CHICK COREA & BELA FLECK
June 14, 2007
By J Hunter
It was one of those stories longtime jazz fans love to tell: How this legend and that legend got together in concert and made music that left jaws hanging throughout the hall. For a range of generations, it doesn't get much more legendary than Chick Corea and Bela Fleck, and their dual-acoustic show at Proctor's is going to be the subject of a lot of future tales.
Corea and Fleck's combined resume reads like a history of modern jazz: Chick's work with Return to Forever, the Chick Corea Elektric Band, and a host of other units stands the test of any time you want to name, while Bela has taken the banjo to galaxies unknown with the Flecktones, TRIO!, and a range of solo projects that reflect the New Grass Revival co-founder's many musical interests. Having these giants come together on The Enchantment (Concord Records, 2007) is big enough; seeing them in the acoustical pleasure dome that is Proctor's was a new definition of huge.
The Broadway show-sized stage yawned behind Corea and Fleck as the casually-dressed pair came on without introduction, sat down at the bare-bones stage set, and began a muted call-and-answer sequence that eventually morphed into Senõrita, the first track on The Enchantment. Corea worked through a lightning-fast progression with a small smile on his face, his eyes locked in a stare with Fleck that said, Top this, pal! Fleck was more than up to the challenge, echoing Corea's lines (and smile) without a second thought. It went back and forth like a championship tennis match until they came together on one beautiful, bouncing line, making heads shake in wonder.
It went like that for two sets, as these two virtuosos mixed the back-slapping air of a mutual admiration society with the steely-eyed one-upmanship of an after-hours cutting contest. Each player inspired the other to breathtaking heights as they worked through material from the disc, as well as a hot take on the standard Brazil that sub-referenced Ellington's Caravan. All the pieces had improvisation at their base, but the seamless transitions that kept boggling our minds show the work and love Corea and Fleck brought to this project.
While Corea's solos were as intricate and well-performed as you would expect, Corea was as relaxed - almost to the point of goofy - as I have ever seen him. He pantomimed playing a guitar several times in non-verbal tribute to Bela's playing, and when Fleck prefaced The Enchantment by asking Chick, We're gonna get serious
Can you be serious? Corea did a quick parody of the somber, contemplative artist he's stereotyped as. Corea had fun with Fleck prior to Joban Dna Nopia by challenging him to translate the title. It's special tonight, Corea said gravely, gesturing at the near-capacity crowd. Now that we're here in Cleveland
Fleck injected his own brand of goofiness into the proceedings - something Flecktones fans have come to expect. This collaboration let Fleck indulge the other influences that make up his expansive musical profile. His lines combined classical guitar with gypsy mandolin, accentuating the European concert-hall feeling of the project. He did get bluesy on Joban Dna Nopia (which, by the way, is an anagram I'll let you figure out), and let that New Grass sound came out here and there. Overall, though, it was all about meeting the challenge of playing at the same level as one of the greatest piano players of his generation, and Fleck passed that test with flying colors.
Some may be disappointed Chick and Bela didn't bring their tour to the festival circuit. But while this music deserves to be cheered by tens of thousands, it does not deserve to be sandwiched between Smooth Jazz charlatans and Old School curmudgeons; rather, Corea and Fleck needed the space that Proctor's provided to expand on a wonderfully creative partnership that - with any luck - will keep on thriving.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.