The members of Béla Fleck & The Flecktones have stayed so busy during their hiatus that it’s easy to forget that it’s already been four years since their final concert. It’s also easy to forget how finite that final show felt: After more than a decade away from the band he helped co-found, Flecktones harmonica/piano ace Howard Levy rejoined the band he helped mentor for an exquisite reunion record, Rocket Science, and victory lap that ended at the very venue, where The Flecktones played their first show. According to Fleck, drummer Futureman was the one who initially considered that show the perfect full-circle finale, yet it was his brother, Flecktones bassist Victor Wooten, who ultimately decided to put the breaks on The Flecktones in order to build an impressive musical camp system and raise his four children. Though The Flecktones entertained a few reunion offers during the past few years—and originally eyed 2017 as a “major Flecktones year” it eventually proved too difficult to get align Fleck and the Wootens schedules for a true album-cycle tour. So when The Flecktones were offered a spot at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival this June—a crown jewel of their past spring treks—they decided to put their individual projects aside for a brief-but-proper reunion run. With saxophonist Jeff Coffin, who replaced Levy after a series of guest artists rotated in and out of The Flecktones for a period in the mid-‘90s, committed to Dave Matthews Band through their 25th anniversary tour, Fleck also decided to use the opportunity to extend The Original Flecktones’ run a bit further. And while the group will likely focus on back catalog material and live favorites during their June sprint, all four members of the band are hopeful that this run is the beginning of a new paradigm that will allow The Flecktones to tour more regularly, for shorter periods of time, in the coming years. Fleck is also optimistic that the group will also record another studio album in the coming years and even hints that one day he’d like to see a version of The Flecktones features Levy and Coffin playing side by side.
Let’s pick up where The Flecktones left off in 2011. Howard, before rejoining the band and recording Rocket Science you had been away from The Flecktones for a decade. What did you notice about the band when you returned?
Howard Levy: Everyone plays better. We sounded really good. There are more sides to everyone’s playing than there used to be, especially with Roy, I guess I could just call him Futureman. He is also doing quite a bit of acoustic percussion which I love, he’s a wonderful drummer. Plus, the sounds he’s using are different than the ones he was using when I was in the band. The actual sound he generates from the guitar is much better and much more real sounding. That makes a really huge difference in the sound of the band and the feel of the band.
The Flecktones upcoming run started with an offer from the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Béla, when you agreed organize a tour with the Wootens leading up to that annual event, did you immediately call Howard or did you consider bringing Jeff Coffin back into the mix?
Béla Fleck: I like the idea that The Flecktones can be whatever it wants to be. It can be with Howard. It can be with Jeff. It can be with other people or it can be a trio. Jeff wasn’t even on the table because, being in Dave Matthews, we knew we couldn’t count on him being available. So, we didn’t have to make a decision, it was made for us. We love playing with Howard, he is in the fundamental starting lineup of The Flecktones. There is nobody like him, playing with him is a thrill. Considering the great years with Jeff and the great years with Howard, it would be fun to do stuff with the two of them. It would be fun to do a new record with that lineup, but we’re not there yet. The Flecktones have always thrived on having cool new people to play with and there’s a lot of new talent out there. This time we’re just going to play and have some fun. I’m hoping after we’re done we’ll say, “Hey, that was fun. Let’s do it some more.”
HL: After the album, we did about 120 shows in 11 months. We got along great the whole time, nobody hated each other at the end. Everyone is really busy with things and this so happened to be the time where Béla had some free time. We managed to carve out a little niche between Béla and Victors schedules especially—and mine too. We’re all really into this, I wish it were a little bit longer to tell you the truth.
Telluride has obviously been an event that is really important to you guys and to the bluegrass world in general. Do you remember the first time you played Telluride Bluegrass?
Victor Wooten: I do remember and it wasn’t with Béla Fleck, it was with a singer named Jonell Mosser. Jonell is pretty much the reason I moved to Nashville. I came to visit first, I ended up meeting her and she asked me to come back and sub in her band for a month. This was in ‘88 and I’ve been here ever since, that month has turned into a long time. I visited Nashville first in ‘87, met Béla and a bunch of people. We ended up doing this television show in Louisville, Kentucky called the Lonesome Pine Special. It was supposed to be a one-time show, but when I was here for that month with Jonell, I really connected with Béla, hanging out at his house, sleeping on his couch and jamming a lot. That really solidified the relationship. That was when we just started deciding to do more and more. Béla was still with New Grass Revival up until the end of 1990. I think it was the end of ‘89. I think they did a New Year’s show and opened for The Dead. The next year, maybe ‘90-‘91, the Flecktones opened for The Dead in Oakland at the Oakland Coliseum. That was the only time we opened for The Dead, but we did do a couple more shows with Jerry Garcia Band.
Béla, since The Flecktones went on hiatus, you’ve returned to acoustic music with your wife Abigail Washburn, but also brought the banjo into the classical world thanks to your work with orchestras, symphonies and smaller combos. Can you talk a little bit about your association with that side of the spectrum, which has definitely become one of your calling cards in recent years?
BF: I love it, I have friends that are doing concertos and that’s what inspired me. It’s tough, you’re out of your comfort zone again. You’re writing for people and for instruments that you don’t exactly know how they work, you’re writing for 90 instruments. You make a lot of mistakes, but gradually I keep fixing it and figuring out how to make it better, orchestration wise. I really feel like it’s some of my hardest work, my best work. When you work on a record, you write songs for a season or you co-write with people, you put in a fraction of the amount of time you put into writing a concerto. I spent a year on one of those pieces, and when it finally came out—there was a real sense of accomplishment. That doesn’t mean it’s going to get good reviews. You do all that and you have it get slammed. You have people say, “We’re not interested in trying to bring a banjo into an orchestra. We don’t really buy the idea of the banjo fitting into the classical world.” It doesn’t matter how hard you work, you’re still going to get that. It’s a challenge I really enjoy, and I’m going to keep doing it. Part of it came out of the idea that I get to play with musicians all over the spectrum. I get to play with Indian musicians, African musicians, Scottish musicians, Irish musicians and jazz musicians. I don’t get to play with classical musicians because there is no répertoire, they can’t improvise. The real thing is, I hate the idea that there are thousands of musicians that I can’t play with because there is nothing written for us to get together and play, so that was the impetus of that idea. I’m starting to write more classical, I’m writing orchestra pieces and I’ve also written few string quartets. I’d like to just keep on putting ideas down for the rest of my life.
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