Ask Chick Corea for his memories of Philadelphia, and the renowned keyboardist rattles off a virtual jazz history lesson. There was the weeklong run at the long-gone Cadillac Club in the late '60s with one of his heroes, Chet Baker, and a local pick-up rhythm section; the run with tenor giant Joe Henderson where he met longtime collaborator-to-be Stanley Clarke; the gigs at Pep's Showbar on Broad Street with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers; the early show with the original version of his pioneering fusion group Return to Forever, where the opening act was an unknown vocal group called the Manhattan Transfer.
"And I used to like getting ribs on South Street," he concludes, adding ruefully: "I'm off ribs now."
When Corea returns to Philly on Sunday at the Academy of Music, it will be as a legend on par with some of those great names of the past.
He'll still be paying tribute to his predecessors, though; as a special guest with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, he'll offer his take on the music of Thelonious Monk.
Arriving at the tail end of celebrations for the pianist/composer's October centennial, the show will feature new arrangements of Monk's familiar tunes by members of Marsalis' acclaimed big band, as well as Corea's own take on a lesser-known Monk composition, "Work."
Corea learned first-hand from Monk early in his career, sharing bills with the pianist at Harlem's Apollo Theater while a member of percussionist Mongo Santamaria's band. "I think it was a three-week engagement, with three bands," Corea draws from the haze of memory while crossing the country on a tour bus with the orchestra, heading from Arizona to Waukegan, Ill.
"Mongo's band opened the show, Monk's quartet played second, and Maynard Ferguson's band closed the show," he recalls. "It was thrilling. In the back of the stage, there was a curtain with a hole right around my eye level. I was able to see Monk sitting right there at the piano, so I watched him play as many sets as I could for practically the whole three weeks. It was a lesson in music."
Corea has paid back that inadvertent lesson many times throughout his career, occasionally interpreting Monk tunes here and there, often leaning toward lesser-known titles. In 1981, he released Trio Music, a two-album set featuring his unlikely trio with electric bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes, a full album of which was dedicated to Monk. "Roy actually played with Monk," Corea says, "so he knew Monk intimately and loved all of Monk's tunes. It was an enticement to me to be able to play Monk's songs with Roy, and the combination of viewpoints with Miroslav always intrigued me. They were such different kinds of musicians but came together in our trio to make a really interesting sound."
This time around, Corea will be playing with the full force of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra behind him. "It's been a creative blast playing with Wynton's organization," he says. "The musicians in the band are great; they're pros. What Wynton has put together is a phenomenon. He's built an amazing perpetual music-making organization."
While the band has been exploring arrangements of Corea's own music on the early parts of their current tour, the guest of honor is equally happy to be performing the music of one of his idols, someone he places in the ranks of some of the greatest composers in music history.
"It seems like I've known Monk as long as I've known music," he says.
"When I was a little guy, my dad had a nice collection of 78s, and Monk was a part of that. Then when I was in high school, I really got into Monk as a pianist, bandleader, and composer, someone who did everything. I put him in the same category as Bach and Mozart."