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Chick Corea, Jazz Fusion Pioneer, Has Died Of Cancer At 79

Chick Corea, seen here performing in Turin, Italy, in 2018, died Feb. 9.
Giorgio Perottino
Getty Images for OGR
Chick Corea, seen here performing in Turin, Italy, in 2018, died Feb. 9.

This story was updated at 9:28 p.m. ET on Thursday, Feb. 11.

The keyboardist, composer and bandleader Chick Corea — one of the most revered figures in contemporary jazz, but an artist whose work spanned fusion to classical — died on Feb. 9 at age 79.

Dan Muse from Chick Corea Productions confirmed his death to NPR on Thursday afternoon. Corea's team also reported his death on social media, saying that he died from "a rare form of cancer which was only discovered very recently." No other details about his illness and death were shared.

A pianist whose crisp touch and clarion tone were always buoyed by an effervescent way with rhythm, Corea loomed large in a jazz landscape that branched in many directions. His 1968 album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs has long been a touchstone for the modern acoustic piano trio, a format to which he often returned; in 2019 he released another album in that vein, Trilogy 2, with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade.

As well as being named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006, Corea has won 23 Grammys. He has been nominated a total of 67 times, including twice for Trilogy 2 this year.

He was already a talent clearly on the rise when he joined a group led by trumpeter Miles Davis in the late '60s, just as the shadowy, mercurial post-bop that had defined Davis' music of that decade was yielding to elements of funk and psychedelic rock. Playing electric piano on albums like In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Miles Davis at the Fillmore — often alongside his most gifted pianistic peers, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Joe Zawinul — he helped define a new hybrid music in tune with the Aquarian Age.

His own band Return to Forever, which he formed with bassist Stanley Clarke, was an important marker for this emerging genre, known as fusion. Its first iteration drew airy inspiration from Brazilian music, before taking on a more turbocharged grandeur; the band found mainstream commercial success with a lineup featuring guitarist Al Di Meola and drummer Lenny White. (When this version of the band reunited in 2011, its itinerary included theaters and festivals more accustomed to legacy rock acts.)

Two of Corea's most popular compositions — a heraldic, syncopated anthem titled "Spain" and an ethereally grooving piece called "500 Miles High" — appear on the 1973 Return to Forever album, Light As a Feather. Among his other enduring pieces are "Matrix" and "Windows," sleek paragons of post-bop, and "La Fiesta," which captures his affinity for Spanish flamenco.

Few improvising musicians ever collaborated more broadly, or with more boundless enthusiasm. Corea did meaningful, distinctive work in duos with vibraphonist Gary Burton, vocalist Bobby McFerrin and banjoist Béla Fleck, among others; his fusion legacy extends beyond Return to Forever, including the Chick Corea Elektric Band, Chick Corea & The Vigil, and an all-star crew called the Five Peace Band (whose ranks included two other Miles Davis alumni, guitarist John McLaughlin and saxophonist Kenny Garrett). Among his many other collaborators was his wife, the singer Gayle Moran Corea.

Corea also delved into free jazz with Circle, a collective he formed in the early '70s with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Barry Altschul and saxophonist Anthony Braxton. (With Holland and Altschul, he released A.R.C., among the first albums on ECM Records.) Corea's most recent release, a solo piano double album titled Plays, includes material by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder and Antonio Carlos Jobim — as well as a smattering of pieces from Corea's own 1984 album, Children's Songs. His Akoustic Band, a trio with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Dave Weckl, has a reunion album due out this May.

Prolific in every sense, Corea released well over 100 albums, and maintained a busy touring schedule. In 2018, he told Jazz Night in America about what he saw as the artist's role: "We have a mission to go out there and be an antidote to war, and all of the dark side of what happens on Planet Earth. We're the ones that go in and remind people about their creativity."

Born June 12, 1941, in Chelsea, Mass., Armando Anthony Corea grew up playing piano and drums and listening to bebop as well as classical music. His father, also named Armando, was an immigrant originally from Southern Italy, and a trumpeter who led a Dixieland band; a tune that Corea named in his honor, "Armando's Rhumba," was another staple of his repertoire.

After moving to New York as a young man, Corea played with Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria and other Latin jazz bandleaders like vibraphonist Cal Tjader and flutist Herbie Mann. He also worked with saxophonist Stan Getz, trumpeter Blue Mitchell and flutist Hubert Laws before making his first appearance with Davis, on the album Filles de Kilimanjaro.

At around the same time, Corea had his first encounter with Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, a book by L. Ron Hubbard that forms a cornerstone of Scientology. Corea became a prominent Scientologist, dedicating his albums to Hubbard and embracing archetypes of the religion in his album and song titles.

The social media announcement of his death included words from Corea himself: "I want to thank all of those along my journey who have helped keep the music fires burning bright. It is my hope that those who have an inkling to play, write, perform or otherwise, do so. If not for yourself then for the rest of us. It's not only that the world needs more artists, it's also just a lot of fun.

"And to my amazing musician friends who have been like family to me as long as I've known you: It has been a blessing and an honor learning from and playing with all of you. My mission has always been to bring the joy of creating anywhere I could, and to have done so with all the artists that I admire so dearly — this has been the richness of my life."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.
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