Chick Corea/Béla Fleck

Sholto Byrnes applauds a jazz performance that is full of fireworks

Shortly before he underwent heart surgery, the late drum virtuoso Buddy Rich was asked if he was allergic to anything. "Country and western music," was Rich's reply. Quite what he would have made of a jazz performance beginning with the twangs of a Jew's harp, shortly to be joined by the plucking of a banjo, one can only guess.

In the case of the opening set by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, however, I think that the well-known wrath of Rich would have been swiftly stayed. For the five-stringed instrument of the 51-year-old New Yorker Fleck is not employed for the kind of camp-fire hoedown one associates with Blazing Saddles. Accompanied by the remarkably versatile Howard Levy on piano and harmonica, a supple Victor Woo­ten on electric bass and Roy "Futureman" Woo­ten, wearing a pirate hat and wielding what looked like a guitar assembled from car scrap (in fact, a "drumitar" producing the sound of a full kit), Fleck delved into a quite different bag.

This music, all fluid feels and highly rhythmic grooves, traversed the great American ­territories explored by Pat Metheny (the similarities between Fleck on banjo and Metheny on acoustic guitar were on occasion startling) or Dave Grusin, whose use of arpeggioed fifths and octaves on piano was echoed by the outstanding, crystalline Levy; indeed, it went all the way back to the maps of the continent drawn by Aaron Copland. It shares that sense of an open, unending horizon: chord changes punctuating the landscape with the certainty of canyons, and the journey infused with that clear, New World optimism that a friend once described as being like a primeval, tuneful "yes". It draws on jazz, recognises and shares its structures and harmonies; yet owes nothing to the urban habitat essential to so much jazz, shucking off the city dust as it enters a "country" that even Rich might have enjoyed.

Chick Corea is a much more worldly musician, a Miles Davis alumnus who has become, along with Herbie Hancock, one of the grand master exponents of modern jazz piano and fluent in all its arts, from straight-ahead swing, to dissonant post-bop, fusion, funk and avant-garde abstraction. Which strand he will choose to explore on a concert date is so uncertain that he is predictable only in his unpredictability. On this occasion, backed by Stanley Clarke on double bass and Lenny White on drums, both stars and band leaders in their own right, Corea mostly chose a deeply and delightfully me­lodic path. Nothing was entirely straightforward: Bill Evans's "Waltz for Debby" began with its wonted delicacy, but its last phrase, which repeats like a persistent question - seeming to ask "are you sure?" - revelled in a rollicking bluesiness; while that lovely melancholic ­Oscar Hammerstein standard, "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise", was taken at a fierce clip and received some pretty brutal treatment along the way.

Both bands came together at the end for a ­virtuoso jam session on Corea's "Spain", one of those numbers with a tune so fiendishly complicated that learning it has become a rite of passage for young players. But, beyond the fireworks, I came away feeling I'd finally put my finger on something about Corea's style, a recognition of a chordal shift he uses that is part of his predictable unpredictability: it's like a sudden shadow or chill on a sunny day. Whatever mood he's created just before - joyous or bluesy, "out there" or minor key - we are suddenly in another place, a plane outside normal harmonic relations: querulous, unsettling, yet wholly consistent and calm within itself. Of such things is mastery made.

Chick Corea/Béla Fleck
Barbican, London EC2


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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains