Bela Fleck and the Flecktones: Life in Eleven

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Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
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Duke Ellington called them “beyond category,” those artists whose music transcends stylistic limitations and clears its own path. Were he still with us, Ellington wouldn’t hesitate to apply that phrase to Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Since their inception in the late ’80s, the quartet has made mincemeat of genre, equally comfortable playing a jazz festival one week, a bluegrass bash the next, and then a jam-band or rock gathering. That they do so fronted by a banjoist is all the more impressive, but then Béla Anton Leoš Fleck—named after Hungarian composer Béla Bartók—is like no other banjoist who’s ever walked this Earth.

*****

For the 53-year-old New York City native, “beyond category” has been a mantra nearly since he first picked up the instrument. Expanding its reach, redefining its role, is simply what Béla Fleck does. For that he’s been nominated in more Grammy categories than any other artist, snatching up nods from country to pop, world music to classical, bluegrass, spoken word and, yes, jazz—a tradition in which the banjo has been virtually nonexistent outside of the original hot-jazz era and its revivalists. He’s taken home a dozen of those trophies, but for Fleck and his cohorts—each equally determined to flout convention—the true reward has always been the satisfaction of discovery.

And they’re not only still at it, they’re embarking on their next phase. The Flecktones’ latest release, Rocket Science (eOne), continues moving the band in new directions even while reuniting its three constants—Fleck, electric bassist Victor Wooten and his brother, “Drumitar” virtuoso Roy “Futureman” Wooten—with Howard Levy, the Flecktones’ original harmonica player and pianist, who returns after a two-decade absence. “It’s like the evolution of the original band, maybe what we would have done if we hadn’t stopped recording together,” says Victor Wooten, who is 46 and seven years younger than his brother. “It’s old and new at the same time.”

“For all of us there’s been a tremendous amount of life experiences and musical experiences [in the past 20 years],” says the Brooklyn-born Levy, 59, calling from the Chicago area, where he’s lived since his college days. “What made the band exciting in the beginning was that everyone brought their own things to it, so in a certain way the dynamic has not changed at all. You have four very distinct musical personalities who are all experimenting and trying to take things to the limits of their knowledge and abilities. Somehow or other we all like to do that together.”

“What was it that Groucho Marx once said, that he wouldn’t want to be in any club that wanted him in it?” Fleck asks. He’s phoning from Nashville, where he and the Wooten brothers have lived for decades. “I’m the reverse. Any club that wants me in it, I’m in. I know that my appeal is very selective, so if I can get 10 percent of the bluegrass audience to follow the Flecktones, and 10 percent of the world-music audience and 10 percent of the jam-band audience and 10 percent of the jazz audience, then it grows into a real audience by the time it’s done, and allows me to do the music on the level I want to do it.”

The question of whether the Flecktones qualify as a jazz band is one that has been posed numerous times over the course of their lengthy run. The clever appellation “blu-bop”—as in bluegrass meets bebop—was long ago affixed to them, but their approach, while incorporating elements of both, ultimately resembles neither very closely. And that’s how they like it. “I’ve been afraid to call myself a jazz musician because I have such reverence for the ideal of what a jazz musician should be, and I haven’t spent my life pursuing jazz as its own end,” Fleck says. “It’s always been a piece of my influences. So if someone says, ‘What kind of music do you play?’ if it’s a stranger on an airplane I might say, ‘Well, I guess I’m kind of a hybrid jazz musician.’ But if I was talking to a jazz musician, I would say, ‘Hey, I’m not really a jazz musician.’ I’m really a banjo player who loves jazz.”

Victor Wooten is more pointed in his response to the “Is it jazz?” question. “If you can’t hear it, there’s something wrong with you,” he says bluntly. “Some of the world’s best improvisers play bluegrass. So, in our minds, and I think the Flecktones is the proof of it, all of these styles are related to each other. That’s why we can blend in. My brother and I grew up improvising in R&B and funk and fusion music. Howard was the same way, playing weird Balkan and Bulgarian rhythms, and Béla came up with world music and bluegrass and newgrass and listening to the Beatles. So when we put it all together we found a common denominator.”

*****

For Fleck, it all began—and he’s told this story so many times that the details have gone fuzzy on him—with The Beverly Hillbillies. Watching a rerun of the ’60s hick-com one afternoon as a child, he heard the show’s theme music as played by banjoist Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt. The music excited him, but it wasn’t until years later that he even realized the sound he loved was made by a banjo. He didn’t actually play one until his teens, after receiving a banjo as a gift. Fleck immediately “sucked it up,” he says, becoming proficient at warp speed. Despite taunts from some fellow New Yorkers who could think of nothing less cool than a banjo—“They’d laugh at me and flap their arms because Hee Haw and Deliverance had that very negative Southern context, or they would squeal like a pig”—Fleck kept at it, taking lessons from five-string banjo great Tony Trischka and other monster players.

From the start Fleck looked to alter the instrument’s traditional role. His earliest solo recordings and his work with the progressive New Grass Revival in the early ’80s demonstrated not only a dazzling technique but a vision, a burning desire to take the banjo out of its comfort zone, to bring to it the same cachet enjoyed by the guitar. The circumstances that ultimately brought Fleck together with Levy, Victor Wooten and Futureman were serendipitous. “Before Béla,” says Levy, “nobody played in odd time meters on a banjo, and nobody actually played the banjo as a fully chromatic instrument, even though the notes were all there. He sought to make the banjo a universal instrument capable of playing pretty much anything.”

So too did Levy on his harmonica, which he first played in the late ’60s after hearing a Chicago blues LP. After only six months of playing, he revolutionized mouth-harp technique by playing the chromatic scale on a diatonic harmonica. “I’m the first person ever to figure out how to do this,” he says flatly. “I was a stubborn 18-year-old kid. This enabled me to take the diatonic harmonica into the wide world of music and try to take it into all of these different musical territories where it had never been before.”

He and Fleck met at a party and jammed all night, and when Fleck needed to put a group together for what was intended as a one-off TV gig, he gave Levy a call. Fleck and Victor Wooten, meanwhile, had been on each other’s radar. Both Wooten siblings, who hail from a military family in which all of the five boys played music, had been gigging at a theme park, playing bluegrass and other styles. Victor, who was first handed a bass guitar in early childhood, was told about Fleck and called the banjoist, playing for him over the phone. When the TV offer came up, Fleck knew whom he wanted on bass in the makeshift band. “Victor was so unconventional, and then he introduced me to his brother and he was so unconventional. I said, ‘I know the perfect unconventional guy to play with us,’ and that was Howard,” says Fleck. “It was like, how can we make a band out of this diverse, unconventional group of people? That was the basis of it: Let’s do something really special with weirdos.”

Perhaps the weirdest of the weirdos, musically speaking, was the one known as Futureman—a nickname given to him by violinist Mark O’Connor and Dobro player Jerry Douglas. Trained on standard drums and influenced by Tony Williams, Elvin Jones and Billy Cobham, Roy had, by the time he met Fleck, already developed the instrument he called the Drumitar. Set into a guitarlike body, Futureman’s ax reproduces sampled drum and percussion sounds as he taps it with his fingers, in essence acting as an elaborate computerized hand drum. Although the technology was somewhat raw in its earliest stages, it has since been improved to the point where most listeners today would have difficulty distinguishing the Drumitar’s resulting sounds from those of an acoustic trap set.

Following the TV performance, the four decided to give it a try as a band. “I had all these things that had come out naturally complicated, and when I showed it to Victor and Roy they sucked it up so quickly,” says Fleck. “It was like, ‘What else you got?’ So all of a sudden I was being encouraged to expand on that part of my personality that was more complicated.”

They discovered that they all shared a hunger for complex arrangements, tricky changes and exploding the concept of genre. “There are several different types of tunes in Flecktones music,” says Levy. “Some are harmonically more akin on the surface to rock and roll. Some are more harmonically akin to bluegrass. Some have very complicated chord changes. Also, a lot of the music is extremely complex because it draws from traditions in jazz like polyrhythmic drumming.”

Before they cut their self-titled debut in 1990, says Futureman, “Béla was being advised, ‘Stick to bluegrass.’ But Béla wanted to make a jazz record. Then they said, ‘If you want to do a jazz album you should use known players.’ But he had the courage to just go with what was unfolding.”

That chemistry thrived for three albums and many, many live dates, until Levy left in 1992 due to road fatigue and a desire to explore other musical avenues. (He is, however, back on the road with the band as you read this.) For half a decade following Levy’s exit, Fleck and the Wootens carried on as a trio. Saxophonist Jeff Coffin returned the Flecktones to a four-piece format in 1997, and numerous guest players, ranging from oboist Paul McCandless to mandolinist Sam Bush to saxophonist Branford Marsalis, regularly augmented the band’s core lineup.

Coffin is currently with the Dave Matthews Band, which he became a part of following the tragic 2008 passing of sax player LeRoi Moore. He initially filled in for Moore after the DMB founding member was critically injured in an all-terrain vehicle accident on his Virginia farm, and joined permanently following Moore’s death later that year due to complications from his injuries. “When I was asked to stay on, I talked with Béla and the guys about it and they were very supportive,” Coffin wrote in an e-mail, going on to explain how deeply he enjoyed working and traveling with Fleck and the Wootens. “I don’t consider the door closed by any means with the Flecktones. … I feel like when the time is right, we will make some music again.”

“Change is constant and important,” he adds later.

*****

Rocket Science, an album pieced together largely in the studio from material each musician had set aside for a rainy day, is the first Flecktones album not road-tested prior to recording. “Before,” says Futureman, “we’ve been able to go out on tour and play the songs. We could get a tune halfway together and say, ‘Let’s flesh it out onstage.’ But now if we do that there’s gonna be covers that night and people are gonna put it up on the Internet. We don’t have the freedom to do that now.”

The album is titled Rocket Science, says Fleck, because “we were sending notes back and forth about titles. I had a bunch of hoity-toity titles that were sort of poetic, and everybody said, ‘Yes, that’s great!’ Then I said, ‘Wait a second. That’s kind of like saying we’re rocket scientists.’ And everybody said, ‘Well, we kind of are!’ As everyone thought about it, we said, ‘If anyone is rocket science, we are.’”

It’s that very embracement of difficulty and challenge that has kept the Flecktones evolving. Among the tracks on the new, all-instrumental album is one titled “Life in Eleven,” co-written by Fleck and Levy and built upon an 11/8 rhythm. “The Flecktones play odd time signatures like butter,” says Victor. “We just eat that stuff up. Right in the middle of the song it goes into this weird, almost gospel thing that’s in a slow 10/4 and then a 12/4. Technically it can still be considered 11. The whole song is in a bunch of different versions of 11.” This is not the stuff of chart-topping pop, to be sure, but it’s the lifeblood of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.

In addition to their work as a unit, each Flecktone has been prolific on his own. Fleck has gigged with an eclectic assortment of partners. He is currently collaborating with pianist Marcus Roberts and recently toured with double-bassist Edgar Meyer and tablas virtuoso Zakir Hussain. Fleck has also toured and recorded with Chick Corea (2007’s The Enchantment), who calls Fleck “a creative genius. He’s got a wide look at art and uses that wild instrument of his to flow all that he envisions through it. The way he works with and includes other artists and musicians into his landscapes is unique, but it’s the combination of Béla’s musicianship with his humanity that really inspires me personally.”

Vocal gymnast Bobby McFerrin, who worked in tandem with Fleck and Corea (check out their take on Corea’s “Spain” on YouTube), says succinctly, “When Béla plays I forget I’m listening to a banjo. His color palette is that broad.”

Fleck has also journeyed to Africa, where he starred in the award-winning 2008 documentary Throw Down Your Heart and cut a number of tracks with local musicians for a two-part release of the same name. One of the reasons for his journey was to visit the banjo’s birthplace, although, he says, “I didn’t have to prove it because a truth is a truth. You didn’t have to discover America for it to be there.” More important to Fleck was “to soak up ideas from those guys and interact with them, and then realize that it all connected to the heritage of the banjo and the story of the banjo. When I hear something awesome, like Chick Corea, I want to play with them and learn something from them. I want to know what they’re doing. The historical part is secondary, in a way.”

For the others that quest is no less intense. Victor Wooten, who has won five Grammys, recently reissued his 1996 debut solo album, A Show of Hands, a daring work consisting of nothing but bass guitar. In 2008 Victor teamed up with fellow bassists Marcus Miller and Stanley Clarke as SMV for the critically lauded album Thunder.

Futureman has branched out into symphonic composition. He created one work titled Evolution de la Musique and is presently involved with a project he calls the Black Mozart Ensemble. And Levy has spent his two decades away from the Flecktones in a whirlwind of collaboration, participating, he estimates, in more than a thousand recording sessions, most notably in the world-music arena: His long list of credits includes Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil, bassist Michael Riessler, French accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier, saxophonist/clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, jazz/classical Trio Globo and the Latin-jazz band Chévere. He’s also written and recorded a classical harmonica concerto with the Czech National Symphony.

*****

Whether the reunited original Flecktones will be in it for the long haul no one is venturing a guess. After all, Levy left originally because he wanted to make music with others, didn’t want to tour at length and “didn’t want my identity to become Howard Levy, Flecktone.”

“We’re going to live in the moment and see where it takes us,” says Victor.

Fleck, too, is taking it as it comes, still grateful that the Flecktones exist at all. “I’m so lucky I found guys that were such individuals,” he says. “Whoever they ended up playing with, they were gonna bring something new to it. They’re just super-creative rhythm-section guys and soloists and I’m very fortunate that they had an affinity and an interest in what I was doing, and [a desire] to bring their incredible armada of forces to bear on what I was trying to create.”

Originally published in July/August 2011

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