Chick Corea And Béla Fleck On The Joys (And Challenges) Of Collaborating

Sep 19, 2015
Originally published on September 19, 2015 6:55 pm

One is a legendary pianist and NEA Jazz Master, who began his career in Miles Davis' band and went on to shape the sound of jazz fusion with Return to Forever. The other is a world-renowned banjo player best known for his role in the bluegrass scene, including work with progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival.

They make an unlikely duo, perhaps, but when Chick Corea and Béla Fleck toured together in the early 2000s, their piano-banjo set drew critics' praise. Corea and Fleck's new album, Two, features live recordings from that tour, and they're hitting the road together again this fall.

As the two musicians tell NPR's Arun Rath, their unusual collaboration draws out unexpected elements in their playing. For instance, certain syncopated rhythms naturally befit the way Fleck plays banjo (three fingers, five strings), which, Corea explains, challenges him in a particular way.

"It opens up whole new ideas for me of how to integrate my phrases with you," Corea says to Fleck. "I'm always thinking about accompanying. So that's my pleasure in the duet, is to see how I can make the banjo sound good."

But when two players of such a high caliber work together, doesn't collaboration ever turn into competition? Corea and Fleck say they don't see it that way.

"It's like a friendly, very fast-moving ping-pong game," Corea says.

Fleck agrees. "I don't ever feel like it's a cutting contest," he says. "Because once that spirit comes into it, the music changes. If you're attacking it from that point of view ... I would consider that an impediment to the best things happening."

More than rivalry, the banjo player and the pianist say this duet project is about having fun — with audiences and with each other.

"Solo piano for me has always been a lonely pursuit," Corea says. "It only goes a certain way until I start missing the collaboration, because for me the joy of music is making music with others."

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

A banjo...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND BELA FLECK SONG, "BUGLE CALL RAG")

RATH: ...And a piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND BELA FLECK SONG, "BUGLE CALL RAG")

RATH: The banjo-piano duo is unique. But we've come to expect unique from Chick Corea and Bela Fleck.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND BELA FLECK SONG, "BUGLE CALL RAG")

RATH: From bluegrass to new grass to all kinds of genre-bending music, Bela Fleck has extended the vocabulary and influence of the banjo. And Chick Corea, what is there to say? Just one of the greatest, most important jazz pianists ever. They've been collaborating closely for nearly a decade and just released a live album called "Two." Chick and Bela joined me at NPR West this week, right before a show at the Hollywood Bowl. They sound perfect together now, but Chick says he's had a lot to learn.

CHICK COREA: I mean, I didn't know much about banjo music at all, although - although I'd catch a taste of bluegrass every now and again and really dig the rhythm. But when I came in contact with Bela's music, I got real interested.

BELA FLECK: I just have to preface this by saying what a hero Chick is to me, that I was 17 years old when I first heard Chick play. Well, before that, I heard him in jazz appreciation class, a song called "Spain." The way he was playing was such a revelation to me because I had in my head that jazz was very back of the beat and (scatting) you know? And this was like (scatting) it was all this fast rhythm. And I was like well, that's what I love about bluegrass. And here, I hear it in jazz for the first time.

RATH: Bela, I heard you say somewhere that you've heard Chick play things in this duo that you haven't heard him play elsewhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND BELA FLECK SONG, "BUGLE CALL RAG")

FLECK: I've only got three fingers on my right hand that are doing all the plucking, right, and I've got five strings. And so there are these rhythms that come out of the banjo based on that, especially if we're playing, for instance, in 4/4, there's going to be a lot of natural groups of three in syncopation.

COREA: Yeah, sure it opens up whole new ideas for me of how to integrate my phrases with you. And then when you do those rhythmic things with your 3 over 4 or 5 over 13 or whatever it is that you're doing, it - there's like a - always seems like an infinite number of ways that I can just find out how to - I'm always thinking about accompanying. So that's my pleasure in the duet is see how I can make the banjo sound good.

RATH: Can you tell us on the album where we can hear that - that, you know, the cross-rhythms playing the kind of thing you're talking about?

COREA: "Bugle Call Rag."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND BELA FLECK SONG, "BUGLE CALL RAG")

FLECK: Those recordings happened between 2008 and 2014, and I was tasked to go through the recordings and see what was there. And I went through them, and I - one day, I found that. And I remembered that we were on a late-night drive, and I said hey, do you guys want to hear some bluegrass? We were driving in a car for three hours after a show, late. And Chick said sure, and I played him some Flatt & Scruggs with Bill Monroe "The Original Bluegrass Band."

COREA: I got a bluegrass history on that ride. It was great.

RATH: What was it like when that hit your ears?

COREA: Well, you know, coming from having played with Bela and having that experience and the sound of his banjo, which is - really comes through all of those heroes of his, then hearing the original music that came before him, I had to know a whole new viewpoint on it. I really, really fell in love with everything I was listening to.

FLECK: Yeah 'cause I think I remember you saying, oh, I didn't understand that bluegrass is funky, like 'cause there's a soulfulness to it. You imagine the preconceptions that have gotten stuck on us about bluegrass, wrongly, are that it's a very sort yee-haw, you know, jump around, dance, be silly, kind of - I don't know, it's kind of looked down on in a way. You can sort of look down it because the banjos were comedians in bands before Earl Scruggs came around. And when Earl Scruggs came around, it was serious business.

RATH: You know, that track - the "Bugle Call Rag" - you know, you guys talk about the nice collaboration. But I - that music's a little bit more aggressive. Does it ever kind of fall into a cutting contest with you guys - like, take that - no, take that?

COREA: It's like a friendly, very fast-moving ping-pong game.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND BELA FLECK SONG, "BUGLE CALL RAG")

FLECK: It's more like that. I mean, I don't ever feel like it's a cutting contest...

COREA: Yeah.

FLECK: ...Because once that spirit comes into it, the music changes. If you're attacking it from that point of view - I don't know, I would consider that an impediment to the best things happening.

COREA: Like when we're trading back and forth phrases sometimes, like we do it in "Bugle Call Rag" a little bit. We do it in "Mountain." We'll trade phrases back and forth and then start to play phrases together.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND BELA FLECK SONG, "MOUNTAIN")

COREA: It's like how long can we keep this going and stay upright without falling off the cliff? It's sort of like soaring through the air in one of those air suits. What do you call them?

FLECK: The monkey suit, yeah. I think you could listen to "Mountain," like near the end, before we come back to the ground at the end and we go into that melody. You can hear us just free-forming it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND BELA FLECK SONG, "MOUNTAIN")

RATH: You guys - it sounds like you have - you know, Bela, you said that it can be scary playing with Chick. But it sounds like you guys - going off this record - have a lot of fun.

COREA: That's the success factor to me. Making music in general is something that I feel fulfilled when it has an uplift quality to it, when there's a pleasure about it that the players have and that the audience experiences together. It's almost an antidote to the stresses in life. So when it's fun, it's the measuring factor - how much fun did we have?

FLECK: Right. And yeah, we get to play some pretty out there stuff. But I think somehow, the way we approach it doesn't put people off. They kind of embrace the journey of where we're going. And there's enough stuff in there - again, the rhythmic aspects really help because if we're going to play some really crazy atonal stuff for a while, it's usually got a strong, interesting rhythm to it. And then we come out of it into something else. It's a journey, so it's pretty cool in that way.

COREA: Yeah. Solo piano for me has always been a lonely pursuit, and I can do it. I like to practice the piano. I like to play the piano. I like to make music for people, but it only goes a certain way until I start missing the collaboration because for me, the joy of music is making music with others.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND BELA FLECK SONG, "MOUNTAIN")

RATH: Chick Corea and Bela Fleck, they're on the road right now. Go and check them out if you have the chance. Do not miss them. They're new live duo album called "Two" is out right now. Gentleman, it has been such a treat speaking with both of you. Thank you.

COREA: Same here. Same here, Arun.

FLECK: Thank you, Arun.

COREA: Thank you, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND BELA FLECK SONG, "MOUNTAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.