If the 1978 Grammy givers had handed out an award for Quietest Live Performance by a Jazz-Rock Artist Accustomed to Blowing Away His Fans at 115 Decibels, two men would have had to share the prize. They are Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, each a virtuoso of all keyboards in the booming jazz-rock genre, who have pulled the plug on their numbingly amplified bands. Instead, Corea and Hancock are touring together playing nothing more deafening or complex than the instrument used by Mozart and Chopin (quaintly referred to by electronic freaks as “acoustic piano”).
Facing each other at their dueling Steinways, CC & HH have offered fourhanded pieces, improvised dialogues ranging from Bartók and Gershwin to Miles Davis, and their own sophisticated minisonatas. And in recital halls so quiet you could hear an ego drop, there’s been no chance for front-man power trips, electrical or artistic. “Herbie and I start out,” says Chick, “with a very basic love for each other and a positive trust. We’re real open and own up to our mistakes.” Echoes Herbie: “The first time I heard Chick on piano, it was one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had.” Together the two friends have created what many jazz critics consider the tour of the decade.
Aside from collaborating with one of his few equals in jazz-rock, Corea, 36, is finding the tour a creative respite from the auditory annihilation of his Return to Forever band. “I’m fed up with the volume level and body destruction trip,” he says. “My hearing has degenerated in my right ear. Harmonies and melodies were being drowned out. And that’s a big chunk of my creativity.”
Corea has also found time to return to his strictly unelectric suburban Boston roots. His father, Armando, a second-generation Italian-American, played trumpet with his own Dixieland band. Chick grew up listening to jazz greats like Charlie Parker and Art Tatum and began playing piano himself in Cape Cod supper clubs. After sampling both Columbia University and New York’s Juilliard School of Music, he dropped out for Greenwich Village and some of the great bands going: Mongo Santamaria, Blue Mitchell, Herbie Mann and Stan Getz. In 1968 Corea joined Miles Davis, replacing, of all people, the departing (and one year older) Herbie Hancock on keyboards. Since founding the first edition of RTF with bassist Stanley Clarke and vocalist Flora Purim in 1972, Corea has won three Grammys.
Chick’s home away from the road is a Tudor-style Hollywood Hills estate he shares “after three years of unholy matrimony [i.e., unwed]” with Gayle Moran, RTF’s vocalist. (Corea is currently producing her debut solo LP.) His son Thad, 14, and daughter Liana, 13, live with Corea’s first wife in Boston. A Scientology devotee and part-time vegetarian, Corea sporadically tries one-week fasts—though he would need a longer abstinence to make up for the eggplant-and-ravioli feasts his mother serves during her frequent sojourns in L.A.
Not the least reward of Chick and Herbie’s back-to-fundamentals tour is the rediscovery of the pleasures of playing small halls. Last year Corea toured with “mountains of instruments and amps.” Now he’s traveling with “nothing but a suitcase” and is convinced “I can make just as much money touring this way as with huge expenses and equipment, larger halls and 13 pieces. I love this,” he glows. “It’s incredibly clean and simple.” Which is not to say that his multiwatt days are over. “To me, acoustic and electronic music are like colors of the palette,” Corea cautions. “My game is to pull them together and express more corners of my life. But I’m a ham. If I were forced to play at 120 decibels”—roughly equivalent to the sound of the Concorde—”I’d prefer that to not playing at all.”