Bela Fleck (BEY-Lah Fleck): See Curious, Creative Mind

R.J. DeLuke BY

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Béla Fleck has taken his instrument—the banjo—to heights that seemed unimaginable prior to couple decades ago. There have been virtuoso players in its long history, but the sounds Fleck elicits through electronics, and the musical landscapes he treads upon, are groundbreaking.

He's got all that in his pocket. But as a twenty-something musician whose prowess was gaining notoriety with the bluegrass crossover band New Grass Revival, Fleck still had his heart set on other things. He had a wider musical vision. He was listening to bands of the day like Return to Forever: "I'm one of those people to whom fusion is not a dirty word," he says. He envisioned more. He dreamed of having a band that could bring that vision to life. A couple attempts didn't hit the mark and it began to feel like a pipe dream. Until a set of circumstances—fate, as it were—caused Fleck to cross paths with bassist Victor Wooten and his brother, percussionist/drummer Roy Wooten, known as Futureman because his arsenal was electronic and computerized, not standard traps drums.

Fleck also met harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy, who played piano and composed at a high level. The confluence resulted in The Flecktones, a band that has been wowing enthusiastic fans since its first rather impromptu concert on a Kentucky television station in 1988, and its first album, Béla Fleck & The Flecktones (Warner Bros., 1990). The result "went far better than I ever could have dreamed," Fleck admits to this day.

Levy left after a few years, replaced by saxophonist Jeff Coffin, but the band rolled on to immense success, including five Grammy Awards. After a hiatus, and the departure of Coffin for the vacant sax chair in the Dave Matthews Band, The original Flecktones is back together with a new recording in 2011, Rocket Science (eOne), and a world tour that has now extended into the spring of 2012. It's been nearly 20 years since the original four did these things, so it's been exciting for both fans and the band. The CD is full of the exploratory, flaming hybrid of all types of music: jazz, folk, rock, world, and bluegrass. One tune, "Life in Eleven," penned by Fleck and Levy, has been nominated for a 2012 Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition.

Fleck acknowledges that The Flecktones may be at an end when the tour is over, but could just as easily reconvene some time down the road. All the members have other things to pursue.

Primary among them is the banjo player, who performed the 2011world premiere of "Concerto for Banjo"—a classical piece that took him about a year to write—with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. A concert recording, and a DVD documentary on its creation, will be released in 2012 and Fleck will play the music live here and there with various orchestras. He's also recorded an album with pianist Marcus Roberts that will also come out in 2012 and involve a tour.

"Concerto for Banjo" isn't the first foray into classical music for the ever-curious Fleck. But it's the first time he has written that kind of music, note-for-note, for such a huge ensemble. In addition to banjo, the concerto is scored for piccolo, flutes, oboes, English horn, clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoons, contrabassoon, trumpets, trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings. It was a tremendous challenge for the former wunderkind of the bluegrass genre. Fleck is also influenced by jazz and his band has played a lot of jazz festivals and clubs. He places a high value on improvisation in everything he does, including his noted exploration of African music, the Grammy Award-winning Throw Down Your Heart (Rounder, 2009).

Fleck is a New York City native who was transplanted to Boston during his young adulthood, eventually settling in Nashville. In the early 1960s, while watching the television show The Beverly Hillbillies, he heard virtuoso banjoist Earl Scruggs and it struck home. But while he didn't get his first instrument until 1973, he quickly made up for lost time. After high school, he moved to Boston to play with Jack Tottle's Tasty Licks and, by 1979, he had his first solo recording,Crossing the Tracks (Rounder Records).

In 1981 he was invited to join New Grass Revival, lead by Sam Bush on mandolin, fiddle and vocals. The band was a big success, merging bluegrass, rock, folk and country. Then, Fleck's serendipitous meetings with the Wootens and Levy occurred in the latter part of the '80s and The Flecktones sprang forth.

All About Jazz: Rocket Science consists of all-new material?

Béla Fleck: Yeah, but on tour we're also doing some older stuff. About half-and-half. It's not so much that we reworked [older songs], it's that we all play a bit differently after 17 years of not playing together. We put most of the energy into creating the new music. The old music is still fresh to us because we hadn't played it for so long. It's fresh to the audience because everybody plays so differently on their solos. We haven't really rearranged the older stuff.

AAJ: What was it like to go back into the studio with the original group after all these years?

Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, from left: Victor Wooten, Béla Fleck, Howard Levy, Futureman

BF: It was wonderful. I'm always a little bit of an anxious guy, which I try to use to get good results. But I have to deal with my own anxiousness in the process. I was more nervous than anyone about it. I think Howard was a little bit too. But Victor and Futureman don't seem to get nervous, which is a wonderful thing. Then it was about rediscovering how perfectly we all work together. Although we haven't worked together in 17 years, once we sat down and started working on the arrangements, and working through the tunes, everybody knew what to do. Everybody knew what their role was. Everybody knew how to make things better; where they could use their talents and ideas to make the music better. We all took turns letting each other lead.

AAJ: Was it a long process to get the record down?

BF: Not as long as we expected. We held two different two-week periods so we could rehearse and record two different times. But we ended up doing it in a little under three weeks. We got together the first time for about 10 days and got maybe half the music recorded. These days, with home studios, there's no reason to rush. If you're not ready to record, you shouldn't. So we rehearsed and worked on stuff. That was the plan, to take our time. It just went fast. When everybody left, it was basically done. It was just a matter of getting it mixed.

AAJ: I know Howard had a lot to do with the writing. How did it feel having him back in the fold?

BF: It was great. He had two tunes of his own on the record ["Joyful Spring" and "Sweet Pomegranates"] and then a co-write with me ["Life in Eleven"]. Victor had a co-write with me ["Like Water"]. I wrote pretty much everything else except a solo piece that Futureman wrote ["The Secret Drawer"]. That was more writing involvement than Howard had in the old days and it really felt a lot better to everybody. He is such a great writer, but back then, when we first started the band, we got together to play my music. That was sort of the basis of what we were getting ready to do. He had a lot of ideas and things he didn't get to try back then. This was a great time to do all that and to make up for some of those decisions we made back then. I think it made a big difference to him and I think it was better for the band.

AAJ: How does it feel on the road now, with Howard?

BF: It's been amazing. People are just going berserk for it. It's odd, because the band is certainly more esoteric with Howard in it. And more unusual. As musicians, we're always told to play safer, and don't lose the crowd by being weird. Don't be self-indulgent. But it seems like the people that love The Flecktones want us to go deep and try to find unusual things. They want to be challenged. They want to be surprised. It's really worked out to be wonderful.

Howard steps up the "unusual" factor. Futureman is very unusual. Victor is very unusual. I guess I'm unusual. When Jeff Coffin was in the band [on sax], he was excellent, but he's not quite the oddnick that Howard is. Howard is completely unusual. Nobody can do what he does. He's the only harmonica player who plays the way he does, technically. He plays jazz and chromatic music on a diatonic harp, which is supposed to be impossible. But he's also got this killer intensity that he brings to the band and it raises everybody's intensity.

AAJ: What do you like about Victor's playing?

BF: He's a real team player. It's always great to see him do his crazy stuff and his amazing soloing. But the way he feels to play with is what I love. He and I feel time very similarly. I can lean on him and I think he can lean on me. Also, we use similar techniques. The way he plays the bass with his fingers and the tapping and different things. He's very "banjoistic." So we trade ideas back and forth, consciously and unconsciously, all the time. He hears me do something, I hear him do something. We suddenly alter our playing. I love that relationship. I think our language is more similar than anyone else in the band. If we have an interactive section, it's like we can read each other's minds and really create something interesting.

Whereas with Howard, I really have to stretch to hang in there with him. Because he knows a lot of harmony that I don't know. When he starts getting out there and we're improvising together, I have to dig deep to keep up, and that creates a tension. But with Victor, it's not a tension, it's a flow. I love having both of those in the same band.

AAJ: Playing with Futureman all this time, not with a trap drum set, has to be different. What does he bring?

BF: I really have never played with a regular trap set. I'm just starting to get to do that in more recent years, on occasion. He's the first real drummer I played with, so I got used to his way of playing. He's a very unique drummer. The instrument he plays is completely unique. He's the only person who plays it. He invented it [the Synthaxe Drumitar, a guitar-like drum machine].) But the way he plays, also, is very different. I think the way the rhythm locks up with The Flecktones is part of what's so unusual about the band. Partly, it's because his time is very flexible. He's playing with his fingers. He can play differently than he would with sticks in his hand. He does that as well [using drum sticks] and when he plays that way, it's a different kind of thing. The way he plays the Drumitar is very sensitive and very attractive. I think that makes the rhythmic makeup of the band very different.

AAJ: The development of the band, a long time ago, was that something you had in mind? That kind of direction? How did it happen?

BF: Yeah. Through the '80s I was playing with a band called New Grass Revival and I was a big fan of David Grisman and people like Pat Metheny and Chick Corea. I was thinking that someday, my dream would be to play some kind of music like that on the banjo with a great band. I made a few attempts at it. I made solo records on Rounder through the '80s, where I was playing with bluegrass guys, the best that I knew, and trying to get them to play my music. But it was kind of hard on them. Really complicated for them. And it wasn't ending up to be the right guys to do that with.

I made a couple attempts at putting together a band. At a certain point I gave up because I couldn't find the right people. That's when Victor Wooten just turned up. At the point when I had given up hope of creating a band like that and resigned myself to a life in bluegrass. Victor called me up out of the blue. He had seen me play on TV with New Grass Revival. He was interested in what I was doing on the banjo and how it might relate to his bass playing.

He came over and we sat around and played. It was great. Wow. The guy's amazing. Then I ran into Howard Levy at a folk festival up in Winnipeg, Canada. We had met before and even played a little bit. But we really connected there. That's when I thought, "Wow. This guy and I should do something together some day."

Then I got a call to put together a television show for a public TV station in Louisville. KET. Kentucky Educational Television. They had a show called the . They asked me if I was interested in putting together my own one-hour television show of avant-garde banjo playing, or whatever we called it. I said great. I put together this group for the last part of the show. I also did a piece with a banjo and string quartet with Edgar Meyer. I did some solo pieces and I did some stuff with a computer, a sequencer, where I sampled the banjo and played along with it.

Then I had this band for five tunes. When this band walked out on stage and started playing, it pretty much blew the roof off the place. I wasn't expecting that. I thought we'd play good and they'd like it. All of a sudden: Whoa. People were in shock. And we were in shock at the reaction. It was like, "Wow, we've got to figure out how to do this again." That led to me investing money into making a record with these guys, and it got picked up by Warner Bros. I left New Grass Revival and starting doing [The Flecktones] full time in 1990.

Then it went far better than I ever could have dreamed. Honestly. I thought it was going to be a tough go. I also didn't figure on being able to keep the guys. I figured great band last for a little while. If I'm going to do this, and quit New Grass Revival, which was one of the top bands on the scene, I was going to have to commit to being a bandleader. And as these people came and went, I would replace them and keep finding great people to play with. That's what I was shooting for. Howard proved the point and left after three years, which was a long time for him to be with us, with as many pots as he had fingers. But I'm thrilled I've been able to keep Victor and Futureman, and that we've had a team. We're very happy playing together. And we're happy doing things away from each other. When we come back together it's always a very happy, family feeling.

Bringing Howard back completed the story in some way. It brought back the original impetus for the whole thing. This is what this band was supposed to be, we these four people. It's great to have it back.

AAJ: It became your dream band.

BF: It became more than my dream band. It exceeded what I could possibly have dreamed. Because the band became incredibly successful. Sold 1.5 million records. Toured all over the place and played all kinds of shows with all kinds of people. It's still going very strong. It's an unusual success story. Taking all the weirdos, putting them in one band, and winning.

AAJ: Would you say The Flecktones has staked out its musical ground over the last couple decades or so?

BF: Yeah, I think so. We found our niche. I think our niche is whatever we want it to be. All it has to be is us doing it, and all we have to do is play music that we can get behind. And the audience seems to go with us. We don't have to lay our hits. Because we don't have one. If we did, it would be "Sinister Minister" or "Sunset Road," or something like that. We don't have to play those every night. We play them when we want to, and because we want to. Because we like them. People come to see us and they're going to see what we're doing now.

That's a bit of a ballsy move. It's a necessary move for us to stay together. Some people may go, "I wanted to see those guys and hear them play their best-known music." But if we did that, after coming through different towns five or six times, there'd be no reason for people to come back and see us anymore. If we come back, we might lose a few who'll say, "They never played 'Sinister Minister.'" But I think in the long term we'll have a larger audience, an intrigued audience willing to come back again and again. They know every time they come back there's going to be different material and different ideas that we'll be dealing with. And it will keep u from getting stale.

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.

AAJ: In September, with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra you did the "Concerto for Banjo" that they commissioned.

BF: That was a huge high-jump for me.

AAJ: You had a blank slate and had to come up with the concept and music?

BF: Yeah. I told them I would really like to write a concerto, and they said OK.

AAJ: I know you've done some classically influenced stuff in the past, like Perpetual Motion (Sony Classical, 2001), but how hard was it and how different on this project?

BF: It was really different. Normally I write sketches [of music] and show them to a group. I always thought I was pretty good at writing sketches. I would call them banjo tunes or whatever. So I felt like I was some kind of a writer. People seemed to like the tunes I wrote and they seemed to work for an audience. But I had never written every note of a piece before. All I would write is the banjo part, and then help the other guys figure out what to play with it—if they needed help.

This was every single note for 80 people, for 35 minutes. That was quite a challenge. But I got into it. I really loved doing it. I wrote it over the course of a year. I left a couple months open to write, and not be on the road. I'd go to places for a couple of weeks and hide out and write. Then just keep on working the material as I was on tour. After the show, I'd get on the back of the bus and get out the computer and work on things. I seemed to make steady progress and eventually have this thing written. I orchestrated the piece. We played it and it sounded good. Everybody, including me, was surprised.

AAJ: How did it feel when you got on stage and all of a sudden it was time to debut it?

BF: Oh, man. I was palpitating. It was extremely intense. Not only was it a premiere, the first time in the world playing this thing, but Earl Scruggs was in the audience. He's my hero. And we were filming it, and recording it for a record. At the time I thought, "We should go ahead and capture this, because who knows when we're going to get another performance. I'm already going to be freaked out because it's the premiere. How can I be any more freaked out just because we're filming it? In a way, I might even be distracted because I'm so busy trying to play it, that I won't even be thinking about being filmed or recorded. Let's just get it done."

It was very, very intense working up to the performance. And we were filming that too. We're making a documentary. So there's going to be a documentary at some point about the writing and first performance of that piece. So the pressure was up. But it came off really well. It's been a relief to have it done. But I'm looking forward to having it out there.

AAJ: Was Scruggs an inspiration for the piece?

BF: I dedicated it to him. It wasn't that I was channeling his music at all. But rather that fact that he exists and what he did with the banjo, basically setting the stage for everything that I do. He's the man that invented the three-finger style and that's what I've built my music from. I think he's been an innovator his whole life and he's still out there playing at 88 years old. He and I have developed a very warm relationship over the last 10 years or so. I really love him and I wanted to honor him.

In a way, I was completing some of the things he had started rolling. I wanted him to see that happen. He never did that. He never played with s symphony, with his own original music. But I wouldn't have been doing it if it wasn't for everything he did. So I decided to dedicate the piece to Earl. It seemed right. It was kind of a first and he deserved some acknowledgement.

AAJ: Aside from the documentary, that music is going to come out as a separate CD?

BF: Yeah. It is. The only thing is, I need to make the rest of the CD. There's only this 35-minute piece. So I'm deciding whether I want to write another short piece for string quartet and banjo, or whether to do solo pieces. But I want to come up with some more music and I look forward to that, because I enjoy getting creative and coming up with stuff. It will probably be next summer before [CD release] happens. The next thing to come out will be this Marcus Roberts/ Béla Fleck album. That's a really fun project, too. His trio and me. Four of us. We just have to mix it.

Selected Discography

Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, Rocket Science (eOne Music, 2011)

Béla Fleck, Thrown Your Heart (Rounder Records, 2009)

Béla Fleck/Chick Corea, The Enchantment (Concord, 2007)

Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, The Hidden Land (Columbia, 2006)

Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, Little Worlds/Ten From Little Worlds (Columbia, 2003)

Béla Fleck, Perpetual Motion (Sony Classical, 2001)

Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, Outward Bound (Columbia, 2000)

Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, Left of Cool (Warner Bros., 1998)

Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, Live Art (Warner Bros., 1996)

Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, UFO Tofu (Warner Bros., 1992)

Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo (Warner Bros., 1991)

Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, Béla Fleck & The Flecktones (Warner Bros., 1990)

New Grass Revival, Friday Night in America (Capitol, 1989)
Béla Fleck, Double Time (Rounder Records, 1984)

New Grass Revival. On the Boulevard (Sugar Hill, 1984)

Béla Fleck, Crossing the Tracks (Rounder Records, 1979)

Photo Credits
Pages 1, 2: Courtesy of Bela Fleck
Page 3: Kevin Tomanka
Page 4: John Kelman
Page 5: Courtesy of Knoxville News

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