Banjo extraordinaire Bela Fleck and his funk-rocking jazz-grass trio the Flecktones’ Grammy win earlier this year for Best Contemporary Jazz Album for Outbound didn’t surprise their many fans who flock to see them despite not being able to hear them on commercial radio stations.
Fleck has won several Grammys, including three with Flecktones bassist Victor Wooten and his brother, Ray “Future Man’‘ Wooten, who plays a custom-made “synth-axe drumitar,’‘ a synthesizer guitar with a drum machine, and two with relatively new saxophonist Jeff Coffin. But the Contemporary Jazz Album award is by far the most major win and the first for a banjo player in that category.
“That is a good feeling on a personal level,” Fleck says. “As far as the group, I guess we’re contemporary jazz if your vision of contemporary jazz is an open one. I think contemporary jazz reflects today as opposed to straightahead jazz, which is what was done before. But in a lot of cases, contemporary jazz has a tendency to represent smooth jazz, like Kenny G. So I think the fact that we won in that category is odd. But this year, they liked us best, which is a nice pat on the back. It doesn’t affect what we do or our approach, but it’s always nice when someone says they like you.”
Fleck, who produced Outbound, also is taking the banjo where few five-strings have been before by making his debut album for the Sony Classical label with his longtime bassist friend and frequent collaborator Edgar Meyer. The banjoist has contributed to Sony Classical recordings by Meyer, who played on Outbound along with Indian percussionist Sandip Burman, jazz-groove keyboardist John Medeski, steel pan player Andy Norell, violinist Mark Feldman, The Love Sponge String Quartet, reedists Paul Hanson and Paul McCandless and singers Rita Sahia, Ondar, Jon Anderson and Shawn Colvin. As much of a challenge as it was to produce all those folks on the Grammy-winning Flecktones disc and play music on one of Meyer’s classical albums, fitting his African-derived, traditional American folk instrument so extensively into the complicated, European-bred classical world of Bach, Paganini, Chopin, Tchaikovsky and DeBussy was really tough, Fleck says.
With the exception of Outbound,’ the Flecktones usually record an album within two weeks. Outbound took three months. The summer-bound solo classical album will have taken six. The resulting learning curve is expected to expand his varied fanbase even further.
“It’s going great so I’m incredibly excited about it, but it’s more work than I expected it to be,” Fleck says. “The music is blowing me away. I get to hear my banjo back with cello, bass, violin and classical guitar. It’s great to hear the banjo in very different ways, but the technical challenges have been incredible. This is the hardest I’ve ever had to work to play music. But not knowing the piece at all and then getting it done is very gratifying. With the band, you know it sounds good right away when you first play the song, then you bang it up. There’s a much bigger growth curve with this because it’s something I’m learning to do rather than something I know how to do. It’s fun to have an ongoing project. I couldn’t have done it any quicker, but it’s fun, and didn’t get boring.
Based in Nashville but raised in New York City, the 42-year-old Fleck got his start in the late ’70s as a progressive bluegrass recording artist for the Cambridge, Mass.-based independent roots label Rounder Records and then a member of New Grass Revival before forming the Flecktones in 1989.
Dave Johnston, banjo player of the young Boulder, Colo.-based bluegrass act Yonder Mountain String Band, considers Fleck to be the “John Coltrane of the banjo’‘ because, like Coltrane with the saxophone, he’s turned the banjo into an instrument of art. In the process, Fleck has stripped the “hillbilly’‘ stereotype away, Johnston says.
“He’s done so much for the banjo, it’s just amazing,’‘ he says. “His musical influence is so far and wide. He’s done a lot to take this type of music, really push its envelope and reach out to a different crowd than the traditional bluegrass crowd. But that crowd still loves his music just as much.’‘
As eclectic as his playing style, Fleck’s influences include bluegrass masters Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, progressive bluegrass mentor Tony Trischka, jazz greats Coltrane and Charlie Parker, fusion keyboardist Chick Corea, soul diva Aretha Franklin and such rock acts as The Allman Brothers Band, The Byrds and Little Feat.
The Flecktones collective influences run a similar gumbo-like gamut. They’ll present their tasty sounds live through the fall at which point Fleck will embark on a duo tour with Meyer.
The Flecktones also can be seen in a concert on a forthcoming DVD. Fleck’s Grammy-winning 1999 release, The BlueGrass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2, featuring such legendary musicians as banjoists and John Hartford, fiddler Vassar Clements, mandolinist Sam Bush, dobroist Jerry Douglas and guitarist Tony Rice, also was just released on DVD.
Bob Makin is a New Jersey-based music writer who has been covering the jam scene for 13 years.