photo by John Patrick Gatta
“You can feel your progress in a long relationship,” Béla Fleck says, thinking about his 30-year tenure with the Flecktones. “In a brand new relationship everything is new and fresh there’s a tendency to glorify that in musical groups. Of course, that can be great. But there is something else about that long haul, sticking with the same people for a long time and seeing how you can keep on moving together and observe your progress because you’re in the same situation.”
On any given day, the banjo expert is working on a litany of projects. But, for many, his claim to fame continues to be the Flecktones’ far-reaching musicality: part bluegrass, part jazz, all-encompassing.
We recently caught up with Fleck, as he both explored the legacy of the Flecktones and tended to his variety of creative irons in the fire.
What are you up to today?
I dropped my son off at school, I went to the gym, then I went and edited in the Whole Foods for about an hour, some music I am doing with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain. Then I got in the car to bring Juno back home.
Tell me more about this project with Edgar and Zakier…
We recorded an album before this last tour, a whole album of new music. It’s really fun, wonderful music: warm, trippy, wonderful, weird.
We have this great Indian Bansuri flute player named Rakesh Chaurasia playing with us now so it’s a quartet. And we never really made an album of this group especially now that it’s four of us. The one album we did make, more than half of it was a concerto we had written. So we had just thrown a few tunes around it to complete the album. We really hadn’t played much so now I think it is a really good strong material, interesting and beautiful music. I’m proud of it. It’s another thing.
You’re incredibly busy, you just extended the 30th Anniversary tour for the Flecktones. How does it feel to have such a warm reception and keep that party rolling in addition to all the other things you’re doing?
Oh, it’s great, it’s kind of like Christmas, you know? Because we’ve done all the work. We just show up. I mean, we always have to tweak a few things but it’s fun remembering “Oh do you remember what we used to do on that tune?” It’s fun. It’s like revisiting old glories.
Honestly, creating new music has been intense and pressure-filled and we’ve always worked really, really hard on it, but we’ve kind of taken it out of the whole equation. We are just playing because we want to play.
We’re not promoting a record, we’re not reinventing the wheel. We’ve kind of been exploring this idea—which goes against every bone in my body, by the way—that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you put a group together. You could actually play the music you’ve created already that people want to hear.
In the past we wouldn’t get together just to tour. We would get together, make a whole new musical offering and play that intently for a couple of years. Then maybe disappear for a while.
But now it seems the best way is we’re just gonna get together for a few weeks and go play some gigs. And there’s plenty of people that want to hear us who have never heard us or have heard us before but want to hear it again.
It just feels good to get together and do something instead of do nothing.
Obviously, there is a magnetic pull that makes all of you guys want to play together. Are there certain traits musically or personality-wise that Howard Levy, Roy “Future Man” Wooten and Victor Wooten and you all share that creates this magic?
Oh my god, it’s so cool. It’s almost like we complete each other. When we are all together it is this very complete package.
Howard is the egg-headed genius brain that looks at everything very analytically and also the very spontaneous, which usually those things don’t go together.
Victor’s just got this pure feel. The Future Man’s also very very intellectual about music. He’s got all this math going on, an incredible mathematical ability going on. He’s redividing the atom constantly—rhythmically dividing what would normally be four beats into 11 or 17 or whatever and he just does it so beautifully and naturally. And it’s something the rest of us wouldn’t know how to do.
All I am getting at is each of us brings something so different to each other and we celebrate those differences. We’re also similar in that we’re all the odd duck or the strange ranger in every band we’ve been in. Who are doing things that haven’t been done on their instrument. Every one of us have always felt like the underdog on some level.
The Flecktones are such a unique band, even by today’s standards. Looking back to the late-’80s when you guys started forming, what was the musical landscape like? I am sure you came across some skeptics when you first came out.
In the jazz world, there was a celebration of young people who played in an older way. There wasn’t a celebration of people doing brand new things with jazz.
We actually were combining a lot of root elements to make something quite different. It certainly wasn’t smooth jazz, it certainly wasn’t old jazz. It wasn’t typical fusion.
A lot of the jazz festivals didn’t want to have anything to do with us, in the beginning. They thought it was some trendy crap that would be gone hopefully quite soon. This banjo band, or a harmonica band it was like “No, no, no, no. Not them.”
It was kind of saying “This is where jazz stops.” We felt like that was the vibe. The fusion supergroups had run their course like Return to Forever, or Mahavishnu Orchestra, or Weather Report. Those are like the three kingpins of successful fusion music and they were long gone, and we were more like them than Wynton Marsalis. It was a different landscape.
I was trying to distance myself from bluegrass because I had been in it so long. I didn’t want to be a jamband. I didn’t think the jambands played as well as the great Jazz groups and the great rock bands.
I would much rather be considered a jazz musician, but I was more of a closet jazz musician or a wannabe jazz musician. I wanted it real bad but I wasn’t necessarily that either.
What I’m getting at is that in the beginning I did not want any bluegrass elements whatsoever. We were trying so hard not to get the records in the bluegrass bins, and to be seen as jazz of some kind.