Corea is regarded as one of the most important jazz musicians and composers of his generation. Many of his compositions are considered jazz standards. As a member of Miles Davis' band in the 1960s, he participated in the birth of the electric jazz fusion movement. In the 1970s he formed Return to Forever.
Corea continued to pursue other collaborations and to explore various musical styles throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He is also known for promoting Scientology.
Corea developed his piano skills by exploring music on his own. A notable influence was concert pianist Salvatore Sullo from whom Corea started taking lessons at age eight, who introduced him to classical music, helping spark his interest in musical composition. He also spent several years as a performer and soloist for The Knights of St. Rose, a Drum & Bugle Corp based in Chelsea.
Given a black tuxedo by his father, he started doing gigs when in high school. He enjoyed listening to Herb Pomeroy's band at the time, and had a trio which would play Horace Silver's music at a local jazz club.
He eventually decided to move to New York where he studied musical education for one month at Columbia University and six months at The Juilliard School. He quit after finding both disappointing, but liked the atmosphere of New York where the musical scene became the starting point for his professional career.
Corea started his professional career in the 1960s playing with trumpeterBlue Mitchell and Latin greats such as Herbie Mann, Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaría. One of the earliest recordings of his playing is with Blue Mitchell's quintet on The Thing To Do. This album features his composition "Chick's Tune", a clever retooling of "You Stepped Out of a Dream" that demonstrates the angular melodies and Latin-and-swing rhythms that characterize, in part, Corea's personal style. (Incidentally, the same tune features a drum solo by a very young Al Foster.)
From 1968 to 1971 Chick Corea had associations with avant garde players and his solo style revealed a dissonant, avant garde orientation. His avant garde playing can be heard on his solo works of the period, his solos in live recordings under the leadership of Miles Davis, his recordings with Circle, and his playing on Joe Farrell's Song of the Wind album on CTI Records.
Holland and Corea left to form their own group, Circle, active between 1970 and 1971. This free jazz group featured multi-reed player Anthony Braxton and drummer Barry Altschul. This band was documented on Blue Note and ECM. Aside from soloing in an atonal style, Corea sometimes reached in the body of the piano and plucked the strings. In 1971 or 1972 Corea struck out on his own.
The concept of communication with an audience became a big thing for me at the time. The reason I was using that concept so much at that point in my life — in 1968, 1969 or so — was because it was a discovery for me. 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 to an audience, really, until way later.
In the following year the band moved more in the direction of rock music influenced by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Only Clarke remained from the group's first lineup; Bill Connors played electric guitar and Lenny White played drums. No one replaced vocalist Purim. (Briefly, in 1977, Corea's wife, Gayle Moran, served as vocalist in the band.) In 1974 Al Di Meola joined the band, replacing Connors. In this second version of Return to Forever, Corea extended the use of synthesizers, particularly Moogs. The group released its final studio record in 1977. Thereafter, Corea focused on solo projects.
Corea's composition "Spain" first appeared on the 1972 Return to Forever album Light as a Feather. This is probably his most popular piece, and it has been recorded by a variety of artists. There are also a variety of subsequent recordings by Corea himself in various contexts, including an arrangement for piano and symphony orchestra that appeared in 1999, and a collaborative piano and voice-as-instrument arrangement with Bobby McFerrin on the 1992 album Play. Corea usually performs "Spain" with a prelude based on Joaquín Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez (1940), which earlier received a jazz orchestration on Miles Davis' and Gil Evans' "Sketches of Spain".
The late Ana Mazzotti, a Brazilian jazz pianist and vocalist, dedicated what is perhaps her last ever recorded track, "Grand Chick", to Chick Corea. The song may be found on her "Ao Vivo Guaruja 1982" album. As Ana Mazzotti worked with Brazilian jazz fusion masters Azymuth in her first album, it was further testament to Chick Corea's influence in the genre.
In the 1970s Corea started working occasionally with vibraphonistGary Burton, with whom he recorded several duet albums on ECM, including 1972's Crystal Silence. They reunited in 2006 for a concert tour. A new record called The New Crystal Silence (which has received 3 nominations for the 51st Grammy Awards) was issued shortly into 2008. The package includes a disc of duets and another disc featuring the Sydney Symphony.
Later, toward the end of the 1970s, Corea embarked on a series of concerts and two albums with Herbie Hancock. These concerts were presented in elegant settings with both pianists formally dressed, and performing on Yamaha concert grand pianos. The two jazz greats traded playing each other's compositions, as well as pieces by other composers such as Béla Bartók.
In December 2007 Corea recorded a duet album, The Enchantment, with banjoist Bela Fleck . Fleck and Corea toured extensively behind the album in 2007. Fleck was nominated in the Best Instrumental Composition category at the 49th Grammy Awards for the track "Spectacle."
In 2008 Corea collaborated with Japanese pianist Hiromi Uehara on the live album Duet (Chick Corea and Hiromi). The duo played a concert at Tokyo's Budokan arena on April 30.
The Akoustic Band released a self-titled album in 1989, and featured John Patitucci on bass and Dave Weckl on drums. It marked a turn back toward traditional jazz in Corea's career, and the bulk of his subsequent recordings have been acoustic ones. The Akoustic Band also provided the music for the 1986 Pixar short Luxo Jr. with their song The Game Maker.
In 2008 the second version of Return to Forever (Corea, keyboards; Stanley Clarke, bass; Lenny White, drums; Al Di Meola, guitar) reunited for a worldwide tour. The reunion received positive reviews from most jazz and mainstream publications. Most of the group's studio recordings were re-released on the compilation Return to Forever: The Anthology to coincide with the tour. A concert DVD recorded during their performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival was released in May 2009. He is recently working on a collaboration CD with the Grammy Award winning jazz vocal group The Manhattan Transfer, due to be released in August 2009.
Under the "special thanks" notes, found in all of his later albums, Corea mentions that L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, has been a continual source of inspiration. In 1968 Corea discovered Dianetics, Hubbard's principal work, and in the early 1970s developed an interest in Hubbard's science fiction novels. The two exchanged letters until Hubbard's death in 1986, and Corea even had three guest appearances on Hubbard's 1982 album Space Jazz: The Soundtrack of the Book Battlefield Earth, noting, "[Hubbard] was a great composer and keyboard player as well. He did many, many things. He was a true Renaissance Man."
Corea claimed that Scientology became a profound influence on his musical direction in the early 1970s:
I no longer wanted to satisfy myself. I really want to connect with the world and make my music mean something to people.
An Interview with Chick Corea by Bob Rosenbaum, July 1974 (PDF file) 'You put these notes together and you come out with that sound, and isn’t it beautiful. So what? What does it do to another person? What does it do to your neighborhood?'