It's a long way from India to Broadway, but Bela Fleck makes the journey in high style for Rhapsody in Blue. It follows the altogether exotic As We Speak (Thirty Tigers, 2023), the combination of which further a case for the banjoist/composer/bandleader as an eclectic musical explorer comparable to Pat Metheny.
Beginning in the slow-but-sure, occasionally fitful way this album's concept came together, "Rhapsody in Blue (grass)" features seemingly conventional banjo voicings alternated with George Gershwin's inimitable progressions. Those interludes with Fleck tourmates My Bluegrass Heart are segments capturing how that ensemble bonds with the banjoist in moments of alternating wit and empathy.
The slightly-modified title of "Rhapsody in Blue(s)" is only the most overt distinction of the piece from its bluegrass oriented predecessor. As with so much of Bela Fleck's work, while it is rigorously arranged, there is room for spontaneity with which the principal interacts, via effortless fluidity, with mandolinist Sam Bush. dobroist Jerry Douglas and bassist Victor Wooten (from the Flecktones band).
There's a very palpable earthy quality to distinguish this number from all its surroundings. Mixing of the instruments all across the stereo spectrum accentuates the distinctive flavor of the interplay there, so that, in a very practical way, Fleck makes Gershwin's piece his own in a variety of forms, large scale and otherwise. In extensive autobiographical liner notes filling most of the four-page insert, the artist himself describes in some detail the conception and execution of this project .
Audio clarity is also paramount on an unheralded artifact of Gershwin's genius, "Unidentified Piece for Banjo." Long-time Fleck sound guru Richard Battaglia captures the good-natured reverence the New York City native radiates in his solo turn here: the album was assigned a release a street date coinciding with the hundredth anniversary of the original piece's premiere. It's a sign of the respect also accorded its author by the gold foil adorning the front cover (the image of which at the same time pictures a banjo in the hands of Lady Liberty thus capturing Bela Fleck's irreverence in all its self-effacing glory)
As much as it's borderline uncanny to hear the mesh of musicians within the smaller combos or the uncanny action of this Nashville-based artist on his own, the extended centerpiece of Rhapsody In Blue, evokes a reaction hardly less startling. In a near-nineteen minute live recording of the title piece with the Nashville Symphony, the drama of the orchestration underscores the nuance of the core ensemble, while simultaneously exhibiting a subtlety all its own.
It's proof positive chemistry can ignite within units both large and small (and sometimes both at once). As a result, the truncated likes of the closing "Rialto Ripples" is virtually as absorbing as the four tracks that precede it. Piquing the curiosity about how the classic compositon sounded to begin with, it's also a reminder of how this slightly more than forty- three minutes passes with near-dizzying speed.
The relative simplicity of the aforementioned cut generates incremental momentum for the track sequencing. The end result is a singular opportunity to experience the assembly of the building blocks of an idea that struck the banjoist extraordinaire seemingly out of nowhere.
Kudos to Bela Fleck for summoning the creative wherewithal and resources to bring his epiphany to fruition: ultimately, he incorporates his lifelong affinity for the iconic composer's work with his usual unassuming flair for maximizing the spirit of the moment with others.
Rhapsody in Blue(grass); Rhapsody in Blue(s); Unidentified Piece for Banjo;
Rhapsody in Blue; Rialto Ripples.
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