Eight years ago, pianist Chick Corea and banjo player Bela Fleck collaborated to create “The Enchantment,” an album of works for piano and banjo. On Friday night in Bing Concert Hall, the unlikely yet wildly successful duo was at it again, performing old favorites as well as entirely new works. Corea, hailed by some as the “greatest living jazz collaborator,” is the fourth most-nominated artist in Grammy Awards history. Fleck, once demoted to chorus from french horn because of his “lack of musical aptitude,” is considered one of the most creative and skilled banjo players in the world. The two are currently touring to promote their new album, “Two,” bringing a friendly and casual stage presence alongside their innovative music.
Corea and Fleck immediately created an intimate atmosphere by wearing sneakers onstage and kicking off their performance by remarking, “I guess we should begin.” The pair began the program with a new version of “Senorita,” an old favorite from their first album. They drew in the audience with a calm and haunting melody, striking a perfect balance between Fleck’s banjo melody and Corea’s blurred, almost impressionistic chords. His layering of chords upon chords, all sustained with pedal, evoked a mood of serenity that beautifully complemented Fleck’s solo. Both musicians expressed themselves through subtle body movements, like Corea’s graceful hand gestures at the piano and Fleck’s head bobbing and shaking.
“Menagerie,” next on the program and composed by Fleck himself, was filled with a frantic energy from repeated notes and alternating dissonant and unison parts that starkly contrasted with the duo’s first piece. And when the audience was getting too absorbed by the serious concert atmosphere, Corea lightened the mood by picking up his sheet music and shaking it during Fleck’s solo, to which Fleck responded by shaking his own music back. In the composer’s own words, “Menagerie” is “just a couple monkeys… throwing stuff at each other.” This sentiment was apparent both when Corea stood up to pluck individual piano strings and through Fleck’s emphasis on atonal notes with sudden accents and unorthodox rhythms.
Remarkably, Corea and Fleck’s out-of-the-blue antics didn’t detract from their performance, but rather added to it and emphasized their personalities. Both are very clearly top musicians in their respective fields, performing in perfect harmony with each other. Nowhere was this connection more evident than during “Prelude in Berceuse,” by the French composer Henri Dutilleaux, in which Corea perfectly matched Fleck’s melody, composed of distinct and almost detached notes. Even when the melody slowed down and sped up, the duo remained in time with each other.
But instead of acting like the serious musical superstars that they are, Corea and Fleck made sure to converse with the audience between pieces and keep the mood light, making themselves approachable pals rather than distant musical icons. The audience, extremely receptive to the pair’s charisma, followed each piece with extended applause, which continued even after the duo would begin their next song. After an even longer round of applause at the end of the program, the pair returned to the stage to perform not one, but two encore pieces, finishing a night of defied expectations with one more surprise.
You can contact Serena Wong at serenaw ‘at’ stanford.edu.