Happy Birthday Chick Corea

One of my musical heroes, Chick Corea, will be celebrating his 77th birthday on June 12. The date is quite special to me as it is also my birthday as well as my other musical hero, the late Geri Allen who would have been 61 this year. The day also happens to be Loving Day – in commemoration of the 1967 decision of the Supreme Court in Loving vs Virginia to strike down anti-miscegenation laws which made interracial marriage illegal. This year, I get to celebrate this special day at the annual Indiana University Mini U reunion of alumni and friends with a presentation on my recent book Experiencing Chick Corea: A Listener’s Companion (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). It’ll be Tuesday, June 12, 2.30pm in the IU Memorial Union – here is a link to the Mini U schedule and enrollment info.

In honor of this special day – here is a listening guide for one of Chick’s earliest recorded tunes: Chick’s Tune –  back and enjoy!

Guided Listening Experience for Chick’s Tune (Chick Corea)

From The Thing To Do

Blue Note BST 84178
Blue Mitchell (tp); Junior Cook (ts); Chick Corea (p); Gene Taylor (bs); Al Foster (d).
Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, July 30, 1964

It’s July 1964 and we get to listen in on Chick Corea’s first recording session at the legendary Van Gelder Studio for Blue Note Records. It is a very exciting moment for Chick since the leader of the group, Richard Allen “Blue” Mitchell (1930 – 1979), as well as saxophonist Junior Cook and bassist Gene Taylor, have been members of legendary pianist Horace Silver’s group for the past six years. Chick has studied many of Silver’s tunes and copied his piano solos as a teenager[i] as he admires his hard grooving style. Now he has the opportunity to be the pianist with Silver’s group and a new talented 21-year old drummer on the New York scene named Al Foster. The group has just completed a string of six performance dates playing their new repertoire as Blue Mitchell wanted to bring a well-rehearsed group to this recording date, just as his mentor Horace Silver had taught him. The repertoire includes six songs: “Fungii Mama” by Mitchell himself, “Mona’s Mood” and “The Thing to Do” by Jimmy Heather, “Step Lightly” by Joe Henderson, and finally Chick Corea’s first original to be recorded with the very simple title “Chick’s Tune”.

It’s finally time for a take of “Chick’s Tune” and the group decides to feature Al Foster with an 8-bar drum introduction. It’ll be the last selection on the record so a little texture change seems appropriate. He ends his energetic solo with a hit and the band comes in with the Latin-tinged melody. As we listen to the melody unfold, we realize that there is something very familiar about the harmonic progression of this tune. During the previous two decades, as Bebop musicians developed a more sophisticated melodic language, they often used familiar harmonic vehicles as a point of departure. A harmonic progression of a well-known standard would be played with a new original melody and the result is called a “contrafact”, similar to the common 12-bar blues progression being used for countless blues songs. Thus, musicians are immediately familiar with the tune and comfortable improvising and labels won’t have to deal with royalty distributions to outside composers. Now we recognize it, “Chick’s Tune” is a contrafact of the standard “You Stepped Out of a Dream”, a song composed in 1940 by Nacio Herb Brown with lyrics by Gus Kahn. It became popular in 1941, the year Chick was born, in the musical film Ziegfeld Girl featuring among others Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, and Lana Turner as three showbiz girls. What a fun coincidence that Chick chose this song as the harmonic vehicle for the ‘birth’ of his recording career. It’s also a quite unusual chord progression for a standard with some unexpected key changes, possibly simulating the process of waking up aka stepping out of a dream. After the first two measures in C-Major, the key shifts up a half step to Db-Major for the next two measures. Chick’s new melody for the song sounds like a wake-up call jumping up and down with large skips over the two very distinct major scales. Then Al digs in and bassist Gene Taylor starts walking as they change into a swing groove for the fifth bar and yet another tonality change to Ab- Major. Now the horns and piano break into triad harmonies, while the bass and drums play repeated notes on beat two and four, a technique called pedal point. This is a bit of an alteration from the original chord progression which moves yet to another key before cycling back to C. The second half of the song starts with the same wake-up call and the half-step move followed by four bars of hard-grooving swing. Then bass, drums, and piano hit together at the end of the four bars and let the horns play a triplet sequence in harmony for two measures before they rejoin to swing into a turnaround and right into Chick’s piano solo. What an honor for him to get the first solo, which is usually claimed by one of the horn players.

Chick takes a breath for the first two bars, then starts with a careful back-and-forth sequence before he takes off swinging hard with Gene and Al. His lines get busier and higher especially as he moves into the third chorus. Some Monkish dissonances, hitting two consecutive keys at the same time, create tension throughout chorus four. We can hear him explore the sound of some of the new scales popularized by the Bebop innovators, such as the Whole-Tone Scale[ii] as well as creative rhythmic ideas before he winds down with some traditional block chords in George Shearing fashion. What a confident statement and glimpse of things to come on this very first Blue Note date!

Now it’s Junior Cook’s turn on the saxophone. He picks right up on the first beat of the chorus and the rhythm section is on fire. The energy drives him through four masterful choruses, taking the lead from Chick in terms of length and excitement. Junior concludes with a G-Major triad played backwards right at the beginning of the new chorus and Blue responds to the call immediately with the same idea adapted to the half-step key change. We’re now more than 5 minutes into the recording, this might be the final take! Crisp, lyrical lines unfold, while the rhythm section swings along, complementing with piano chords and accents.   Blue’s trumpet sound is strong and beautiful as always and he easily fills his four choruses with creative melodic ideas. As is customary after the conclusion of the individual solos, Junior initiates a segment of trading fills with the drummer. He takes the first eight bar of the chorus, while the drummer fills in the next eight bars. Next up is Blue for eight, and Al is back with more fills. His rolls are powerful and relentless as the same sequence repeats, the horns respond to his rhythms – this is not the time to lose any energy.

It’s time to play the melody one last time with the switches between latin and swing rhythms. With all the excitement, the tempo has picked up slightly, it’s a very powerful take. The trumpet takes the melody an octave up for the last few notes, one last drum fill for two measures, and everyone joins on the last note releasing the tension in flourishes and fills and one last cymbal crash. This is it – Blue Mitchell established his career as a leader and Chick Corea has made his recording debut.

[i] Interview with All About Jazz, August 2009

[ii] A Scale constructed exclusively of Whole Steps (a movement of two keys on the piano keyboard) which makes for a completely neutral tonality