Chick Corea and Bela Fleck
[Concord/Stretch, two discs]
Let’s, at long last, be brutally frank here: the banjo is not a modern jazz instrument. It’s THE bluegrass instrument, when played by a great virtuoso, but in a modern jazz context, the fuzzy, dead thunk of individual notes is antipathetic to the kind of expressivity jazz musicians want to have. What that means is that for all his immense popularity and formidable chops, Bela Fleck is as much a novelty act as anything else – quite possibly the hippest novelty act around but a novelty act nevertheless. But, crucially, he is also a formidable musician which is why he inspires with so much ease the collaborative affections of so many other brilliant musicians.
Chick Corea is, perhaps, the greatest living jazz collaborator in duet format. He and Fleck have been playing together for years (listen to their studio disc “Enchantment”) which means their tour stops have been causes for major delight on the part of open-eared jazz audiences.
Here is a two-disc set of their better live tour performances whose energy and charm are, quite predictably, through the roof sometimes. “We make most of it up as we go” is how Corea explains it in the notes. And Fleck – with all the integrity and self-knowledge in the world – admits that when Corea first proposed collaborating, told Corea “you know I’m not a real jazz musician; and I don’t have the understanding of harmony that most of the people you play with has, right?”
To which Corea replied “let me worry about that part. You just do what you do and I’ll make it work.”
It works and then some. Wait until you hear their showpiece “Bugle Call Rag” – which is followed, no less, by a jazz adaptation of a prelude by Dutilleux. In “Bugle Call Rag,” decades melt away from jazz history and a primal jazz spirit takes hold and triumphs.
– Jeff Simon
Musica Selecta: A Sequence by Manfred Eicher
[ECM, two discs]
I know what you’re thinking: “Enough self-celebration already.” The 40th anniversary of the venerable ECM label a few years ago unleashed a cavalcade of discs wherein the label celebrates itself and the musicians with whom it has had culture-changing relationships. Almost all have been good; some of those discs have been spectacular.
None has been better than this two disc sequence of selections from the music by the great Estonian master Arvo Part in honor of his 80th birthday which takes place on Friday. ECM’s entire New Series was originally launched to feature Part’s music in 1984 and the magnificent music here will explain as well as any Part collection available, why the mystic minimalist from the Baltic Sea has become, in the past 30 years, one of the most popular and significant classical composers in Western music. It is both intense and spiritual and at times haunting in its use of space and silence.
Whether listening to Keith Jarrett and Gidon Kremer perform “Fratres” or the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Chorus perform “Ode VI” from “Kanon Pokajanen,” you’ll understand why ECM’s founder Manfred Eicher was so taken by the “illuminating clarity,” “quiet passion” and “timelessness” of Part’s music.
It isn’t every two-disc selection of a composer’s music, after all, that has an explanatory statement as poetic as this one from the composer: “I could compare my music to white light/that contains all color. Only a prism/can divide the colors and make them appear/this prism could be the spirit of the listener.”
– Jeff Simon