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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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He also marveled that, after a previous six shows in six nights, the magic was clearly back. And it was. The set included deep cuts like Béla Fleck and The Flecktones' two-part "Mars Needs Women," with its balladic "Space is a Lonely Place" and knottier, more up-tempo "They're Here," along with Rocket Science's mind-boggling exploration of all things eleven, "Life in Eleven" and a brightly swinging "Hurricane Camille," from the group's debut. Throughout, Fleck, Levy, Wooten and Future Man demonstrated that nothing is set in concrete as they stretched some of the material out, playing liberally with tempo and, with each and every one of them having grown significantly in the intervening years, approaching the material with fresh ears and fresh insights.

Barring those first four tunes, the set was democratically chosen on the fly, as Fleck passed the microphone around and asked each of his brothers what song on their very long set list they'd like to play. Beyond those deep cuts, they made sure to include songs that Fleck fans have come to expect: Wooten's funkified "Sex in a Pan," from UFO Tofu, along with Fleck's ambling "Sunset Road" and typical usual set-closer, "The Sinister Minister" (both from Béla Fleck and The Flecktones), the latter which included Victor Wooten's usual incomparable bass solo, though he only flipped his bass around his band and back to front again once, rather than the many times he used to. But once was enough for the similar crowd to go wild.

The set also included some new material. Following a first encore (after the third standing ovation of the night) of the audience participation title track from Flight of the Cosmic Hippo (fingers snapping, men going "oooh," women following with "aaah"), Fleck asked if the audience wanted one more (they did), and closed the evening with a new short but truly death-defying piece of musical acrobatics, the aptly titled "Vertigo." He described it as "a new tune, complicated, we just learned it," and then, after his band mates agreed to his question as to whether or not they needed a quick run-down, were subjected, along with the crowd, to Fleck's rapid-fire description that began with "two quick bars of five, then one of six, another two of five, one of six..." and became only knottier and more complicated from there. It was a short piece, maybe four minutes long, but probably long enough, though Fleck, Levy, Wooten and Future Man all pulled it off with effortless confidence.

There was another relatively new tune, "Juno," written five year's ago for Fleck's then-newborn son, its genesis described by the banjoist. "He arrived three weeks early, and I couldn't find a flight that would get me there in time. So I had to play a show and missed his birth. I live in Nashville," he continued, dryly adding that he "caught a 4am red eye and found myself in the purgatory known as the Dallas/Fort Worth airport." The simpler, more lyrical "Juno" (which may come from his 2017 collaboration with the Colorado symphony, Juno Concerto, was evidence of Fleck's capacity for lyrical beauty, even if he is, perhaps, better known for compositions so metrically challenging that few but these four players could actually pull them off.

In a group this talented, nobody outshined anyone else. Instead—and a very different experience to the Coffin/Flecktones lineup, which seemed more about the virtuosity and less about the music—each and every member of the Flecktones have proven themselves both extraordinarily talented and unmistakable innovators on their respective instrument(s). Fleck's technique has only grown deeper with time, as he built motif-driven improvised passages that were completely about respecting the music, even as he demonstrated an almost unbelievable facility at threading melodic needles through the tight pin holes of his and his band mates' writing.

Wooten's effortless mastery on electric bass (largely fretted this evening, though he did pull out a fretless for the glissando-driven "Flight of the Cosmic Hippo) has only become more natural, more organic, whether he was slapping, thumb-popping, tapping, contributing light-speed phrases or all the other mind-bending things he does on an instrument that truly feels like an extension of his body, mind and soul.

Future Man's Drumitar (a new version first seen at the 2012 FIJM show, that is much smaller than the modified SynthAxe he originally used) was as impressive as ever, but even more so when he sat behind his modified drum kit and began playing the acoustic set with his right hand and his Drumitar with his left. From close seats, it was actually possible to see a small laptop amongst his onstage gear, where his Drumitar work was actually visually translated to the virtual kit he was effectively playing.

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