Chick Corea: his 10 greatest recordings

The jazz pioneer Chick Corea died last week at the age of 79, leaving behind one of the most garlanded and wide-ranging catalogues in the genre’s history. He played with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock; he could be showboating and sensitive, and traversed the distance between experimentation and accessibility. Guardian jazz critic John Fordham survey’s the best of them.

Chick Corea – Spain (1972)

This is Chick Corea’s best-known original – composed as he turned 30, by that time recognised alongside Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett as a rising piano star, already hired by Stan Getz, Mongo Santamaria and Miles Davis. But Spain tapped Corea’s most enduring passions, in jazz and Latin music – a mix he would draw on all his life. It’s been performed as a soul anthem by Stevie Wonder, as flamenco by John McLaughlin, as bluegrass by Bela Fleck, and in many other versions – but nobody plays it with Corea’s gleeful bounce, in a vivacious band here including singer Flora Purim and percussionist Airto Moreira.

Chick Corea Trio – Tones for Joan’s Bones (Atlantic, 1967)

On Corea’s debut album as a leader, recorded in late 1966, with the hitmaking jazz-rock flautist Herbie Mann as producer, the 25-year-old reflected the soulfully punchy hard bop jazz style that the rock-dominated 60s were already displacing. But since he was partnered here by such savvy experts in the method as trumpeter Woody Shaw, saxophonist Joe Farrell and bassist Steve Swallow, and he was unveiling his signature fusion of direct, songlike lyricism and driving swing with a side order of formal classical elegance, it was a memorable entrance just the same.

Chick Corea – Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (1968)

The pianist’s musical mind was a fascinating hothouse in the 1960s. He had grown up listening (mostly in pretty loose and self-educational ways) to street-bands, the bebop of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, Latin and classical music. Aged 27, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs found him at a crossroads, pulled between the swing of the classic acoustic jazz-piano trio and the more free-associative future he would soon briefly explore with such outliers as the jazz/contemporary-classical reeds player Anthony Braxton. Two powerful and intuitive partners, Czech double bassist Miroslav Vitous and legendary drums pioneer Roy Haynes, follow his every move here.

Related: Chick Corea obituary

Miles Davis – Miles Runs the Voodoo Down (live) (1969)

Miles Davis’s 1969 Bitches Brew album was a turning point in his own career, as it was in the evolution of jazz. Alerted by his new partner Betty Mabry’s awareness that late-60s audiences were listening to Motown, James Brown, Hendrix and Sly Stone more than to orthodox jazz, he searched for a bridge between jazz-cool and a blues-funk intensity, using electric keyboards, layered sound effects and a Latin-rock feel. His brilliant synthesis became Bitches Brew, with Corea dropped seamlessly into the melee. Playing Fender Rhodes electric keys, he resembled an extra percussionist in his chordwork, around partners including Wayne Shorter, and the free-improviser he was drawn to be in much of his soloing.

Chick Corea – Captain Marvel (1973)

Corea became a Scientologist in 1968 and the cult had a seismic effect on his priorities, drawing him away from experimental forms, whether from free-improv or Davis’s free-fusion, toward more accessible repertoires. But his musicality rose above every rival preoccupation, so his first foray into more popular territory with Return to Forever still glowed with seductive tunes and irresistible grooves. Bass star Stanley Clarke and percussionist Moreira were powerhouses on this buoyant session, and singer Purim’s playful lyricism perfectly complemented Corea on the vivacious and much-covered Captain Marvel.

Chick Corea – Glass Enclosure (1996)

Bud Powell was one of Corea’s first heroes: the most influential pianist of the 1940s bebop era and a visionary who came as close as was conceivable to representing Charlie Parker’s saxophone methods on a keyboard. The Parker connection might be why Corea opted to feature two superb saxophonists – Kenny Garrett and Joshua Redman – on his 1996 genuflection to Powell, rather than the piano-centred trio the venture might have invited. There’s one original Corea tribute on the tracklist; the other pieces are all Powell’s – including a superb version of the complex Glass Enclosure, a piece mirroring the troubled composer in its shifts from the vivacious to the sinister.

Chick Corea – Children’s Songs No 6 (1983)

They weren’t a huge hit with Corea’s straight-jazz or fusion fans, but the piano miniatures inspired by Béla Bartók’s Mikrokosmos series that ECM released as the Children’s Songs collection brought the pianist a new audience – crossing over into contemporary-classical music, while retaining his telltale mischievousness, flexibility of rhythm, and sense of narrative shape. They also reflected his wider musical life, with the first of the series echoing one of his 1972 duets with vibraphonist Gary Burton, and an ensemble version on Light as a Feather. The driving, hooky No 6 is one of the session’s most dynamic pieces.

Chick Corea and Gary Burton – Armando’s Rhumba (1997)

Corea and elegant vibraphone pioneer Burton began their playing partnership in the 1970s – at the other end of the dynamic spectrum to much of the flat-out, high-energy fusion some Corea groups were thumping out that decade. Armando’s Rhumba originally came from the album My Spanish Heart, a 1976 big-band session that some felt reflected too much of the leader’s occasional inclinations to showboating. But in the hands of this close-attuned pair – both master improvisers with big techniques but flawless awareness of when to leave spaces and implications – the reasons for its future as a much-played jazz standard become unmistakable.

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Return to Forever – Space Circus (1973)

Here is where many longtime Corea fans joined the club. The pianist’s music shifted from airy Latin-jazz glides to rockish and guitar-wailing on Return to Forever 2 (with only bassist Clarke remaining from the group’s first instalment). Full of turn-on-a-dime compositional tricks and buoyant, hooky themes often reminiscent of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, this album defined the 1970s sound of jazz-rock fusion. Corea’s mercurial inventiveness on keys, Bill Connors’ raw guitar sound, Clarke’s dazzling basslines and Lenny White’s implacably propulsive drumming do the rest on a track that starts deceptively wistful but snaps into swaggering funk.

Chick Corea/Eddie Gomez/Paul Motian – Peri’s Scope (2012)

Corea and Kind of Blue piano legend Bill Evans’s one-time partners Eddie Gomez (bass) and Paul Motian (drums) occupied New York’s Blue Note club for a fortnight in 2010, playing 24 sets that were boiled down to the live double album Further Explorations. Motian was one of the most texturally-sensitive drummers ever to play jazz, and Gomez a propulsive and conversational bassist, so the three were ideally fitted to reflect both Evans’s romantic and his surefooted, hard-swinging qualities. Corea’s unquenchable capacities for melodic surprises are at full stretch on Evans’s Peri’s Scope, over Gomez’s striding bass-walk.