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Joe Major

The Egg
Albany, NY
August 5, 2017

by Joe Major

The Egg was stirring Saturday night, a cauldron abuzz with deep-seeded earthly powers and preternatural unearthly ones. Power surged with swaggering, volumetric electronic thrust, and not least, power was yoked to the pervasive shunt of persuasion.

At the core of this big bang was the first night of a double-bill tour by original rosters of Béla Fleck & the Flecktones and the Chick Corea Elektric Band. Their individual and combined efforts struck at the very energized aha! heart of sheer inventiveness. And from that center emanated a united mission of eklektic exkursion. Spoiler alert: just how united was not so subtly foreshadowed by the double band equipment that was onstage from the outset.

Fleck meandered troubadour style out from the wings plucking an amped-up stringed instrument. Like an elephant in the middle of the room, it was, inescapably, a banjo. It too had meandered on a historic pan-continental, pan-cultural journey to find itself reverberating in this context. Fleck switched from traditional membrane-top banjo to solid body with pickups depending on whether the set-list winds were blowing in classical Segovia-style or full-on R&B, with the Wooten rhythm revue leaning-in in lock-step boogie. Like the proverbial blind man’s pachyderm perspective, that banjo was many things. In league with plays-two-voices Howard Levy on piano and harmonica, slappy funkster extraordinaire Victor Lemonte Wooten on bass, and Roy “Futureman” Wooten on, well, drumitar, one of the many things was a taut, aptly piquant banjo tone that capped this roiling, driven jazz outfit.

The arc of their pieces, unannounced, so unnamable to any but the fervent few, often swelled from rootsy folkish origins into blues band passing gear, into an utterly singular, thrumming amalgam. Fleck has stated in interviews that, “I’ve realized that I only make my life poorer by deciding there’s something I’m not interested in.” And his pursuits were boundless. From early-career duet collaborations with Corea to exploratory banjo repatriation trips to Africa, Fleck has always marched to the beat of a differ….

Enter Futureman, wielding his drumitar like a sawed-off shotgun in his “nearly psychic” hands. Futureman employed a fascinating, gymnastic trompe les eye, ear and brain manner that left one drawn into a rhythmic, rollicking vertigo. The device is a unique string-less synth creation that enabled Wooten to literally play the drums in a button-arrayed guitar fashion, all fingers. “It’s impressionism. It’s my impression of the drums, It’s not’s the emperor’s new drums. There’s not a drum set there, in quotation marks. It’s a different layout. I’m marching to the beat of a differ….” You get the idea.

When joined by his incessantly pressing bassist brother Vic and double-dynamite Levy, who played horn parts on harp as well as bop filigrees and comps on piano, they distilled a churning elixir from compositions redolent of Celtic, Appalachian, psychedelic and universal downtown DNA that was intoxicating. Much like watching an engaging sub-titled movie, you were so immersed in Flecktunes you became conversant in Flekistani!

Then on came the world of the Elektric Band, spun from an altogether different alchemy. Corea’s bona fides as an original adapter are peerless, and the music they generated derived not so much from disparate sources as from a re-contextualizing of his personal jazz orthodoxy. The resounding effects of his acoustic origins are indelible, but they didn’t stifle the new growth dynamism of his elektrified progeny. This oeuvre was technologically enhanced, sure, born of a mindset that thought in and accepted the haywire pace and askew sensibilities of a world evolving in fits and starts.

Corea of course was on piano, electric piano and keytar, a keyboard instrument worn like a guitar. He was aided and abetted by Eric Marienthal on alto and soprano sax; Frank Gambale on guitar; bassist John Patitucci; and drummer Dave Weckl. Needless to say, e pluribus Elektric.

From the opening spirals of the insightfully titled “Charged Particles,” through the celestial echelons of “Trance Dance,” to the propulsive drive of Jimmy Heath’s early Miles-era “C.T.A.,” the tempo leaped forward with unabated verve.

But this was no witless drag race. The stinging guitar solos mixed bite with fluidity. The alto work carved out soul within the techno aura and absolutely beseeched the heavens to listen. The bass’s staccato forays and lead, front-o-the-pack runs morphed into a hybrid mien that suggested a totally new axe. There was consummately stickish-sounding drumming galore, all drums all the time. Add to this batter Corea’s soaring, leavening keys and you had a fleet-footed, hypnotic, responsive, shaman-esque drill team that played as if they had something to prove.

They shifted into an introspective mode with a pointillist portrait of “Alan Corday.” Corea unfurled a formal piano cadence interspersed with under the hood string striking. Shards of ominous portent dwelled beneath the surface. An acoustic Gambale and a soprano Marienthal seemed to elucidate the better angel characteristics of the multidimensional Mr. Corday with tender attentiveness.

Inducing the willing crowd into a hum-along, the band launched full throttle into a firebrand finale on “Got a Match?” With Corea back on his cajoling keytar, Gambale’s guitar was the perfect foil, performing searing aerobatic loop-the-loops as all members had hands on the detonation plunger!

Encore time paired Fleck and Corea in a delicate classical-inflected, clavichord-tinged improvisatory latticework befitting an early Francois Truffaut film. Tit for tat in tone, tact and temperament, Béla didn’t sound banjo-y as much as purely stringy, and any thoughts of eclectic instrument esoterica were overcome by their pure, overwhelming articulation. Together they tied up the piece in a neat bow as if it were a postprandial blessing.

For the much anticipated yet still startling encore encore, both whole groups convened to become a super-nitro nonet. The stage was rife with large-scale elements of theater. A ruckus of amicable mano a mano instrumental jousting ensued. It was Broadway’s Jets versus Sharks having a funk-off jamboree: bass v. bass; harp v. sax; banjo/keytar v. guitar; and drumitar v. drum kit. So riotous and swerving was their mock combat framing of the Flecktone’s “The Message,” and so flush with powerful flights of finesse, that I seriously wondered if they could decelerate in time to land such a glorious thing. Power has a nuanced quality all its own, especially in a hammer whose strength is channeled through such intricately embroidered handles.

I wasn’t prepared for the wattage, the ohm-age or the homage, for that matter. The entire marathon evening was epic in its creative scope and riveting in its Colossus of Rumble execution.

Joe Major is an inveterate jazz pilgrim for whom the holy grail is always the evocative communion of impression meeting expression. Living over the border in Williamstown, MA, for thirty-plus years, he’s been the grateful beneficiary of countless Williams College performances that have arranged themselves on his ever shifting life list.