Bela Fleck: Rocket Science (2011)
The musicianship on Béla Fleck and The Flecktones' Rocket Science radiates a sense of play that was missing from the group's last recorded work The Hidden Land (Columbia, 2006). There's also a sense of adventure here that hasn't really been in evidence since Three Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Warner Bros, 1993), the first album recorded after the departure of original Flecktone Howard Levy.
After an eighteen-year absence, Levy is back in the fold on this record and he reignites the chemistry of this personnel alignment, no small accomplishment, as he's changed and grown as musician and composer over the years, as has banjoist Fleck, bassist Victor Wooten and percussionist Roy "Futureman" Wooten. The band is in full flight before you know it on "Gravity Lane," then restates the theme and the cut's done. Interludes of acoustic piano and chromatic harmonica here planting the seeds for subsequent tracks.
Levy produces bluesier textures as he blows on "Prickly Pear," though, and that matches the guitar-like tones Fleck coaxes from his own instrument, especially when they engage in some terse call-and-response. Before the track is over, it's clear that none of these musicians are afraid of stepping on each other's toes as they interact. Notwithstanding how nimble they all are, each individual remains keenly aware of where the other players are at any given moment
Levy's "Joyful Spring" begins, not surprisingly, with his own piano intro and, as Wooten's bass materializes, an airy lightheartedness arises from the music, which Fleck's goes on to accentuate with playing of the main motif on banjo, before a quick shift to a more traditional bluegrass segment occurs. There's no more a clash of styles within The Flecktones music than there is a clash of musicians. On the contrary, before "Life in Eleven" is over and "Falling Forward" begins, the music on this sixty-minutes plus disc is flowing as if one continuous pieces of music rather than a collection of separate tracks.
As "Storm Warning" unfolds, not one member of the band succumbs to the temptation to flaunt his instrumental expertise as an end in itself. The four prefer rather to weave in, out and around the melody to reinvent it based on what the others are playing. And, as busy as the interplay sometimes becomes, there's no sense of hurry here: the quartet allows space to linger while developing the tune, as is so patient done on "Earthling Parade" (a deft approach Futureman also applies on his own "The Secret Drawer").
As sensitive to dynamics as Béla Fleck and The Flecktones is, it only stands to reason that Rocket Science would end with the poignant contemplation of "Falani," followed by the brisk romp of "Bottle Rocket." The group's deep sense of affection for this musicand comradeship as musiciansis ultimately what makes it so deeply infectious.
Track Listing: Tracks: Gravity Lane; Prickly Pear; Joyful Spring; Life in Eleven; Falling Forward; Storm Warning; Like Water; Earthling Parade; The Secret Drawer; Sweet Pomegranates; Falani; Bottle Rocket.
Personnel: Personnel: Béla Fleck: acoustic and electric five-string banjos; Howard Levy: harmonica, bass harmonica, piano; Victor Wooten: electric basses; Roy "Futureman" Wooten: drumitar and simultaneous acoustic drums and percussion.