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Chick Corea and Bela Fleck - The Enchantment Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 September 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    8
sound:    7
released:    2007
label:    Concord
reviewer:    Scott Yanow

ImageLet’s see. This is a set of piano-banjo duets and there is a gramophone drawn on the cover of the album. Therefore, this must be a program of New Orleans jazz warhorses plus perhaps a few ragtime pieces.

Needless to say, that guess is off the mark. Bela Fleck has been defying standards and stereotypes since the beginning of his career. The banjo, although used in many jazz groups in the 1920s due to its superior volume, was replaced by the guitar by the early 1930s when recording techniques improved and microphones became standard. Relegated in jazz to Dixieland groups and considered one of the key instruments in bluegrass and country music, the banjo is virtually extinct in modern jazz. It would be impossible to come up with three bebop banjoists.

But Bela Fleck has been a trailblazer throughout his career. Ever since getting his first banjo in 1973, Fleck has performed jazz of several styles (swing, straight-ahead and even fusion), progressive bluegrass, Western swing and other idioms. With the New Grass Revival in the 1980s, he opened up bluegrass music to include rock and jazz. In 1988 he formed Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, a group consisting of banjo, Howard Levy on harmonica (who later dropped out), virtuosic electric bassist Victor Wooten, his brother Roy Wooten, who as “Future Man” plays a Drumitar, and recently saxophonist Jeff Coffin. Their music is impossible to classify.
While Chick Corea plays more conventional instruments (the piano and on some projects electric keyboards and synthesizers), he has always had an adventurous and open-minded spirit similar to Fleck’s. His career includes important stints with Blue Mitchell, Herbie Mann, Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan and Miles Davis. Corea co-led the avant-garde quartet Circle and has led Return To Forever, his Elektric Band, the Akoustic Band and a variety of occasional combos including duos with Herbie Hancock and Gary Burton.

Both Corea and Fleck are the type of musicians who are up for any challenge. On The Enchantment, Corea contributed four originals, Fleck brought in six, and they also perform the standard “Brazil.”

How does one describe this music? Very much a musical partnership. Corea and Fleck take some individual solos while being accompanied by each other, but the most exciting music and the bulk of the playing involves very active ensembles. Corea leaves plenty of space for Fleck’s picking and Fleck never tries to sound like a guitarist, not sacrificing his individuality. The constant interplay between the two musicians seems mutually inspiring (neither had recorded in this instrumental setting before), and they challenge each other to come up with fresh ideas.

The music is modern jazz, ranging from introspective to jubilant, touched by a strong Spanish and Latin tinge, and episodic. Sometimes the playing hints at classical and at other times looks towards modern bluegrass. But, as is true of most of Chick Corea’s and Bela Fleck’s other projects, their duets cannot be easily categorized. Fans of either musician will find this historic collaboration to be unique and quite enjoyable.

The most difficult part of recording piano-banjo duets has to be getting the balance correct. The piano, particularly when played by a master such as Chick Corea, is normally much louder. For this project, Corea leaves more space than usual and makes Fleck sound very much at home. The result is that the banjo sounds like an extension of the piano, and the two musicians often sound like one, assisted by the expert engineering.

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