With their Columbia debut album, “Outbound,” Bela Fleck & the Flecktones went on an extensive musical journey that they hadn’t really taken before. By enlisting several guest musicians and doing more overdubs, they were able to expand upon their already extremely eclectic fusion of jazz, funk, bluegrass, world music, rock and pop.
The guests include folk-pop singer Shawn Colvin, Yes vocalist Jon Anderson, King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew, oboe player Paul McCandless, Medeski, Martin and Wood keyboardist John Medeski, bassist Edgar Meyer, bassoon player Paul Hanson, steel drummer Andy Narrell, Indian tabla player Sandip Burman, Indian classical singer Rita Sahai and Tuvan throat singer Ondar.

The Flecktones just finished a brief festival tour co-headlined by Medeski and his bandmates, bassist Chris Wood and drummer Billy Martin. Next up is “The Flecktones Big Band,” live performances featuring “Outbound” guests Narrell, Hanson, Burman and McCandless, plus original Flecktones pianist/harmonica player Howard Levy (see www.flecktones.com for exact details).

Besides two Flecktones albums, Fleck’s five-album deal with Sony Music makes him the first banjo player signed to a classical label. He’ll do two albums for Sony Classical, which will involve longtime friend and collaborator and now labelmate Edgar Meyer. Fleck also will make a straight-ahead solo jazz album for Columbia.

I recently spoke with Fleck, the only musician nominated for Grammys in jazz, bluegrass, pop, country, spoken word, Christian, composition and world music categories, about his all-star live and recorded gatherings. We also discussed his new deal with Sony and the musical adventure it will provide him and his bandmates: bassist Victor Wooten, synth-axe drumitar player Future Man and saxophonist Jeff Coffin.

Comment on how you made an effort with ‘Outbound’ to turn your fans onto some of the world’s music.

Fleck: The band has done a lot of international touring. One of the things we really like to do is play with musicians from different parts of the world. In this case with this album, we had a couple of people actually perform with the band. One was Sandip Burman, who plays the tabla. One was Ondar, a Tuvian throat singer.

This was a record where we kind of opened up the floodgates in terms of having a community of musicians be involved with the record instead of just playing everything ourselves. So there are people all across the musical spectrum. From India, there’s a great Indian vocalist, a lady by the name of Rita Sahai who was performing in Nashville when we got her involved with the record. Now we had a like a pretty serious Indian influence with all of our guests being Indian. But really it’s all the kind of stuff we love. There’s Irish stuff, old-time jazz in there, there’s fusion.

The other interesting thing about the global sound of ‘Outbound’ is that it blends well with the Flecktones’ eclectic sound.

Fleck: Yeah. It’s funny but it’s very natural for us to play with musicians from different countries. It seems to work. And it’s really fun. It’s just one of those things we love to do. So at some point, we’ll make a record that’s really about collaborating with people from around the world.

This isn’t even it yet? There’s still more coming?

Fleck: Yeah, this has some world influences, but really most of the musicians are from America. So it’s mostly an Indian influence, but I also hear some Irish in one spot and there’s some Latin stuff. Some things start out kind of African and move onto an Irish thing. That’s the fun of it.

Irish and African are the roots of American music if you trace it all the way back.

Fleck: Absolutely. I think it’s kind of neat that the band can pull of so many different kinds of music at a pretty high level.

Comment on what each Flecktone brought to the album that was a departure for them.

Fleck: In certain ways, what the band did was very, very natural. It came out of performing shows. We recorded the tracks like we always would, just the four of us playing together. And then we brought all the guests in and added them or collaborated with them apart from that. That was the overdubs, but we recorded the basic thing with just the four of us.

And this time we came in a little less prepared than we often do. There was a lot of interaction with the arrangement on the spot, where normally we would have done all that on tour. We’d come home knowing exactly how much each part was going to be played and what the structure was. But this time everybody felt comfortable enough to wing it a little bit and it really made it feel fresh.

So you have a combination here of very spontaneous tracks that came together on the spot with very thought-out overdubs and in some places, writing a string section to go with it afterwards or fleshing out a horn section based on what we did live, adding to the live thing in a produced fashion. You’ve got a combination of production and live playing. It’s actually kind of unusual.

The rhythm section, the banjo and the saxophone are all played like it’s a live show, but all the overdubs are highly produced with parts that everybody liked. There was still a lot of improvisation, but we went into it and used the best parts. It was a long process actually, about four months. The recording of the tracks just took a couple of weeks, but then the period of mixing, editing, writing extra stuff to go with it took quite a long time, the longest we ever took.

We used to record our records in seven days and then mix them in seven. We did that up until I guess “Live Art.” But the whole point of rushing through a record doesn’t make any sense anymore because now you can have a studio in your home in a garage or something. You can take your time. You don’t have to rush through it because of the budget. You can just work on it until you’re happy. So it can change how you make a record.

How’d you like working with Medeski in his studio in Brooklyn?

Fleck: That was getting back to having to get to it in a hurry. I flew in that morning and he laid all that stuff down, ‘Boom, boom, boom, boom.’ And I flew back out. At that point there was a lot of overdubs on there already, but we really wanted to find a place for him.

In addition to Medeski and his band being on a festival tour with you, a bunch of the guests on the album are going to be playing with you live. Comment on what they’ll bring to the live setting.

Fleck: Nobody’s going to play what they did on the record. We don’t even want to. Everybody who we’re going to have as guests on this trip has sat in with the band before. The only difference is that we’re going to play this music and we’ve never had so many people. It’ll be an eight-piece band of great musicians. We’ll soak each other up. It’s very exciting. I’m really looking forward to the Flecktones Big Band. It’ll be a six-day run. We’ll see what happens after that. We may want to bring people back in during the year. But it’s very expensive to bring out that many people. The expenses shoot through the roof so this is a special event.

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