Back Pages #9: How Chick Corea Ended Up on My Rock Mixtape

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

Midday yesterday, I caught word that Chick Corea had died. So I made a plan for that evening: For the first time in years, I would spin my vinyl copy of Again and Again (Elektra, 1983).

It is by no means the most “free jazz” thing in Corea’s discography, nor a classic that the jazz scholars will tell you to hunt down. It isn’t even on Spotify. The album was a random purchase sometime in the very early ’90s, possibly even 1988 or ’89 — early in my jazz fandom, when I was still gathering my jazz education.

I’m fuzzy on the details, but I think I’d latched onto the Chick Corea Elektric Band first, during my smooth-jazz phase. That band was only a few years old but already felt dated, and the hairstyles and keytar weren’t helping. So I think I was looking for other Corea angles, but I had no compass to point me to classic piano albums like My Spanish Heart. (Later, I would rely on Len Lyons’ The 101 Best Jazz Albums — campy title, but it’s an excellent guide to jazz history.) Instead, I found Again and Again in a record store one day, and I was apparently in a buying mood.

Here’s how green I was: Despite the back cover listing the instruments Corea plays, by brand name, I didn’t realize all the keyboards would be electric. That didn’t bother me at the time. I just find it interesting to think that back then, I had no idea.

I do remember this album fondly, even though a lot of it was illegible to me. It isn’t fusion; it’s more like modern jazz that happens to use electrified keyboards. The opening track, “Quintet #3,” pairs a sunny Latin jazz flute against a more abstract faux-funk phrase on electric piano. On first listen, I felt like I didn’t understand it, but I liked it enough to stick it on a mixtape despite its 9-minute length.

For me, mixtapes were ephemeral. I’d keep only five or six cassettes in rotation, entirely rock and pop (prog too), each with a lifespan of two or three months. They were intended primarily for singing along during car commuting, and they were also a way to “learn” tracks from new album acquisitions. I tried to craft these 45-minute tape sides as if they were real albums, which meant sequencing and pacing mattered. (I thought about these things even in my mainstream rock phase — signs of a college radio DJ to be.) Instrumentals had to be placed carefully, as they could feel like roadblocks, but the idea of a 9-minute quasi-abstract instrumental plopped into the early tracks of Side A appealed to me as an experiment. I did make it work, at least for my taste, and I remember keeping that tape in rotation for several more months than usual. That’s how “Quintet #3” stuck in my head, for decades.

But I hadn’t actually listened to the song, or the rest of the album, in years.

(That’s “Quintet #3” in that video. Whoever uploaded it didn’t get the track title down.)

Again and Again has neither the bombast nor the syrup of Return to Forever. It’s enjoyably light without being sappy, with improvising spaces that are longer and freer that I remembered. Most likely, I’d tuned them out back when. Now I’m loving them. Side 2 is more open, with Corea spending most, possibly all, of his time on synthesizers. The sound is still dated but not harshly so, aided by the wide-sky exploration of the band alongside him. I’m particularly loving the way Carlos Benavent wanders on bass.

Side 1, in addition to “Quintet #3,” has a couple of melody-driven pieces with Corea sticking to the Fender Rhodes. It’s pleasant, but Side 2 captured my attention more.

I could dig so much further. I still haven’t spent enough time with Corea’s piano work. Return to Forever gets too sweet for me, but I sure do love it when they go into attack mode. (“Vulcan Worlds,” wow.) Right now, I’m spinning Circle’s Paris Concert (ECM, 1972), which more closely suits the mission of this whole blog. Being a jazz fan means chasing a lot of history, but it sure is a fun ride.