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Spanish Heart: The Latin Side of Chick Corea

Jonathan Chimene

Chick Corea accomplished so much, and traced so many paths, in his long career — but to truly understand his artistry, it’s essential to consider his connections to Latin music.

Indeed, the pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader Armando Antonio “Chick” Corea first came to the public’s attention as the pianist with legendary conguero Mongo Santamaría.

Listen to Latin Jazz Cruise at WBGO this Friday, 9 to 11 p.m., as Bobby Sanabria celebrates Chick Corea

Steeped in tradition but forward-thinking in its concept, Santamaría’s band was a Latin jazz school unto itself, one that yours truly is also proud to have graduated from; it existed in a parallel universe to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

Speaking with Billboard in 2019, Corea admitted that Latin music had never been on his radar growing up, until he encountered a dance band in New England led by Phil Barboza, a Cape Verdean trumpeter. Through a recommendation, Corea got the gig.

“And all of a sudden I’m in a band with a conga player and a timbale player, and I knew nothing about those rhythms,” he recalled. “The conga player, his name is Bill Fitch and is a great, great conga player who later played with Cal Tjader and did a bunch of other stuff, fortunately sat me down and introduced me through recordings and he played a little piano himself. So he showed me how to play those montuno grooves on the piano and played me some Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri records. And I was really captured, because it was a great complement to this seriousness of the jazz that I was into up until that point.”

When Corea refers to “the seriousness of jazz” there, he means a certain mode of stage presence, as he explained in conversation with his friend Christian McBride, for a 2019 episode of Jazz Night In America.

Credit Dave Kaufman
Chick Corea and Christian McBride at the Montreal Jazz Festival

“Before I discovered Latin dance music, I was into the way bebop musicians were presenting themselves,” Corea explained, going on to single out the “cool” of Miles Davis as a guidepost. “Then I got this gig with a Latin group in Boston, and we played at dances. And wow, it was the first time it really extroverted me into seeing how the music affects people. ‘Cause they’re out there dancing. I thought, ‘Wow, what a nice effect.’ I love to make people dance, look at that, they’re all happy and stuff. It showed me that the rhythm and the way the music is has a lot to do with the emotion that you’re conveying.”

Corea’s subsequent move to New York City led him to discover a world that was engulfed by mambo madness. Its vortex was The Palladium, located on West 53rd street and Broadway — one block away from Birdland, the city’s epicenter of modern jazz. Corea became a frequent visitor, often dashing over during the breaks on his own gig.

At that time, the relationship that the city’s straight-ahead jazz scene had with Latin musicians, and vice-versa, was deeply collegial. Latin and jazz musicians frequently crossed into each other’s scenes. It wasn’t a strange sight to see trumpeter Joe Newman working with saxophonist and future Alegre records founder Al Santiago’s Chakanunu Boys, for instance, or Doc Cheatham with the Machito Orchestra, or Nuyorican drummer Santos Miranda with Herbie Mann.

This atmosphere was further nurtured by the vibrant jazz and Latin music club scene in Manhattan — exemplified not only by The Palladium and Birdland but also The Village Gate (and Top of The Gate), where Latin music stars like Machito, Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez would also appear. That vibrant scene extended to the South Bronx, where on any given night — at spots like the Blue Morocco, Goodson’s, The Hunts Point Palace, Savoy Manor, and the legendary 845 — you could hear Helen Merrill, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis or Art Blakey alternating with Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Herbie Mann, Pucho and The Latin Soul Brothers, Joe Cuba’s Sextet and more.  

For Corea, who had played snare drum as a boy in a drum and bugle corps, the rhythms of Cuba that ruled New York’s Spanish Harlem and South Bronx were fuel for a fire that would burn his entire life. It was through this incredible musical cauldron that he eventually got the gig as Santamaria’s pianist. 

Marty Sheller, a trumpeter and Newark native who served at one time as musical director for Santamaría, recalls an encounter with Corea around this time. “It was 1959 and I was studying at Columbia College in New York City,” he says. “It was the summer, and I was staying in the dorm. My room was on the second floor and I was listening to an Art Blakey record. All of a sudden, I hear a knock at the door. When I opened it, I see this young plump guy with glasses and fat cheeks. It was Chick. He had been walking by and had heard the music. We listened to records all afternoon. We’ve been friends ever since. He quickly started making a name for himself on both the Latin and jazz scenes.”

Through his association with Santamaría, Chick went on to work with the crème de la crème of the city’s Latin music scene: percussionists Cándido Camero, Julito Collazo, Manny Oquendo and Carlos “Patato” Valdés; trombonists Mark Weinstein and Barry Rogers; bassists Cachao and Bobby Rodriguez; saxophonists José “Chombo” Silva, Al Abreu, Mario Rivera and Dick “Taco” Mesa (who he had played with him in Boston); and trumpeters Ray Maldonado and Puchi Beulong, among many others.

In other words, Corea wasn’t a musical tourist; he was a part of our family. This along with his later exposure to Brazilian music, and the Flamenco music of Southern Spain, would become a continued source of musical inspiration for him throughout his career. And Chick paid it forward, making the love he had for all things Latin a major part of his musical world.

Here are six musical selections, spanning 30 years, that show Chick’s deep ties to our community.

Mongo Santamaría, “Chombolero” (1962)

By 1962 Chick had become Mongo’s pianist, performing not only in jazz clubs but in dance venues as well. “Chombolero” was composed by Brazilian pianist João Donato in dedication to Cuban tenor saxophonist José “Chombo” Silva. Harmonically and melodically it exudes bossa nova. But here it’s played to the cadence of Cuban bolero as Mongo percolates on the bongo. Chick begins his short solo with a subtle quote of the standard “That’s All.”

Herbie Mann, “Let’s Boom Chitty Boom” (1965)

On this album Chick Corea split the piano duties with Eddie Palmieri’s older brother, the legendary Charlie Palmieri. On this funky minor blues in a cha-cha-cha/Latin boogaloo groove, you hear one of the first recorded examples of Chick playing electric piano.

Cal Tjader, “Oran” (1966)

Chick continued solidifying his reputation in the worlds of jazz and Latin jazz, leading to his work with vibist Cal Tjader. Although based in San Francisco, Cal would frequently come to New York City to perform and record. Chick composed and arranged this jazz mambo for a 1966 date dedicated to the Algerian city of Oran. Notice the chord voicings he uses, which would become signatures of his playing, and his use of three flutes in the arrangement. His love of that instrument would manifest itself later in the first incarnation of Return To Forever.

Chick Corea and Return to Forever, “500 Miles High” (1972)

Chick’s embracing of the Fender Rhodes electric piano is rooted not in the legendary 1970 Miles Davis Bitches Brew sessions, but in the Herbie Mann track above. The sound of the instrument exuded the spirit of the music he was writing, and the group he had assembled with legendary Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira and his wife, vocalist and percussionist Flora Purim. Along with saxophonist and flutist Joe Farrell and acoustic and electric bassist Stanley Clarke, they explored Brazilian rhythms with a freer approach. Notice Chick’s use of the wah-wah pedal attached to the Rhodes at the very end of the tune. It would be the harbinger of things to come.

Chick Corea and Return to Forever, “Captain Señor Mouse” (1973)

Inspired by guitarist John McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Orchestra, Corea and Clarke reformed Return To Forever after Airto, Flora, and Farrell left to start their own groups. Besides the added fire power of guitarist Bill Connor, Corea added to the Fender Rhodes a battery of synthesizers, and with them a dramatic sonic change. Abandoning Brazilian rhythms, he explored rock, funk, and even disco with occasional hints of Afro-Cuban rhythm interspersed in extended complex compositions — as in this example. Listen to when new drummer Lenny White plays the cowbell along with overdubbed percussion (often played by Chick himself). It’s a style of Cuban rhythm with a New York City interpretation called Mozambique.

“Tumba,” Chick Corea Trio at Blue Note Tokyo (1992)

Chick Corea explored Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and Flamenco traditions throughout his career, even in a straight-ahead context. Here we see him draw on all of these in a trio with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Corea starts tapping a bembé rhythm rooted in West African culture. Because the sound of the piano is generated by hammers that strike strings, it is considered a percussion instrument. But here he really plays it like a giant drum! The song could be considered an audiovisual representation of Chick’s life. From his early childhood as a drummer to his work in Latin jazz to his use of electronics with Fender Rhodes then back into acoustic swing and a songo feel — before returning to the bembé, representing the ancestral homeland of rhythm.