Chick Corea and Béla Fleck: Rules Don’t Apply

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Chick Corea and Bela Fleck
By C. Taylor Crothers
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Chick Corea and Bela Fleck
By C. Taylor Crothers
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Chick Corea and Bela Fleck
By Jay Blakesberg

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“It was Chick’s idea,” Béla Fleck says of The Enchantment, his new Concord release with legendary keyboardist Chick Corea. “It took about a quarter of a second for me to agree.

“But then I thought about how much Chick likes to improvise. I also like that, but I don’t usually have the nerve to do it as much as he does. He has a great track record of delivering in those situations, both in the studio and live. I don’t have that track record.”

“I thought it was all his idea,” Corea counters with a laugh. “In either case, we’d talked about doing a duet album for quite a few years. Every time I’ve seen Béla, we’ve exchanged thoughts about wanting to do something together.”

Fleck’s slight trepidation at the thought of going one-on-one with an improvising master like Corea is understandable on some levels. The keyboardist just turned 66, while Fleck turns 49 on July 10, so there’s a considerable age gap. Corea tours tirelessly with an even greater number of diverse artists than Fleck, his 45-year recording career outdistances Fleck’s, and his résumé is loaded with even more heavyweights.

Playing in Miles Davis’ band from 1968 to 1970, Corea worked with fellow keyboardists Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, drummer Tony Williams and guitarist John McLaughlin. Each went on to lead or co-lead prominent fusion bands: Corea with Return to Forever, Hancock heading up the Headhunters, Zawinul and Shorter fronting Weather Report, Williams with Lifetime, and McLaughlin founding the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

“I spent many years growing up with, being inspired by, and learning from Miles Davis’ music,” Corea says. “And then I got to play in his band, and give some of that energy back for a few years.”

Corea and Fleck giving each other credit for the idea of recording The Enchantment may signal why the project worked out so well. On the disc’s 11 tracks (six written by Fleck, four by Corea, plus the Ary Barroso/Sidney Russell standard “Brazil”), each player gives the other room to listen, which they both do intuitively and intently. Some of their intricate call-and-response patterns couldn’t have been scripted, and are delivered with apparent ease. The piano and banjo often intertwine, another sign that Fleck is a better improviser than he gives himself credit for.

“One of the basic ideas we both agreed on was to improvise as much as possible,” Corea says. “Neither of us are very good sight-readers anyway, so we created things in the studio. For the tune ‘Brazil,’ there was absolutely nothing written down. For my composition ‘Children’s Song #6,’ there was just a short line written out. Most of the song is improvisation.”

“That’s one of his classic pieces,” Fleck says. “It’s full of great rhythms, and a lot of fun to play. ‘Brazil’ was one of those serendipitous things. He suggested it, but I had just rented the Terry Gilliam film Brazil the week before the recording session because I wanted my girlfriend to see it. I also wanted to hear that song again, and doing so made me think of playing it with Chick.”

“There wasn’t a lot of time for rehearsal,” Corea says, “so we did most of our preparation on our own by writing and sending MP3 ideas to each other by email. The only thing that really stood in the way was nailing a schedule down. Béla had been busy with the Flecktones and some other projects, and then his schedule opened up a bit. And so did mine, after a long stint with my Touchstone band, doing tours and recordings. It seemed like a good time to get together.”

The duo got in only a few hours of practice over three days before the recording sessions. One of Fleck’s consistent working partnerships is with classical bassist Edgar Meyer, who provided the use of his studio in Nashville (where Fleck lives) for rehearsal as Corea passed through town on a tour with vibraphonist Gary Burton. A brief tune-up in a hotel room preceded the sessions for The Enchantment at the Mad Hatter facility in Los Angeles last December.

“It was all done very quickly, especially for me,” Fleck says. “The tunes are chock-full of improvised sections, and doing that with one of the masters was the intimidating part. It’s mainly his chord knowledge, the way he plays chords on top of other chords. I’m a little in the dark by comparison, so I sounded like a beginner to myself. And his free improvising, where that great knowledge of harmony is a real boon. There aren’t a lot of guys like him who have been playing piano their whole lives and can improvise in a compositional style. My harmonic knowledge is pretty good, but I’m playing a lot by ear compared to Chick. I had to get over that, because when I heard the playbacks, they sounded OK.”

“He’s selling himself short, ’cause he’s a magnificent duo partner to work with,” Corea says. “Most of those tracks were done in one or two takes, sometimes three.”

“That’s because when he does a take, even if there are mistakes, they’re charming mistakes,” Fleck says. “There’s nothing that needs to be fixed. We went into the studio and he played great on the first take of the first track. With me, I feel like it usually takes me four or five takes to get to a level that I feel is OK to put out on a record. And the further I go, the better I usually get in a lot of areas. So Chick isn’t self-conscious about his playing, and he’d always seem pretty happy with things early on. I’d be thinking, oh no, I haven’t really had time to refine some of this stuff, whereas his parts already sounded refined. So we met in the middle by doing things a bit more than he’s used to, and a bit less than I’m used to.”

“Yeah, we compromised there,” Corea adds. “I tend to accept my improvisations and first takes more, where I saw that Béla was really adept at editing to improve his parts.”

“When Chick said, ‘If we do 10 takes, then we have to take the time to listen to 10 takes,’ I understood where he was coming from,” Fleck says. “I’d normally look for the magical parts of each take and combine them. But he’s more comfortable with who he is, and he plays like it.”

As far as Fleck was concerned, the recording of The Enchantment wasn’t even part of the original plan. At least at such an early stage.

“The initial idea was actually just to play some dates together,” he says. “Then, after we had the dates scheduled, Chick said, ‘Hey, let’s record this material before the tour,’ which, generally, I’m against. I think there’s a tradition in jazz of recording albums before the tours, and then the tour happens and the stuff is so incredible live that the artists are always disparaging the record, you know? ‘Oh, man, we made that before we started playing out. Don’t even listen to that.’ But that’s the thing that’s out in the marketplace that people who don’t get to hear you play live are actually hearing.”

The Enchantment, on the other hand, splits the difference by being recorded live in the studio. Improv-heavy pieces like Corea’s “Señorita” and “Joban Dna Nopia,” and Fleck’s “Mountain” and “Waltse for Abby,” can be pegged to each composer through their titles. But several selections, including Fleck’s “Spectacle” and Corea’s title track, sound completely meshed and practically co-composed, with no hint of stylistic differences.

“We had to work hard on ‘Spectacle,’” Fleck says. “It has a lot of interlocking, complex lines, plus it’s fast. ‘Mountain’ was something that Chick had never really done before, an old-fashioned modal bluegrass tune. And we took a lot of time to do ‘The Enchantment,’ because I wasn’t familiar with playing that kind of jazz ballad. But I wanted the challenge of playing through all those kinds of chords. Chick had to be patient with me.”

“Béla might say he has trouble with something like improvising, but then he sure tears it up whenever he goes at it,” Corea says. “That’s all very subjective from his end. From my end, I see him as a total musician and a great improviser.”

When they did a brief tour in February to precede the CD release in May, Corea and Fleck curtailed some of their extended mind-readings, in order to keep the shows from lasting all night. “There’s quite a bit of improvisation on the CD, but in those live shows, there was much more of it,” Corea recalls.

“That was a lifetime highlight for me,” Fleck says, “once I got over my initial discomfort. I was thinking, I’m playing with Chick Corea, so I’m not going to refine a solo and play it the same way every night. We had to cut back on some of the extended improvised intros, because five or six songs were taking up an hour.”

As Fleck reminds himself, he’s ultimately responsible for any discomfort he felt, since the banjoist was the one who originally instigated the partnership with Corea for one of his solo albums.

“I have to say that the very first idea of us doing a duet was mine,” says Fleck. “It was on my record called Tales From the Acoustic Planet from 1994. We did three tracks, and it all took a couple of hours, and everything was just some of my favorite stuff I’d ever heard. Getting to play with him was so exciting. But there’s another side to it, where some of the excitement of first playing together is only captured on an early recording. However, with Chick, normal rules don’t apply.”

Corea has been a hero to Fleck since the teenager heard Return to Forever’s recording of the keyboardist’s “Spain” on the 1972 album Light as a Feather. “That’s when I realized that the banjo would work in jazz,” Fleck says.

Seeing Return to Forever perform live the following year only solidified the concept. But Fleck, a New York City native, still had bluegrass in his blood. Watching TV as a child, he’d been hooked by hearing the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies, by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

Fleck wouldn’t get his first banjo until 1973, the same year he saw Corea and company in concert. Since banjo wasn’t even offered as an elective in high school, he studied French horn and chorus, learning his primary instrument through private lessons. After high school, Fleck moved from New York to Boston, not far from the birthplace of Chelsea, Mass., native Corea (who likewise received much of his musical training privately). While in Boston, the 20-year-old recorded his 1979 debut as a leader, Crossing the Tracks. Although bluegrass-based, the album contained hints of what was to come.

“My ears were pretty open,” Fleck says. “I was coming from New York City and listening to jazz by people like Chick, traditional banjo music, and my stepfather, a classical cellist.”

Corea had already created a template for Fleck’s future musical shape-shifting with his own career by the end of the 1970s. Influenced by Davis’ unwillingness to be pigeonholed, Corea branched out from an already-varied 1960s jazz catalog, which ranged from his first few solo albums to work with Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan, and Dizzy Gillespie. After leaving Davis’ band, Corea led the improvisational quartet Circle and the original acoustic, Brazilian-influenced version of Return to Forever (which morphed into the popular electric fusion quartet and subsequent nine-piece variations). He then started his duo with vibraphonist Gary Burton, and released disparate solo milestones like The Leprechaun and My Spanish Heart.

“It’s the tradition of great exchange with younger musicians,” Corea says, “as we change and move through the years of our culture. Béla and I are a little bit like myself and Miles. Béla may have listened to my music, but here we are years later, and he’s giving so much back to me. I see it that way.”

By the 1980s, Corea had formed his Spanish-flavored Touchstone group, recorded Mozart piano concertos and led his self-titled Elektric and Akoustic bands. Fleck, on the other hand, went further into the blue by joining the New Grass Revival. Led by mandolinist/violinist Sam Bush, the progressive bluegrass group employed Fleck for nine years.

Fleck finally found a lasting voice for the banjo in jazz near the turn of the next decade. Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ self-titled 1990 debut was categorized as “blu-bop,” since the group created its own subgenre through a mixture of bluegrass and jazz. The quartet of Fleck, keyboardist/harmonica player Howard Levy, bassist Victor Wooten and his brother Roy “Future Man” Wooten—on an electric drum-guitar synthesized hybrid called the Drumitar—released three of their strongest albums before Levy left at the end of 1992.

One subsequent Flecktones trio release led Fleck to restart his solo career by recruiting Corea (who would also later appear on the Flecktones’ 1996 release Live Art) for the fateful Tales From the Acoustic Planet recording sessions. Fleck has balanced the band with solo and side projects ever since, particularly recently.

“The Flecktones have been together since 1990,” Fleck says, “and for the first few years, it felt like that was all I should do. Lately, outside projects have gotten more time from all of us, particularly in the last five or six years. But the band is very important to everyone in it, so we’re trying to figure out what to do next. We may even be starting a Christmas record.”

Now with longtime saxophonist Jeff Coffin, the Flecktones won a 2006 Grammy Award for “Best Contemporary Jazz Album” for their latest release, The Hidden Land. The group now has nine Grammys. Corea one-upped his younger protégé with his CD The Ultimate Adventure, winning 2006 “Best Jazz Instrumental Album” and “Best Instrumental Arrangement” awards. He now has 14 Grammys.

The Enchantment features one song from each of the two artists’ award-winning back catalogs. The closing track is Fleck’s “Sunset Road,” rearranged from the initial version on the Flecktones’ debut. Corea’s “Children’s Song #6” was first recorded with Burton for their 1979 release Duet.

“I actually did an even earlier adaptation of that tune for Return to Forever,” Corea says. “It was called ‘Song to the Pharoah Kings,’ and it was on Where Have I Known You Before [from 1974]. I also made a solo piano recording for ECM called Children’s Songs [1983], which included the whole set of 20 children’s songs I’d written in the 1970s.”

Corea and Fleck both bring multiple elements from their varied careers to The Enchantment, including undertones of classical music. But while Fleck sees that influence as unintentional (“It’s a sound that can happen when you play two acoustic instruments together in a refined way,” he says), Corea gives his partner more credit than Fleck gives himself.

“Béla’s classical playing is wonderful,” Corea says. “And it takes a lot of work to get to that level of artistry. We’ve both studied classical composition, and know about the discipline that’s required. Someone as humble about his own abilities as Béla can disarm you a bit at first. But when we got down to business, he was even more of a well-rounded duo partner than I’d expected.”

“Most of my classical training is more recent, since there was really none to be had at school,” Fleck says. “In the late 1990s, I did an album with Edgar Meyer called Perpetual Motion, with works by Bach, Debussy, Chopin and Beethoven. Since then, we’ve written pieces together that would have to be considered classical. And I produced and played on some tracks for Renée Fleming earlier this year. Working with an opera singer of her stature was special.”

Corea and Fleck toured the United States again in June in support of The Enchantment, and the duo has a European run scheduled for November. Ever open-minded, Corea and Fleck clearly bring out the best in each other onstage, as they did in the studio.

But it appears, in hindsight, that the wise old musical sage might’ve used mind tricks to inspire his younger counterpart by taking him out of his recording comfort zones.

“I don’t think Béla had ever been to Mad Hatter before,” Corea coyly says of the studio he once owned (and is still named after his 1978 solo album).

“There’s usually no rush when I record, because I have a studio in my house,” Fleck says. “At Mad Hatter, they still have an open-door policy whenever Chick comes around. His imprint is still all over the place. We made this CD with only about four-and-a-half days of recording, when I thought we had six days to do it. But when I got there, Chick said, ‘Oh, no, let’s have it recorded and mixed in six.’ To me, that was heart attack material. But you know, it forced me to just get in there and do it with a lot of focus. And delivering under pressure feels good when the result turns out like this.”

Gearbox

Chick Corea

CFIIIS Concert Collection Grand Piano by Yamaha

Béla Fleck

Gibson Mastertone 5-String Banjo (1937)

Trace Elliot Acoustic 100R Amplifier

Originally published in July/August 2007

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