Another Dimension: Chick Corea

Delving into the jazz-adjacent cameos of a consummate musician.

Still thinking about Chick Corea over here.

It’s not quite “All roads lead to Chick.” More like: “Follow Chick down all kinds of roads.” The pianist and composer repeatedly took his audiences into delirious genre-blurring fusions and time-travel wormholes. He’d start with music from the deep past, like a theme by Dominico Scarlatti, and weave its melodic and structural elements into an entirely alive, thrillingly logical new composition.

The other day I gazed at Corea’s sprawling discography, thinking it would take years to hear all of it. And I began to wonder about the stuff he did that wasn’t even represented on his Wikipedia page — like those random guest appearances on pop records. Knew about some of them – a trippy synth cameo on a Rick Derringer tune called “Rock” from 1974; the sparkling work he did as part of the band on Chaka Khan’s 1982 jazz foray Echoes of an Era; some tasty electric piano he added to Cat Stevens’ 1977 “Bonfire” from Izitso.

Those all offer great moments. Still, I wanted an instance where Corea contributed more than a brief high-octane hired-gun solo, and found it in the work of an under-known LA-based singer songwriter named Jimmie Spheeris, who died in 1984 in a motorcycle accident. The brother of filmmaker Penelope Spheeris, Jimmie Spheeris was a Scientologist, like Corea. Signed by Clive Davis to Epic Records in the early ‘70s, Spheeris made two idyllic, meditative records before changing to a more assertive sound for his 1975 release The Dragon Is Dancing.

That album’s title track features Corea on both electric piano and mini-Moog synth, and it suggests just what kind of accomplice Corea could be in a non-jazz situation. On the verses, Corea is integral to the tune’s structure, alternating between splashy electric piano decorations and a crisp arpeggio pattern with echoes of Return To Forever circa Romantic Warrior. Spheeris’ chord sequences reveal a rich harmonic intelligence at work, and Corea seizes on the unusual changes like a tour guide, highlighting the points of tension and release that define the tune. After the last chorus, there’s a minute-long Moog solo that’s flat-out classic Chick Corea – with little playground-taunt riffs followed by delighted, impulsive sweeps and runs that travel the entire range of the keyboard. If you like Corea as a synthesist, you will smile.

This tune (and another Corea and Stanley Clarke did on Spheeris’ subsequent album) shows Corea very much doing his thing in a context – mellow ‘70s singer-songwriter pop – that wasn’t necessarily his thing. The moves he makes offer a perspective on musicianship that’s worth celebrating: He attends to what the music needs, not what his ego needs. He looks for, and finds, little grace-note-sized ways to enhance what’s going on. It’s the approach we once expected from consummate musicians, and about a million miles away from today’s contrived, blustery, stage-managed star cameos.

Two short playlists below.