If Chick Corea and Béla Fleck ever grow weary of touring the country and transfixing audiences with virtuoso musicianship, chances are a future as a two-man comedy team awaits.
While the idea of a piano-banjo duet recital may sound unconventional to some, Corea and Fleck have collaborated numerous times before. After appearing on each other's projects beginning in the mid-'90s, the two came together most prominently on the 2007 album "The Enchantment," which somewhat counter-intuitively earned a pair of Latin Grammy awards for the celebrated artists' already crowded mantles.
But as if that track record weren't enough to justify a reprise at Royce Hall on Thursday night in a show presented by the Center for the Art of Performance, Corea and Fleck underscored their sympathetic sound with a playful stage banter built on mutual admiration.
"Are you into playing this tune?" Fleck teased as he caught Corea sitting with his arms folded after his introduction to the song "Juno," a relatively new piece inspired by the birth of Fleck's son. Corea cheerfully played along for a bit before the duo finally charged through a piece that fell squarely in Fleck's bluegrass-fusion wheelhouse with a buoyant charm. At the finish of the piece, not for the first time, the two beamed and came together for a celebratory fist-bump.
In fact, as is often the case for Fleck's projects, his career-long expansion of the banjo's typical sound was the fulcrum that tilted the night beyond any preconceptions about how the two instruments would pair together. Often, the duo's interplay could resemble the elegant guitar-piano duets of Jim Hall and Bill Evans, or the impressionistic piano face-off concerts between Corea and Herbie Hancock.
The night began with the duo stride-for-stride in harmony for a flamenco-leaning piece from "The Enchantment," which not for the last time marked Corea as a lovely counterpoint to Fleck's more rustic drive. At a few points Corea pawed inside his piano to rumble a few bass strings, which added a welcome low-end counterweight to the piece before Fleck was off again, grinning with a look of mock-exhaustion as the piece sprinted to a close.
After another endearingly goofy introduction, the anagrammatically titled Corea composition "Joban Dna Nopia" (it apparently took Fleck awhile to decode too) featured a jaunty piano melody that carried an off-center sort of swing for the duo to parry around, and Fleck's "Mountain" was one of the clear highlights as Corea's piano offered a game impression of a banjo's churn in a brilliant, Appalachian-shaded breakdown that briefly resembled a sort of Blue Note barn dance.
When Fleck took the lead, the night recalled his 1995 album "Tales from the Acoustic Planet," a captivating listen in its own right that featured Corea as a guest on three tracks. At others Corea took the set into a chamber-like feeling as with his piece "The Enchantment," which continued the night's flair for dazzlingly technical musicianship if at a more restrained pace. A contemplative second-set cover of Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed" indicated the duo is still feeling for new ground to cover.
Though the two-hour set could inspire brief fantasies of a rhythm section to balance the night's trebley mix, often the performance felt like watching an evolving conversation, as complementary and bright as the stage banter. At the beginning of Corea's "Children's Song #6," the ideas were batted around quickly, and what began by resembling an off-the-cuff exchange grew in intensity as two virtuosos challenged each other.
"Hey, you guys survived!" Fleck enthused at the song's finish, perhaps wondering if the exchange was half as enjoyable for anyone else as it clearly was for the performers. He needn't have worried.
Twitter: @chrisbartonCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times