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Newsletter August 2022

Dear Followers, 

We are pleased to announce the winner of our second Young Musicologist Competition 2022, which occurred earlier this year. 

Our adjudicators’ panel unanimously decided that the prizewinner is 16-year-old student Jakub Skop, for writing a brilliant article, Chick Corea and ‘Spain’: An avant-garde synthesis,  which we are happy to publish in this newsletter and on AGMA’s website. 

It was a pleasure to read this engaging and exciting written work, and we hope it appeals to our audience – especially during the summer break. 

NOTICE

Please note that regretfully, we will not be organising the Around the Globe Piano Music Festival – The Piano Competition this year. It has been a joy and a privilege to have instigated and run this festival, and we hope to continue next year in 2023.

Chick Corea and ‘Spain’: An avant-garde synthesis

By Jakub Skop

Composed in 1971, recorded in 1972, the album Light as a Feather modestly celebrates its 50th anniversary. An undeniable classic and crafted set of compositions in its own right, it is also a musical experiment that propelled an entire genre and kickstarted the distinctive piano style of Chick Corea. And it’s the album’s final piece Spain through which I’ll explore the influences and inspirations that sculpted this jazz standard for me. But first, a little background….

Background

Born on June 12, 1941 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, US, Armando Corea was steeped in music for most of his childhood. His father, a former Dixieland Jazz band leader, introduced the piano and drums to him at the ages of four and eight respectively. A teacher of his, concert pianist Salvatore Sullo, left a distinct imprint on the young Armando and fostered his love for composition. In his late teens, Armando began performing in gigs and then went on to play in a local jazz club – formal education was somewhat disappointing for Armando as he went to study very briefly at Columbia and Julliard but ultimately deciding that wasn’t the direction for him.[1] And so began his professional career in the 1960s, playing on the vibrant buzzing streets of New York City, ping-ponging between bands, like the Latin-infused ensembles of jazz fugitives Mongo Santamaria, flautist Herbie Mann and singer-songwriter Sarah Vaughan[2]. As Chick once said – “I couldn’t speak Spanish, but I was learning how to play!”. Establishing himself as a fresh and agile improviser, he quite simply, through word of mouth, secured himself a place in the company of arguably the greatest jazz player of all time, Miles Davis, during an incredibly formative time as part of Miles’s fantastical-sounding Lost Quintet, named so as no records were ever made. It was here that Miles Davis persuaded Chick to sample the electric Fender-Rhodes Piano, an instrument that Corea was initially skeptical of. Ironically, it has become inseparable from the smooth yet stirring timbre you could recognise from a tinny speaker across the street from the Rockefeller Center – “Yep, that’s Chick Corea!” The band went on to record pioneering albums such as Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way that paved the way for the jazz-rock fusion of the 1970s. And it was here that Chick split from the group to grow his own sound, beginning fleetingly as the free jazz group Circle, as well as some solo work. However, something wasn’t cutting it for Chick – between seeing the buzz generated by the jazz-rock of bands like Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, or his increased zeal for the humanist aspects of Scientology, Corea revealed a new avenue of exploration in his music – the audience. “I grew up kind of only thinking how much fun it was to tinkle on the piano and not noticing that what I did had an effect on others. I did not even think about a relationship with an audience, really, until way later.” This brings us full circle to the second album of the first incarnation of his project, Return to Forever, and the award-winning instrumental in which you hear this history coalesce into a single sparkling diamond in the rough.

Chick Corea’s Spain

Preceded by the flaring and flamboyant performances of Captain Marvel and Light as a FeatherSpain certainly doesn’t fail to deliver the same amazing level of energy. But before doing so, the piece starts with a somewhat unusual introduction; Unlike the bossa-nova inspired melancholy and sultry singing of Flora Purim on tracks like You’re Everything and 500 Miles High, it begins with classical music. More specifically, the opening of the adagio movement from Concierto de Aranjuez, a staple of the classical guitar repertoire written by legendary 20th Century Spanish classical composer Joaquín Rodrigo. And so, this light, fluttery and intricate melody in B minor begins the piece, accompaniment stripped back apart from a quiet flute drone and a shaker in the background that will always remind me of crickets and cicadas at dusk. Translating the theme between instrument and genre is itself a challenge, and Chick keeps the mordents and trills while adding his own jazzy chromatic passing notes and sequential flourishes as well as a sprinkle of high-register notes, resembling the ringing artificial harmonics a guitar player might play. And just as it perfect cadences and all seems done, the music explodes into a short bridge that feels like the main theme, first time round: tresillo rhythms in the flutes and castanet percussion imbue that Latin vibe, but nevertheless it is cut short by another bridge. This is an entirely new texture from the homophony of before – suddenly the drum groove stops, and the only percussion you hear is straight quaver claps: piano, bass and flute all play in unison, an unstoppable force spitting out these really syncopated rhythms; It never fails to make your head bop or your feet tap! This short bridge and B section are repeated again for the audience before every improvisation* to come – the highlight of this piece and any other jazz standard. Now that the stage had been set and the audience daringly enticed, it’s the turn of the musicians to one by one take the spotlight. And as much as I would love to dedicate time to each solo, especially the iconic flute playing by Joe Farell and a sharp and punchy bass solo from Stanley Clarke, I’ll specifically focus on Corea’s improv, beginning with the harmonic side of things:

 | Gmaj7 | F#7 | Em7 A7 | Dmaj7 (Gmaj7) | C#7(b9) F#7(#9) | Bm B7 |[3]

This is the loose outline of chords is taken partly from the concerto earlier (spiced up with extended chords often), and you can see many features of jazz harmony creeping in, such as the movement around the circle of fifths, especially the II-V-I progressions (C#7 → F#7 → Bm, or Em7 → A7 → Dmj7) – a staple of jazz harmony, they help establish temporary tonal centres in the progression, such as a centre of D (the relative major) in the middle of the progression. I also really enjoy the movement from the Bm to the B7; it always ends the phrases with this hopeful and bittersweet twinge. Melodically, Chick manages to artfully craft a really beautiful, light and engaging solo; sometimes you’ll hear large sequential passages of just semiquavers up or down the keyboard, and then a more dissonant passage, or something rhythmic to draw the ear back, all while the left-hand alternates between staccato chords or a tresillo rhythm bassline to fill in the gaps of silence and often voicing the chords without the 5th, a much more spacious sound.

Afterword

After Chick Corea passed away only last year at the age of 79, he still continues to inspire listeners across the world, and it’s impossible to not be seduced by this piece’s charm. This was the first piece of his I ever heard, and continues to be my favourite, not only because it prompted me to discover the modern side of jazz, I never was keen on listening to before. Accessible and appealing, energetic and enthralling, it will never be forgotten.

* For the classically minded this is like a modified Rondo form [1] allmusic.com/artist/chick-corea-mn0000110541/biography [2] jazzwise.com/features/article/chick-corea-interview-music-can-bring-us-together [3] A transcription of the piece – benwillmott.com/blog/transcription-chick-corea-solo-spain/

Jakub Skop is a 16-year-old student at Watford Grammar School for Boys. He currently plays piano at Grade 5 level and has participated in numerous competitions, including AGMA piano festivals three years in a row and winning the WBGS piano competition. Jazz music has been particularly formative for him; he enjoys both playing and composing his own jazz pieces, one of which won an award in the Compose Yourself competition. Outside of school he also recently joined the Woodwind Concert Band of the Watford School of Music and has performed a variety of pieces with them. In the future, Jakub hopes to study at sixth-form and then Mathematics at university.’

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