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Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2018: Part 1

John Kelman By

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July 1: Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, Place des Arts' Théâtre Maisonneuve

Along with Ry Cooder winning FIJM's Montréal Jazz Festival Spirit Award, perhaps the other most significant of the festival's annual awards went, for the first time, to a group rather than an individual. That the winner of the Miles Davis Award went to banjo innovator Bela Fleck and his equally groundbreaking group, The Flecktones, couldn't have been more appropriate. Simply put, few groups as eminently virtuosic and connected telepathically have been so consistently groundbreaking from the get-go.

When the band first arrived in 1990 with its self-titled Warner Bros. debut, few could even conceive of such a strange conglomeration of instruments. Béla Fleck, playing both acoustic and electric banjos and, while still referring to his bluegrass roots with bands like New Grass Revival along with his own releases like his 1988 Grammy Award-nominated Drive (Rounder), was clearly speaking with a deep jazz vernacular.

Bassist Victor Wooten quickly emerged as a new bass hero, absorbing not just those who came before, like Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Jaco Pastorius, but already possessed of new techniques and an remarkable ability to effortlessly combine them in any and every way imaginable.

Keyboardist/harmonicist Howard Levy, aside from being able to play both instruments simultaneously, had developed his unique technique of taking a standard diatonic harmonica and, through bending the reeds as he played, making it capable of the same facility available to the more sophisticated chromatic harp.

And what of Future Man, Victor Wooten's older brother Roy, usually seen wearing a weird but wonderful pirate uniform? While he now mixes in acoustic instruments, in the early days his instrument was a weird hybrid called the Synthaxe Drumitar, its guitar-like shape possessed of an array of touch-sensitive buttons that triggered samples of real drums, but were entirely controlled by his fingers, allowing for a dexterity rarely possible on a real kit.

Over the course of three studio albums, also including 1991's Flight of the Cosmic Hippo and 1992's UFO Tofu (both also on Warner Bros.), Béla Fleck & The Flecktones toured relentlessly around North America, including the first of many stops in Ottawa, Canada in 1991, where they played in a small club to about 75 people but, after a first 45-minute set, took a break and came back and played for nearly three hours, non-stop. This was a group that was hungry, finding its way, constantly evolving and, not unlike early Pat Metheny Group, built their audience one show at a time.

But after three years of touring almost non-stop, Levy left the band—on completely friendly terms—it simply being a matter of growing tired of the road and wanting to spend more time with family. And so, Béla Fleck & The Flecktones became three for awhile, before recruiting saxophonist Jeff Coffin, now a member of Dave Matthews Band. That lineup was no less impressive, technically, but never seemed to achieve the same kind of chemistry that defined the original group.

And so, after three studio albums and one live recording with Coffin—and still fairly heavy touring but, with everyone in the band having begun solo pursuits alongside Fleck, less intensive time on the road—Béla Fleck & The Flecktones continued on, drawing huge crowds and becoming a jam band fan favorite. But after 2006's The Hidden Land (Sony) and 2008's Christmas album, Jingle All the Way (Rounder), the group continued to tour but ultimately went on hiatus as everyone pursued other interests.

Fleck pursued everything from classical composition and duets with Chick Corea to a remarkable collaboration with African musicians on Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3: Africa Sessions (Rounder, 2009). Victor Wooten continued his series of solo albums, begun in '96 with Show of Hands (Compass) along with projects including the big ticket SMV (Stanley Clark, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten), which released Thunder (Heads Up, 2008) and led to extensive touring that included a stop at the 2009 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival. Future Man released a handful of solo albums, and collaborated with Eclectica on the, indeed, eclectic Streaming Video Soul (ArtistShare, 2009), while Levy continued with his own work and guesting with, in addition to some of his ex-Flecktones mates, artists including Paul Simon, Donald Fagen and Kurt Elling.

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