Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Chick Corea Question

At the most recent IAJE conference, the NEA inducted this year’s Jazz Master class. Included was Chick Corea. In accepting the honor, Corea first thanked the musicians he has played with, to a warm round of applause. He then thanked his wife, Return to Forever vocalist Gayle Moran to another polite round of applause. He then thanked L. Ron Hubbard for his creative inspiration. Talk about Crystal Silence, it was deafening. The next night he played a trio set with Jack DeJohnette and Eddie Gomez before the same audience that was enthusiastically received.

Corea is the resident Scientology advocate in the jazz community, and he not shy about it. This has caused some issues for him, most notably in Germany where the government considers the Church of Hubbard a cult instead of a religion. In a well publicized incident, Corea was refused permission to play a concert given his habit of proselytizing from the bandstand. Since Hollywood considered the Clinton Administration their wholly owned subsidiary, celebrity Church members like John Travolta successfully lobbied to make this issue a top priority for the State Department, pointlessly straining U.S.-German relations over a trivial issue.

Much has been written about Corea and Scientology, but it has largely been from Scientology partisans, pro or con. Given his stature as an improviser, the jazz press seems reluctant to really delve into the issue. To be sure, Corea always mentions it in interviews, but the major jazz magazines usually try to bring the focus back to the object of the current publicity campaign. With Scientology in the entertainment press for its feud with South Park, and Air Enron host Janeane Garofalo starting to flack for a dubious Scientology-affiliated drug treatment program, it’s a fine time to really take a look at the effects of Scientology on Corea’s music.

Many Corea albums, like My Spanish Heart and Mad Hatter would not suggest a Scientology connection, if it weren’t for the acknowledgment to Hubbard in the liner notes. My vinyl copy of Again and Again on Elektra appears to be the exception, with no shout out to L. Ron. Nice session too.

Corea did lend his musical credibility to albums from L. Ron Hubbard, and his daughter Diana. Among Corea’s discography, these probably rank as his least impressive work. The senior Hubbard composed the music for Space Jazz: the Soundtrack of the Book (the book being Battlefield Earth pictured on the cover). It opens with voices chanting the names of science fiction heroes (“Buck Rogers! Flash Gordon!”), set to a lackluster march in “Golden Era of Sci Fi.” After that, what music there is, is usually overwhelmed by sci-fi effects and dramatic snippets from the novel, as on “Terl, the Security Director” and “The Drone.” To be sure, the better cuts, like “Windsplitter” are the ones featuring Corea, but they are far from satisfying. Diana Hubbard’s album LifeTimes is basically light classical. Not particularly memorable, but not unpleasant. Corea plays an undistinguished keyboard accompaniment on one track, “Bewitched.”

There are some records under Corea’s name that explicitly reference Scientology and the question is, how rewarding are they given the source of inspiration? Mixed bag. Take Delphi I. Recorded at the Scientology-affiliated Delphian School in OR, Corea improvised a solo set, starting with the Delphi suite, reflecting the harmonious life at the school. The opening “Alma Mater” is an attractive theme, but the following movements of “the good judgment of the staff” and “the beautiful rolling hills” just do not take it anywhere. Evidently, there is no action or drama at Delphi. I’m glad I never went there. Perhaps most telling, it appears the Delphi sessions appear to bo the only Corea on Polygram not released on CD in America or Japan.

More successful are Corea’s two most recent concept CDs, which dramatize Hubbard novels far more successfully than Space Jazz. To the Stars was released in conjunction with the reissue of the science fiction novel of the same name. Featuring type big enough for a middle grader with ADD, the book barely bulks up to 210 pages. While the characters are one-dimensional, the story did inspire some rich compositions. Recorded with a reunited Elektric Band, including great musicians (particularly John Patitucci), To the Stars is a very entertaining CD. It is only marred by the “Port Views,” gimmicky interludes between tunes meant to convey the spaciness of space.

The Ultimate Adventure is a Hubbard Arabian Nights style fantasy. As such this literary concept lent itself to Eastern and Latin sounds. Ultimate Adventure is also a strong CD, more consistent in tone, without desert view interludes, performed by great musicians, including Hubert Laws. For whatever reason though, the individual themes are not as strong as Stars, but it is a pleasant sound palette.

Ultimately we can’t truly determine the effect of Corea’s conversion on his creativity. Would he have he produced his classic My Spanish Heart otherwise? Possibly, who knows? Would he have produced Delphi I? Probably not, as it was the product of a very specific set of circumstances. Could the music inspired by To the Stars and Ultimate Adventure have been inspired by another source? Maybe not. Again, that’s impossible to answer. Would he have performed on Space Jazz? Almost certainly not. I suppose that’s giving the final word to Scientology’s critics.