Chick Corea, who has died aged 79, was a playfully prodigious jazz piano improviser, a versatile composer and a pioneer of 1970s jazz-rock fusion. Admired for his work across many genres from rock and Latin to classical, he was also loved for his palpable delight in live performance, a quality that allowed him to tour relentlessly for five decades without losing his grin of startled gratitude as he ambled on to the stage.
He could compose and perform solo-piano miniatures in the manner of Béla Bartók or write and arrange for symphony orchestras and string quartets, and was equally in his element amid rock-anthem firestorms ignited by synths, howling electric guitars, thundering percussion, and his own knack for memorable melodies. But he was probably most at home in the timeless jazz format of an improvising trio with bass and drums.
He played with some of the leading stars of jazz’s mainstream in his early years – including Cab Calloway, Stan Getz and Sarah Vaughan – but his most famous assignment as a sideman was in the late 60s with Miles Davis. Corea was a powerful presence in that gifted circle of young musicians that helped Davis produce the genre-busting, heavily electric Bitches Brew sessions, redefining the sound of jazz.
In the early 70s he investigated atonal chamber jazz with Dave Holland, a former Davis bassist, and others, and then moved towards more communal rather than introverted pursuits through his encounters with Scientology. He experimented with airily vocal Latin jazz dance grooves with his fusion band Return to Forever, thickening the sound with increasingly rock-heavy elements as the decade progressed. Oscillating between a rock feel and a more lyrical Latin-inflected vibe (the 1976 album My Spanish Heart joined jazz and flamenco music), he also began a series of intimate improv duos with peers such as the former Getz vibraphonist Gary Burton and fellow piano star Herbie Hancock.
By that time he had provided jazz musicians a raft of new standard songs, including La Fiesta, Armando’s Rhumba, and Spain. In the 80s and 90s he juggled genres on constant world tours and album releases with his Elektric Band and its Akoustic sub-group, as well as with his powerful, horn-packed Origin sextet. Nonetheless he kept his classic jazz antennae sharp with regular revisits to the standards repertoire and originals in their likeness, and he launched the Stretch Records label to document his own work and introduce new artists.
After the turn of the millennium he swung tirelessly on – in reunions with old associates, versions of new classic jazz trios, a starring role in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 2011 retrospective in his honour, a steady stream of new pieces, and a powerful new band in the Vigil, launched in 2013 to blend the raw power of his earlier fusion groups and the subtlety of his first and lasting love, acoustically conversational jazz.
Corea was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, to the Boston trumpeter and bandleader Armando Corea and his wife, Anna (nee Zaccone). Corea Sr began guiding his son’s piano studies when he was four, but encouraged him also to play the trumpet, drums and vibraphone. Chick, who acquired his nickname from an aunt who liked to address him as “Cheeky”, later learned classical piano from the Boston Pops concert pianist Salvatore Sullo, performing regularly with a local marching band and playing restaurant and dance jobs in his teens.
He took up formal musical studies in New York at Columbia University and the Juilliard school of music, but soon dropped out to take on professional gigs – with leaders including the Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria, the trumpeter Blue Mitchell, and in the late 60s with Getz. He revealed his composing talents on his 1967 debut album as a leader, Tones For Joan’s Bones, which featured Steve Swallow on bass and Woody Shaw on trumpet. The next year’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, a session featuring the Czech bassist Miroslav Vitouš and the drummer Roy Haynes, showed just how much the newcomer revered the piano-trio format of his forebears while imagining audacious new ways to stretch it further.
Between 1968 and 1970, in a version of Davis’s Bitches Brew lineup, he provided insistently drum-like chordwork behind the solos of Davis and the saxophonist Wayne Shorter, as well as impressionistic keyboard breaks that seemed to stray close to freefall improvisation. Two 1971 albums, Piano Improvisations Vols 1 & 2, then explored a lyrical solo piano sound before Keith Jarrett became well-known for a similar approach four years later, and in 1984 Corea’s Bartók-influenced Children’s Songs highlighted his talent for balancing spontaneous intuitions and structural shapeliness.
Although he was inclined towards delicacy and subtlety when left alone with a piano and likeminded friends, Corea genuinely relished the full-on, prog-rockish energy that his later editions of Return to Forever had unleashed, including on the mid-70s albums Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (1973) and Where Have I Known You Before (1974). Through the new millennium he remained on the road with various reunion bands, with duos (including with the bluegrass banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck) and with the Vigil. At the age of 70 in 2011 he had a month-long residency at the Blue Note club in New York that was edited into a feature-length documentary and the dynamic and diverse music on the box set The Musician: Live at the Blue Note Jazz Cafe.
He released the Latin jazz album Antidote with his Spanish Heart Band in 2019, and the following year the trio album Trilogy 2 with Christian McBride on bass and Brian Blade on drums.
In 2006 Corea was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, and over his career he picked up 23 Grammy awards, having been nominated 60 times.
He is survived by his wife, Gayle Moran, his son Thaddeus and daughter Liana from a previous marriage, and by two grandchildren.
• Chick (Armando Anthony) Corea, musician, born 12 June 1941; died 9 February 2021