The best of Chick Corea: Five essential albums by the renowned pianist

The passing of Chick Corea took from the jazz scene one of the most successful and popular musicians of our time.

In a career of six decades, he was a solo artist, a sideman, a bandleader, a composer and a ceaseless recording artist. He recorded and released nearly 100 albums and won 23 Grammys in addition to countless other awards, nominations and honours. His warmth, humour and down-to-earth personality were pervasive in his life and his music. I never heard anyone say a bad word about him.

Corea’s musical talents went far beyond jazz: He embraced classical, fusion, orchestral and, of course, Latin music. He made music with a stunning array of collaborators and had a special affinity for bringing everyone into the music through audience participation.

A few years ago, Corea played a solo gig at the Markham Theatre, and I had the pleasure of meeting and introducing him. He dropped a load of sheet music on the piano and asked the audience what he should play. It was like being in his living room. He played his own compositions, some Scriabin (a Russian composer of a century ago) and, sure enough, his signature piece, Spain, getting the audience to sing vocal lines of ever-increasing rhythmic and melodic complexity.

There was no one like him. He had ceaseless energy, wit, talent, virtuosity and dedication to making glorious music.

Chick Corea wrote and played so much exquisite, swinging, inventive music that I urge you to explore all his recordings. From such a career, how do you pick just five essential albums? The truth is you can’t. But these are all landmarks. Whether you know them already or not, you can’t go wrong with any of them.

Return to Forever – Light as a Feather (1973)

Before Return to Forever became known and massively popular as a rock-oriented fusion group, it was a smaller acoustic and Latin jazz ensemble. With Joe Farrell’s flute and sax and Floria Purim’s ethereal vocals, this album was a massive hit.

Chick Corea and Gary Burton – Crystal Silence (1973)

Here’s Gary Burton and Chick Corea at the beginning of their more than 40-year collaboration, the first of their seven albums as a duet. These are two virtuosos thinking almost as one. After one of their performances, Chick once said to an audience, “You’ve just heard Gary do things that are impossible.”

Chick Corea Akoustic Band – Chick Corea Akoustic Band (1989)

By the end of the ’80s, Chick had played and recorded a great deal of loud, energetic jazz fusion to great acclaim. This album marked a return to the classic trio form for most of the rest of his career. Two standout tracks are Bessie’s Blues and TBC (Terminal Baggage Claim).

Chick Corea – Children’s Songs (1984)

Classical music was a huge influence on Chick’s writing, notably that of the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. These 20 short, brilliant, deceptively simple pieces are more formal than Corea’s jazz, but they’re always swinging and melodic. He played and recorded individual numbers from the suite in concert but rarely performed all of them in one go. This studio recording is by far the best version, with an addendum for piano, violin and cello.

Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Roy Haynes & Dave Holland – Like Minds (1998)

This is an all-star quintet session with guitarist Pat Metheny, vibraphonist Gary Burton, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Roy Haynes. They play four tunes by Metheny, three by Corea and two by Burton, and they sound like they’d been playing as a quintet forever. I keep coming back to this album, one of the most satisfying and inventive in the careers of all five of the musicians.

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