The Hippo


Jun 2, 2020








Courtesy photo.

Chick Corea and Béla Fleck Duet 

When: Wednesday, April 13, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Capitol Center for the Arts, 44 South Main St., Concord
More: $39 - $65 at

Power of two
Béla Fleck and Chick Corea perform in Concord

By Michael Witthaus

 No one has pushed the limits of the banjo like Béla Fleck. He’s made groundbreaking folk jazz with his band the Flecktones, written concertos, performed rock with Dave Matthews and Bruce Hornsby, and earned nominations in more Grammy categories than any other musician — and won 14 times, including this year for Best Folk Album with his wife, fiddler Abigail Washburn. 

He’s currently on tour with jazz pianist Chick Corea. As a teenager, seeing Corea play with his band Return to Forever provided a spark for Fleck’s musical explorations. 
“I was like, oh, if jazz is like that, maybe there’s a way that I could play it too,” he said. “From then on, I started thinking of ways to play a banjo in a more contemporary fashion.”
Fleck spoke with The Hippo about his collaboration with Corea and other topics in a recent phone interview. 
What was your first instrument? 
I started on guitar ... then I fell in love with the banjo hearing The Beverly Hillbillies on television at maybe 5, 6 years old. From then on I always wanted a banjo, but I never really ever told anybody; so, I ended up with a guitar. When I was 15, my grandfather bought me a banjo as a fluke because Dueling Banjos was a big deal around that time. He got me one at a garage sale and bam, I was off. ... I never became the freak about practicing and growing as a musician until I got my banjo. 
What made you decide to take the banjo in another direction? 
It was a number of things, but growing up in New York City, I started playing folk banjo and I was excited about the sound of the banjo. But not being from the South, I couldn’t really relate to the singing in bluegrass — plus, people made fun of it, and I didn’t like that. I found that if I played “Stairway to Heaven” or something like that on the banjo people would get excited, but if I played bluegrass, they’d start flapping their arms up and down like chickens [and] that wasn’t what I loved about the banjo. … As a New York kid that loved The Beatles, then loved jazz, classical music and all those other things in the ’60s and ’70s when I became a teenager, that’s not why I play the banjo. 
What do you consider the biggest musical challenge in terms of pushing musical boundaries? 
Playing with Chick is one. ... He’s obviously a very important person to me in my personal evolution, but he is also one of the top jazz musicians living. Playing with him, I feel the weight of the whole banjo community on my shoulders. I don’t want people to say, “Oh, banjo doesn’t work in a jazzy setting.” I want them to say, “Oh, it can work; I get it.” Some days I feel like I’m holding my own and some days I’m disappointing everybody. But he seems to really like playing with me, so I guess I’m doing OK. It gives me a sense of relief and validation when somebody like him is not only willing to play with me but continue to play with me year in and out, that I must be learning and growing and pushing the banjo in a legitimate way. 
How do you see the relationship between your instrument and Chick’s instrument? 
When I’m producing the sound that I want to and playing the right way, I feel like I’m a small piano playing next to the big piano, except I have some areas that I can contribute that are outside of Chick’s experience with ethnic music. I’m talking about bluegrass or Irish music or even some Indian and African music. I can pull some of that earthy stuff that comes from a different world than Chick has been involved with and I think he really enjoys that, too. He plays it great. In fact, I really love the way he plays differently with me and I hear him being invigorated by the sound of the limitations of the banjo. ... There is all this syncopation built on threes and I hear him expanding that all over the piano when he plays with me and getting excited and coming up with new ideas. I think that is pretty cool that I can be a person who provokes new music out of Chick Corea. 
You’ve also played with Bruce Hornsby. Did that inform any of what you’re doing with Chick? 
Well, definitely. Bruce is another guy who, his language is completely different than Chick’s. In fact, I’m slightly more comfortable with it because he likes a lot of the bluegrass and older American music. That makes it a lot easier, because where Chick can go into areas of classical music that I’m just not expecting at all and different areas of harmony that I’m not as comfortable with, Bruce does that too … but generally when we’re playing we can feel where each other is going and that’s a really beautiful thing. [After] I played with Bruce … I recorded with Chick [in 1994] on an album called Tales from an Acoustic Planet. ... It was the first time we recorded together [and] we had that rapport instantly. It just felt so good to play with him. From the first moment — bam! We were in synch. He had that great rhythmic sense, and that is one of the things that as a banjo player I work really hard on. Because the banjo is pretty much a percussion instrument, too; if you get a percussive pianist who doesn’t bang on the piano with a banjo player who has worked on rhythm and timing, the lock up is effortless. It’s always that way when Chick and I play. 

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