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Bela Fleck on Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' And a Fond 'Remembrance' of Chick Corea

Updated: Apr 18

Pianist-composer and writer Ethan Iverson kicked off a contentious bit of back-and-forth between scribes following the publication of his Jan. 28th New York Times piece, “The Worst Masterpiece: ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ at 100,” in which he derided the Gershwin classic as being “naive,” “Caucasian” and “corny.” He further surmised that the piece, which was also the theme music for a United Airlines commercial, has functioned over time as propaganda: “At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, during the height of the Cold War, the American contingent brought out 84 pianists to perform excerpts from the Rhapsody, accompanied by a battalion of dancers.”

Iverson adds: “Despite all this, and regardless of whether Rhapsody in Blue is the worst masterpiece, it’s also the best cheesecake, or something else attractive yet unhealthy. Listen to it, and you can’t resist whistling Gershwin’s catchy themes.”

Isn’t that the point? And besides, I like cheesecake.

In a Feb. 8th column, the Times’ own John McWhorter pushed back: “The rhapsody was programmed as the culmination of a concert titled, ‘An Experiment in Modern Music,’ which proposed that jazz, then new to the American mainstream, was serious music worthy of a venue as tony as Aeolian Hall, with the celebrity bandleader Paul Whiteman on the podium and Gershwin himself on piano. Gershwin intended the rhapsody to fuse the respective powers of classical music and jazz. People liked it a lot, and they still do. Rhapsody is a gorgeous, raffish blue blast of glory, a testament to the magnificent miscegenation of American culture. So should we mothball Rhapsody in Blue because it was written by a white man and it doesn’t exactly bust a move? I understand where Iverson is coming from. But I suspect that ultimately, his withering judgment of the rhapsody will seem as local to our particular era as Thomson’s midcentury dismissal of Shostakovich does today.”

Then on Feb. 14th, banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck offered a rebuttal to Iverson on his own website, in which he wrote: “As a concerto, does it open the door to exciting new techniques for the featured solo instrument? Seems like it to me. I’m not a pianist, but from my vantage point it seems that the techniques in “Rhapsody’s” piano part have changed the language of the instrument, in the classical world and beyond. Pieces written after “Rhapsody” have had to take Gershwin’s piano part into account. It’s part of the standard rep now. We still can enjoy Rhapsody as one piece of an illustrious puzzle showing the dawn of a powerful coming together of culture in music. For me, it’s very hard to un-love a piece that moves you. That connection to the listener is a huge piece of the point of music, and George Gershwin sure was great at it.”

Rhapsody in Blue premiered on Feb. 12, 1924 at Aeolian Hall in Manhattan. George Gershwin had been asked by the conductor Paul Whiteman, a huge star at the time, to supply a “jazz concerto” for the event billed as “An Experiment in Modern Music.” The piece was later included, in its entirety (19 minutes), in the 1930 film King of Jazz, a musical revue meant to promote Whiteman and his orchestra along with The Rhythm Boys, featuring a young Bing Crosby. And while real jazz people, then and now, scoffed at the movie’s title (a reference to Whiteman’s popular cultural appellation at the time), King of Jazz stands as a lavish, audacious, at times nearly psychedelic-looking production of Roaring ‘20s opulence and pizzaz (Whiteman's orchestra is shown performing inside a gigantic prop piano). The film won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction by Herman Rosse. And it included cutting edge Technicolor sequences and animated segments (by Walter Lantz, later of Woody Woodpecker fame) that predated Betty Boop. The film also preserves a vaudeville bit by Whiteman band trombonist Wilbur Hall, who does novelty playing on violin and bicycle pump, as well as the eccentric dancing of Al “Rubber Legs” Norman to The Rhythm Boys tune, “Happy Feet.”

In the following interview I did with Bela Fleck for a Downbeat cover story (March 2024), the widely acclaimed ambassador for banjo expounded on his history with the instrument and his longstanding appreciation of Gershwin’s masterwork. He also talked in detail about his own interpretation of Rhapsody in Blue, which was released on the 100th anniversary of the premiere of that beloved — Ethan Iverson’s opinion notwithstanding — American classic. This Q&A contains an added 4000+ words that did not make the cut for the original Downbeat story for space reasons and includes Bela’s thoughts about the late Chick Corea and their final duo project together, Remembrance, scheduled for a May 10th release.

Bela Fleck’s Banjo Manifesto and Re-Imagining of 'Rhapsody in Blue' (March 2024 issue of Downbeat)

Over the course of his remarkably eclectic, multiple-Grammy-winning career, which now stretches across four decades, banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck has boldly, almost defiantly, taken his five-stringed instrument to places where no banjo player has gone before. Consider this globe-trotting itinerary: 2023’s As We Speak (India), 2020’s The Ripple Effect (Africa), 2009’s Grammy-winning Throw Down Your Heart (Africa), 1996’s Tabula Rasa (India and China). Add in his contemporary jazz excursions with his Flecktones and love of old-time music, which he pursues in duets with wife Abigail Washburn, his various one-on-one encounters with Chick Corea, his deep immersion into the classical canon on 2001’s Perpetual Motion (which won a Grammy for Best Classical Crossover Album) and two banjo concertos that he’s written and performed with symphony orchestras, and you get a sense of the sheer breadth of his musical range. And yet, he remains steadfastly committed to his roots, having recently won a Grammy in the bluegrass category for his 2021 album, My Bluegrass Heart.

With Rhapsody in Blue, his interpretation of George Gershwin’s enduringly popular marriage of classical form and jazz improvisation, Fleck is treading untested waters once again. Performed with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Eric Jacobsen, Fleck’s recording of Rhapsody is set to coincide with the premiere of the original work exactly 100 years ago, at Aeolian Hall in New York City on Feb. 12, 1924. And because the piece itself relatively short, only about 19 minutes long, Fleck fleshes out his latest release with clever variations on that familiar theme, including “Rhapsody in Blue(grass),” a spirited throwdown with players from his all-star My Bluegrass Heart ensemble (flat picking guitarist Bryan Sutton, fiddler Michael Cleveland, mandolinist Sierra Hull, dobro ace Justin Moses and bassist Mark Schatz), and “Rhapsody in Blue(s),” his down-home homage to Gershwin’s hallmark piece, recorded with his former New Grass Revival bandmate Jerry Douglas on dobro and Nashville super picker Sam Bush on mandolin (both of whom had also appeared on Fleck’s first solo album, 1979’s Crossing the Tracks on Rounder) and with longtime Flecktones bandmate Victor Wooten on electric bass.

An added treat on this album is the inclusion of two solo pieces performed by Fleck — the ragtime novelty number “Rialto Ripples,” written by Gershwin in 1916, and the previously unknown “Unidentified Piece for Banjo,” discovered in the Library of Congress by Dr. Ryan Banagale, musicology professor, author of Arranging Gershwin and college chum of Fleck’s wife, clawhammer banjoist-singer-songwriter-lecturer Abigail Washburn.

Born Béla Anton Leoš Fleck (his name is a composite of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, composer Anton Webern and Czech composer Leoš Janáček) on July 10, 1958 on New York City’s Upper West Side, he was drawn to banjo at a young age after hearing Earl Scruggs play the theme song for the television show The Beverly Hillbillies and also hearing Eric Weissberg’s “Dueling Banjos,” a hit instrumental song from the movie Deliverance that spent four weeks at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1973. He received his first banjo from his grandfather Morris at age 15 and later took private lessons from Erik Darling, Marc Horowitz and Tony Trischka, the latter who would become his mentor and an early collaborator. After graduating from the High School of Music & Art in upper Manhattan, Fleck moved to Boston in late 1976 and became a member of the group Tasty Licks while still a teenager. “It was my first full time professional band,” he recalled. “This was a touring band and it gave me my first experience of existing in a band situation. We toured all over New England and sometimes even went south to DC, Kentucky and Tennessee. The first album (1978’s Tasty Licks on Rounder) was pretty progressive, and it was my first time making a record.” The following year, he released his solo debut, Crossing the Tracks, launching an ongoing investigation in the the possibilities of his instrument that continues to this day.

Aside from his recently released Rhapsody in Blue, Fleck also produced another duo project with Chick Corea, which the two recorded remotely during the pandemic. Entitled Remembrance, it is scheduled for a May release and represents some of the legendary pianist’s last recordings. DB caught up with Fleck just prior to his whirlwind tour of Europe with My Bluegrass Heart and concurrent release of his Rhapsody in Blue on Thirty Tigers, a subsidiary of Sony Music Nashville.

Because you have continually put your instrument into musical situations where it seemingly doesn’t belong, it’s clear that you love an epic challenge.

I do. And it’s almost like a civil rights effort for me with the banjo, because I love it so much and I’m very curious about it. Ever since I first heard the banjo, it was just so special to me. And then when people were laughing at it...boy, that really bugged me! From the time I was five or six, seeing Deliverance and The Beverly Hillbillies and even Bonnie and Clyde and Hee Haw, all of the images of the banjo that I saw were somehow connected to a certain aspect of banjo playing, which is very special as well. But it was just a tiny piece of what the banjo really was, and it had taken over in people’s minds as the whole true picture. It’s so much easier to knock something down to a little stereotype than to look at what it truly is. And when you look at the banjo, it’s like…it’s the history of the world! I mean, it’s slavery, it’s the birth of the blues, the birth of American music. It’s a continuation of African music, a melting pot, a meeting ground. Plus, it just happens to sound great, to some of us. And I think a lot of the people who go, “Oh, I just can’t handle the banjo,” are people who drank the Kool-Aid of the stereotype. They’re associating it with the stereotypical images that were portrayed because they didn’t see images of black people playing the banjo or even remember that Louis Armstrong had a banjo in his first Hot Five band. That was the instrument that was around from the start of jazz. Not guitar, not even piano; the banjo was there. So for me, it’s always been irritating. Because, I guess at the age that I got into it, and being a New Yorker and growing up in the ‘60s with Martin Luther King and the Kennedys and the kind of world that we were hoping to make...I was inspired by all of that. So that’s why I say it’s almost like a civil rights thing for me.

One of the pioneers to break away from that stereotypical image of the banjo was Earl Scruggs with his Family Band in the early ‘70s. His two sons in that group were long-haired hippies, and on a PBS documentary of the group that aired in 1973 Earl speaks out against the Vietnam War, which was very controversial at the time. And that documentary ends with footage of the band playing at an anti-war activist concert outdoors.

Yeah, and not only that, it was a march on Washington! I think that concert was held on the mall. And it was a big deal that someone like him, from his world that you imagine to be so much the opposite, was standing for what he was believed in. A lot of people in the country music/bluegrass world wouldn’t have taken that side. But I think it was a very simple issue for Earl because he had draftable sons, so it was very clear to him.

Another innovator who broke the mold was mandolinist Jethro Burns.

That’s right. Jethro was a legitimate jazz guy only because he was a song guy. And in the years that he was young and growing and learning, the popular songs were jazz songs with chord changes, and he just naturally learned to play through them. Also keeping in mind that four-string banjo is the same tuning as mandolin. It’s tuned in fifths. So all of that stuff that Jethro did may have come naturally from banjo. For me, it made all of the sense in the world that he played that way on the mandolin. But if you really study his playing...yeah, he was a jazz head, but also he was a song head. And when we hung out with Jethro, he would name any song from the book for all the years that he knew, and he could play it in any key, and he could improvise and play chord-solo-melody to any song of those eras, from the ‘20s to the ‘40s, maybe ‘50s even. Not a bebop guy, but a song guy.

He also did that great record in the late ‘70s, Back to Back with Tiny Moore, the mandolinist from Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys. It had Ray Brown on bass and Shelly Manne on drums and they played tunes by Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.

Yeah! My only thing about Jethro was he just rushed a lot. So a lot of times the feel of great jazz wasn’t always evident in his playing, but the language and the big thinking of what a solo should do and how to make great music was always in his playing. But when I listen to guys with so-called bluegrass instruments trying to play jazz, I always think, “Gosh, I just wish it sounded as good as the saxophone players and the piano players.” That was always my goal -- to make it not sound like a bluegrass guy playing jazz.

I thought (violinist) Vassar Clements caught that spirit with his Hillbilly Jazz records that he made in the mid ‘70s.

Vassar was a true improviser. And he was almost like a Pat Martino, in that he created a certain set of skills, a language on his instrument that when you turn it on he just goes there, regardless of what the song is. That’s Vassar Clements in a nutshell.

Thinking about this whole attitudinal shift with the banjo — this cross-pollination of bluegrass, jazz and pop — reminds me of the Nashville group Area Code 615, which did some groundbreaking stuff in the ‘70s.

Yeah, I guess I wasn’t that into that group. I always looked at them as like how not to do it. For me, the bluegrass and country versions of jazz and rock felt a little bit cheeseball to me. And Area Code 615…there’s some really good stuff in there. Bobby Thompson was a fabulous banjo player who cracked a lot of things open, technically and language-wise. A lot of things we all play on the banjo now we do because of Bobby, and only certain people know that’s where it came from. Even Bill Keith learned a lot from Bobby Thompson, and Bill is often credited for this whole style of banjo playing.

I know I’m one of those guys that’s from outside the jazz world that is bringing other music into it, but I also listen to a lot of those crossover things and don’t think they work the way I want to hear them work. So I have this kind of love/hate relationship with them. And because I’m very self-critical, I listen to my own stuff and go, “That didn’t work. You got to do better. It’s gotta be real, it’s gotta be honest, it’s gotta feel natural, it’s gotta have harmony, it can’t sound stupid, it can’t sound like a banjo trying to play it. It’s gotta have heart, it’s gotta have an originality.” So sometimes I stop myself from doing something good. There’s that saying, “Sometimes perfection is the enemy of excellence,” where you try so hard to be perfect that you can’t get to ‘good.’ You know, I can be my own worst enemy at times. I’m trying to do better at not using self-hate to make myself okay for a little while. I’m trying to be more like, “Hey, let’s just do better and be really positive.” But it used to be a lot of self-loathing that probably came out of having a single parent and an abandoned father situation. So on some level I didn’t think I was that good and I had to prove it over and over and over again. And it actually ended up giving me a lot of juice, a lot of power to push forward. And I’m in a happy place now. I'm in a lovely relationship, have lovely kids, and life is good. So it’s not like I have to stand around being dark. But sometimes you some get some gifts from unexpected quarters.

It’s incredible to think about the courage that you must’ve summoned up in tackling albums like the world music project Tabula Rasa or the classical album Perpetual Motion. Or the very ambitious Flecktones concept album, Little Worlds, where you did everything from Chinese opera to hip hop, Hawaiian music, Celtic melodies, funk and jazz.

Well, doing that with the Flecktones is easy. We just get together and automatically with four people that are so different, so unusual, it’s somehow not that hard, you know? But aside from the Flecktones, it takes a little more work. You have to find the right collaborators that want to work that hard, but every situation is different. Take Chick, for example. He wasn’t going to sit around and practice for three months before we went on the road, so it had to be a lot more spontaneous and natural flowing thing with him, because that’s what kind of an artist he was. And he was so good that he could be that kind of artist and be excellent over and over and over again. Other situations require a lot more practice and work and building trust and trying stuff and discarding things. And I’m actually comfortable with both approaches.

On the live album you did with Chick Corea, 2015’s Two, you did these spoken word intros to the audience before each tune. And for your very intricate song “Spectacle,” you announce, “Now we’re going to do a stressful little number…” You seem to invite the challenge of playing those impossible unisons with Chick.

Well, they’re a lot easier on the banjo than they are on the piano, because there are things that just fall off the banjo more easily. And I have learned that if you’re going to play something super fast, it needs to be the easiest thing in the world. There’s times when you’ve got things that are so unnatural on your instrument that you don’t want to take them at the most breakneck tempo, or you’re just setting yourself up for failure.

In Rhapsody in Blue, for instance, there’s things that are at the most technically difficult level that I can ever remember, short of Perpetual Motion, that are the most challenging, that actually hurt my hands. And I puzzle over them and try a zillion fingerings until I find that something works. And then my hand seizes up. But I guess a complete musician should be good at being very loose and improvising and also working through really hard, detailed stuff too. I always thought to be a good musician, I should be good at all of those things — playing in odd meters, playing through harmonies, playing incredibly slow, playing the music from any country. That always seemed like what a good musician should be able to do.

In your liner notes for Rhapsody in Blue you reminisced about your Uncle Steve taking you and your older brother Louie to the Thalia Theater, that great art deco movie house on the Upper West Side in Manhattan that specialized in Hollywood classics and foreign films. And you saw the 1945 Hollywood biopic of George Gershwin starring Robert Alda, Alan Alda’s father.

Yeah, it was a cool little theater to go to when I was growing up, and it was just four blocks from my house. It was on 95th and Broadway, we were on 100th and West End Avenue. And I recently found out that Alan Lomax lived in that same building, and I never knew it. But I was young enough to be impressed by that movie -- his life story and then the sadness of him getting sick [Gershwin died of a brain tumor at age 38, just eight years before the film was released]. It was all so poignant and so powerful for me. But I haven’t had the nerve to go look at it since all this Rhapsody stuff I’ve been doing, because I kind of like how it fits in my memory. But recently, somebody sent me a clip of the performance of Rhapsody in Blue from that movie, and sure enough, there’s a banjo right in the center of the orchestra when they do it.

In the 1930 movie King of Jazz about bandleader Paul Whiteman, there’s a performance midway through the film of Rhapsody in Blue with Gershwin himself playing piano. He was a technical monster, from what I could tell. And his playing was kind of unorthodox. But like Pat Martino, he developed his own language to allow him to do what he did.

Yeah. And having thoroughly studied Rhapsody, from my understanding of the piano I’d say it’s a very two-handed part. There’s lots of things that go in opposite directions, with both hands working really hard. And I simply couldn’t do them on the banjo. It wasn’t possible. I was either going to have to do it with two banjos or let some of these things go. And then I had to decide whether the piece was still good enough as a banjo feature, doing without all of the things that a piano could do. And finally I decided that it if George was okay with Larry Adler playing it on the harmonica [In 1934, Adler played Rhapsody in Blue for Gershwin, who exclaimed “the goddamn thing sounds as if I wrote it for you!”] I think he’d probably be okay with my version.

Tackling Rhapsody in Blue is another one of those epic challenges that you seem to love.

Absolutely. And it’s really fun to hear those parts coming out of my banjo. It’s fun to be that excited about something that you didn’t write, which maybe sounds egotistical, but there’s a tendency to over-focus on your own music. Sometimes it’s great, but sometimes it can trap you in your own mediocrity. I’m in the situation where there really isn’t music written for the banjo that suits the way I play, so I have to write it myself. But when I do get to go learn something like Rhapsody or classical things by Bach, Chopin, Debussy and Tchaikovsky, like I learned for Perpetual Motion, or play Chick’s music or whoever…it’s really a pleasure to play great music. And if you pick someone else’s music to play, you’ve chosen it out of thousands. So if you’re going to do someone else’s music, it’s best that you’re crazy about it, as I was crazy about Rhapsody in Blue.

What was the initial spark for you wanting to do Rhapsody in Blue on banjo?

I suppose it goes back more than 20 years. My wife Abby went to Colorado College, where she gave the commencement speech in 1999. And she had an old school pal who was now a professor there named Ryan Banagale. Turns out he wrote a book called Arranging Gershwin, which tells the whole story of Rhapsody in Blue, from its genesis to the writing of it to all the different arrangements of it. Ryan came to hear Abby’s commencement speech and afterwards he gave me a copy of his book. It was almost like a dissertation, but it was so good and it was a fascinating read. And also very inspiring, in that it made me realize that there’s a lot of different ways to skin that particular piece. It’s not like Bach, where you had better play the notes correctly. In the case of Rhapsody, it had been done so many ways and with the blessing of George.

How much time did you actually spend woodshedding on Rhapsody?

If we’re talking about the piano part, I started fairly early in the pandemic, by May of 2020 or somewhere in there. It was like a fun side project with no expectation and I just kept on working at it. I spent more time on it than anything I can remember. But it was a process of trying things and discarding them, sometimes spending up to a week figuring out how to finger each measure. Sibelius [music notation software] saved me a lot of time because I work in tablature and with Sibelius I can transfer things from standard notation to banjo tablature and then work with the tablature ‘til I get the right fingerings. It’s a big deal for me, a big help, because I don’t read well. So Sibelius allowed me to put a banjo stave into the orchestra chart and work on each measure over the course of the year. When I first got it into Sibelius it took three banjo staves for me to even understand what the piano part was doing. And what I would do is I would copy the piano part onto a banjo stave and then erase most of it and then copy it onto another stave. In other words, to get all the notes the piano was doing and just see what they were, I had to put it in on three banjos. And then I could sort of see what the parts were, and I could go back to the piano part and dig around and see what lines were happening and see what was possible. I always had to have the melody, in most cases, and then it’s like, “What else can I get in there?” And I resisted as hard as I could putting any bluegrass in there. I was trying not to make a bluegrass version of it. That wasn’t the reason I was trying to do this. What I wanted to do was  really learn the music that was on that piano part, because I loved it. That was my goal. At a certain point, I had to give up because there were certain things where I had to say, “Okay, this can’t be done, so what can I do?” So you’ll hear some places where I had to changes things ever so slightly or change an order of a note or hit a note early and then glissando to other chords where it’s supposed to be a block chord or whatever. So I just had to figure it out and use my own sense of what sounded good. And in the end, I had to get more and more brutal about what I couldn’t do, because they were impossible to play on the banjo. It was just not going to happen.

Just the idea of trying to transpose ten-fingered chords from the piano onto the banjo seems daunting.

Well, if you think about Chick Corea or Herbie Hancock, they leave a lot of space in their voicings and it’s not as overwhelming as somebody who plays with very dense voicings. That’s just not possible on banjo. I just can’t do it. I don’t have the strings, I don’t have the fingers, so you just have to start making decisions. And you hear the same thing going back to Jethro Burns when he would try to figure out how to do a mandolin arrangement of a standard. He’d have to leave out a lot of stuff, but he knew what to leave out and what to keep and how to create the impression that the songwriter intended with what he could do. And as you start listening, you kind of forget what you're used to hearing and you get into what you are hearing. And that’s the great thing about live performances, you take people on a journey. It doesn’t have to be like something else they heard. It’s not supposed to be.

Your bluegrass variation on the album, “Rhapsody in Blue(grass),” seemed reverent yet also very personal.

Well, thank you. It turned out so much better than I expected, so much so that it justified the pun in the title. Since the orchestra piece is only about 18 or 19 minutes long I had to come up with something else to fill out the record. And I really wanted to get the album released right on the 100th anniversary of the Aeolian Hall show, just for my own bucket list thing. So I started messing around with this idea of a bluegrass version of Rhapsody, and I covertly invited Brian Sutton and Sierra Hull to come over and run through some ideas. There was a storm and Sierra didn’t come, so just Brian and I sat down and started playing it. And I asked him to approach it like the great flat picker Tony Rice would, in that contemporary bluegrass rhythm style. So we worked it out and then it was like, “Oh, this is actually good!” Then it was a race to the finish line to see if we could find a way to teach the piece to the members of My Bluegrass Heart band, who I was going out on the road with for two, one-week periods in the summer. We ended up working on it in hotel rooms after gigs and before soundchecks. Then we had one day off on the second week of the tour, and we just went into Thundering Sky Studio in Maine and recorded it in an afternoon. It’s just a testament to how great those musicians are. They’re all great session players as well as creative forces and bandleaders in their own right. But they’re really good at making stuff sound good. I’m really proud of how everybody played on it and made my somewhat dumb idea sound like it was a great idea.

You also got your longtime collaborators Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Victor Wooten to play on “Rhapsody in Blue(s),” another adaptation of the famous Gershwin piece where you’re bending strings really big time.

There’s a fella, a blues guitarist back up in Bowling Green named Kenny Lee Smith. New Grass Revival used to play up there at his club all the time and Kenny would take me aside and say, “Now Béla, you’ve got to pluck the banjo…like this!” And he’d grab the string between his thumb and forefinger and take it back and pull it off the neck, then let it snap back to the neck so it would go...pank! I always thought that was really cool and I used that technique on a tune called “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo,” the title cut from the Flecktones second album in 1991. And that became like a signature sound. But you can’t do it very fast because you can’t do fast notes in a row when you have to grab the string for every note. But if a song is slow enough and you can spank every note, then it works great. So that’s what struck me when I was thinking, after the bluegrass thing went so well, “I still only have 30 minutes of music on this record. Now what am I going to do?” And I thought about the blues idea and I got in touch with Keb’ Mo’, who’s a friend of mine. He was too busy to do it so I got Sam and Jerry and we just started messing around with it. The question was, “Is there a way to play this as a little southern blues?” And that string snapping technique was the first thing I tried. And it gave it a different sound and a different tempo.

At some point in your development of Rhapsody in Blue, Chick Corea came into the picture, if only tangentially. How did that happen?

We were on tour in Europe in 2017 and he gets a phone call from the classical pianist Lang Lang, who was supposed to open the Carnegie Hall series with a performance of Rhapsody in Blue. But he was recovering from tendonitis in his right hand and he asked Chick if he would come play the right hand part of Rhapsody with him. And during our tour, Chick was mulling it over out loud in the bus. And so we’re chatting about it and I said, “Chick, you can do anything you want with this piece because I read this book, Arranging Gershwin, and it’s really ripe for reimagining. You could do it and you could take some liberties.” Like he needed me to tell him that! But I was excited because I knew the story of it and I was telling him about it. And finally, Chick did go and do that concert at Carnegie Hall with Lang Lang. And during our tour, I would be coming to soundcheck and Chick would be there early practicing Rhapsody, and he’d say, “Hey, man, I think this is what George was trying to do with this section.” And for what he called ‘the Cuban section’ toward the end of the piece, he’d say, “I think George was trying to do a montuno here.” He was thinking as a composer, of course. And he ended up with this really fabulous version of it that you hear on his album Sardinia, which came out last year. I only found out just recently that he had even recorded or performed the piece as a whole. I thought he had just done it with Lang Lang. But I heard his version of Rhapsody and I was just thrilled. It’s so ‘Chick.’

Yeah, from his opening cadenza where he plays “Someone to Watch Over Me” before heading into the piece to the stride section in the middle and the Latin feel at the end.

Chick’s going to do it his way, right? And we love him for it. And it also encouraged me to feel bolder about doing these other bluegrass and blues versions of Rhapsody that we had cooked up. Like Chick, I was doing it my own way, not just doing the best I could do at playing the piano part, which was already a significant challenge and I could have stopped right there. But I couldn't really start looking at these other things until I was really pretty confident I was to be able to play the piano part someway. And at that point, it was fair game to try these other ideas and see how they worked. And I could’ve just thrown them away if I didn’t think they worked, but I thought they did work.

How did you find this unnamed solo banjo piece by Gershwin that appears on your Rhapsody?

Ryan Banagale, the Gershwin scholar who I had met at my wife’s commencement speech in 1999, came to the opening gala of Rhapsody in Blue on September 9, 2023. That was the first time I played it with the Nashville Symphony with their star conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. And it was very exciting. The day afterwards, Ryan and I were chatting about it and he said, “Well, what else are you going to put on the record?” And I told him I was thinking of doing some of Gershwin’s solo piano pieces. Then a month or so later he got in touch with me and said, “Hey, I found something at the Library of Congress. It’s this unidentified Gershwin piece. It has no name, it’s not even registered. But it’s written in George’s handwriting. And it’s a solo banjo piece!” So he sent it to me and it wasn’t very fleshed out, just the main line. The whole first half had almost no chords written in, but it was pretty obvious what the chords ought to be in there for that time period. It was a little bit quirky but just a cool little tune. So I quickly learned that tune and it became another gift from Ryan to me. He kind of dropped it my lap.

So that gala performance with the Nashville Symphony got things rolling, and you later recorded Rhapsody with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

Yes, that gig became the thing that forced me to make decisions about the piece, because I had to have it ready to perform for real in front of a sold-out crowd of Nashville’s community. It wasn’t even in a small town off the beaten track, which is where I usually like to break in new stuff. So it was a lot of pressure, but it worked out. Two weeks after that rather exciting debut of the piece with Nashville Symphony, I was in Norfolk recording it the Virginia Symphony Orchestra with my good friend Eric Jacobsen conducting. Eric had recently worked with my buddy Edgar Meyer [bassist and frequent collaborator who appeared on 2023’s As We Speak with Fleck, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and bansuri player Rakesh Chaurasia] on recording all of his bass concertos, with Chris Thile producing. I was already a fan of Eric’s from our time performing together with Brooklyn Rider, a fantastic string quartet which he plays cello in. He had also conducted my banjo concerto The Impostor with The Knights, a Brooklyn orchestral collective, and I was very impressed with his conducting. Plus, he was just tons of fun to work with. Now he’s music director and conductor for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and he thought they might be game to record Rhapsody. Eric and the orchestra did a wonderful job, and with plenty of time to have it released by 100th anniversary of Rhapsody in Blue.

Talk about this new collaboration with Chick that’s coming out in May called Remembrance. Is it live or a studio recording?

Well it's both.

Oh, right. “Bemsha Swing” is live.

So here's the story. We had made The Enchantments, then toured a ton, recorded all the shows and decided to put out Two, which was all the songs expanded. And because we'd get together every couple of years and do two or three two-week tours, the material hadn't tired us out. And in between our meetings, Chick would go off and play with 15 bands in the course of next year before he'd come around to me again. So that material was like the touchstone. And in a way, it was very safe. But I would show up for the next tour and say, "Hey Chick, let's try this or try that," and he'd be like, "Naw, let's just play the stuff we know." So I was getting a little frustrated. After many years of this, that last tour we did in 2019 came up, and I said, "Hey, Chick, I'm bringing some new tunes to the  tour." And he said, "Oh, yeah? Well then I'm bringing some new tunes to the tour." So we both showed up with new tunes after I don't know how many years we had been playing the same material. Of course, it was really fun to play that stuff and we were really good at it, but there was a little bit of a "been there, done that" feeling to it, for me. And I didn't want to push it because he was the elder. But when I finally did, he went with it and showed up with new tunes himself. And so we did the tour, which was somewhere between 7 and 10 shows. And by the time we finished that tour, we got really good at playing these nine new tunes on stage. So after the tour I said to Chick, "I'll come down to Florida anytime and we can record this stuff." And he said, "We just did. And you're  the producer. So go listen to it all and tell me what we got." He had recorded every show we did. And actually, I didn't think I had played up to snuff on that tour. I felt like I was just scuffling through this new material and I didn't want to hear it. But at a certain point during pandemic I braved the studio and went downstairs and started listening back to those shows we had done and discovered that we had gotten quite good at a lot of the stuff. And in fact, there was some real magic there. So I picked out what I thought were the best versions and Chick approved and loved them all.

So what happened next?

Then he started sending me other stuff during the pandemic, when everybody was stuck at home. He'd say, "Hey, man, let's do something. I'm bored. Let's play some musical games. I'm going to do a tune and send it to you and then you play on it. We'll send some stuff back and forth and just see what happens." So we started collaborating remotely. He sends me the first one, which I ended up calling “Enut Nital," which is "Latin Tune" backwards, because he liked to do wordplay on some of the titles. So he sent it to me and I worked on it -- learned it and played it. It was all arranged. He sent me the piano part and I sent my part back to him, and he loved it. He was thrilled, actually. And then he said, "Okay, now it's your turn." So I sent him a tune I wrote called "The Otter Creek Incident." And I basically did the same thing he had done, created the whole arrangement in my head -- openings, speed ups, odd meters, jam section. And I really worked hard on it because I knew it was going to go to him. So I sent him just the banjo part and the click, and he sent me back his part and I was like, "God, this is great!" And so then we were off to the races. And because we had all the time in the world, the stuff was maybe more involved than what we normally would've done for going out on tour.

And he separately created solo piano intros for some of the tunes?

Yeah. I said, "Hey, Chick, I just love it when you do those open introductions to tunes.  And I always wish I could play along but I don't want to because you're such a bad ass I don't want to mess it up. How would you feel about sending me some short introductions, like two or three minute intros, whatever you want." And he said, "Okay, sure, man." The next day or the day after, I get like five solo piano pieces -- perfectly, beautifully recorded, each no more than two minutes long with odd holes in them and harmony and different rhythm...really like modern classical pieces. And then I just wrote banjo melodies to them and sent them back to him. Mine were more composed, his were more obviously right off the cuff. But my parts were carefully thought out and worked on and improvised on until I had something that I thought made them really special and that I'm really proud of. So that's where all the material for Remembrance came from.

So you guys were bouncing tracks back and forth from your respective home studios during the pandemic?

Yeah, that's right. I think there's only one live track where the audience was taken off the end so it would go into the song better,. But generally you can tell. That song he brought, "Remembrance," the title track? I told him, "Chick,  you wrote your own New Orleans funeral march." To me, that's a really special Chick Corea tune.

And "Continuance" is another one that I don't believe he ever played with anybody before. So it was really neat to have these fresh looks. And one of the things that we had done quite a bit in the past and he's done with other people was the Scarlatti. Chick loved to play that. And in fact, he played some of that on a live solo album we did (Play). But our version was different. We came up with a compromise where I would  double him for some sections and then I would play a third part, which was fun to write. So I thought there was enough of the other material on the record to include. It's sort of a different look.

And “Juno” must be your tune.

Yeah, I wrote that one in the airport on the day my son was born. I was playing a concert at SF Jazz on the night that my son was born. He came three weeks early. I was on stage with Zakir Hussain, actually, and we started playing "Happy Birthday" while he was being born. And I had a phone sitting next to me on a stool, checking on Abby's progress all through the show. So I did the show then headed to the Dallas airport, and I'm sitting in Dallas with a layover, bleary eyed, and I'm coming home to meet my son, whose birth I missed. I was really sad about that. So while I'm waiting in the airport there for my flight, I thought, "Well, I should try to write a tune for him." So I got out my banjo in the airport under the flourescent lights and I came up with that tune. I wrote it right then and there. Chick really liked the story to that. He'd always get me to tell that story on that shows. But it was just a very fun loving tune, and it really kind of sounds like him. Just my luck, I guess.

Who wrote “Lucky Bounce”?

That’s me.

Because that seems like “Spectacle” in terms of being another stressful little number.

Yeah. The working title was "Flamenco" because I was trying to do some flamenco techniques with the banjo...just learning some things inspired by Paco de Lucia, even though it doesn't sound at all like Paco. But he just inspired me to go in different directions. So that's another of the ones where I recorded my part and sent it to Chick and then he did his part separately. I guess we had enough experience playing together that we kind of knew how to set each other up and make it sound like we were in the room together. The sad part is that in the end, everything had been approved by Chick. So I got in touch with him but he didn't respond. And it was just so unusual for him not to respond that I got in touch with Gayle (Moran), and she said, "Oh, yeah, he's working through this thing. It's a broken rib or something." They went in to look at it and found out all this other stuff was going on. But he still hadn't said anything to me about it. But then at some point I texted him and asked him how he was doing, and he said, "Yeah, I just got this silly human thing I'm dealing with." The last time I texted back and forth with him was on Christmas Day 2020. I sent him some pictures of my kids. He always loved to get my son Juno on his lap at the piano, and Juno would sort of free form on the piano, making it sound like music. Kind of like what he did with me, actually. So Chick was always very warm around the kids, and he wanted me and Gayle and my wife Abby to do a project together. I didn't hear he had died 'til the day they were getting ready to announce it. They called me before they made the announcement. It was a deep shock to me. My relationship with Chick was one of the special relationships in my life.

It’s interesting that all the impromptu tunes on Remembrance are named after characters from Alice Through the Looking Glass, which relates back to Chick’s 1978 album, The Mad Hatter.

Exactly. After Chick was gone, I was to name these tunes. Chick and I had just called them "Bit One," "Bit Two," "Bit Three" when we were working on them. So I started thinking, "What would he like?" And so I looked for titles from Alice in Wonderland that weren't already used and I found all these other titles for the impromptu piece that I thought he would dig, like "Jabberwocky," "Mock Turtle," "March Hare" and "Cheshire Cat."

That alone is a great tribute to Chick. But this music is something else. It really reveals how close you two bonded musicially. People are really going to love it.

I hope so. He was just so kind to me and so helpful, and I learned so much from him. He found the good in everything. I’m just so glad I could be with him, and glad there’s more music to share.

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