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Jazz Fusion Pioneer, Chick Corea, Dies Of Cancer At 79

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND RETURN TO FOREVER'S "SPAIN")

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Iconic jazz musician Chick Corea died this past Tuesday. That's according to an announcement his family posted on his Facebook page last night. Corea was a towering figure in jazz for more than 50 years - straight-ahead jazz, electric jazz, fusion, Latin music. He could do them all and more. He won 23 Grammy Awards.

NPR's Felix Contreras was a fan, and he's here to tell us more about Chick Corea's legacy. Good morning, Felix.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

PFEIFFER: You know, to say the least, this was a household name, Chick Corea.

CONTRERAS: Chick Corea was so well-respected and admired that he was the kind of musician you referenced with just one name. To us, he was just Chick. And he bred that kind of familiarity because he had been making music for so long and because he was proficient in so many styles of jazz that there was something for everyone.

PFEIFFER: For people who don't know his background, where was he from? How did he get into music?

CONTRERAS: He's from the Boston area. And he started out, like so many musicians, in classical music on the piano. Then an interest in jazz eventually led to gigs with names like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, vocalist Sarah Vaughan and even Latin jazz with Mongo Santamaria, all while he was still in his 20s. He released his first album as a leader in 1968, and it's considered a benchmark for the modern jazz piano trio.

PFEIFFER: I understand there's a particular jazz album that Chick Corea did that you want to talk about. Really groundbreaking, I think came out in 1969.

CONTRERAS: Yeah, absolutely - most definitely. Check this out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "B****** BREW")

CONTRERAS: That's a track called "B****** Brew" by Miles Davis, and it kicked off a genre known as jazz fusion, which was influenced by rock and funk and soul music and was played on electric instruments. In fact, electric keyboards became one of Chick Corea's calling cards, especially in his band Return to Forever. And yet, even with all that amplification, his sound was always identifiable, always powered by endless curiosity and prodigious chops, which is jazz speak for impeccable technique and limitless improvisational skills.

PFEIFFER: And because of how wide-ranging he was, he kind of has something for everyone. Can you give us a sense of what else he's known for, what else people might like?

CONTRERAS: If you type Chick Corea discography into Wikipedia, you'll find over 70 albums under his name, and there are a lot more than that. Over the decades, he recorded some amazing avant-garde jazz albums, solo piano records that teeter between jazz and classical, as well as music by Mozart, straight-ahead acoustic jazz, a series of duet albums with musicians like vocalist Bobby McFerrin, pianist and fellow Miles Davis alumni Herbie Hancock and vibraphonist Gary Burton, and even banjo player Bela Fleck. And some of my favorites are the cross pollination of jazz and flamenco, which were so good that Chick Corea is revered among flamenco jazz musicians in Spain. This is a little bit of a tune called "Armando's Rhumba." And by the way, Armando is Chick's given name.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "ARMANDO'S RHUMBA")

PFEIFFER: Obviously, Chick Corea's music lives on. But what does his loss mean to you?

CONTRERAS: You know, I was gutted when I first heard the news. It was so unexpected. But I think I'm like a lot of jazz fans of a certain age. Musicians like Chick, Herbie Hancock, saxophonist Wayne Shorter - their music is such a big part of our lives that they're like our north stars, pointing the way home. And while we still have all of his recordings to listen to, losing Chick Corea is going to take some time getting used to.

PFEIFFER: Felix Contreras is the host of the podcast Alt.Latino for NPR Music. Thanks, Felix.

CONTRERAS: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "ARMANDO'S RHUMBA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.