The unlikely pairing of banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck and postbop/fusion pianist Chick Corea (performing in duet at the Modlin Center Feb. 28) can be traced back to Fleck's high-school music appreciation class in the early '70s.
At the time, Corea was entering the second decade of an ever-evolving career. After graduating from Miles Davis' seminal "Bitches Brew" group, he was leading Return to Forever, one of the most popular bands of the fusion era, filling arenas with rock audiences enchanted by his Latin-tinged, high-decibel lyricism. It was a song from the band's second, mostly acoustic album, "Light as a Feather," that opened Fleck's ears.
"The teacher played a song called 'Spain,'" Fleck recalls. "I thought it would be really cool to play that on the banjo. Later I heard Chick and Return to Forever play it live, and it took my head off. I stayed up all night learning, figuring out the chords and arpeggios. It was one of my fundamental musical experiences."
Translating cutting-edge modern music to his usually tradition-bound instrument is the essence of Fleck's appeal. Banjo was far from an obvious or even a popular choice for a young New York-based musician in the '70s, but his eclectic taste and commanding technique enabled him to both embrace folk/bluegrass styles and transcend genre limits. After playing with a series of category-stretching "newgrass" groups, he formed his dream band, The Flecktones, in 1990.
The iconoclastic Flecktones quickly built an audience, giving Fleck the opportunity to connect with his high school inspiration. Corea was intrigued by the group's one-of-a-kind blend of bluegrass, bebop and world music, and made guest appearances on the band's 1994 "Tales From the Acoustic Planet" and 1996's "Live Art." Fleck returned the favor on Corea's 2002 collaboration with vocalist Bobbie McFerrin, "Rendezvous in New York." Last year when Corea's manager mentioned the possibility of a duet recording and tour, Fleck leaped at the chance.
"We spent two days in October trading ideas," Fleck says, "then spent five days in December in the studio. It was so cool, and I was so excited from the beginning. We connected immediately; it was like my first day with the Flecktones or New Grass Revival."
Figuring out how to play together presented some challenges. "There is a similarity in the sound; it's a little bit like a duet between two pianos" Fleck says. "Except the banjo has only three octaves [pianos have seven], so we weren't fighting over who would play bass. Chick has a good ear he expands on everything and leaves plenty of space for me."
The Modlin concerts will give local audiences their first taste of the duo. Their CD "The Enchantment [Concord]" won't be released until May. Then again, according to Fleck, the live performance is a totally different experience.
"The studio is very structured," he says. "Recording is forever, details are everything, and you can spend hours on a single song. But in concert each moment is the only one that you get; you have to let go. Besides," Fleck says confidingly, "we only recorded about an hour of music, and onstage we have to fill a full night."
By the time they arrive here, they'll be just over halfway through a 10-show tour. Fleck's looking forward to the adventure of playing alone with one of his earliest musical heroes. "I'm both petrified and excited," Fleck says. "We're striving to make every performance different, and I'm curious about where the music can go."
A lot of Richmonders must be curious as well. Barring last-minute ticket releases, both of the Modlin shows are sold-out. S
Tickets were sold- out at press time, but Chick Corea and Bela Fleck are playing at the Camp Concert Hall, Booker Hall of Music, at the University of Richmond. The concerts are Wednesday, Feb. 28, at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Tickets: $36 adults, $34 seniors, $18 children, $28 UR faculty/staff, $8 UR students.
Visit Chick Corea online.
Visit Bela Fleck online.