Bela Fleck and Chick Corea

Sep 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Chris Walker

ENCHANTING MUSIC FROM AN UNLIKELY PAIRING

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On paper it looks like an unusual marriage of virtuosos, yet the wonderful recent duet album by Béla Fleck and Chick Corea, The Enchantment, sounds perfectly natural — for the both of them.

Fleck is unquestionably one of the most talented and versatile banjo players on the planet — in fact, he's been nominated for Grammys in more categories than any other artist. He grew up in New York City, influenced by a variety of genres and extraordinary musicians, encompassing bluegrass and country from banjo wizards like Earl Scruggs and Tony Trischka; rock by the Allman Brothers, Little Feat and The Byrds; Chopin, Beethoven and Debussy in the classical realm; and in jazz, saxophonists Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, along with keyboardist extraordinaire Chick Corea, well-known for his associations with Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan and many others, and a long distinguished career as a leader.

Fleck was so affected by Corea's famous composition “Spain,” after first hearing it in a high school jazz-appreciation class, that he immediately started pondering banjo interpretations of the pianist and his band, Return to Forever. After Fleck saw RTF perform in concert, he stayed up all night trying to figure out ways to transpose their brilliance onto his banjo fingerboard. Yet despite his interest in jazz and other genres, he followed a more traditional path for his instrument, migrating to Nashville and garnering acclaim as a remarkable player, most notably with the New Grass Revival, led by mandolin player Sam Bush in the early '80s. Also during that period, Corea and his Elektric Band played at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and Fleck felt compelled to give the keyboardist a copy of his Grammy-nominated CD. A short time later, Fleck formed his groundbreaking group, The Flecktones, which uniquely blended bluegrass, jazz, rock and even classical styles, and quickly drew a wide following for its dynamic concerts.

Chick Corea (left) and Béla Fleck created The Enchantment with Corea’s longtime engineer, Bernie Kirsh.

At the Jacksonville Jazz Festival in Florida in the early '90s, Corea and Fleck's paths crossed again, but unlike previous encounters they both were on the same bill. The musicians started becoming acquainted (Fleck recalled getting on the pianist's bus by mistake) and a few months later at the Grammys, Fleck mustered the courage to ask Corea to play on his group's CD Tales From the Acoustic Planet. The pianist enjoyed the experience so much that he subsequently came to Nashville to perform at the landmark Ryman Auditorium with The Flecktones and some of Fleck's other Nashville cohorts. Corea then reciprocated by having Fleck as a guest for some of his concerts, most notably during the taping/recording of his Rendezvous in New York CDs and DVDs.

Corea has made a career of restlessly exploring different genres and group configurations, so his connection to Fleck is no surprise, really. “One thing kind of naturally leads into another,” Corea comments from his home studio in Clearwater, Fla., where he has lived for the past 10 years. “From when I was a kid, I found that it was fun in life when I got interested in something to go into it — to try to do it. In music and art, it's the same way. I not only want to learn about it, but do something with it. That's what usually gets me into all these things, but it's normally one at a time.”

Fleck, while on tour in Australia, notes that Corea has long been on his “imaginary wish list” of people he wanted to work with and says that their new duo album “is actually the optimum scenario I could have hoped for. I always love the various duos Chick does, and he is an incredible partner. There is a high-jump factor to making complete music with only two musicians, especially if there is a groove involved. Plus, the acoustic side of playing is something I have become more and more eager to do. Dropping the volume down creates a lot of room for tone and nuance.”

The initial stages of The Enchantment began in late 2006 with Corea and Fleck composing separately after agreeing to record together. While touring with Gary Burton, Corea came to Nashville a day early to jam and see how things would jell with the banjo player at Flecktones bassist Edgar Meyers' studio. Needless to say, both were astounded by the unique blend and how easily they worked together. In early December, the musicians began to concentrate on putting the CD together, doing the tracking and mixing at Mad Hatter Studios in L.A., a facility that Corea previously owned.

“Mad Hatter was established in '81 and its first production was a recording I did with Michael Brecker, Eddie Gomez and Steve Gadd called Three Quartets,” Corea recalls. “I recorded all my '80s stuff and the Elektric Band music there. Now it's with other owners and they really did a wonderful job of renovating the place — it's gorgeous and I still record there as much as I can.” Corea and his longtime engineer, Bernie Kirsh (going back to Corea's 1975 solo album, The Leprechaun), especially love the studio's 50×40-foot tracking room, vintage Neve 8078 board and preamps. Corea also appreciated returning to L.A., where he lived for 25 years.

Still, Corea, who currently has been focusing more on live recordings with Kirsh doubling as his touring engineer, prefers not to spend a lot of time in studios. The Enchantment was essentially recorded and mixed in six days, an accelerated schedule for Fleck. “Chick likes to work a bit quicker than I do and likes to simplify the decision process,” Fleck comments. “In other words, do a few takes, choose one and patch anything that is not satisfactory. I tend to do more takes and edit my favorite takes together, trying to avoid overdubbing. The benefit that I find is that I can include more of the spontaneous things that happened, a great intro or a certain mood or feel for a section that happens only once and cannot be patched into existence.

“Now we had to learn the stuff, create viable arrangements, record and mix in six days,” Fleck continues. “After my quiet internal freak-out, we went to work! Sure enough, by early on the fifth day we were mixing. I was still fussing with edits in another room while they began to mix the first stuff we had recorded. In the beginning, I think he was not thrilled that I was so hands-on with the editing, but as we went along I think he began to like what I was doing — at least I hope so!” Corea, who admits he is not a very technical person, composes and records with Logic, but leaves all of the engineering to Kirsh. “We agree a lot about balance, the naturalness and smoothness of the sound. Also, he makes sure the quality of the recordings is high; sometimes I don't care about that so much and just want to get it done,” Corea explains.

As far as working with Fleck, Corea was much more interested in composition and the unusual pairing of their instruments. “It's a pretty natural blend between banjo and piano,” Corea continues. “The timbres are a good complement. Rehearsals in Nashville kind of solidified what direction we were going into and we mostly wrote new tunes for the recording. The exceptions were a standard [“Brazil”], a children's song of mine [“Children's Song #6”] and ‘Sunset Road,’ an older song of Béla's. We tried to have a lot of fun creating, experimenting and improvising. That was some of the basis, but he loves to write and I do, too.”

Kirsh notes that the musicians adapted well to produce “a great sound and a terrific combination.” He says he used a combination of mics on the piano: a pair of Schoeps CMC 6s with MP-4 capsules, a pair of Neumann 149s and AKG C 12s, Corea's favorite, along with the C-12/EI. For banjo, Kirsh used a Neumann U89, Fleck's regular mic, and a C 12A closer to the fingerboard. “Béla wanted to make sure his banjo had a warm sound,” Kirsh stresses. “Then you have some good equipment, a nice environment to record, a place that's distraction-free, and they just did their music and had fun.

“We had some great help in the control room with [assistant engineer] Buck Snow — he contributed greatly and it was a team effort,” Kirsh continues. “It wasn't a complex, problem-solving session; it was one of just capturing the music and helping to make the environment a place they could create easily and freely.” Fleck adds, “With banjo and piano, the hardest part was finding the right mix and tones. There is the potential for cancellation since they share registers. But since Chick has played a lot with other pianists, he has a great sense about registers and playing in a way that complements the banjo.

“For a while, it seemed like the banjo wasn't sounding full because there didn't seem be room for the lower part of my sound to come through,” Fleck says. “But working with Bernie and being a little more aggressive with EQ really brought it around. I have to say that going to half-inch tape on the mixdown stage really made me happy. All of a sudden the sound I hoped for was there. Bernie knew this was coming the whole time, so he was right on target. But I couldn't really know what it would do till I heard it, and it was a profound change.”

Kirsh recorded to Pro Tools at 24-bit/96k using the Neve preamps in the console and Neve 1073s as outboards to get the warmth and detail that he loves. The album took about a week to mix, he says, “with Chick and Béla around for the initial mixes for a day or two, then both of them had other things to do. Buck and I stayed in the control room to mix the rest of the record. Then we just sent out the mixes for comments from them and made what changes were necessary — the usual process.

“Both of these guys are great improvisers and they enjoyed playing together — you can hear that in the record,” Kirsh concludes. “I've heard a lot of Chick's music through the recordings I worked on and touring, and it never, ever gets boring or old, and there's a freshness that he brings to each project. But without a doubt, this is his most unusual one. Banjo is not an instrument you find interacting in the jazz world and I don't know who else does it, except Béla.”

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