For decades now, both Bela Fleck and Chick Corea have pushed the boundaries of their respective instruments, taking them out of their traditional contexts and placing them into new and different styles. In so doing, both performers, through their virtuosity and musical pan-globalism, have opened up literal worlds of possibilities for their respective instruments, taking them where few have dared. It’s through this genre-defying approach to music that the pair have found themselves together, the unlikely duo of banjo and piano, for this, their second recording.
On paper, the pairing of banjo and piano would seem an ill fit. Both are generally perceived as lead or chordal instruments in wildly disparate genres. But in the hands of Fleck and Corea, both undisputed masters of not only their respective instruments, but also musical composition and improvisation in general, this pairing proves remarkable. Given the timbre of each instrument, there is often no clear delineation between the two, instead playing more as a seamless, multi-faceted instrument capable of a range of tonalities. And due to the conversational nature of their performances, it often truly sounds like one voice.
Opening track “Senorita” finds the playing deftly playing off one another, each responding to wildly intricate lyrical phrases as if engaged in an animated conversation. It’s a mesmerizing introduction to the pair’s dynamic and one that largely carries through the remainder of the performance, despite their between song patter admitting to the audience how utterly terrified each currently is performing with the other in such a naked, unadorned fashion. In the introduction to the lovely “Waltse For Abby”, Fleck explains the reasoning behind his nerves (namely Corea’s virtuosity and legacy) statements which could just as easily have come from Corea and directed at Fleck.
This onstage amiability translates nicely to the music itself, the pair often engaging in complex unison and complementary lines, dexterously navigating the deceptively intricate music with ease. On the aforementioned “Waltse For Abby”, they wind their way in and out of each other’s lines so smoothly and effortlessly the sound is that of one performer. Rather than the strident tones generally associated with the banjo, Fleck presents a warmer, almost classical sound that fits nicely within Corea’s own inimitable approach to the piano. That these two utterly unique voices can come together as one speaks volumes for both their individual personalities and ability to leave what would otherwise be a well-deserved inflated ego behind in favor of a group effort.
“Joban Dna Nopia”, a new composition by Corea, features an amalgamation of Latin, jazz and classical influences to create a fleet-footed exchange between the two that relies on highly syncopated lines and roller-coaster melodic figures. Without the aid of a rhythm section, their flawless execution of this complex music generally reliant on a larger ensemble is all the more impressive. Given the technical expertise of each, they manage to both fill and utilize the space between the cascades of notes, filling in the gaps normally occupied by a traditional rhythm section. By song’s end, both Fleck and Corea are frantically deploying notes that span the range of their respective instruments and displaying their technical mastery of not only this difficult composition, but also their ability to perform as one. It’s a startling duet that shows off the best each performer has to offer, each clearly pushing the other to dramatic new heights throughout.
And while the majority of the program features original compositions from both Corea and Fleck, they do allow for several covers that afford the pair equal footing. Given the nature of Corea’s musical background, their performance of “Brazil” would tend to favor his stylistic approach, while “Bugle Call Rag”, with its cascading, bluegrass rhythm and melody would tend to favor Fleck’s. But as each has time and again proven themselves omnivorous musicians, they seamlessly make the transition between styles to show off a seemingly endless musical vocabulary. On “Brazil”, the pair playfully tease the melody throughout before engaging in a fractured unison that finds them playing as much to as off of one another. Similarly, Corea’s piano takes on the role of flat-picked guitar, sounding so much so that it becomes difficult to hear it as anything but.
Ultimately, Two, as the title implies, functions as a second chance to experience these two virtuoso performers playing together. Yet unlike their previous pairing, 2007’s studio recording The Enchantment from which much of the material here is drawn, the live setting and overwhelmingly appreciative audience aid in freeing both the performers and the music, taking each to impressive new heights. Throughout, it’s clear the pair is having a blast and this unabashed enjoyment of the music by two musical legends comes through loud and clear, making Two a joyous listen.
"PopMatters is looking for smart music writers. We're looking for talented writers with deep genre knowledge of music and its present and…READ the article