Bela Fleck returns to Phillips Center on Sunday

Published: Thursday, March 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 1, 2007 at 12:36 a.m.
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Between them, pianist Chick Corea, left, and banjoist Bela Fleck, have won a total of 21 Grammy awards.

JAY BLAKESBERG/Special to The Sun


Chick Corea, Bela Fleck

  • WHAT: Final tour performance of groundbreaking jazz pianist and banjo player.
  • WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
  • WHERE: Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, 315 Hull Road
  • TICKETS: $25-$45 (392-2787)

Imagine, for a moment, the life of Bela Fleck.
He's a Grammy Award-winning jazz banjo player, for one.
So there's that.
He made his classical concert debut - yes, on banjo - with bassist Edgar Meyer in 2001 on the same Gainesville stage slated to host another unique Fleck duo on Sunday. This time, it's with trail-blazing jazz pianist Chick Corea, who just happens to be one of Fleck's primary influences.
"My first biggest influence was Earl Scruggs," Fleck said in a telephone interview last week. "That's what made me want to play the banjo. The second one that changed my life was hearing Charlie Parker play. The third was Chick. And there really haven't been any since then."
But more on Corea in a minute. Let's get back to being Bela. Perhaps the best way to appreciate Fleck's life, pace and art is to take a look at his schedule since he last performed at the Phillips Center - October 2005 with TRIO!, a jazz ensemble with bassist Stanley Clark and violinist Jean Luc-Ponty.
Since then? He's produced tracks for mezzo soprano (and fellow Phillips Center favorite) Renee Fleming. He, Meyer and tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussein debuted their triple concerto with the Nashville Symphony. He worked on his CD/film documentary on Africa to be released next year. He performed with Nova Scotian fiddler Natalie MacMaster and classical-crossover singer Hayley Westenra (both Phillips Center vets).
And, of course, he and his flagship jazz band, the Flecktones, toured the United Kingdom, Budapest and the United States behind their 2006 CD "The Hidden Land" - which, by the way, won a Grammy Award in February (Corea's CD, "The Ultimate Adventure," also won a Grammy this year).
This makes nine Grammys for Fleck and at least a dozen for Corea. Fleck attended the daytime Grammy ceremony - this being jazz and all - and therefore was not sitting in the primetime seats next to Justin and the Dixie Chicks.
"I understand it," Fleck said. "You are in a big room with a bunch of people from all different walks of music. You might be sitting next to an American Indian and a polka king. Over there is a bluegrass guy and then there's a Salsa guy and a folk singer. I like that about it very much."
There was not much time to bask in that Grammy glow for Fleck and Corea. They are touring in support of their upcoming disc, "The Enchantment." The CD of original music is slated for release in May, but their tour started in Daytona Beach just days after the Grammy Awards.
"We made this record last month," Fleck said in February. "A lot of it is really hard to play, and I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, we've got to play all this stuff and play it perfectly . . . We haven't hardly seen each other, and all we did was get together for a few hours (after the Grammys). But during that few hours, not only did we play through everything and pretty much get everything right, but we also got into a lot of improvisation that didn't happen on the record.
"Chick's like, 'Hey, man, maybe we should improvise the whole night?' And I said, 'Well, I don't know about that, but let's take it out.' So there's a lot of room to grow into this duet."
This will be Fleck's fourth performance at the Phillips Center, said Michael Blachly, director of University of Florida Performing Arts. But each time, it has been a different Fleck incarnation: Flecktones, TRIO! and that duet with Meyer that marked the release of Fleck's Sony Classical CD "Perpetual Motion."
That show with Meyer was a sold-out world premiere, and it set the stage for a musical friendship that continues to tour and record today. By all accounts, it was a remarkable chapter in the banjo player's varied career.
But Fleck was nervous that night. Very, very nervous. Some recall Fleck even mumbling about finding a new career.
"Our first tour date. The Edgar/Bela duo," he recalled. "I loved Edgar's music so much, and I was proud to be playing with him. And yet it was early. When you are that early into a project, there are some nerves. It would be kind of nice if the first few gigs were in front of 40 people you knew and then you played a real gig. But we got right into the fire, and it was a great gig."
Asked if he remembers questioning a career change on that night, Fleck laughed before answering: "Well, you know, Edgar can definitely be edgy, and so can I. We have a great relationship. There's a lot of love and a lot of respect. We are comfortable with each other. If he's feeling edgy, he doesn't hold back. I have to hear about it and vice-versa."
Proof of this "edgy" friendship can be seen on the documentary "Music For Two," the companion DVD to the 2004 CD of the same name. The documentary follows them on tour with very complicated new music. They sweat and stress and get a bit testy - all amid laughs and the CD's music.
"Ask me how long we've played together," Meyer says to Fleck at the end.
"How long have we played together?" Fleck obliges.
"We've never played together," Meyer answers with a chuckle.
Musician humor.
Reminded of the scene, Fleck laughed and said, "Well, I feel like with Edgar, maybe the rhythmic thing isn't the strongest part of our communication, although it's a good part. But with Chick, it probably is. I can't really think of a time when we weren't together and had to say, 'Oh, wait a second. I'm on the other beat' or 'We're lost' or something.
"For me, the challenges might be how do I play harmonically in a way that makes sense to what he's playing on the piano."
And playing with one of his musical heroes is a charge, too. Fleck has often credited Corea's "Spain" with changing the course of his playing.
"It had an imprint because I was playing banjo, then I heard this piece in a jazz-appreciation class and I thought, 'Wow. The banjo can play this kind of music,' " Fleck said.
"A couple of years later, I got to go see him play live with Stanley Clark, Al Di Meola and Lenny White. I had such an experience watching those guys play, of being uplifted, and then going home and thinking to myself, 'Everything they're playing, I should be able to play on the banjo. They're just notes, you know?' I stayed up all night just mapping out arpeggios and scales on the banjo neck. That opened up my whole concept of the banjo."
Gainesville is the last date on the duo's tour. Then Bela puts on his Flecktones hat and resumes touring, starting with a March 8 show at Orlando's House of Blues. Here, after weeks jamming with Corea, Fleck will play banjo-anchored, Grammy-winning jazz with bald-and-strangely bearded sax man Jeff Coffin, bass slinger Vic Wooten and a guy named Futureman who plays the drumitar.
Ah, yes, imagine the life of Bela Fleck.

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