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Chick Corea, a tireless music legend, 'Plays' on with new live album and online music academy

Chick Corea, a tireless music legend, 'Plays' on with new live album and online music academy

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Pianist Chick Corea performs during OGR Jazz Club in November 2018 in Turin, Italy. After the COVID-19 pandemic began and his European concert tour came to an abrupt end, Corea sat down at one of the multiple keyboards in his home music studio and began practicing on Facebook Live.

The coronavirus pandemic brought the careers of countless musicians to a standstill, including keyboard legend Chick Corea, whose European concert tour ended abruptly with the mid-March global shutdown.

But that standstill was brief for 79-year-old Corea, who in January earned his 23rd Grammy Award and has collaborated over the years with everyone from Miles Davis, Alicia Keys and flamenco guitar master Paco de Lucia to Foo Fighters and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The Massachusetts-born native sprang back into action soon after returning from Europe to the Florida home he shares with his wife and periodic musical partner, singer Gayle Moran.

"We're all anxious to go back on the road. But I'm unable to predict the way the restrictions will go, or when they will be lifted, so I'm creating as much as I can," said Corea, whose new live double-album, "Plays," was released Friday by Concord Jazz. Recorded on tour in 2018, it features his singular solo piano renditions of music by everyone from Mozart, Chopin and Gershwin to Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder and Corea himself.

"The lockdown happened, and I realized how easy it is to go on Facebook to make music," he recalled. "So I did."

Using a new smartphone, Corea sat down at one of the multiple keyboards in his home music studio and began practicing on Facebook Live. He continued to do so for the next 30-plus days in a row, for up to nearly two hours at a time. His livestreams, which also found him answering questions from viewers, struck an immediate chord.

Inspired by the enthusiastic response these impromptu live practice sessions garnered from fans around the world, he then assembled a multi-camera setup in his home studio. On May 14, he launched his online Chick Corea Academy.

The enterprising subscription website bills itself as "a global association for the advancement of music and art — with special instruction in music theory and performance." Its four-point focus is on creativity, knowledge, imagination and improvisation.

In addition to weekly Sunday workshops with its famous namesake, virtual academy members receive a PDF copy of his book, "A Work in Progress ... On Being a Musician." Other offerings include from-the-vault releases of recordings by Corea that were not previously available to the public, augmented by his commentary about those releases. There's also a community forum and a message board.

"It's not like a school where there are tests or criticism," Corea explained. "It's more a sharing of ideas."

"Basically, the academy is a platform where I answer questions in my own way. I let everyone know I'm not giving them rules. I'm sharing actions, practices and methods I've created that work for me. I encourage them to use them, if it works for them, and to find their own methods, ways, theories and harmonies in order to find their own individual expressions.

"With all of the chaos and hysteria, I'd like to promote creativity into the future, just create our future in a positive way," Corea has told his online academy audience.

Always eager to explore new vistas, the eclectic keyboardist, composer and band leader has been busy crafting new music to share through his academy and for upcoming releases. His partners during the pandemic have included esteemed artists such as flutist Hubert Laws, drummer/keyboardist Gary Husband and bass greats Stanley Clarke and John Patitucci, both of whom have played pivotal roles in Corea's previous bands.

However, rather than work face to face, in real time, Corea and his collaborators have been doing so entirely online. It's not an ideal scenario, especially for musicians who specialize in improvisation and in-the-moment reciprocity. But it enables them to safely interact and exchange ideas from a distance. They do so by trading sound files they make on Logic, the digital audio work station used by many professional musicians and studio engineers.

"Usually, I'll initiate something. Sometimes, my friends will initiate," said Corea, who in the early 1970s was one of the first jazz musicians to wholeheartedly embrace synthesizers. He subsequently began using various other cutting-edge electronic keyboard instruments and new technology.

Elaborating on his online music-making approach with his friends, Corea said: "One great game is that I'll initiate and they'll overdub and add something. Then I'll add a third thing. It will go back and forth two or three times, until we have a finished piece of music, which I'll mix.

"It's similar to how we record in a studio, except that — doing it long distance — you can't play in real time. But it's more solid than trying to make music via phone or Zoom, because they don't have that technology worked out where we can play in real time long distance. If they do, please let me know! Because everyone is looking for that."

Prolifically making music, live and in the studio, has long been Corea's forte. He has released six albums since 2017 alone, including in-concert recordings with his Akoustic Band and his all-star Trilogy group.

"It's similar to how we record in a studio, except that — doing it long distance — you can't play in real time. But it's more solid than trying to make music via phone or Zoom, because they don't have that technology worked out where we can play in real time long distance. If they do, please let me know! Because everyone is looking for that."

Prolifically making music, live and in the studio, has long been Corea's forte. He has released six albums since 2017 alone, including in-concert recordings with his Akoustic Band and his all-star Trilogy group.

Currently the New York Philharmonic's Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-in-Residence, Corea recently completed a trombone concerto for the philharmonic and is now at work on a percussion concerto for the Philadelphia Orchestra. He typically tours the world each year with several different bands and was scheduled — until the pandemic hit — to perform July 29 at the Hollywood Bowl with his Grammy-winning Spanish Heart Band and guest singer Ruben Blades.

In lieu of catching him on tour, listeners can hear Corea's new live double-album, "Plays." The 33-track release features him performing and discussing the music of kindred musical spirits such as Mozart, Gershwin, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Brazilian icon Antonio Carlos Jobim, Spanish flamenco giant Paco de Lucia, and others.

In Corea's remarkably gifted hands on "Plays," following up the adagio section of Mozart's Piano Sonata in F with Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" makes perfect sense. Ditto his enchanting pairings of Evans' "Waltz for Debby" and Jobim's bossa-nova classic "Desafinado." Equally rewarding is the deft manner in which he moves from longtime friend Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise" into a solo piano adaptation of "The Yellow Nimbus," a piece Corea first recorded in 1982 with de Lucia — who died in 2014 — followed by a new version with his Spanish Heart Band last year.

"The composers whose music is on my new album have been an inspiration in my life for a long time," said Corea, who recorded most of "Plays" at 2018 concerts in Berlin and Paris. "I thought it would be interesting for the listeners to get a glimpse into my relationship as a performer with these venerable names."

"You can go to music schools and learn some basics. But there is an apprenticeship system, which is always what the final step is. I've had the best teachers, haven't I? And I've been so lucky to have experienced all of that."

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