Concert review: Unlikey duet of masters Béla Fleck and Chick Corea brings the Touhill crowd to its feet, Saturday, March 23
The crowd filled the lobby of the Touhill Performing Arts Center in waves, pouring down the stairs in a cascade of diversity.
Easily spanning over seven decades of age disparity and donning attire ranging from flannel and tie-dye to evening dresses and three-piece suits, the eager patrons mingled their way through the sounds of the Jazz St. Louis All-Stars to take their place in the ever growing line at the concession stand. This came as little surprise as this unusual combination of musicians was bound to stir up fans from all walks of life.
Béla Fleck‘s career most closely reflects the variety of cultures in attendance that night as the innovative banjo player has garnered Grammy nominations in more categories than any other performer in the history of music, diving into the realms of country, jazz and pop. Perhaps best known for leading his band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, including the now celebrated bassist Victor Wooten, Fleck has generated an infectious love the of the banjo that continues to inspire young musicians and impress the masters.
Joining Fleck on stage was Chick Corea, one the aforementioned masters of the jazz world. Performing and recording with Miles Davis during his early career and leading a number of bands including the eminent fusion act Return to Forever, Corea has been active in the scene for over 50 years and has continually helped progress the roll of the piano in modern jazz. He has also become well accustomed to the fading duet format, recording and performing with contemporary Herbie Hancock and rising phenom Hiromi Uehara among other notables.
After a generous and excited introduction from Jazz St. Louis’ Gene Dobbs Bradford, the performers took the stage to an instant uproar from the near capacity crowd. Making a humorous spectacle out of the simple actions of sitting down and setting up the sheet music, the duet soon began with one of Corea’s compositions, “Señorita.” This choice set the tone for the night well, as it demonstrated many of the best aspects of the duet form including many call and responses, unified riffs and syncopated grooves. Fleck’s feet generally illustrated the mood of each segment, staying still when trying to support Corea’s lead parts, tapping one foot on his own leads and bouncing them both during the most natural jams.
The duet treated the crowd to two lengthy sets full of twists and surprises. Often the initial style of the song disappeared into a natural flow of form and design. The pair mixed the sounds of straight-forward jazz, blues, funk, bluegrass, folk and a little dabble of rock and country at times, taking the audience on a journey through the depths of music. They largely tackled their own compositions, but included the Stevie Wonder ballad “Overjoyed,” regarded by Wonder as a “new standard” in a conversation recollected by Corea. Throughout their sets, most songs ended with Corea standing quickly from his bench with the appearance of accomplishment; the duo received countless standing ovations throughout the night in response.
Humor made a constant appearance throughout the night as both performers were rather comfortable on the microphone between songs. They made jokes about the unintelligible song names the other came up with, and Fleck poked fun at a song titled “Waltz for Abby,” which was written for his wife, who he teased may be an axe murderer. There were even times when one musician would go off into such a frenzy of notes that the other would simply sit and stare, offering single notes and chords with a smirk and look of amazement in accompaniment. While not their first time appearing as a duet, the two performers seemed to have a chemistry built on mutual respect and the other’s reputation, both honored and amazed to share the stage together.
They closed the night with a two-song encore, adding a substantial treat to the night and demonstrating their chemistry vividly as they attacked even the speediest phrases in unison and sometimes finished each others’ riffs, sounding not like a duet but a single, four-handed creature. Perhaps a few Flecktones fans were taken back by the jazzier format of the night, but not a person left without a look of astonishment and admiration.