“What’ll we start with?”
“Let’s start with one of the tunes…”
The two musicians take it in turn to state the minor key riff of Señorita, before entwining together and leading us on the first of the evening’s journeys. Chick Corea and Béla Fleck are two of the foremost jazz players of our time and the pairing of Corea’s piano and Fleck’s banjo is a display of masterful musicianship. The sensitivity and technical ability they each possess is remarkable and keeps us enthralled for the duration of their performance.
After Señorita, a Corea composition, we hear Fleck’s Waltse for Abby and then Corea’s Children’s Song #6. Corea playfully throws in a nod to his best-known composition, Spain, as he begins the piece. There’s so much give and take throughout the evening as the duo trade solo lines, locking together occasionally in unison and worked-out passages that are thrilling against the backdrop of improvisation. A beautiful, shimmering chord closes the Children’s Song.
Fleck announces that next they’re going to play “…a top secret piece”. Corea coughs exaggeratedly and flicks out the back hem of his shirt, mimicking the gestures of a concert pianist. Two sonatas by Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti follow. The pieces (originally written for harpsichord in the early 1700s) are constructed mainly in two-part writing, the left and right hands sharing the musical material evenly, joining together frequently in pleasing sequences and patterns. As such, they are the perfect vehicle of expression for this duo, and the sound of the two instruments combined is reminiscent of the harpsichord’s plucked, sparkling tone. They play with great finesse, adding in stylish trills and slowing together gracefully at the end of sections. Corea even throws in a jazzy little improvised part at one stage. It would be wonderful if Fleck’s comment about the pieces being “top secret” was a hint at a project involving this sort of material…
Introducing the next piece, Corea says he’s liking learning to play bluegrass piano. He steps to the side of the stage (looking very cool, it must be said, in his loose skinny scarf and purple and pink Nikes) and gives Fleck the spotlight. As he improvises a series of angular arpeggios, we are reminded that we’re far from traditional bluegrass here, but he homes in on familiar sounds and the opening riffing of Mountain begins with a rocking motif, spelling out a minor seventh chord. The pair take turns trading licks, going further and further ‘out’, before locking together in unison at the end and returning to the rocking motif. One final, shimmering chord signals the end – well, more than one, but the others are lost beneath the audience’s delighted applause.
After the interval we hear Continuance, which Corea had put aside for years until Fleck heard it. “You were just waiting for a banjo to come into your life!” The resulting composition has sounds, to my ear, of French composer Francis Poulenc, and so it’s interesting to hear them play a piece by another French composer, Henri Dutilleux’s Prélude en berceuse. This melancholic, serious music is followed by Fleck’s recounting of the story behind his charming piece, Juno, written as he was delayed in an airport while rushing home to meet his new baby son. Someone calls out “Happy birthday, Béla!”, and Corea strikes up two choruses of a latin-tinged singalong. It perhaps illustrates the difference in the two men’s personalities that Corea is loving this moment – offering a fraternal fistbump across the piano afterwards – and Fleck is less enthused. Juno’s main motif is a little descending two-note phrase preceded by a glissando that perfectly renders his son’s name into music. Corea’s soloing during this piece is extraordinary – streams of semiquavers at one point and some playful, intricate two-hand figurations.
A standing ovation and a selfie, they go off for a few moments, and then back on for an encore, Armando’s Rhumba. Corea starts this by reaching inside the piano and dampening a few bass strings, coaxing some moody harmonics from the instrument. Fleck picks out a wry, minor-mode version of Happy Birthday briefly before we’re launched into the familiar tune (now forty years old!). Corea smiles as he improvises around the chord changes. Fleck throws in the air of The Irish Washerwoman, and we revel in one last display of musical symbiosis from this brilliant duo before they amble off stage.
Waltse For Abby
Children’s Song #6
Sonatas in D minor K1/L366 & K9/L413 – Domenico Scarlatti
Prélude en berceuse – Henri Dutilleux