Montreal Jazz Festival, Days 4-6, July 2-4, 2011
It's been nearly 20 years since Béla Fleck toured with The Flecktones lineup that lifted him, from an already growing reputation in the world of newgrass and new country, into far greater visibility in the jazz world and beyond. While later incarnations of the group have released a series of fine albums and become one of the darlings of the jam band scene, there was something special about the group's first lineup. Maybe it was as simple as this: when the group came onto the scene with its first record, Béla Fleck and The Flecktones (Warner Bros., 1990), it was young and hungry, and through relentless touring for the first three yearswith sets often running three hours or moreit was still in the process of discovering what it was and what it could be.
By the time original Flecktone Howard Levy left the group in 1992, the foundation of the group had been set, and while Levy's ultimate replacement, reed multi-instrumentalist Jeff Coffin, had no shortage of talent, he never pushed Fleck, über-bassist Victor Wooten and his brother, percussionist Roy "Futureman" Wooten), the same way Levy, andback in the fold for Rocket Science (E1, 2011) and a lengthy North American tour that started at the end of May and continues to the end of Novemberclearly still can.
In a quick chat with Fleck the afternoon of his FIJM performance at Place des Arts' Théâtre Maisonneuve, the man who has done more than anyone to bring the banjo into virtually every musical context possibleranging from an upcoming classical banjo concerto to 2009's Grammy Award-winning exploration of the instrument's African Roots, Throw Down Your Heart (Rounder)alluded to this difference between Coffin-era Flecktones ("we got things down so smoothly") and the band's early days with pianist/harmonicist Levy ("he lights a different kind of fire").
From left: Howard Levy, Victor Wooten, Béla Fleck, Futureman
The band hit the stage to tremendous applause at 9:30pm and, in a set that ran a little over two hours with one encorethe perennial favorite, "The Sinister Mister," with Wooten's by-now iconic bass solo, where he flips the bass around his back while delivering mind-boggling mix of right hand slapping/popping and blinding left-hand speed the group covered a lot of ground, pulling five tracks from Rocket Science, but digging back into the group's early repertoire with Levy, from Béla Fleck and the Flecktones through to UFO Tofu (Warner Bros., 1992). Time has passed, and there were a few signs that everyone's getting a little longer in the toothFleck's hair peppered with gray; Wooten's dreadlocks displaying a growing bald spot; and the tall, lanky Levy revealing the start of a paunch when he opened the buttons on his shirtbut what made the performance (and the new album) so strong was that, while they easily recaptured the vibe of their early days together, it was in no way a backwards-looking trip down nostalgia lane.
Instead, everyone in the group displayed the evolution that's happened over the past two decades .Increased virtuosity is a given, but Fleck's become an even broader player stylistically, demonstrating no shortage of classical chops on an instrument that's never been considered for the context. In some ways paralleling guitarist Pat Methenywho was certainly an influence on Fleck in his early daysthe banjoist has always looked for new technological applications for his instrument, bringing in MIDI with the group's first post-Levy album, Three Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Warner Bros., 1993). In Montréal, Fleck switched between acoustic banjo, his longtime electric/MIDI instrument, and another electric banjo that, wireless, allowed him to roam the stage freely during the only tune culled from a non-Levy Flecktones record, "New Country," from Left of Cool (Warner Bros., 1998)also featuring one of two guests appearances by Casey Driessen, a violinist capable of matching anyone in The Flecktones, chop for chop.
From left; Howard Levy, Victor Wooten
Wooten has, over the years, become one of the new faces of electric bass, following in the footsteps of Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller in his ability to bring out the funkeven referencing a couple of Clarke tunes, "Lopsy Lu" and "School Days," in his closing solo during "The Sinister Minister"but it's his remarkable two-handed tapping that has set him apart from those two players, with whom he toured in 2009 as part of the S.M.V. tour, including a in Ottawa that summer. His own recordings as a leader are impressive, but it's the chemistry of The Flecktonesand, in particular, this original lineupthat clearly pushes Wooten to get past his monster chops into a realm where, as evident as they are, the end result is always unfailingly musical.
Futureman first made his name with his drumitara hybrid instrument that looks like, well, a futuristic guitar but is, in fact, a two-handed instrument with finger pads triggering all kinds of percussive (and other) sounds. There are those who haven't liked the electronic nature of his drum sounds, but over the years, not only have the samples become better (when they're intended to be drum tones, that is), but Futureman has also introduced acoustic percussion to the mixthough, as might be expected with a player who has adopted the Futureman name and has dressed, since the beginning, in some strange hybrid pirate costume, this is no conventional kit. Instead, Futureman was facing into the group from stage left, his left foot triggering a bass drum far over on his right, while a series of tub drums, going from small to large, along with a variety of cymbals, allowed him to mix and match true acoustic textures, along with his drumitar. And, during his solo segment, he also proved himself to be a fine cajón player.
Levy has always been a fine pianist but, like his band mates, he's almost redefined the potential of his other instrument, the harmonica. Often called "the man with two brains," it's true that watching him play piano and harmonica is impressive, but it's his use of a simple, diatonic harmonica to play chromatically that's the true mind-boggleralong with, at one point during a solo feature, managing to create seemingly simultaneous contrapuntal lines. Over the years, he's clearly become better at both instruments, but again it was the clear and special telepathy that he shared with the rest of The Flecktones that made the show exhilarating, as he pushed his band mates, and they pushed right back.but always in a spirit of camaraderie and friendly competition.
As staggering as some of music was, it somehow managed to breathe and retain a degree of accessibility that's hard to imagine in a tune aptly titled "Life in Eleven." The early part of the set was continuous, as the group wound its way from Rocket Science's "Bottle Rocket," and a steroidal version of UFO Tofu's "Nemo's Dream," through to the new disc's "Prickly Pear," complete with Levy's barrelhouse piano middle section, a faster than usual version of Béla Fleck and The Flecktones' "New Frontier" and, finally, Wooten's funkified "Sex in a Pan." Another fan favorite, the ambling "Sunset Road," was reinvented, with a singing Futureman wordlessly doubling the melody, but then bringing some actual lyrics into the mix. Rocket Science's "Sweet Pomegranates" was a feature for Levy exclusively on piano, with Wooten engaging in some outrageous free play in tandem with Levy, before coalescing back to its main theme, while on the same album's "Falani," Levy returned to harmonica and Driessen returned to the stage for some exhilarating interplay with The Flecktones.
Outside of band intros halfway through the set, there was no additional stage banter, other than Fleck announcing the final tune, "Blu-Bop," though he got it wrong when he said it was from UFO Tofuit's actually the opening track to Flight of the Cosmic Hippo (Warner Bros., 1991). But if the group didn't engage the audience directly through speech, it did in its comfortable way of moving around the large stage and acknowledging the audience throughout. During the final trade-offs between Fleck and Levy (on piano), the Wooten brothers stood between the two players, turning together to face whoever was playing, lifting the already thrilling exchange to even greater heights.
With Fleck planning two extracurricular projects in 2012, and Coffin now a member of the Dave Matthews Band, it's anybody's guess how long this reunited original Flecktones will last. Certainly, with the group not touring as relentlessly as it once did, taking long breaks between albums and tours, it's possible that this may not be the end. But whether or not it is, for FIJM who crowded Théâtre Maisonneuve, it was an opportunity for more recent converts to experience the magic of the original lineup, and a chance for those who saw the band back in the day to relive the group's special vibe. And, as reunion tours go, this was anything but retro; instead, Fleck and The Flecktones provedas Futureman has been doing all alongthat you can travel back in time, be unequivocally in the present, and push forward into the futureall at once.