Bluegrass aficionado Bela Fleck has been known to break many boundaries of genres in his collaborations from his band the Flecktones to his works with Edgar Meyer, Stanley Clarke and Jean Luc-Ponty. Fleck recently teamed up with fusion jazz great Chick Corea on The Enchantment, bringing two master musicians together to create a one-of-a-kind sound. With twenty Grammy awards between the two of them, Corea and Fleck combine the unlikely pairing of banjo and piano, while crossing musical limits. Mesmerizing and addictive, The Enchantment was admittedly initially a challenge for both to create, but eventually became a comfortable collaboration.
Composing arrangements that fit the unusual sound, Corea and Fleck have created harmonies and rhythms that mesh together naturally. Fleck dragged Corea into his bluegrass tradition, leaving Corea a huge fan of that sound (and vice versa). They fell into a “comfortable, high work ethic” in teaching each other the ins and outs of their respective traditions. Touring in support of The Enchantment, the duo has found a groove while still finding new ideas with their material, as Fleck recently explained to Glide.
How did you and Corea initially come to collaborate?
I have been a fan since high school. Eventually I met him and began giving him my music to listen to. After my group came on the scene we began to run into each other, and finally I asked him to play on some tracks on an album. This led to other meetings such as my sitting in with Chick and Bobby McFerrin at the Blue Note in NY.
You’re a noted long-time Chick Corea fan. How and when did you first get turned onto his work?
High School jazz appreciation class is the first place I heard Chick. My teacher played Spain for us, and it was all over!
Did you approach The Enchantment differently than you have with other collaborations?
Yes. For one thing we did it a lot faster. I like to take my time on things, Chick moves thru more quickly. But this yielded great results and I am proud of the recording.
How much of The Enchantment went into writing for each other’s strengths?
I think we just wrote music that we liked and assumed the other could play it. In my case, I did choose some pieces that I thought he would enjoy playing.
Are there any songs that evoke a similarity to a Flecktone composition?
Some of my tunes could have easily been done by the Flecktones as well. I like these versions though.
How do you see the songs you’re writing now as different than the songs you were writing ten years ago?
I always try to find something that I have not done before, whether it is harmonic or technically challenging or pretty!
I’d like to think I was improving but I don’t have a way to really track that. Every once in while something really nice pops out, though.
The record seems a way to play together as duo partners, but in the live arena how do you plan to stretch things out without losing the focus of The Enchantment?
Having played 20 or so gigs now, the stretching has commenced! We have been sticking to the album repertoire so far. This allows us to keep on trying stuff and hopefully get deeper into the tunes. We haven’t played enough to run out of ideas. If ideas started to dry up, we’d bring in some new tunes to get things moving.
You normally don’t collaborate with piano players. How did you find a balance between the banjo and piano and not over-step your boundaries?
I always try to play whatever the group needs. In larger groups you play a lot less. In this group it is ‘anything goes’ pretty much. There is the potential for cancellation, as every note I have is on the piano. But we keep that loosely in mind, and everything works out well.
Bruce Hornsby recently did a collaboration with Ricky Scaggs – however there haven’t been too many piano-bluegrass combos – what do you assimilate this to?
Piano is not in bluegrass music, ‘cause you can’t carry it around or hold it up to the mike! But I have done duets with Bruce and it works well too.
You’ve recently collaborated with Edgar Meyer, Stanley Clarke and Jean Luc-Ponty – what did working on those collaborations do for you as a musician and collaborator?
I learned so much from all of them, particularly Edgar since we composed together and I could watch his process.
Stanley was a gas to work with, and I learned a lot from his attitude and approach. Jean Luc blew me away with his beautiful sense of time and command of his instrument.
Anytime you collaborate with someone, things rub off on you. I hope they stick.
What collaborations are you still hoping to tackle?
One that I have tackled is a collaboration with African musicians that I did in 2005. I went to Mali, Uganda, Tanzania and Gambia with a recording engineer and a film crew. The music is awesome, and the film amazing too. It’ll be out in the next year. Aside from that, I have many bright ideas to try, and see if they really are bright!
You have been nominated in more Grammy categories than any other musician, namely country, pop, jazz, bluegrass, classical, folk, and spoken word, as well as composition and arranging. Which of these genres do you find as your underlying passion and strength?
Bluegrass is a home base for me, and my aspirations are in jazz. We’ll see where I end up.
What live performances have you seen lately or what artists have inspired you of late?
Randy Newman’s solo show was fantastic.
What cities of festivals are you most looking forward to playing this summer?
All of em!