Chick Corea and Bela Fleck join forces for one show in Anchorage

Chris Bieri

At first blush, the pairing seems unnatural, even odd.

On one hand, a pianist who cut his teeth under Cab Calloway and took a key role in the synthesis of modern jazz, playing alongside the revolutionary Miles Davis.

On the other, a banjo player who was prompted to pick up the instrument by bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs only to use it as a compass for exploring nearly every other conceivable genre.

But it doesn't take long to realize how the creative similarities between Chick Corea and Bela Fleck overwhelm any perceived differences. Both favor curiosity over comfort and thrive on shredding the veil of musical convention.

"It never ceases to amaze me the amount of diversity and quantity of musical talent that exists on this earth," Corea said in an email to the Anchorage Daily News. "I've never had much success in referring to musical genre(s). These categories of music tend to lead one into a box made of vapor and gray mist."

Long before the duo collaborated on the 2007 record "The Enchantment," Corea's work was informing the playing of a young Fleck.

"Chick is a creative dynamo who has influenced me in major ways throughout my career," Fleck said in an email. "Getting to work with a musical giant like him is a gift of epic proportions. It's the greatest growth opportunity I can think of."

It didn't take long for Fleck, who gained prominence playing with mandolin player Sam Bush and folk legend Doc Watson, to land on Corea's radar.

"I was always just as interested and fascinated by this 'young' man's musical vision," said the 72-year-old Corea. "When we began to play with one another, the fun factor jumped out as the highest priority. We both recognized this and so we continue to do projects and concerts together."

Corea started out in more traditional jazz groups before replacing Herbie Hancock in Davis' band in the late 1960s at the onset of the electric jazz fusion movement.

Latin influences began to creep into Corea's music through a number of solo recordings in the 1970s.

He's recorded more than a half dozen duet albums with vibraphonist Gary Burton, which Corea says are examples of how the musician is much more important than the instrument when it comes to collaboration.

"I have a long association with Gary Burton for instance," Corea said. "But I never had a particular fondness for the vibraphone. Same with Bela. He's so creative and so much fun to make music with that it doesn't matter what instrument he plays."

Corea also recorded a live album with Japanese pianist Hirmo Uehara and worked with a battery of classical musicians, even composing a piano concerto himself.

Like Corea, it didn't take long for Fleck to look past the genre that's the traditional home for the banjo.

Fleck spent most of the '80s playing progressive bluegrass before establishing Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, a band that featured percussion, keyboards and reed instruments and marked his first foray into jazz fusion.

Like Corea, he edged into classical music, recording "The Imposter" in 2013, a banjo concerto with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

He has also recorded with African traditional musicians, and said the key to playing with such a wide variety of artists is simply to be himself.

"My secret is that I really just play like me in every setting," he said. "I react to whatever is happening around me, and that is what makes my playing different in each place. The method is the same. Listen carefully, and look for a way to be myself, and add something."


By Chris Bieri
Daily News correspondent