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Bela Fleck & Chick Corea: Intimate music made from a distance

Chick Corea and Bela Fleck
Chick Corea and Bela Fleck

Remembrance can be one of those heavyweight words. If we’re lucky, it can have gratifying results for a lifetime. When banjo master Bela Fleck was 17 he went to the Beacon Theatre in New York to see Chick Corea & Return To Forever. Returning home, he stayed up, searching for the notes he heard that night on the banjo.

Bela found the notes, and over the years would find many more, resulting in a 35-year association with Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, exploring the world of raga with Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer, re-imagining the piano part in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for banjo, and an almost 20 year association with Chick Corea, touring the world as a duet and documenting their creative synergy with three amazing albums.

Recently, Bela visited the WBGO Studios, to chat with me about Chick and their third joint release, Remembrance (being released May 10), and an upcoming performance, “Bela Fleck: Rhythm, Raga & Rhapsody” on May 4 atCarnegie Hall.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Gary Walker: I remember a few years ago, we all got together at the Yamaha studios in New York City—yourself and Chick and me sitting there in the middle. I was just amazed by the comfort level between the two of you. On this new recording, Remembrance, that comes out May 10, there are five improvisations where they're just that—improvisations. Some of them took place across the country via the internet and sending files back and forth. They are interspersed with some fantastic live performances from Chick that maybe you've never heard before. I'm thinking of one tune on Remembrance that you wrote called “Small Potatoes.”  How did Chick get that piano sound?

Bela Fleck: Well, I don't know. I think he’s just playing a Yamaha piano though. He loved to mute the piano, of course. I think that was probably what it was, he would reach in and block certain notes and they would start going bing, they’d go bonk, and it sounded like a huge African marimba. But I don't remember that. I just remember his playing that was so much fun for me because I wrote that head. But then it was just like going into outland together, but just keeping a rhythmic thread as we took it to the moon. I was very proud of myself for being able to hang in there with the master on that one, because that could be petrifying for a person like me. But that particular day, the stars aligned, and we really got a beautiful version of it.

It was from a live show. I think that's part of it too, because you just go, you can't be too self-conscious at a live show. He had a lot of language that I couldn't understand and could never integrate into what I did. I just didn't understand it. Which is what I loved about playing with him because he had so much for me to learn from every single day. If I could transcribe every single show we did and learn on the banjo what he did on the piano, I'd be a happy man. It always infected me with new ideas.

But it worked both ways because that day at Yamaha, I remember Chick’s eyes lighting up like a GE three-way bulb. And he said to you, “Tell him what you taught me how to do.” And he was talking about bluegrass.

That's right. Because it was something new. I think that was fun when we did a couple of bluegrass tunes. But what I really loved was when I would try something using my three-finger roll on the right hand, and just naturally that came to me because that's what we always do in three-finger style banjo.

And he would just go, “Ooh, if you're going to do that, well, I'm going to do this.” All of a sudden, it was like a huge banjo. He would just take my language that I had just thrown off the cuff, that was quite simple. He'd expanded into this marvelous, incredible thing that I could never have thought of and never could have played because of the range of the piano. But he heard the rhythms and he heard the internal motion of the banjo. He got it. He just got it.

Well, both of you play in a very percussive vein and that allows you to come together like that because, at first glance, people might say, “Well, there's an obvious problem in the sustain.” The piano has it. The banjo is like plunk.

I don't think that's actually accurate when you get to some of these banjos, like the ones that I play from the 30s, Gibson Master Tones that have a certain amount of brass and metal in them and they can actually ring like a bell. Chick and I talked about it. It's like having a little piano in your lap that you can carry around. At first he said, “I don't really like banjo, but I like you.” I'm like, “Oh, thanks, man, I think.” But gradually he said, “I really like it, it sounds like a little piano, doesn't it?” I said, “It really is.” That's what it was before we had easy access to pianos in the States and in the Americas. Banjos were everywhere. That was a way you could make music and you could play it in a plunky style. You could play it in a ringing style. It depended on the instrument and the way you played it.

I was always inspired by him because he was quite comfortable with short notes. A lot of pianists are very evocative by using long ringing tones. Of course, he could do anything he wanted, but he had a real attraction to rhythm. And so did I. When I heard him play on “Spain,” when I was in high school in New York City, I was like, “Wow, there is a way to play with the kind of attack that I like in jazz. He showed it to me on that track, because it was very relatable rhythmically for me as a banjo player. I got that where it was harder for me. I might love a lot of jazz, but I couldn't relate to the idea of playing it until I heard him.


It works. This new record comes out on May 10 and it's called Remembrance.  Speaking of that and rhythm and such, the title track that Chick wrote almost has a “Light as a Feather” intro to it and maybe a little reference to “My Spanish Heart.” You know what it feels like? If I was to be a master of the tango, that's the tune I would dance to.

I heard it when he first showed it to me as kind of like a New Orleans funeral procession. I felt like he wrote his own funeral song when it showed up, but of course I didn't think that then, but now, now I think that. What I love is whenever he does an intro to something, it's my favorite thing. He's just taking his time, doing whatever he wants. He covers all this harmony. He starts exploring. All the modern harmony comes out. That's a good example of one of them, like that intro to that song. Any intro he ever did was just my favorite thing in the world, aside from all his rhythmic playing in the song. You're talking about those improvisations. When we got into the pandemic period, he got in touch with me about doing some music, sending some music back. He said, “Let's play some musical games. I'll send you some stuff. I'll start us off. I'll play a few notes. I'll send it to you. You play a few notes, send it back to me. I'll play.” We started doing things like that and he started sending me tunes. And I started sending him tunes. We were completing them from a distance and we knew how to play together.

We knew how to do it. We worked hard on each of our parts until we really thought we were going to send something good back because it was new music. One day I said, “Hey, the one thing we've never gotten to do that I really have always wanted to do is get to play along with you on some of those intros you do.” I said, “Could you send me three or four two-minute improvs?” I hung up the phone and they showed up. He played them on his grand piano in his place and there they were. He improvised. I worked on my parts until I could find what I thought was the perfect version. It didn't mean I wrote things out. It meant I just kept playing until I felt like I had something that suited what he'd play, because it was quite complex. Some of them were quite loose harmonically, and some were very specific harmonically. And some, the rhythm came, the rhythm went, you had to follow each other. It was like a classical piece to me. I love those little pieces because to me, that's an example of some of the new ground that we got into on this record that we had never gotten to before.

Follow each other. Perhaps down the rabbit hole.


It seems to be a recurring Lewis Carroll theme.

Well, he was into that. Remember he had “The Mad Hatter.” It was my job to title all these things after he was gone. I sound happy right now because I love what we did together. Of course, I'm so sorry to lose such a great mentor and friend, but there was so much joy in the guy. He was always just so up and positive and loose and easygoing and excellent at the same time.

And that comfort level provides a freedom. For example, one of the pieces they do live is Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” with Chick’s intro, a single line melody kind of thing. It's this attitude of I'm going to go down this street. You go down that street. And we'll swing together, Bemsha style.

It's funny. I sent him two different versions of it from two different nights. I said, “What do you think? Which one do you think we ought to use?” He said, “I'd use the first one because it really swings harder.” Then he called me back a little bit later and he said, “You know what? They both swing, but they swing in different ways.”

We had an embarrassment of riches of really good stuff to choose from for the record, but that was a lot of fun. I got to play with Marcus Roberts for several years and he's such a glorious musician as well. Chick loved him too. They loved each other. But Marcus had a real sense that this is how you do accompaniment. This will be a short story, but it's like, when you play the banjo, I'm going to get out of your way in terms of orchestration, I'm going to go to the high and low stuff, and you're going to have the middle, I'm going to leave a lot of big spaces for you to do your thing and interact with the rhythm section, that's how I'm going to do it, and of course he was very spontaneous within those parameters, but it was, this is how you do it.

With Chick, if I started playing and he was supporting me and I started doing something interesting, he would just jump in like a kid in the sandbox. “Oh, you're throwing sand. I'm throwing sand too.” He could engulf you if you weren't careful because he wasn't concerned about any of the rules about how any of this stuff worked. John Patitucci has talked about how you have to really be strong with him because he could jump in on you at any time and just start going crazy right when you thought it was your solo and that has to be okay with you. And it was okay with me, but they were such different rules, such different set of senses of how to do things. And I feel very fortunate to have experienced both.

The impromptu pieces have titles like “March Hare,” like “Cheshire Cat,” like “Jabberwocky.” You Lewis Carroll fans, you know what that's about. Through the looking glass and much more. But there are other pieces of music that they reached together to inspire each other.  I'm thinking of Scarlatti who came up with the sonatas that date originally back to the 1700s, originally for the harpsichord. What inspired the two of you to pick that particular piece?

We've actually been playing that for a long time and, and Chick liked to play on it and improvise on them in solo shows. One day he said, “Hey, you want to check this out and see what you think.” I took them and of course they're basically two-part. There's a right hand and a left hand that are doing different things that interlock. I said, “Well, what do you think I should do?” He said, “Well, first time through, play the left hand with me. Second time, play the right hand with me” I said, “Okay.” Then I thought to myself, “You're already playing both parts. Why do I need to duplicate your part?” I said, “Chick, I'm going to try and write a third part.” He was like, “I don't know. I think you should just play the part.” I said, “Well, just let me let me get take a go at it.”

What I ended up doing is sometimes playing the left hand, sometimes playing the right hand, and sometimes playing a third new part. I'm just kind of glad I did it. He eventually went for it, but maybe because I was dogmatic that I didn't want to just play the same part as he was playing. That made it a fun thing, and then we would certainly open it up in the middle and allow some simple harmony to solo over and jam back and forth on. But it was really fun to play it, and it changed the night. When we did that, the room would change. It would just be, “Oh, we weren't expecting this,” and that felt good too.

You both come from a percussive approach to your instrument, which may also reflect the synergy that we hear. I'm thinking of one of Chick's tunes here. “Enut Nital.”

Have you figured that one out yet?

I have, yes. It's if you look at it in the rear-view mirror, it says “Latin tune.”

That's right. He had a tune on their first record, called something did not know Pia. And it was like, just, and I was like, I would always, Tell everybody that's the name of the song and and I said for one day I said Chick, what is that?

And he and it was like years into it and he said you haven't figured it out and it was banjo and piano in the jumble. He had just rearranged the word for banjo and the letters for banjo and piano and I just I didn't ever figure it out. I was in the position of titling his songs that he'd written after he died and we always just called it “Latin tune” because it was separated from the other tracks we were working on. And that's one where he sent me the whole track with a company and accompaniment and everything. And then I. I, I did it from Nashville during pandemic. You just didn't want to sit around,

It kind of has this flavor of what you could expect on one of Chick's recordings, for example, my Spanish heart. It has that kind of feel to it.

It's a quintessential Chick Corea Latin tune. It's, and it's with the harmony goes just a certain amount of up there and it jams. And it's, It's really hip.

Coming up on May 4, Carnegie Hall is the venue in New York City, 57th and 7th. And the evening is Bela Fleck: Rhythm, Raga, and Rhapsody. Can you talk about that evening a little bit?

That evening is quite a night for me. I'm going to have to be on my game. One thing you mentioned that I recently recorded is the Rhapsody in Blue piano part with an orchestra with the Virginia Symphony. The idea of doing that in Carnegie Hall, within a few months of the 100th anniversary, just was too exciting to me as a New Yorker and a big fan of Gershwin since I was a kid and about that piece in particular since I was a kid.

That's a big chunk of it, but then I've also got My Bluegrass Heart band coming. And for folks who know bluegrass, these are some of the cream of the crop. Great players of all time. Sierra Hall on the mandolin, Bryan Sutton on guitar, Justin Moses on dobro, Mark Schatz on bass and Michael Cleveland on the fiddle. They're just such great players. That album is actually also related to Chick Corea in that he had My Spanish Heart, yet he wasn't Spanish. He was Italian. He was from Chelsea, Massachusetts. And here I am a bluegrass person with a big career in the bluegrass world, but I'm actually a New York City kid who grew up and fell in love with the banjo. So we both had these musics that we were not only deeply attracted to, but we found a home in there but we didn't come from there. When I was titling this album, I got in touch with Chick and I said, “Hey Chick, I'm thinking about calling this new album, My Bluegrass Heart. How do you feel about that?” I just wanted to ask his permission. Of course, he was fine with it. But that's why I titled it that way. Because of him. All of these things thread together, right?

They do indeed. If you would like to know more about the banjo and its incarnations over the years, dating all the way back to Africa, Throw Down Your Heart is a fantastic documentary about the banjo and how it came along from the akonting. Am I saying that correct?

Yes, that’s the Gambian version.

There were banjo orchestras back in the day. I saw the banjo come alive one night at Carnegie Hall with Danny Barker, part of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

I had some good talks with him. In fact, one time Victor Wooten and Future Man and I were in New Orleans and we got together with Danny and hung out in the hotel room and chatted for a while. Victor videotaped it. Danny told us all about the day that the first recording came out that had guitar on it. And how that literally within a year, no banjo player could work again because Black folks were so tired of the racist minstrel show stuff that happened. For folks who don't know about the minstrel show, that would be a white person who would put on blackface, grab a banjo and sing songs about how great it is on the plantation.

So, for very good reason, lots of Black people associated that banjo with these minstrel people. Instead of saying, “Hey, this is part of our heritage and you're not going to take it from us.” They were like, “Let's get rid of that thing.” In fact, Danny was working with Cab Calloway and he's playing guitar. He shifted over to guitar, because he couldn't play banjo anymore. There was no work for him if he played banjo. So he's playing guitar and the Vega company came to him. They make banjos and they said, “Hey, if you'll play one song on banjo with Cab, we’ll give you this free golden, beautiful banjo, gratis.” So he went to Cab and said, “Hey Cab, is it okay if I play banjo on one number?” And Cab said, “Absolutely not! We've been trying to get away from that old thing all this time, and we're finally doing it.” That shows you how people looked at it. It’s very unfortunate, but it explains some of how the banjo fell out of jazz when it was a fundamental starting lineup instrument in Louis Armstrong's band.

Cancel culture has more of a history than I thought, until you look into it.

Yes. But let me just finish up about the Carnegie Hall concert, because we left out three very important people who are going to be there. One is an old dear friend of mine, Bruce Hornsby, who obviously has some incredible pop cred, but he's a jazzer. He loves to jam and open up tunes and groove. He's agreed to come and we're going to do some duos. And the incredible clarinetist Anat Cohen. We've been looking to get together and do some stuff. And Zakir Hussain, the greatest table player maybe that ever lived, is going to be there. He’s my other superhero friend, like Chick. As Kenny Werner would say Effortless Masters. You can’t have an ego being around them because they are so far beyond you. Those are the guys who kept me from thinking I was too strong.

It sounds like a magnificent night on May 4 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Already in my head I can hear you and Anat Cohen working together.

We had a rehearsal already. I think we're going to do a trio with Zakir as well. I'll see if I can figure out a way to get them into this bluegrass band somehow or other as the night goes on. At the very least we're going to do this set of duets. That was the idea of the show: A set of three duets, the orchestra playing Rhapsody in Blue and then the bluegrass band My Bluegrass Heart coming out to finish it up. We also did a bluegrass version of Rhapsody in Blue, which I'm sure we'll do that night too.

And you and Anat are going to play something from Remembrance, right?

We’re going to do “Remembrance,” the title track. We started rehearsing it already, back when I was in New York a few months ago. It sounds just beautiful and I think he would love it.

I'm thinking of a Chick tune that sat on the shelf for 20 years, “Continuance.”

What a great tune, right? Another classic Chick tune. One day he was playing at sound check and I came in and said, “What are you playing?” He said, “Oh, this old tune of mine. I've just never gotten it.” For one thing, he didn't feel like he ever played it right. And for another thing, he'd never found the right group to do it with. He said, “Yeah, I just always practice it.” And I said, “Hey man, I'll learn it," not knowing what I was getting into, of course, and before I knew it, I was like, “Oh my God, why did I say I would?” It took a couple of years before I got far enough into it to actually pull it off.

It was this last tour that we did where I got in touch with them and I said, “Hey man, The Enchantment record is great, but let's do some different stuff. I'm going to bring some tunes.” And he said, “Okay, well, I'll bring some tunes too.” That's when that tune came back. I said, “Hey, do you want to try that ‘Continuance’ thing? I'll work on it and I'll show up knowing it if you want to do it.” And he said, “Yeah, let's do that.” Like I said, he was very positive. There are three brand new solid classic Chick tunes on this record. And then all this other amazing stuff, the way that he played and the Scarlatti and the Monk and him playing on my stuff. He played a little different when he played with me. I consider my greatest accomplishment is to prod some different stuff out of somebody who's been so recorded and done so many great recordings,

As it applies to Chick Corea, you saw your hero, you met your hero, you worked with your hero, and you toured with your hero. He gave you so much, you gave him something too. As it applies to Rhapsody in Blue, imagine a young Bela Fleck, maybe seven, eight years old, with his uncle going to the Thalia Theater in New York, right there near Symphony Space, and checking out Rhapsody in Blue. And even as an eight-year-old kid, it's something you never forgot, isn't it?

I've had a few experiences like that. The first was hearing Earl Scruggs play the banjo. Even though it was on the Beverly Hillbillies, it was Earl Scruggs playing the banjo. Everybody wants to laugh, but that banjo playing isn't a bit funny. It is some serious business. It's so good. Even if I hear it now, I have to stop in my tracks. Earl had that power, but I always remember that first listening when I was maybe four or five.

I always remember hearing Rhapsody in Blue for the first time when I saw that movie. I always remember hearing “Spain” in my jazz appreciation class when I was 16 or 17. I always remember hearing Charlie Parker play “An Oscar for Treadwell” the first time. There are a few things that just stay with you. They change your brain. You hear it and you go, “Oh, I didn't know that was possible in the world.”

Anything is possible. Many years ago, and I don't remember how many, Bela Fleck was a guest on my morning show. And having grown up in New York, he knew the area, he knew how to get there. But coming against the traffic going in, he arrived about two hours early, and he had his banjo with him. He said,” Is that park cool across the street?” And I said, “Yeah, people going to work there are fine. I mean, don't go over there at midnight, but it's fine.” So he went over and sat on this cement rise and played banjo for quite a while. He then came back and I asked him how it was. And he said, “I made three bucks.” People walking by dropped money in the banjo case, not realizing who they had just witnessed on their way to work down at Prudential or whatever.

There were some occasions before 2006, but your collaboration with Chick Corea, The Enchantment to now Remembrance, started in late 2006. Time flies, doesn't it?

It's going by all too fast. And it seems like it's going faster as you get older.

Doesn't it though? Now you also work with your wife, Abigail Washburn. You have some projects coming up.

We actually do. We have a couple of things coming. One is a song cycle with an orchestra. It's about a 40-minute piece where the orchestra is all woven into a song. Abby sings a number of songs that all relate. Some of them relate to immigration and the search for a better life somewhere. We’ve got our two different styles of banjo. She plays the old-fashioned claw hammer style, which is more related to that akonting playing you were talking about that came from Gambia. A whole different right hand. Earl Scruggs is the guy who really refined this way of playing with three fingers on the right hand, rippling in the direction that he played and built a whole language around that.

Then there's a whole set of stuff we recorded during the pandemic as well, because we were home and we had a web series called Banjo House Lockdown that we did 10 episodes of. We’d do 45-50 minutes of stuff for people who wanted to watch it, who were stuck at home too. And our kids would just run in front of our phone. We just did it on a phone. It was very low tech and inevitably something would go terribly wrong. Like, things would get knocked over, because we didn't have any childcare for most of them.

That's the magic of that kind of performance. I remember seeing Joe Cocker and the Mad Dogs and Englishmen that came through Fort Worth, Texas. Leon Russell had put that incredible all-star band together, but there were kids and dogs and balloons. It was families. There was no day care on the road, so they all came on the stage.

That's awesome. That makes me think of the Allman Brothers too. It's just a very family situation. It was frustrating if we had an arrangement we had worked hard on that we could barely get through and then something would go wrong and it would get tanked in front of 50,000 people. I remember being horrified a few times. At the end of the night after the kids were asleep, we would watch the replay, watch the YouTube version of it, and we'd just laugh and laugh and laugh.

We stopped after 10 episodes. There were so many people doing it at that point, we felt like we were just cluttering the airwaves. But I said, “Hey, Abby, can we just go record some of the ones we really like and get the version that we got at a good rehearsal, not the one we did on the show?”

The shows have something special, don't get me wrong. But we nicely recorded all that stuff. Since the studio is just a matter of putting up mics downstairs, we went ahead and got, I think, 10 of them down. So that'll be something someday will see the light of day, but we've got a lot of new material from that that we can do on our live shows right now. Between that and the song cycle, we've got some good stuff coming.

Sounds fantastic. You never slow down, man. You always got something going. The fire inside continues to push forward with Bela Fleck.

Thank you. I got one more I got to tell you about. Antonio Sanchez, Edmar Castaneda and I are working on a trio project and we've got a few things recorded already. We're going to start doing some dates starting next fall and finish this record up. It's a different stretch for me, but not unrelated to Chick because of all the Latin influence he had.

Over at Paquito D’Rivera's house one night and some sisters from Havana, Cuba, the Hermanas Marquez, were there and down the street dragging his harp was Edmar Castaneda. He came in with his kids. What a jam I heard that night. See, now I can hear that together.

It works really well. It's not that unlike in sound when I played with Toumani Diabate, the great kora player. It’s a harp, you know? But Edmar is really something. We're finding the shape of what works with this set of instruments and there's a lot of possibility, but there's also limitations, which are good because if there's no limits, then something could be nothing. Antonio can play anything obviously. For both Edmar and me, we're trying to find each other and we've done really well on the first few tracks and looking forward to seeing what we can come up with on the next bunch. We played live as a duo and it was great just with the two of us. So with Antonio, it's a whole other thing.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In jazz radio, great announcers are distinguished by their ability to convey the spontaneity and passion of the music. Gary Walker is such an announcer, and his enthusiasm for this music greets WBGO listeners every morning. This winner of the 1996 Gavin Magazine Jazz Radio Personality of the Year award has hosted the morning show each weekday from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. And, by his own admission, he's truly having a great time.