Bela Fleck (above), Chick Corea (below)/ Photos by Associated Press
Their interaction was the same in conversation and performance. Playful is the best way to describe the temporary duo of banjo master Bela Fleck and piano giant Chick Corea at the Dakota Jazz Club on Monday night.
It was the penultimate night of their nine-city tour. In their opening 75-minute set, they sparred verbally and with their instruments. They had an easy, teasing rapport.
Corea: This is called “Joban Dna Nopia.”
Fleck: Is that all you have to say? Is it Greek?
Corea: It’s standard English. Ancient English. Before the dinosaurs.
There was no drummer to provide a rimshot.
The virtuoso musicians would trade melody lines, sometimes Corea would provide the rhythm while Fleck took the lead or vice versa. Their music was light-hearted and airy, rarely intense but always rewarding.
The pieces – most were taken from a 2007 collaboration album entitled “Enchantment” – were typically 7 to 10 minutes long. Both players had sheet music but there seemed to be a fair amount of improvising. At times, it seemed like they were trying to work their way into – and later out of – a problem.
There was an appealing informality to this performance – from their imprecise endings to their outfits, jeans and a sweater (Corea) or a dark T-shirt and unbuttoned shirt (Fleck).
Fleck, who did a similar kind of collaboration at the Dakota last fall with the jazzy Marcus Roberts Trio, often made his banjo sound like another string instrument – be it a flamenco guitar or even a Portuguese guitarra. He has an amazing vocabulary of sounds, one not heard from another banjoist. Plus, he played with such a refined eloquence.
Fleck, 54, and Corea, 71, both played with ease, authority and a remarkable expressiveness regardless of each other’s particular vibe at the moment.
For example, on the set’s highlight, “Mountain,” a Fleck composition, the music traveled to the Middle East and Appalachia and ended up in a swinging blues-meets-bluegrass groove.
Said Corea at song’s end: “How do you like that? I learned to play some bluegrass.” Then he reprised a piano line and asked: “Does this sound like bluegrass?”
It sounded like beautiful music.