Concert Review: Chick Corea & Béla Fleck, Milwaukee, April 2, 2013

A happy collision of musical worlds

Billed on the artists’ own websites as “a collision of musical worlds,” Chick Corea’s piano and Béla Fleck’s banjo never once crashed during two hours of duets April 2 in Milwaukee. Instead, the duo travelled together beautifully on a path of musical inventiveness.

As the house went dark, the musicians immediately dove for deep water, beginning the concert with lengthy versions of Corea’s “Senorita” and Fleck’s “Menagerie.” The first set was well under way before they surfaced long enough to greet the crowd and then offer Fleck’s ballad, “Waltse for Abby.” This was followed by Corea’s strangely titled, but exquisitely played, “Joban Dna Nopia.”

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It’s unusual to say that an act is on the road to promote an album released seven years ago, but nearly all of the compositions performed were taken from the one collaborative CD that Fleck and Corea have recorded, The Enchantment. Based on their musical communication skills, a second project would be welcome. If nothing else, they should consider issuing a live album of a night such as this.

At times the pair traded 4s, and at other times it seemed they were trading 36s. Each man created breathtaking solos but was also capable of combining for unison lines that were performed in tandem so seamlessly that it sounded like a single instrument. Often both Corea and Fleck would improvise simultaneously, sounding like a shout chorus from an earlier era.

The style of each man was distinctive on his respective instrument. Even on the ballads Corea’s unmistakable Latin rhythms would surface, just as the occasional bluegrass lick would emerge from Fleck. The first set concluded with the evening’s only overt nod to the stylistic background of Fleck’s instrument. The appropriately titled “Mountain” offered touches of the Appalachian music so associated with the banjo. Corea added to the mood of this number by occasionally suggesting the theme from Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance.”

After a full hour of music, many in the audience were surprised and pleased when Corea took the microphone not to announce a final number, but an intermission. The evening of music continued with more of the performers’ own compositions, including their CD’s title selection “The Enchantment” and Fleck’s set closing “Spectacle.” The one non-original of the evening was a version of Stevie Wonder’s melodic “For Your Love.” Fleck reached back to his first Tales from the Acoustic Planet CD for “Bicyclops,” a number that had special meaning because it was the first time he had recorded with his current duet partner.

Corea played his Yamaha concert grand piano all night and a seated Fleck stayed on one effects-free, plainly miked (not electric) Gibson banjo. One might think that two musicians might run out of ideas in such a setting. But the variety of sounds and styles that filled Milwaukee’s Uihlein Hall was always fresh. A perfect sound mix allowed the audience to hear exactly what each man was doing, whether it was the subtle harmonics played by Fleck on “Children’s Song #6” or in Corea’s emotive piano voicings.

A final number from The Enchantment served as the concert’s encore, “Sunset Road.” Perhaps it was because of the warmth of an appreciative audience on a strikingly cold April night; or maybe it had to do with this Wisconsin show being the final date on a brief, nine-city tour. But for whatever reason, the duo graciously performed what seemed to be an unplanned second encore, creatively improvising near the borders of Corea’s “Spain” without actually entering the terrain.

The two men thanked the audience and departed to pursue their other concert commitments. Their generous evening of music in Milwaukee demonstrated stylistic cross-pollination at its best. Musical worlds should collide more often.

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