The careers of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock have run on relatively parallel courses since both appeared on the scene in the early 1960s. A year apart in age, both pianists put in apprenticeship time with Miles Davis during a particularly fertile period in the trumpeter's development, then moved into electric fusion (Corea's Return to Forever) and funk (Hancock's Headhunters) in the early '70s. Both musicians built their reputations on their fervent experimentalism and rejection of convention, so it came as something of a surprise to some jazz fans when, in 1978, they announced a joint tour: just the two of them, unaccompanied, playing acoustic pianos. The resultant albums, 1978's An Evening with Herbie Hancock & Chick Corea: In Concert and 1979's CoreaHancock, were enthusiastically received, but except for a one-off festival gig in Italy in 2013, it's been more than three decades since these two revered icons have toured together. In a recent interview with JazzTimes associate editor Jeff Tamarkin, the two discuss their joint return to Carnegie Hall.
What first impressed each of you about the other's playing?
Corea: I heard Herbie live at Birdland at a Monday night jam session, and he took a fresh approach to some of the usual tunes, a freer approach that I immediately identified with. Herbie was exploring and playing some different things: he was using lots of space and playing outside the usual harmonies, but it all made beautiful musical sense and I got tremendously inspired. Hancock: For me, it was Chick's openness to various approaches, his courage, and not being afraid to try things. He's an amazing composer, and that's evident. You can hear that sense in his playing.
You've both grown so much as musicians and composers in the years since those first duet concerts. What do you anticipate will be different now?
Hancock: We were much younger back then. Our fingers were flying all over the place! Not that our fingers can't fly anymore, but I think that there'll be a maturity this time ... around. Along with that, there'll be a youthful spirit on this tour that will be evident to anyone who tries to compare what we did then to what we do now. And this time we're also going to have synthesizers. We may not always use them, but it's pretty open-ended in case we want to go to them. Corea: It's all improvisation and exploration: that's always been our favorite musical game. Surprises from beginning to end. Hancock: We have a deep friendship, a deep bond, and a deep respect for each other, and we seem to react creatively to each other: I would say in an effortless way,but that would make it seem like we're not working at it. Chick can play something and immediately it will stimulate something in me, and it goes back and forth. We're constantly feeding each other.
Chick, what was your experience after you replaced Herbie in Miles Davis's band?
Corea: When I first joined Miles's band, I was on cloud nine. There was so much happening in the band around me: with [drummer] Tony Williams playing all this wild stuff, Miles up in the stratosphere, and [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter playing some of the most incredible lines I ever heard. So really I did all I could to just hang in there. I didn't have time to think about anything. Then came the '70s, which were wild! Herbie, Tony, Wayne, [keyboardist] Joe Zawinul, [guitarist] John McLaughlin, and myself each went out in various directions: all inspired by our sojourns with Miles. Miles had already demonstrated the artistic richness of connecting with young audiences. We were all young and wanted to do the same.
What was behind the decision to return to acoustic music together after having concentrated on electric instrumentation with your '70s bands?
Corea: I don't think Herbie and I ever thought that playing the acoustic piano was a "return." It always has been and still is our basic instrument. All the electric instruments I've dabbled with I usually use just for coloration and added textures. The meat and heart of the music has always come through the piano.
Yet now, as Herbie mentioned, you're bringing synthesizers into the mix.
Hancock: I think the synthesizers will be something different than we had before. But every day should be a surprise. We are a lot older: we're both in our 70s now: and we've had a lot more experience. And we haven't really played together, so that's going to be exciting for us and we hope our excitement from working together is going to extend and project out to the audience.
You've both played Carnegie Hall numerous times. What are your thoughts on bringing this duets show back to this space?
Corea: Carnegie Hall is Carnegie Hall, isn't it? It's a venerable hall that reeks and creaks with history, and it's always a big thrill to be on that stage, having finally figured out the best way to get to Carnegie Hall. It's just got that vibe that's accumulated through the wonderful years of all the great music that has been performed on that stage. You would have to be numb not to experience it. It's magical. Hancock: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It's a symbol of New York in the field of music, in both the classical sense and for jazz. It's a big deal to play there. Wow, we're playing Carnegie Hall! I do remember that I was a little nervous about it the first time, yet thrilled at the same time. There's so much history there.
What else would you like the audience to know in advance of this concert?
Hancock: After those early tours together, we got amazingly positive feedback from people who attended those concerts, and it's lasted over the years. I still have people come up to me and ask, "When are you and Chick going to tour again?" Corea: Well, Herbie is my longtime friend, one of my most important teachers and big musical inspirations. So to be able to share the stage each night with him in these rarefied settings: just the two of us playing, doing the thing we both love doing best: is such a highlight of the creative imagination for me that I know the audiences will be able to feel that atmosphere. The audience should be prepared: as we will be: to experience anything.