reflect on Chick’s personality] is the positive attitude that Chick had. I never saw him have a negative one. It was always positive, it was always encouraging, and he always wanted to have fun. And he cared about people. That’s it. And obviously he had courage, to take all the musical chances that he took and move into so many different directions, and he took on the challenge of being proficient in so many areas of music, whether it was pop or whether it was rock or of course jazz.
So when I think of Chick, I think of a person with a big heart. And that’s what we all need: We all need a big heart and to always be willing to share anything that we’ve learned, anything that we’ve discovered, so that everybody has a chance to move forward. That’s what Chick was really about.