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Bela Fleck

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"I was driving around Nashville when I stopped to get a Coke. I was only going to be a minute so I left my banjo in the car, but when I got back someone had broken in and left another banjo!" Ok, we’ve probably all heard that one a time or two and I’m sure Bela Fleck’s heard it an even thousand times now. He may have even made it up. But if the oft’ maligned banjo (like Southern accents or trailer parks) were ever a running joke, it’s certainly not in his hands now.

It's often said that the one thoroughly American jazz art form is comprised of a blend between the meeting of African and European influences and aesthetics. Spirituals, blues and work songs meld with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, as well as the rougher forms of European folk music: an authentic sonic Democracy. It's no wonder the result has been endlessly modified and personalized in the years since. Improvisation seems to also present an irresistible welcoming quality - a virtual Ellis Island - amidst its energy and intellect..."come one, come all...bring us your tired, your poor, your hungry." I could just as well be extended to include the hungry to learn, to improve on and change what we know for the better. After all, that’s what we do.

Funny things happen when anything is brought to America - democracy, free trade, music and art. We put our own spin on everything, especially when it gets 'lost' and fermented, specifically in places like the mountains where time and culture nearly stands still. In this case specifically, Appalachia. This is where Bluegrass came to be, carefully harking the long remembered, recognizable strains of Elizabethan honor. But possessing in their stead the original spirit and concept of improvisation the composers of European art music relied on to produce new works remains in Bluegrass country and especially the music itself. Though its origins emanate from lofty exclusionary society, its since been released from its Bastille and remains a vivacious music of the people.

And where Bluegrass originally emanated also lives a musician caught on the fence between various musical worlds, overlooking their backyards, taking what works, fusing the rest to his own taste as one of the driving forces of the Flecktones.

On the 3-disc set "Little Worlds" they aren’t kidding. Within the first two tracks alone, the Beverly Hillbillies have an unlikely meeting with Weather Report. From there, as many influences and styles as possible are organically, convincingly congealed around the core quartet’s sound and its own unique, even quirky brilliance. But it’s all in fun the tempos, ideas, references and energy shifts are often enough to keep you on the fence between laughter and awe (and maybe aw shucks). You fear that if you laugh you’ll miss something. Even via a peripheral listening, at times you’ll hear shades of Frisell, Garbareck, King Crimson, Flatt and Scruggs, the aforementioned Weather Report and specifically Jaco as the instruments personalities and lines seem to meld and morph into one another, as if from a single mind and hand.

Bassist Wooten is virtually now considered the Paganinni of the e-bass and the likely (heir apparent) successor to the Jaco throne. Among many other auspicious projects, both he and Bela add tracks to Mike Stern’s release, "These Times."

The Flecktones answer Zappa’s valid question, ‘Does humor belong in music?’ Obviously a decided group, "Yes." And like the often (mis)-quoted line: "Don't bring a knife to a gunfight," who else would bring a banjo to a jazz jam...and win? Enter Bela Fleck and company

JAZZREVIEW: Where are you in the tour now?

BELA FLECK: In Nashville, where I live. We just finished our west coast run and were starting our Midwest on Thursday so it's about four days, five days off in the middle.

JAZZREVIEW: Are you going to be hitting Texas?

BELA FLECK: Not this time. Where are you?

JAZZREVIEW: I’m just south of Austin in San Antonio. I saw you guys a couple of years ago at Stubb’s.

BELA FLECK: Yeah, we've done Stubb’s a few times.

JAZZREVIEW: Yeah, that was a great gig, too.

BELA FLECK: Thank you. Yeah, there’s energy to that place.

JAZZREVIEW: Yeah, and the town itself.

BELA FLECK: Yeah, there really is. I don't see anything right now in Texas, but we will - possibly in May.

JAZZREVIEW: Good. I think you get really good reception there. I was just listening to the new triple album, ("Little Worlds"). It’s really amazing just being blown away by the sheer number of influences, and how they blend and morph into each other by the second. It’s unbelievable.

BELA FLECK: - Thank you. Yeah, it was a lot of time, effort and love put into that, a lot of spontaneous things happened, too.

JAZZREVIEW: But reading the bio, it was saying it was meant to be a real bare bones, quartet, single album. Then it just blew up into this huge concept thing. How did that happen?

BELA FLECK: It sure did (laughs). Well, we started like you said, trying to do something just four of us. Reason was because the last album had been ’Outbound" was the last studio album and "Live at the Quick" was a DVD, and album had ever built with a bunch of guests. So we were thinking this time let’s pare it down. You don't want to just get in the habit of it. I don't know, it almost seems that people can think you taking advantage of names or something.

JAZZREVIEW: - I can understand that.

BELA FLECK: - There are bands that do that. I don't like it when I hear it. But I've always thought that there is a community aspect to music sometimes that's what’s hard to feel like you're keeping all your marbles to yourself or something when you don't ask somebody great to get involved. Like you're missing an opportunity to try something and make everything richer. And so it just turned into that mostly because there were a few exceptions. We said that if anybody does play on the record, let's make sure they’re people that we haven’t played with before, so that at least were not putting out the same record. You know, new tunes with the same people.

We tried not to use anybody from the previous albums, but when Bobby McFerrin was coming through town, you know, it was like ‘How can we not ask him?’ And if he said yes, it would be like such a cool thing that it would be worth reconsidering. And once we did that, the no guest thing had been broken. It was like Chris Thile (mandolin) playing with us every once in awhile onstage and is the time right now when we’re just getting to know each other, to capture something on tape of us playing with him. And so it’s like, okay, it's just not that hard to do. Why not just do it?

The Chieftains were coming to town; they asked me to play on some stuff. You know, it was like ‘wow, I wonder if I could get those guys to do something with us?’ What would you think to have two bands playing on the same song; two whole bands? You know, you don't hear about that too often. So once there were five or six guests, it started to occur to us that we had more than a single album. Actually coloring the songs with different people, giving every song it's own identity by having different people play wasn't a bad thing. And, you know, again people kept coming to town. Pamelia (Kurstin, multi-instrumentalist) came through - the great Theramin player.

JAZZREVIEW: Oh yeah, I talked to her last year. She’s amazing.

BELA FLECK: She’s a great musician. And Indian percussionists were coming to play at Victor’s bass camp and it was like ‘hey, it would be cool to have Indian.’ There was this one song. I was thinking, ‘this song really lends itself to having a pile of percussionists create, sort of, I don't know, a tribal sound with the rhythm section. Then pretty soon, once they are there, you try them on a few songs and gradually give them presence. A lot of these different ethnic elements, that's always something that I love anyway and I'm excited when I hear it ethnic elements from any country, especially blended in with the group. It's a natural bed for that sort of thing. So basically, that just evolved. Then pretty soon, all bets were off and we had more guests than we've ever had (laughs).

JAZZREVIEW: It’s kind of hard to support the no-guest thing.

BELA FLECK: Yeah, it's hard to pull off. It's a nice idea, especially for the hard-core fans. The other element about recording with just the four of us is, what's going to make it different from the live show? Especially since we allow people to trade our live shows and record them all. There’s no real need for documentation of what the band sounds like because it's there, in heavy rotation out there. In another way, I start to think of how can we make an album that sounds different from what the band sounds like live, but still be the band. How can we offer people something on record that they have any need for? Maybe a lot of people don’t trade the live stuff. Maybe that’s what "Live Art" has done so well. It’s our biggest seller, but it also had incredible guests that you would never see playing with us live on those nights, Corea or Branford Marsalis or whoever, so it became a special event. I guess we’re trying to make records where every one is an event and not just another record. There’s different ways to get there.

JAZZREVIEW: I think that’ a good way to put it, that it’s an event. It’s amazing all the styles you’re able to blend.

BELA FLECK: Thanks. Sometimes that kind of thinking can stop you if you get too heavy handed about trying to make so much out of every release. You can get to where you actually stop good music from happening. And so that was the thinking when we started out: let’s just get together and play, and see what happens. Maybe next time (laughs).

JAZZREVIEW: And the studio, was this all done at your house?

BELA FLECK: Yeah, and that’s the other thing. Nobody’s there telling us, "You can’t do that or you can’t try that." Plus, we didn’t feel a time limit. We felt like we could work on it until we were happy. With so much music, that took a year and half, and that was with a full road schedule. But when we’d come off the road, a lot of times the band would go off and do their side projects and I would go home and work on the record, ‘cause it was in my house (laughs).

JAZZREVIEW: Absolutely, because at one point, you don’t have an adequate studio at home. At another point, you finally build what you need.

BELA FLECK: It’s interesting, I mean we’ve always for the last 6 or 7 years we’ve recorded at my house, whatever house I’m in. It doesn’t really matter. We just find a way to do it. If you have to bring in some baffles and deaden down the room or whatever, you just do it. If you have to cut a hole in the wall to get some more room in the other part of the house, you do it. It’s not a studio. It’s a house. You can really record anywhere if it’s quiet enough.

JAZZREVIEW: You don’t feel that’s limiting in other, technical ways?

BELA FLECK: Well, some people think you need a really big room for drums, but that’s a problem. You’re stuck with the ambience that the room had. You just need to get a medium sized room and deaden everything down, then add reverb or effects later. You can certainly do a good job that way, make a good sounding record and have lots of freedom. And so the freedom that we get from having it at home outweighs the other benefits we might get from being in the studio.

JAZZREVIEW: I was going to ask you, originally, how did you go about finding the band members, because your band is probably one of the most eclectic outfits out there?

BELA FLECK: It’s hard to out-eclectic the Flecktones for personnel (laughs).

JAZZREVIEW: Yeah. Eclectones, yeah.

BELA FLECK: The Eclectones, That’s good. Well, Victor kind of found me. He called me up out of the blue. He had been listening to me and I was just lucky. That is just a thing that happens if you stay around long enough. People find out about you and what you do, and they can start coming to you.

JAZZREVIEW: Were you just playing bluegrass up to that point or what?

BELA FLECK: I was playing kind of a hybrid kind of bluegrass. You can call it newgrass. I was in a band called Newgrass Revival, but there was a whole movement going on and some people didn’t like the name, Newgrass. It doesn’t matter what you want to call it. It was some kind of a hybrid that connected to jazz and contemporary music of all kinds. And people in that world are really as adept as the great jazz musicians just coming from a different angle.

JAZZREVIEW: There’s kind of a tradition of that, even in Nashville going back to guys like Hank Garland who would play BELA FLECK: Right. Oh yeah. There have always been great musicians in Nashville. There’s always been some who played jazz, and some were good. One of the greatest jazz players you can think of is Buddy Emmons (steel player), but he didn’t really go out and pursue a career as a jazz musician. He could have. There was a period where he was just unbelievable. I’m sure he still is. But I don’t really come out of that country jazz kind of thing. I grew up in New York City. I just happened to play the banjo, but to me, Bluegrass and country are very distinctly different things. Bluegrass is a very focused musical effort. It’s all about playing, well, singing, too.

The players in Bluegrass are much more psychotic about how good they play, than players in country, because you can have a big hit record on the radio and the playing doesn’t really have to be on the jazz level, or on the highest possible level. It’s all about the song. In some cases, supersonic playing might not even be the right thing. But in Bluegrass, it’s always been a given, and a demand that you had to be an excellent player. Every solo in the band had to be great. So coming up in that world, there’s all this attention to detail. Plus how you play in the group is very, very important in a Bluegrass band. It’s like a string quartet.

You have to know how to play as an ensemble. It’s a very set thing. And when you learn those rules, some of them apply to other music and some of them don’t. So really, when you learn how to make a four-piece band work, or a five piece, some of that translates. But the Flecktones in some ways are not that different than what I played in Bluegrass bands. I found what the other people didn’t do and tried to do that. I tried to be supportive when I wasn’t the guy out front. And I tried to make sure there were good melodies and counters, and a good groove all the time. With the Flecktones, just because the people are so unique, it ends up being a very different kind of music.

JAZZREVIEW: So would you be able to describe a philosophy of music that you have? Obviously humor belongs in what you do.

BELA FLECK: Well, yeah. I like our music to have a positive quality to it. I don’t know what to call it except I wanted to make people feel good. I’m not really particularly into dark, sad emotional stuff, but it could be done. It’s not that it wouldn’t work with the banjo or even the Flecktones. They would be very capable of playing it. It’s just that, I think, we as people like the idea of playing music that makes the audience walk out lifted up somehow.

JAZZREVIEW: Right. I’m sure we’ve all heard the banjo in the context of being forlorn as well, as very up.

BELA FLECK: Well, a lot of people don’t remember that. They think the banjo can only be happy, but that’s not true. The banjo can also be very evocative. I do more of that kind of stuff sometimes in other settings, like for instance with Edgar Meyer. When we play duos, a lot of times we go deeper into some of the spookier aspects or sort of modal stuff. But somehow the Flecktones you asked about philosophy and I guess that’s why I’m talking about this is that the band really wants to put something good out there that is a benefit to the people who listen to it. That doesn’t mean the music can’t be a benefit if it’s dark, it’s just that there’s a tendency for everybody to want to cheerlead the world.

JAZZREVIEW: Right. I guess an audience as a whole, or as individuals, are capable of experiencing the whole of human experience. The music can reflect that, as well.

BELA FLECK: It can. And that really becomes sort of an artistic decision. It’s not really about good or bad. Some artists just choose to, like Radiohead. I love Radiohead, but it is dark stuff.

JAZZREVIEW: There you go. Yeah.

BELA FLECK: But I find it very inspiring musically, and human-wise and everything. So it doesn’t have to be happy music to be inspiring. But it seems that we just tend to want to play that way. So that’s what we should be doing. But on this record, we actually did go a little further in some different areas that we hadn’t before. [We] took our time and got a little bit funkier here and there.

JAZZREVIEW: So you sound like you’re really happy with it.

BELA FLECK: I am, but I’m also happy to move on because it took a long time to make. Right now I’m really excited about the stuff I’m working on for next.

JAZZREVIEW: Can you talk about that?

BELA FLECK: Well, I’m working with Edgar Meyer on a duo which is sort of very personal duo stuff: just bass, banjo and piano and a little bit of guitar. In a way, it’s the perfect counterpoint to the Flecktones album, which was so ambitious. This is ambitious, but in a different way. We’re trying to get as deep as we can and do as good as we can.

JAZZREVIEW: Is he playing bass and piano?

BELA FLECK: Mostly bass. Piano on a few songs, too.

JAZZREVIEW: So when can that be expected?

BELA FLECK: That’s going to be coming in April.

JAZZREVIEW: How did you guys originally hook up?

BELA FLECK: We’ve known each other since ’82, when I heard him playing on the street in Aspen. And he’s just one of the great musicians I’ve ever had the opportunity to learn from and play with. We learn a lot from each other, which is cool.

JAZZREVIEW: - You never know where you’re going to find talent.

BELA FLECK: You never do, and he is the highest order of musical abilities. So we’re really good pals now.

JAZZREVIEW: How do you go about writing music? Is it almost always like this album: a collaborative thing/improvised?

BELA FLECK: No, it can come a lot of different ways. Sometimes you come up with it by yourself with your instrument in your hands. Other times you come up with it in a group. And since the Flecktones spend so much time together, you have some pretty good luck with finding things, coming up with things as a group at sound checks. Whenever we’re together, we’ll come up with stuff, but I cant say which is better. They’re all different. Sometimes Victor shows up with a tune and I couldn’t imagine anything we could do to improve it. Sometimes I find something that I feel is really complete and I’m not looking for anything else, except for the guys to learn it, find a way to play it and put their personality into it, but the song is done. And other times, we start with nothing and come up with something that we’re all really proud of. As long as you keep your overview and don’t put out stuff that you don’t think is good. That’s actually harder to do than it sounds (laughs). People seem to get emotionally involved with something they write, but the band has been really good about being mature.

JAZZREVIEW: When you first got to Nashville and finally started to play things that were maybe less than authentic Bluegrass, did it take a while for the audiences in Nashville to start accepting you? Did you go through kind of a strange period there?

BELA FLECK: Well, being in that band - Newgrass Revival that band was known for experimentation. So when I was in that band, people seemed to accept that: "ok, here’s an even stranger tune that Newgrass is playing." But there is already a natural expectation that they’re going to be doing those kinds of tunes. They always seemed to like it. Outside of the group, my own solo stuff took a long time to catch on, but gradually developed an audience that was curious about what I was doing with the banjo. Really, it took a quantum leap when the Flecktones started and then there was a band out there playing that music all the time. Suddenly, I saw a huge growth in interest because up until then, how could anybody, how could the whole country know what I was doing? I would just do the odd gig once every few months, maybe, and it would be in a club in Nashville or somewhere where I had stayed over where the band was playing. You really have to get committed if you expect anything to happen. I had high hopes that I would get to make a living doing my own music, one day. And it wouldn’t have happened without Victor and Futureman and Howard Levy.

JAZZREVIEW: Thank you for your time, Bela.

Mike Brannon is guitarist/writer for the Synergy Group ( Their latest release is "Barcodes" w/ members of King Crimson and the Grammy-winning Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. The follow-up, "Later," w/ special guests, Bill Evans, Harvie Swartz, Paul Wertico and others TBA will be released on Nextep in early ‘04.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Bela Fleck
  • Interview Date: 3/1/2004
  • Subtitle: The Beverly Hillbillies Meet Weather Report
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