Pianist Chick Corea and banjoist Bela Fleck gave a world-class performance in Anchorage on Sunday night.
The 72-year-old Chick Corea has been stretching the boundaries of jazz for decades, playing with such greats as Miles Davis before forming his own band. Bela Fleck, meanwhile, is considered the best banjo player in the world. He, too, has his own band, the Flecktones.
This reviewer does not have an ear well-attuned to jazz, but it does not take a jazz aficionado to appreciate the virtuosity of these musical giants. Their skill overcomes the seeming incongruity of a piano/banjo duet.
Fleck’s touch on the strings is not heavy-handed like the sound commonly associated with the banjo, but rather generates a tone comparable to that of a classical Spanish guitar. And Corea’s playing is sublime. He is clearly not afraid to use any inch of the instrument, even percussively tapping the internal strings while Fleck’s fingers fly up and down the fretboard.
Corea and Fleck played several tunes from their 2007 collaborative recording The Enchantment, interspersed with their individual compositions. There was the lovely Fleck piece “Waltse for Abby,” written for his wife Abigail, which often cleverly deviated from waltz-ness. Another tune was written for Fleck’s son Juno. Fleck composed the playful number at 5am in the Dallas airport, he said, while on the way to meet the just-born infant. They joked that the number of notes they would play in “Joban dna Nopia” — a jumble of “Banjo and Piano” — might exceed the three pages of sheet music each had in front of him.
Corea and Fleck began the second of two one-hour sets with an interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” then blew the doors off the Atwood Center with Corea’s “Children’s Song No. 6.” They concluded their second set with “Spectacle,” before which they did some only slightly insincere preparatory stretches.
The crowd reaction was overwhelmingly positive. In the balcony, heads bobbed in time when a beat was obvious. Other times, there seemed to be a kind of mass twitching as the need to release energy built with the interplay of the two instruments.
With their interaction, Corea and Fleck made the music so much more accessible. The two were obviously locked in to each other while playing. Between tunes, they exhibited genuine appreciation for one another. Their senses of humor let everybody know that above all, this music was not to be taken too seriously. Indeed, they began their first of two encores both sitting at the piano, Fleck demonstrating with a single finger that he was out of his element while Corea played self-deprecating chords with his entire forearm.
The Corea/Fleck performance was the penultimate event for the 2013/2014 Anchorage Concert Association season, which concludes next week with the musical Memphis. Events for the upcoming 2014/2015 season were announced last week. Tickets go on sale April 28.
A note on the venue: the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts is celebrating its 25th year. The Atwood Concert Hall, which held the performance and is located within the Center, has incredible acoustics. There is also not a bad seat in the house. Anchorage should be damn proud to have such a fine facility for the arts.
Chick Corea and Bela Fleck also played shows in Fairbanks on April 26, and Juneau on April 28.