in performance: chick corea electric band/bela fleck and the flecktones

bela fleck and chick corea.

This may have just been my favorite sound of the summer – an acoustic duet last night at the PNC Pavilion between pianist Chick Corea and banjo star Bela Fleck complimented by the usual seasonal chorus of crickets and other harmonious outdoor varmints.

Here’s the thing, though. While the two have toured as acoustic duo several times, this playful duet of grassy mischief, classically inclined skirmishes and jazzy spontaneity titled “Juno” (after Fleck’s son, who bounded onstage earlier in the performance) was a brief dessert following a full two course evening featuring the musicians’ separate, amplified bands.

Fleck’s longrunning Flecktones, an ensemble that continues to use the banjoist’s bluegrass and new grass experiments of the early ‘80s as a collective springboard for a contemporary sound that reaches deep into jazz fusion and funk, opened the evening. Working with its original lineup (Fleck, pianist/harmonica stylist Howard Levy, bassist Victor Wooten and percussionist Future Man), the quartet opened with an unassuming but spacious reading of “Big Country,” which stretched a light, Celtic flavored melody over a foundation rooted in Wooten’s fretless, 5-string bass work.

While Fleck was the leader, the Flecktones remained a democracy onstage, as shown in the way the ensemble drive of “Blu-Bop” briefly decelerated into a blues interlude before getting tossed back into the fast lane. But Fleck did offer the set’s most quietly emotive moment, a solo banjo variation of “Wichita Lineman” performed as a tribute to country colossus Glen Campbell, who died last week.

Corea, at age 76, fronted another reunion of his ‘80s/early ‘90s fusion troupe, unceremoniously dubbed the Elektric Band. Age has been kind to this outfit, though. Likewise performing with its original lineup (Corea, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Dave Weckl, guitarist Frank Gambale and saxophonist Eric Marienthal), the group revealed a matured ensemble drive that was, frankly, more intriguing than the considerable stage time it devoted to individual solos. Cases in point: the elegant band rattle of “Trance Dance” that placed Corea on Rhodes-style keyboards instead the acoustic piano lead established on the tune’s original version from 1988’s “Eye of the Beholder” album. Equally arresting was the hearty swing and trio interplay created between the bandleader, Patitucci and Weckl during Jimmy Heath’s “CTA.”

A finale encore of “The Message” brought both bands together for a jam emceed by Wooten that was essentially a tradeoff of solos. Some sounded unexpectedly complimentary (like a Levy harmonica break that played off an alto sax run by Marienthal), but the vibe is what sold the party, the pairing of one band led by a jazz fusion giant with another fronted by one of his most learned disciples. There was much rejoicing.


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