Pasatiempo - - RANDOM ACTS - Bill Kohlhaase

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.”

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