Banjo god Bela Fleck must have a really meticulous agent. Or he’s just a skillful juggler.
In January, Fleck toured with his wife, banjo star Abigail Washburn. In June, he’ll be on the road with the Flecktones, his longtime jazzy jam band, and then with mandolin master Chris Thile in July.
Since this is April, Fleck is still traveling with jazz piano giant Chick Corea, headed to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis on Monday.
Fleck thinks changing collaborators regularly “feeds the attention deficit disorder of the American brain, from my point of view and from the audience’s, too,” he said recently from Boston. “I don’t get a chance to get bored because I’m always getting ready to play with someone new and inspiring, and I have to be at the top of my game to do that. I love playing in all these situations.”
For Fleck, 57, playing with Corea, 74, presents special challenges.
“Chick is a fast thinker,” Fleck said. “I have to be prepared to respond at lightning speeds.”
Fleck, who was influenced by the pianist, recorded a Corea piece, “Spain,” on his 1979 debut album, and got Corea to play on 1995’s “Tales From an Acoustic Planet” album. Corea invited Fleck to participate in his all-star “Rendezvous in New York,” which was released in 2003. Since 2006, they’ve been performing as a duo on and off. In 2007, they recorded “Enchantment,” and last fall released a double-disc live album, “Two.”
Never a rehearsal
They travel together by bus or plane. At sound check they get a feel for the vibe of the concert hall and their own moods. They might go over the difficult sections of a particular piece.
“Sometimes we might play for an hour, sometimes 20 minutes,” said Fleck. “Neither of us plays as if it’s rehearsal. Every moment is a sacred moment. We’re totally focused. We get into that zone quickly.”
They want to remain in that zone once the concert starts.
“I try not to think. I try to just be,” said the banjo man. “You have to do your work upfront so you’re familiar with the piece and then go into this relaxed mood and just let things happen.
“We’re looking at each other the whole time. It’s an intimate experience. There’s something about that that puts you in a state of openness and acceptance. You can’t think about particular notes. It all happens too fast.”
For Fleck, the performances are like a conversation between him and Corea — with rules different from a verbal conversation.
“It’s possible to have a musical conversation where you’re both playing simultaneously,” Fleck said. “It’s not harmony, it’s not talking over each other. It’s talking while listening. It’s something you don’t see very often in language.
“Chick is very responsive to what I’m doing, and vice versa. I take cues from his playfulness and willingness to let cacophony happen and go out on the edge and see what happens.”
For this leg of their tour, the duo has added about a half-dozen new pieces to its repertoire. “Chick wanted to try bluegrass material, so I found an old Bill Monroe song to do and we’re doing some different classical stuff now,” Fleck said.
While the Corea/Fleck duo has been a regular endeavor, the banjoist hasn’t worked with the Flecktones for four or five years. He received a pitch for the Flecktones from the Telluride Music Festival, where he has performed regularly in one context or another since the early 1980s, and the Flecktones’ schedule led to a 14-concert tour.
Fleck’s priority project later this year is working on a second album with his wife, who is the duo’s singer.
“We’re attempting to clear the decks to do another album in the fall,” said Fleck, who spent much of the past year touring as a family with Washburn and their young son, Juno. “We have five or six [songs] in baby stages.”