Banjo ace Béla Fleck has idolized the pianist, composer and bandleader Chick Corea since he was a teenager. But it wasn’t until 2008, when the Flecktones were the opening act on several Return to Forever reunion dates, that they began developing a professional relationship which now ranks alongside the lengthy one Corea’s enjoyed with vibist Gary Burton.
Last Friday the duo’s instrumental brilliance was displayed before a nearly sellout house at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. It was an extensive evening, featuring two sets that each ran over 60 minutes. During that time both men showcased compositions, demonstrated solo prowess, and most importantly showed how much in sync they are with each other.
Throughout such tunes as Corea’s “Joban Dna Nopia,” or “Spain,” (both from the first set), Fleck’s angular, single-note banjo lines provided ideal complementary refrains or contrasting statements to Corea’s darting melodic forays and phrases. Fleck’s riffs were joined by the pianist’s impressive rhythmic responses.
The first set mostly included tunes from their 2007 duet release “The Enchantment.” They frequently switched roles, each going from leader to accompanist. Then they would unite forces during marvelous transition segments and opening/closing statements.
Another fine number was the rigorous “Bicyclops,” a number distinguished by a string of furious arpeggios from both players, and gorgeous voicings by Corea midway in the tune. Fleck’s playing on the early ’40s classic “Brazil,” took a different turn. He carefully built a moving solo then delivered compelling lines during fiery counterpoint with Corea.
Fleck has established himself as not only a premier improviser on his instrument, but an innovator in terms of direction, technique and content.
While certainly capable of excelling via the established bluegrass/folk style that accents the three-finger roll approach, Fleck’s more interested in creating imaginative and intriguing melodies.
His songs rely on slower tempos, exploring the banjo’s percussive/rhythmic dimensions and incorporating minor keys and unusual scales. The tune “Waltse for Abbey” displayed his sentimental/romantic side, along with Corea’s penchant for sweeping flourishes and energetic responses.
The second set alternated between Fleck and Corea numbers, plus their rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” which Corea joked he began playing after a conversation with Wonder about old and new standards. “He leaned over to me and suggested I start playing some of his songs,” Corea said with a laugh.
Their rendition retained the original’s joyous feel, but also included a lengthy secondary portion where they took the song down a different, ambitious harmonic and melodic path before neatly returning to the familiar pathway at its conclusion.
The music made by Chick Corea and Béla Fleck employs elements from many genres, among them jazz, folk, Latin, bluegrass, even some classical strains. But its finest attribute, aside from the players’ individual prowess, is its accessibility.
At no time did any song ever languish or degenerate into mere displays of instrumental virtuosity without soul or edge. Their mutual admiration and respect was always evident. The results were consistently exciting, surprising and delightful music.