[19 September 2007]
Two musicians playing only two instruments—indeed, The Enchantment is a duet recording in the truest sense of the word. And while the term “virtuoso” shouldn’t be tossed around lightly, few would deem banjoist Bèla Fleck and pianist Chick Corea unworthy of the appellation. The Enchantment, therefore, is “virtuoso times two”. But that’s not all. Fleck and Corea are also composers par excellence. Six of The Enchantment‘s eleven tracks were written by Fleck, and the rest—excluding a well-considered cover of “Brazil”—are Corea compositions.
But, I hear you thinking, the piano and banjo? This seemingly incongruous pairing would, in the wrong hands, surely result in a plunky, tinkly mess. Fleck and Corea are not the wrong hands. These masters utilize their instrumental and compositional versatility to create music that surpasses both genres and expectations. This ain’t simply bluegrass banjo, and it’s certainly more than “just” jazz piano. Fleck uses the short sustain of the banjo’s plucks for leads, fills, and rhythmic propulsion, while Corea matches a precise amount of notes and impetus. Listening to The Enchantment under the scrutiny of headphones is often amazing and, yes, frequently enchanting.
The Latin tinge of opener “Señorita” tips you off—this is a Corea tune. In an impressive display of interplay, the two musicians effortlessly and spaciously finesse his Latin rhythms, sans rhythm section. Fleck’s “Spectacle” follows, and he initially steps well into the forefront with leads that Corea underpins beautifully. The song then morphs into a hillbilly jazz explosion, as both instruments grapple for the song’s spotlight before merging into a dazzling interchange leading to a unison finale, with each instrumentalist matching the other note for note.
The Enchantment boasts variety aplenty. The lanky “Joban Dna Nopia” subtly swings, while “Mountain” is a bluegrass breakdown re-imagined through a piano prism. The title track is a lovely mesh of classical and jazz influences, and the duo reconstruct Fleck’s normally-festive live fave “Sunset Road” into a thoughtful and elegant closer. At the end of these 54 minutes, you will have forgotten about the supposed “necessity” of a rhythm section and the “improbability” of the banjo/piano duo.
This album is certainly not the first duet project for either musician. Corea has successfully paired with Herbie Hancock, Bobby McFerrin, and Gary Burton, while Fleck recorded 2004’s Music for Two with bassist Edgar Meyer and, twenty years prior, released an album of jazzgrass duets called Double Time. In recent years, Corea has recorded with Fleck’s “blu-bop” ensemble the Flecktones, and Fleck and his banjo added to the festivity of Corea’s 60th birthday bash at the Blue Note. After these performances (captured on both CD and DVD as Rendezvous in New York), the duo decided to tour together and record; The Enchantment is the result.
There’s only one glaring omission from the album—I’m puzzled why a reworking of Corea’s “Spain” isn’t included. Fleck covered it early in his career and the song frequently appears on Flecktone setlists. And I would’ve welcomed at least one all-out, full-throttle bluegrass barnburner with a stridingly percussive piano exchange—something to add a little “Yee-Haw Factor”. Otherwise, The Enchantment plays like a charm.