A banjo, a piano, and two willing masters

Boston Globe, February 29, 2008

In four decades exploring seemingly every nook and cranny of straight-ahead jazz, Latin jazz, and fusion, the pianist Chick Corea has exemplified versatility and spirit of adventure to as great an extent as any musician today. But even omnivorous curiosity has limits. So when asked how much interest he had ever taken, until recently, in working with a banjo as accompanying instrument, Corea’s reply is frank and succinct: “Zero.”

It’s all the more remarkable a revelation considering the easy, comfortable interplay that marks “The Enchantment,” the duet album Corea made last year with the modern banjo master Bela Fleck. The two have been taking time away from their many other endeavors – Fleck leads the popular bluegrass-meets-jam-band outfit the Flecktones – for a series of duo gigs. They alight at Symphony Hall this evening.

Fleck had long admired Corea from afar, but when he reached out to the elder pianist a few years ago to invite him to sit in on some Flecktones dates, it was the first time, Corea says from his home in Florida, that he truly took the banjo seriously.

“I hate to say it, or I’m reluctant to say it for all the banjo fans out there, but I never liked the instrument,” he says. “I had zero interest in it.” Even the social context and cultural history associated with banjo music, from Appalachian bluegrass to decades of political protest songs, held no particular appeal: “I sort of bypassed all of that in my life,” Corea says. “I was listening to Coltrane and Miles Davis.”

None of this is apparent on “The Enchantment,” an elegant album featuring compositions by both men that showcases Corea’s customary virtuosity and feeling with, from Fleck, a level of depth and improvisational subtlety that defies every stereotype about the banjo.

And though it’s probably fair to say that this encounter, in its approach and setting, takes place more on Corea’s turf than on Fleck’s, it still finds Corea traveling outside of his comfort zone and developing outright bluegrass lines on, for instance, the Fleck-penned track “Mountain.”

On that song, which begins with Fleck soloing a fast and typically twangy banjo groove, “I learned the exact banjo phrase and played it back to him,” Corea says. “I guess I’ve learned how to play banjo phrases on the piano, and it’s kind of fun.”

The linchpin to it all, says Corea, is Fleck himself, who the pianist came to know less as an ambassador of his instrument than for his overall musical intelligence and interest in collaboration.

“Every musician that I play with, every collaboration is a whole universe of its own,” Corea says. “The fact that we’re using particular instruments takes on a very junior importance. The actual sound is not such a big deal.”

Setting up the technical parameters of playing together was a simple matter, he says. “We spent maybe 15 or 20 minutes positioning our instruments, deciding to take the lid off the piano. I remember I asked him what the lowest note and the highest note were on the banjo. That is as far as I went with it technically.”

In concert, Corea says, he and Fleck are taking the songs on “The Enchantment,” which are relatively clean and concise, and developing them into longer-form pieces with lots of improvisation.

And although Fleck has commented that the audiences at these shows have been perhaps more quiet and involved in intensive listening than what he often hears at Flecktones gigs, Corea says Fleck’s fans offer their share of “hooting and hollering.”

“I like that,” he adds. “I’m continually surprised at the great reception we’ve been getting. I’m always asking myself, `Who are these people? Are they jazz fans? Rock fans? Flecktones fans?”’

Corea is confident that he and Fleck will be able to infuse even the large and ornate setting of Symphony Hall with some of the informality and intimacy that their music deserves. “We get the audience nice and relaxed,” he says. “We try to break it down into a living-room vibe.”

He expects the gig to be all the more fun because of his enduring hometown connection to the Boston area: He was born in Chelsea, has numerous relatives here, and his speech still carries more than a trace of a Boston accent.

“To come back with a duet and wear jeans and play Symphony Hall,” he says, “it’s going to be a blast.”