The album is the realization of a long-held desire that Chick and Steve shared, to work together more intensively. "Whenever Chick and I bump into each other, we’re always talking about playing music together,” Gadd says. "After many years of saying that, we finally put some time aside.”
Corea and Gadd first crossed paths in 1965, when Corea briefly joined up with Gadd’s regular gig in Chuck Mangione’s band. Over the next 10 years, Chick became one of the most influential keyboardists and composers of his generation, in jazz or any other genre. Steve, likewise, became a drum legend, laying down ageless, iconic rhythms with Paul Simon, Steely Dan and countless others.
In 1972, Corea reimagined his pioneering Brazilian outfit Return to Forever as an electric band, and Gadd became its first drummer. His commitments as the most in-demand session drummer on the scene could not accommodate RTF’s extensive touring schedule, but Corea & Gadd would reunite in 1976 for Corea’s Grammy-winning The Leprechaun and the acclaimed My Spanish Heart, whose mix of electric jazz and Latin rhythms echoes through Chinese Butterfly. Their camaraderie was the backbone of 1981’s Three Quartets, a watershed album for Chick’s writing and a master class in next-level straight-ahead jazz.
By the time they cleared their schedules to get together at Corea’s Florida studio in early 2017, their unique chemistry provided Chick with a burst of compositional inspiration, beginning with "Like I Was Sayin’” and the playfully titled "Gadd-zooks”.
"I’ve always enjoyed composing music for a band, and hearing what Steve would do with my compositions,” Corea says. "When we started playing those two tunes together, it felt so good that we started to talk about putting a band together.”
Right from the opening seconds – a whip-crack pulse-quickening intro to the infectious "Chick’s Chums,” – Gadd’s signature is all over this album. He and Corea drive a band with bottomless reserves of firepower: the opener’s deep-pocket funk and elegant lyricism give way to "Serenity,” a showcase for Loueke’s stirring vocals and Wilson’s lilting flute. The band’s high-wire dynamic comes to the fore through the taut, roiling grooves of "Like I Was Sayin’,” which strips the ensemble down to a trio with Del Puerto for the session’s most full-throttle excursion.
Corea’s keyboard mastery is breathtaking throughout, melding beautifully with Quintero’s percussive pulse for the intricate Latin sound of "A Spanish Song.” The tune strikes a unique balance between passionate emotion and effortless complexity. Disc one closes with the title track, inspired by a verse written by Corea’s friend, poet Malin Gelfan. "Your heart will tremble,” the brief poem concludes, "like a Chinese Butterfly.” The brimming, expressive interplay between Corea and Wilson alone is enough to deliver those palpitations.
The three expansive tracks on disc two find the group stretching out even further. "Return to Forever” offers a glimpse of a parallel universe where Gadd stayed in the band, revisiting that iconic group’s eponymous theme song, with lovely, keening vocals courtesy of R&B great and Earth, Wind & Fire original member Philip Bailey. The track alternates between sparse, idyllic impressionism and joyous, celebratory bursts of soulful colors.
The captivating drones of "Wake-Up Call,” with atmospheric tones that suggest a lush jungle enlivened by birdsong and chants, adds gentle African rhythms to the mix while maintaining a sharp focus throughout its epic 18 minutes – this is a tune that’s about digging deep, not losing control. Finally, "Gadd-zooks” offers a comic book-inspired reaction to Gadd’s drumset prowess, a 16-minute tasting menu of the drum master’s rhythmic eclecticism, paired with a stunning palette of shimmering tones and inventive approaches from Corea’s synths.
Artist Marc Bessant’s cover design shows the form of a butterfly constructed by the instruments of the band – pianos for wings, drums for the head and thorax, etc. It’s an image that perfectly encapsulates The Corea/Gadd Band’s unique beauty – organic, one-of-a-kind, and inspiring in its ability to take breath-taking flight.