BÉLA FLECK AND CHICK COREA
Chick and I have played a lot in unusual contexts; automatically, and largely unconsciously, we make the music sound complete. — Béla Fleck
IN2007, banjo player Béla Fleck and pianist Chick Corea released a duo recording, The
Enchantment, with just the two of them combining talents on six songs from Fleck, four from Corea, plus an unforgettably entwined arrangement of Ary Barroso’s “Brazil.” Many of the live performances that came in the wake of The
Enchantment were recorded and often featured pieces not heard on the disc. Selections from those concerts are being released this month as a two-CD set entitled
Two. Corea and Fleck appear on Friday, Sept. 4, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in support of the new recording.
Before their collaboration, both musicians had previously been involved in notable duo projects — Fleck with bassist Edgar Meyer and Corea with vibraphonist Gary Burton and fellow pianist Herbie Hancock. Yet the coming together of the genre-busting banjo player and composer with the detail-oriented, distinguished pianist and composer seemed a stretch. In addition to playing an unlikely pair of instruments, Corea and Fleck had come from different backgrounds. Corea, son of a jazz trumpeter, was heavily influenced by bebop and Latin jazz. Fleck had been inspired to pick up the banjo by the music of Earl Scruggs. But there were similarities. Both were exposed to classical music. Both brought unique rhythmic sensibilities to their music. Corea, who gained major visibility working in Miles Davis’ groundbreaking electric bands, had played in a variety of acoustic and electric settings, including straight-ahead, avant-garde, and jazz fusion. Fleck had come through the progressive bluegrass movement of the 1980s to emerge with a jazz and funk-inspired band called the Flecktones.
Fleck credits Corea with contributing to the banjo player’s interest in jazz. Corea’s music, particularly the pianist’s signature piece “Spain” from his Return to Forever ensemble’s 1973 release Light As a Feather helped him realize that the banjo had applications beyond bluegrass. “I first heard the piece in jazz appreciation class in high school, in New York City,” Fleck told Pasatiempo. “It blew me away, and definitely got me thinking more about trying to put the banjo into jazz settings. I tried hard to learn it, but I really didn’t have the ability yet to play it. This was a different kind of jazz than I had heard previously, a different sensibility, a different approach to rhythm, and I completely loved it! Also that Fender Rhodes Chick was playing back then had a silvery sound that kind of reminded me of the banjo.”
Corea said he believed he first met Fleck at a Grammy event in the 1980s. “I didn’t know much about his music at first and wasn’t much interested in the banjo particularly, but as soon as I heard what he was doing with the banjo and his music, I became a fan and very interested. We began to sit in with one another on the road, and this eventually led to our first duet tour and recording.”
“That album was made very quickly with very little rehearsal,” Fleck recalled. “Everything just kind of worked. We had sent scores to each other, and then we arranged them on the spot as we recorded. Chick and I have played a lot in unusual contexts; automatically, and largely unconsciously, we make the music sound complete.”
The tonal quality of acoustic piano and banjo played together makes for something of the duo’s attraction. The banjo gives an almost Baroque touch to the sound, at times suggesting a harpsichord set against a pianoforte. Surprisingly, Corea said he hadn’t much considered how the two instruments sounded together. “It’s interesting, but I have never had that much attention on the various timbres of the instruments that I work with. The importance has always been the player and the musical rapport. This is even more so with Béla, since the banjo seemed like such a ‘foreign’ instrument to me at the time [I first heard him]. But our musical sensibilities and tastes brought our music together very quickly.”
Fleck said he considered Corea’s style at the keyboard before he chose material for the two to play from his own compositions. “I think about Chick’s playing in particular when I suggest a piece to him. His amazing musicianship makes the piano a unique instrument. Because his playing is so well-defined rhythmically, complex stuff works really well — but so does simple, sparse stuff. And thinking of the music as a sketch to be filled in differently each night is wise — because he’s never gonna play it the same twice!” Other considerations Fleck had for choosing material included whether or not the piece had potential for spontaneity. “So along with having strong melody and harmony, the piece should work well as a vehicle for improv. If it’s too complex, it’s harder to find the freedom in it. And freedom is very important in this duo.”
The music, including familiar pieces like Corea’s “Señorita” and Fleck’s “Mountain,” which are heard on both recordings, feels tightly composed and arranged. It possesses its own geometry, sketched in a flurry of staccato notes. Accompaniment comes in the form of swirling figures, pinprick counterpoints, and dancing phrases played in unison by the two instruments. “Both Béla and I like to arrange our music — sometimes meticulously so,” Corea said. “We usually start out with some kind of a form, but many changes are then made as we get into the music and especially as we play the music live. That’s why I’m so excited about our new live recording, because it’s much of the same repertoire as The Enchantment, except the changes that we’ve made during our performances have made this set of music into a whole new thing.”
Despite the music’s tightly structured feel, Corea said that it’s improvisation that gives the music shape. “Improvisation is just part of the basics of what we do all the time. So it becomes difficult to separate ‘improvisation’ out as a separate concept from the totality of the music that we make. It actually defines the music in a sense.” Improvisation is also how the arrangements evolve. “When you listen to many of the same songs [on the new double CD] that are on The Enchantment, you will hear where they got to, after playing them a lot — and improvising freely with them every night. It’s a total thrill to play with Chick accompanying. He tends to get really involved, jump in the pool, and splash around!” One of the tunes heard on the live CD not heard on The Enchantment is the classic “Bugle Call Rag,” a trad-jazz tune performed in the 1930s and ‘40s by Benny Goodman. “Bugle Call Rag” eventually became a classic bluegrass number in the hands of Scruggs and others. Here, the tune symbolizes the coming together of two musical disciplines, with both swing and Hill Country passages making an appearance.
Fleck said the Santa Fe appearance will be the duo’s first in some time. “First nights together do have a tendency to be very exciting.” Corea sees it as part of the ongoing process between them. “Lots of changes and differences and new ideas are coming into the bin. I’m still not sure what the result will be. That’s a big part of the pleasure and the adventure.”