Saw Chick Corea and Bela Fleck again last night at the Smith Center in Reynolds Hall. (Shouldn’t the people who helped earn the money that paid for it get a discount?)
First saw them perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September, and had to catch them again.
It is an unexpected blend of a 74-year-old jazz pianist, Corea, and a 57-year-old bluegrass banjo player, Fleck. Corea is known for his strange innovations. Some have been a bit too strange for my tastes, but this duet works surprisingly well.
The stage is empty except for a huge piano and its tennis shoe-wearing diminutive player and stooped-over, mop-haired banjo player. Some tunes are duels — though out-gunned 88 keys to four strings, Fleck holds his own. Some tunes are so well blended that if you close your eyes you can’t always tell which notes are coming from the piano and which from the banjo.
They play each other’s compositions, as well as the classics of more than one variety.
After playing one classical tune, Corea asks the audience to name the composer, and one astute listener correctly shouts out Scarlatti, a 17th century composer of more than 500 sonatas.
After playing one of Corea’s tunes, “Continuance,” which was not exactly written for the banjo, Fleck announces that he gets his revenge by polling the bluegrass community, who chose for the duet Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic “Jerusalem Ridge.”
It began and ended with Clint Eastwood, but for the life of me I can’t come up with a decent metaphor for why that was or how it was at all apropos to what happened in between.
On Friday night the 58th annual Monterey Jazz Festival opened with Eastwood taking the stage to announce the opening act — a three piano homage to Erroll Garner’s “Concert by the Sea,” which took place 60 years ago in Carmel and accidentally became a jazz legend. Eastwood joked about being the former mayor of Carmel and glanced between the curtains to make sure who all the pianists were — Geri Allen, Jason Moran and Christian Sands.
From there it was non-stop jazz until Sunday night closed out with trumpeter Chris Botti’s soaring, sonorous high notes blowing the roof off the arena — or he would have if it had a roof — with cuts from Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain” and duets with vocalist Sy Smith and violinist Caroline Campbell.
Eastwood was not on stage. As we exited from the rear of the arena, we spied the white-maned, craggy-faced, slightly stooped, casually attired actor-director milling among the shoppers at the merchandise booths that paralleled the arena.
It was what happened in between that counted.
This was our eighth MJF sojourn and it was one of the better ones. Largely absent were the “artists” who bend the genre’s famed improvisations into discordant beeps and grunts with all the melody of a traffic jam. There were no rap groups in a vain attempt to attract a younger audience. (Eastwood’s white mane hardly stood out in this crowd.) There was a paucity of attempts at electronic fusion that too often sound like screeching cats with their tails caught under the rocker.
Even 75-year-old Chick Corea, whose experiments are known to stretch the boundaries of musicality, kept the music part of the music in mind in two separate appearances on the big Jimmy Lyons Stage in what appears to be a converted rodeo arena on the grounds of the Monterey County Fairgrounds.
On Friday night Corea mellowed out with the noted straight-ahead bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade. Even his duet Sunday night with banjo player Bela Fleck sounded like a piano and bass duet, but with a little more twang and a soupçon of bluegrass.
The evenings this year were not as cold as they have been out on the peninsula but the afternoons in the aluminum bleachers topped 90 degrees to match the hot licks of Trombone Shorty on Saturday — with a two-minute, anatomically impossible trumpet blast (see below) — and Snarky Puppy on Sunday — whose staccato horns often sounded like part of the percussion section — and later 80-year-old percussionist Pete Escovedo with two of his sons and daughter Sheila E.
The evenings cooled down with the classic stylings of Dianne Reeves, who reminisced about being “Nine,” the last time you were in single digits, though she and we have hit more than a few double-digit nines since then.
Probably the highlight of the weekend was the ever ebullient Wynton Marsalis with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra opening with Dave Brubeck’s classic up tempo “Blue Rondo,” though Botti did give the band a close chase. When the band joined in on violinist Campbell’s solo — “Skyfall,” I think — it sounded somewhat like the more uproarious parts of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
To appeal to that younger audience the festival as usual featured several college and high school all-star bands, which included the likes of the high school junior trumpet player who sat in front of us — courtesy of a ticket from one of his music teachers — during the Lincoln Center set, anxious to see idol Marsalis strut his stuff. He proudly proclaimed he had started playing in the fourth grade and was now playing at MJF58 — something a certain 9-year-old I know should keep in mind, speaking of “Nine.”
Sometimes a famous actor is just bookends.
A little bit of the Lincoln Center band:
A few other clips from off the web:
I could not find any Botti and Campbell video from MJF, but here is a sample from earlier in the year at another live performance. They also went into the audience in Monterey:
Reeves performing “Nine” from a year ago:
The difference between experiencing the live performances and watching these clips is the difference between being drenched in a thunderstorm and tip-toeing across the morning dew.