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Remembering Legendary Jazz Pianist And Composer Chick Corea

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Pianist, keyboardist and composer Chick Corea died last week at the age of 79. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Corea's music covered a broad range of styles. Kevin has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "WHERE ARE YOU NOW? - A SUITE OF 8 PICTURES - PICTURE 1")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Chick Corea, 1971. He had a crisp, distinctive touch at the keyboard and a strong melodic sense that made him a pleasure to hear whenever he sat down at the piano. He passed through a couple of Latin bands when he was coming up early in the 1960s. Spanish rhythms and the precise percussive sound of Afro-Cuban piano were key ingredients of his playing and composing ever after.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "SOMETIME AGO")

WHITEHEAD: Corea was already leading his own straight-ahead jazz bands in the late '60s when Miles Davis hired him, and he became the heart of that trumpeter's unbeatable, raucous, early electric bands. There, Chick played some of the boldest, most creative electric piano of its time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "DIRECTIONS")

WHITEHEAD: After Miles, Chick Corea had a brief flirtation with the avant garde, but he wanted a broader audience. On the first album he made with his new band, Return to Forever, He tamed his electric piano and foregrounded catchy tunes like his personal standard "La Fiesta."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "LA FIESTA")

WHITEHEAD: Then, with some personnel changes, "Return To Forever" took a hard turn to loud fusion music. Depending on your taste, that style combined rock energy and jazz sophistication or was about technique for its own sake, fast finger exercises.

(SOUNDBITE OF RETURN TO FOREVER'S "HYMN OF THE 7TH GALAXY")

WHITEHEAD: By 1973, most of Chick Corea's toolkit was in place - the exquisite piano touch, the memorable melodies, the Spanish tinges, the blast-y (ph) amplified stuff - all of which he'd keep bringing back in the decades to come.

There's also his love of duets with everyone from fellow pianist Herbie Hancock to banjo player Bela Fleck. For decades, Corea performed a duo with vibraphonist Gary Burton, whose lyricism matched his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "SEÑOR MOUSE")

WHITEHEAD: They could sound like one musician with four hands. Here they are playing Corea's "Señor Mouse" in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "SEÑOR MOUSE")

WHITEHEAD: In the new century, Chick Corea would include pieces from the classical repertoire in his solo concerts, playing Mozart alongside Monk. And he expanded his palette, recording ambitious works like his concerto "The Continents" for symphony orchestra and jazz quintet, including his own piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "THE CONTINENTS: CONCERTO FOR JAZZ QUINTET AND CHAMBER ORCESTRA")

WHITEHEAD: Chick Corea never gave up performing straight-ahead jazz, often an all-star bands, very much including a late period trio with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade. This is from Corea's tune "Fingerprints."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA TRIO'S "FINGERPRINTS")

WHITEHEAD: As an outpouring of tributes from all over the jazz community confirms, Chick Corea was among the most beloved of modern improvising composers. Looking back, it's easy to hear why. No matter how your tastes run, he was likely to have played something in his long career that's right up your alley. His diversity was his greatest strength.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND BELA FLECK'S "SEÑORITA")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." Chick Corea died February 9 at the age of 79.

On Monday's show, we speak with Sacha Baron Cohen, who's back as the fictitious journalist Borat from Kazakhstan in "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm." And he plays 1960s radical Abbie Hoffman in "The Trial Of The Chicago 7." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "YOU'RE MY EVERYTHING")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "YOU'RE MY EVERYTHING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.