Bela Fleck (BEY-Lah Fleck): See Curious, Creative Mind
AAJ: You play jazz festivals, you're interviewed by jazz entities like All About Jazz, but you guys are beyond that. You don't have to play jazz rooms or concerts for jazz people.
Béla Fleck & The Flecktones at 2011 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal
From left: Howard Levy, Victor Wooten, Béla Fleck, Futureman
BF: We've leapfrogged out of that whole world. Not necessarily for the best or the worst. We're just an act without a real niche. They can't say what kind of music it is. It's not bluegrass, it's not jazz, and it's not rock and roll. It appeals to an audience that could like any of those things.
We have done a lot of jazz festivals over the years, but we've also done bluegrass festivals. Jam band festivals. Big things like Bonnaroo. These big overall music festivals. A lot of these festivals wouldn't have a jazz group. But since we don't have a jazz label, they just consider us an interesting group that would fit into some of these other settings. But at the same time, we've done a week at The Blue Note [New York City]. We play the jazz clubs. I also interact with a lot of jazz musicians. I did about a year-and -a-half of touring as a duo with Chick Corea. I did a similar tour with [bassist] Stanley Clarke and [violinist] Jean Luc Ponty.
What I'm doing right now, I'm doing a record with the great jazz group the Marcus Roberts Trio. We just finished recording it. We're into post production now. It's awesome. There are times I really enjoy being part of a jazz community. The musicianship is so high. There's so much I can learn from these musicians. But I'm not really that. I'm almost a jazz musician, but I'm not [chuckles]. I haven't devoted my life to it. I've devoted my life to being myself and pursuing any particular avenue that interests me, whether it's African music or classical music or just my own weird stuff.
AAJ: But as a player, and The Flecktones as a band, improvisation is something that's important.
BF: Oh yeah. Improvisation is a huge part of our music. But improvisation is not confined to jazz. When I'm playing with Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer, we're improvising with Indian concepts. I'm playing with African musicians who are improvising with African concepts. In bluegrass there's a ton of improvisation. Although jazz tends to inform the informed improviser, it's not the only kind of improvising out there. It's just some of the most intelligent improvising out there [chuckles]. I'm so inspired by great jazz musicians and what they're able to accomplish. It's always a goal for me to learn and play with those kinds of musicians when I can. And when I do, I do it with a lot of humility, because I know what I know and I know what I don't know. And I know that's a world that could be a whole lifetime for me, and I haven't spent my whole life working on that music.
AAJ: What particular jazz guys jump out as big influences on you?
BF: A big one for me was Charlie Parker early on. His fleet, deft lines and the rhythm of it really made me think, "Wow. This music could work on the banjo." Not only that, I just loved it. He had that affect on me that Earl Scruggs had, where I just had to stop what I was dong until he finished soloing. The magic spell he would weave because of his genius and what he could do. Charlie Parker was a huge guy for me.
Also the early Miles Davis groups. The Miles groups with John Coltrane in them. Coltrane himself. Then, equally inspired by Chick Corea, because heard him when I was a teenager with Return to Forever. I'm one of those people to whom fusion is not a dirty word. I was there and I was in a place where I could fall in love with what they were doing. So I got a lot out of people like Chick and any group he was in, whether it was more modern or a more traditional kind of jazz group. I think he's one of the greats.
Then [influences from] probably all the guys everybody loves.
AAJ: I know The Flecktones has a long tour in 2012.
BF: We've got two months of heavy touring [March and April] and then we're going to be done. We'll meet again another day after that.
AAJ: Going forward, will The Flecktones always be out there somewhere?
BF: No. That shouldn't be taken for granted. Before this tour, there were several years where we didn't play. And after this tour, we don't have any plans. Everybody's going to go back to their solo careers, which at this point are the main thing that they do. Everyone needs to keep those going. Then we'll talk in the future. I imagine we'll do it again, but there's no plan at this point. We're still in the middle of this experience. We're going to enjoy this next part of the tour, which will be a little poignant because that will be the end of it. But I think that's part of what's making every show very precious to us, because there is an ending.
I think part of why Howard had to leave after three years was because there was no ending in sight. It was forever. We had no plans to stop. I think that's hard when you're an improvising musician also, even in a great band. You want to know how long something is going to go, and you want to know when you can go do the other stuff you need to be whole. We've learned how to do that, as a group, since those days. We all need that time to go do different things. It invigorates the group and it invigorates each of us. We bring back that energy when we get to play together.