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Pioneers for pioneers: Music legends Chick Corea and Bela Fleck play Alaska

Posted: April 23, 2014 - 11:01pm

Editor's note: Tonight's Chick Corea and Bela Fleck concert is sold out. There will be a wait list at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m. Also, this story has been updated to correct the start time to 7:30 p.m.

Not many nationally touring acts brave the distance, logistics and, frankly, sometimes perilous landings that accompany performing in Juneau — let alone world-renowned musicians like Chick Corea and Bela Fleck.

And yet, the two men — legends in the jazz and bluegrass worlds, respectively (although each musician’s work really transcends any one genre) — bring their historic meeting of piano and banjo to Juneau Douglas High School auditorium this coming Monday, April 28 at 7:30 p.m.

“I love Alaska’s energy,” said Fleck via email interview; he and his band, the Flecktones, headlined the 1995 Juneau Jazz & Classics festival. “The people are hardy and lively and it always feels special to come up and play for them.”

The duo presents classic Corea and Fleck tunes along with music from their 2007 album “The Enchantment,” promising — according to Corea’s website — a “casual, intimate evening with two legends, crossing a myriad of genres from jazz, bluegrass, rock, flamenco and gospel.”

Describing any other duet, that would sound a bit grandiose. Not so when the duet features Chick Corea, one of the greatest piano voices in the post-John Coltrane era, and Bela Fleck, arguably the most innovative and technically proficient banjo player alive.

After joining Miles Davis’ band in 1968 and playing on such landmark albums as “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew” (along with several live albums from that period), Corea became a bandleader in his own right, redefining contemporary jazz and penning many compositions now considered standards. A pioneer himself, Fleck helped forge a musical genre called “New Grass,” which melds bluegrass, rock and jazz. Combined, Corea and Fleck have won 35 Grammy Awards (nominations tally in the 80s).

Musically, the Juneau concert might not be as loud or bombastic as some of their larger-band projects. Recent live video clips speak to a more controlled energy. Indeed, the “Chicago Tribune” described an early April concert as “two keenly sensitive players” locked in a “magically-unfolding … fast-flying musical dialogue” similar to something you’d “expect to encounter in a living room.”

Simply put: these guys have chops. And they’ll be displaying them in all their stripped down, acoustic glory in a high school auditorium in a small, obscure city in the middle of the largest national forest in the U.S., many thousands of miles from their next tour date.

“Once you make the effort to get all the way to Alaska, it makes sense to play as many dates as possible,” said Fleck. He and Corea also play this weekend in Fairbanks and Anchorage.

“Really, I’m glad to come back up with my hero, Chick Corea, who I’ve considered a favorite musician since 1973,” he said.

In fact, Fleck lists Corea among his strongest influences. Both share a love for collaboration and improvisation, and enjoy a professional relationship dating back two decades. Corea plays on three tracks on Fleck’s 1995 album “Tales from the Acoustic Planet” and also appears on his 1996 “Live Art.” Fleck plays on Corea’s 2001 “Rendezvous in New York,” a 10-DVD box-set recorded over three weeks at the Blue Note jazz club in New York City. Later, Corea and Fleck toured as a duo before releasing “The Enchantment” in 2007.

“Chick and I were both so busy, neither of us made a conscious move to end the duo, but we each got swept up in what came next,” Fleck explained.

One day, after a several year hiatus, “what came next” was an offer for them to play a single show.

“We both realized how much we missed it,” said Fleck. “Pretty soon, it grew into more shows and more shows. So the mothballing was organic, and the ‘un-mothballing’ was, too.”

It’s been almost 20 years and countless miles since the last time Fleck played in Juneau. Does he recall anything from that visit?

“The beautiful sights while flying in, the layout of the town, the venue,” he said. “And this one real good breakfast joint!”

While I didn’t have the heart to tell him it probably wasn’t here anymore, 20 years later in Juneau “real good breakfast joints” abound.

But unfortunately, his schedule doesn’t allow for much local sightseeing.

“I have an 11-month-old baby now,” said Fleck — a boy named Juno (maybe we did make an impression). “I don’t add extra days to tours anymore; I head home so I can be a part of things there.”

And when he can’t be home, he brings home with him. A week after he and Corea play the most remote capital city in the U.S., Fleck tours the Lower 48 with a different partner: his wife, old-time banjo player Abigail Washburn.

“Hopefully we’ll be up to play for you all one day, too: just two banjos and her beautiful voice,” he added. “You know, we considered spelling our son’s name like you guys do… now I regret we didn’t!

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