Twice during the 20th century the possibilities of the banjo were completely transformed. The first time was in 1945, when a North Carolina farmer's son auditioned for Bill Monroe in Nashville's Tulane Hotel. The second time was in 1975 when a New York teenager heard pianist Chick Corea's jazz-rock band Return to Forever play at the Beacon Theater.
What the hell does Chick Corea have to do with the banjo? Funny you should ask. Béla Fleck, that teenager at the Beacon in 1975, is playing an evening of unaccompanied duets at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center Friday with Corea, the man Fleck credits with inspiring a whole new approach to the banjo. How did that happen?
"When you're in your late teens," Fleck once told me, "it's the most impressionable time musically in your whole life. Everyone reading this can remember a time in their teens when their mind was blown by a concert or a record. For me it happened when I was 17 and I was sitting in the front row at a Chick Corea and Return to Forever show at the Beacon Theatre in New York in 1975. I was so excited by the music I wanted to play it myself. Of course, I had a problem, because my instrument was the banjo."
When he got home from the Beacon, Fleck tried to transcribe Corea's solo from "Spain," but the youngster had a lot of trouble — the harmonic material was so different from what he had learned from Earl Scruggs, the Carolina boy who auditioned for Monroe in 1945. Fleck was frustrated until he had the epiphany that Return to Forever's bassist Stanley Clarke and guitarist Al DiMeola were playing strings across a fingerboard not all that different from a banjo. All the notes they were playing were on Fleck's fretboard; he just had to find them.
"I decided that I had to take my banjo playing out of position work," Fleck continued, "that I had to learn every note on the fingerboard. So I started teaching myself pentatonic and chromatic scales, all 12 keys and all their minor keys. When I started playing all that single-string stuff, I realized nobody else was doing that on the banjo. I said to myself, 'Maybe this is a niche where I can find my own voice.' "
Fleck developed a voice so distinctive that it revolutionized his instrument. It was a strange kind of musical upheaval, however. Most such breakthroughs unlock ways to play an instrument faster, but this one required that the banjo be played more patiently. Instead of the blur of notes that Scruggs and his countless disciples unleashed with their three-fingered roll, Fleck slowed things down so he could play single-note lines that would carve out new melodies and follow tangents into new harmonic territory.
Though he continued to play mostly bluegrass gigs, Fleck's momentum was already heading toward jazz. After a year with the Boston band Spectrum and nine years with New Grass Revival, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones became a full-time operation in 1989. With Howard Levy on piano, Victor Wooten on electric bass and Roy Wooten on the strap-on electric drum kit, this was obviously no bluegrass band; this was an electrified jazz combo not unlike Return to Forever. And in the summer of 2008, the Flecktones opened several dates on Return to Forever's reunion tour.
Corea's "Spain" had appeared on Fleck's 1979 debut solo album, Crossing the Tracks, with the banjoist leading a string band that included Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg and others. Corea and Fleck made their first studio recordings together in 1994 when they cut three Fleck compositions for his 1995 solo album, Tales From the Acoustic Planet.
"Frankly, I was a little bit stunned when Chick Corea agreed to play on this album," Fleck writes in the liner notes. "I told Bruce [Hornsby] that Chick was gonna play, and he said, 'You'd better start practicing now!' No amount of practicing could have prepared me for the shock of hearing him in the headphones for the first time."
"Backwoods Galaxy" was done with a quintet that also included Branford Marsalis and the Wooten Brothers. The mid-tempo tune featured nervous phrases that the three soloists followed on extended tangents as the others nipped at their heels. The trio ballad "In Your Eyes" found Corea's piano, Fleck's banjo and Edgar Meyer's bowed bass caressing a wistful melody. "Bicyclops," an unaccompanied duo number, had Corea and Fleck trading brisk, darting arpeggios on an equal basis. Those collaborations went so well that Corea also played on two different tunes ("The Message" and "Cheeseballs in Cowtown") on the 1996 tour souvenir, Live Art.
That was followed by a full-length, unaccompanied-duo album, 2007's The Enchantment, which featured six Fleck compositions, four Corea tunes and the 1942 standard "Brazil." Here you can hear how the banjoist's patient, single-note lines spark a dialogue in counterpoint with the pianist. On Corea's "Joban Dna Nopia" especially, the duet partners trade melodic and percussive duties with seamless fluidity. After all, each of their instruments is a drum as well as a harp.