The banjo virtuoso breaks boundaries again with his original Flecktones

By Steven Rosen

Béla Fleck made the banjo dangerous. Before he picked it up, the instrument was mostly consigned to the province of old-fashioned country and bluegrass tunes. But all that changed in 1979 when the native New Yorker recorded his first solo album, Crossing the Tracks. “I was really intent on being good on the banjo,” Fleck says. “So I learned Bach Partitas and jazz solos because that seemed like the highest quality music I could find that would directly impact my banjo playing.” Improbably, Fleck brought those elements together with traditional and world music to create an amped-up hybrid dubbed “progressive bluegrass”—a melting-pot style all his own. He has been breaking boundaries ever since.

Fleck’s banjo odyssey found him pushing five-string limits with the New Grass Revival during most of the 1980s and ultimately breaking down the walls completely with his group Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, formed in 1988. “When I met the Flecktones and showed them the more complicated stuff I had, these guys sucked that up and asked for more,” Fleck recalls. He has also enjoyed solo excursions into African, Indian and classical music, as well as collaborations with Chick Corea and many others.

On his new album, Rocket Science, Fleck reconvenes the original Flecktones—keyboardist Howard Levy, bass player Victor Wooten and percussionist Roy “Futureman” Wooten—for the first time in 18 years. With Fleck at the production helm as usual, the group burned through 12 new songs over a pair of two-week sessions. “There’s something about us together that’s very special,” observes Fleck, 52. “It’s not just run-of-the-mill.

I could get Chick Corea, Dennis Chambers, Toots Thielemans and Stanley Clarke and it wouldn’t sound like the Flecktones.” We spoke with the banjo wizard from Nashville, where he has lived since the early ’80s.

What drew you to the banjo?

When I first heard the banjo it was profound. I heard Earl Scruggs playing the Beverly Hillbillies theme [“The Ballad of Jed Clampett”], but I wasn’t that interested in country or folk. At that time it was just the sound of the banjo that jumped out at me. I’ve talked to a lot of people who Earl Scruggs had that impact on—the first time they heard him play just shook them up.

What other music did you like?

I was a kid in the ’60s, so the Beatles were huge. In the early ’70s, when I started playing banjo, Led Zeppelin was huge. Yes was also big. You couldn’t help but be aware of different kinds of music growing up in New York City—including folk, which I liked but didn’t have a huge attraction to. I enjoyed music where people played fancier. I liked hearing lead guitarists and jazz musicians, and I hadn’t really heard that in folk. In bluegrass I did.

Were you good right away?

People said it came easily, though I felt I was struggling. Not to brag, but by the time I was graduating high school, I was spending a lot of time around Tony Trischka, who was the leading modernist banjo player. We’d be jamming at parties, and people would say they couldn’t tell who was who when they closed their eyes. Here I was playing with the top guy and people couldn’t tell if it was him or me—so I guess that was fast.

When your career started, was something missing from traditional bluegrass banjo?

It wasn’t so much that something was missing, but there was an opportunity there to open things up. I had a simple curiosity about different kinds of music—and maybe the egotism to think, “I shouldn’t have to learn the saxophone to learn this Charlie Parker solo. I should be able to do it on the banjo.” I had moved to the South and was playing in bluegrass bands but was still curious about more modern music. I’d finish a bluegrass tour, go home and try to hang out with jazz musicians or try to transcribe things off Charlie Parker or Chick Corea records. I’d also take things from great guitar players like Pat Martino or Pat Metheny. Nobody had really explored the banjo neck the way I was trying to do. There were a couple of guys—Don Reno and Eddie Adcock—who had done stuff with scales, but it wasn’t a complete concept. I learned all the modes in all the keys from the bottom of the banjo neck to the top, and every single jazz chord inversion.

How did the Flecktones form?

I was looking to push the edge and do something different, to step completely out of the bluegrass world. Victor Wooten, Futureman and Howard Levy were the first guys I’d met that could take my music and raise it to the level it needed to be on in order to be viable. The music needed to be edgy and have new ideas in it, because they wouldn’t want to play with me if I wasn’t delivering stuff that was intriguing to them.

What were the early sessions like?

We always played live, but that didn’t mean you couldn’t go back and fix something if you didn’t get it. I always produced the records. The only outside producer we ever approached was Daniel Lanois, and he passed.

Do you have your own studio?

Yes, in my house. That started around the time of Live Art [1996]. We were doing really well on Warner Bros. around that time, and they actually gave me my first Pro Tools rig. We were about to compile the live album from a couple hundred hours of recordings of shows that we had taped over the years. So I got one of the early Pro Tools systems and started editing the live album.

Did you adopt digital quickly?

I preferred analog—it sounded great and I loved it. But digital has gotten so good that it doesn’t stop a record from being great. It’s a nice touch when you can do it analog, but I haven’t gotten to do that in a long time. I’ve mixed to analog half-inch or one-inch machines to give it a little more of that character.

How did the Flecktones reunite?

The real change was going back to playing with Howard Levy. The band has been together the whole time, but with different personnel—really just one person, Jeff Coffin, who had been our horn player for the last

14 years. Dave Matthews Band asked Jeff to fill in after LeRoi Moore, their saxophone player, died [in 2008]. They eventually offered him that job.

How did you approach Howard?

About a year after Jeff left, Victor, Futureman and I touched base. I asked them, “Well, what do you guys want to do?” They said, “What about seeing if Howard is interested in doing some shows?” We did a couple weeks in Europe and five shows in the States, just playing old music and reestablishing that we could have a great time together. Then we made plans to record Rocket Science.

How was that process?

We worked pretty fast. I went off to Chicago to write with Howard, and got together with Victor and Futureman to write and see what they had. Then we got together and started recording. In the past we used to perform the stuff live a good bit, knock the arrangement together on tour, then go and record it. Now, since we weren’t on tour, we had to do much more planning.

What do you hope people take away from your shows?

The concerts are really about uplifting people. At the end of the shows, people just feel awesome. It’s great to play that role, to make a room full of people happy. I think there’s something inspiring about our band—they walk away from it going, “Wow, the impossible is possible.” I hear from people that they walk away inspired to go after their dreams. This group is certainly an example of a crazy dream that somehow has worked out.

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