You could say Bela Fleck met Chick Corea in Spain, although neither genre-bending, multi-Grammy winning instrumentalist was anywhere near the country at the time. Shoot, one of them wasn't even aware the meeting even took place.
The introductions came when banjo journeyman Fleck was still in his teens, He heard the Corea composition Spain, a samba-rich jazz work that would become the pianist-keyboardist's most recognized tune, in the 1970s. Then Fleck experienced Corea at work with his seminal fusion troupe Return to Forever. For a budding banjoist already eager to take the five strings of his instrument into new stylistic terrain, this meeting from afar was nothing short of an artistic epiphany.
"I first heard Chick when I was 16 in jazz appreciation class," said Fleck, 57, via email last week. He performs with Corea, 74, on Thursday at the EKU Center for the Arts. "His tune Spain was played and it changed my idea of what jazz was. The exciting rhythm and the intricate, fascinating lines invigorated my little banjo brain.
"When I heard him in person with Return to Forever, it was a life changing event. I immediately went home after that concert and started practicing the whole neck of my banjo in a new way. I was up most of the night."
Fleck would go on to record Spain on his first solo album, 1979's Crossing the Tracks. Corea would belatedly return the favor by guesting on Fleck 1995's Tales from the Acoustic Planet as well as with his famed banjo-fusion ensemble The Flecktones on 1996's Live Art.
But the notion of touring and recording as an unaccompanied duo — just piano and banjo — didn't surface until the 2007 album The Enchantment. Since then, both artists have juggled numerous collaborative projects. But roads still intersected on occasion, leading the two to Two, a double-disc concert recording pulled from performances Corea and Fleck have played together over the last eight years.
"The banjo is like a small piano without the big range," Fleck said. "It's a piano you can carry around with you. I do think that the tone I get from my banjo is similar to the piano sound, and that may be part of why they work so well together. Of course, Chick handles the low range, which I don't have. But sometimes I walk bass lines up high, and it works well. Because I'm not always playing big chords, it can open up more space for Chick to do whatever he wants to."
A one-time Lexingtonian in the mid '70s, Fleck has played with Corea only one time previously in the Bluegrass — at Louisville's Brown Theatre in February 2008. What was striking about that performance wasn't just the virtuosic playing and the sheer sense of invention that emerged from such an unlikely instrumental pairing. It was also the sheer playfulness and egging on of musical ideas. You saw the practice at work through the locked eye contact the musicians maintained almost as much as through the music itself.
"It is certainly a very intense experience. I have learned that if you are okay with looking directly into another musician's eyes while playing, you can reach a different level musically. It helps us connect and to understand what each other is doing. It is a very exposed sort of thing to do. But I try to stay sharp, be responsive, and keep loose.
"A lot gets packed into every second, so you have to get a flow going and ride the waves. It is an energy exchange.
"Playing with a musician like Chick, I must embrace the true jazz aesthetic. I must trust in my ability to respond in real time to what I hear. There are no safety nets."