B y Y v o n n e E r v i n
THIS HAS BEEN an amazing year," banjoist Béla Fleck says in a phone interview from his home in Nashville. He's still floating high after a concert with legendary jazz pianist and composer Chick Corea two days earlier.
"It was stunning, it was unbelievable," Fleck raves. "Chick is so great as a musician and as a person. His energy was very positive. He rehearsed hard the night before and he did interviews and said great things about us. We just had a wonderful time."
Corea is featured on three tunes on Fleck's new album, Tales from the Acoustic Planet. Other jazz-oriented musicians on the album include pianist Bruce Hornsby and saxophonist Branford Marsalis (both appeared on his last Flecktones album) and reedman Paul McCandless. They were teamed with bluegrass veterans Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan.
"I've had a great opportunity to have friends all over the music world--friends in jazz and bluegrass and friends in classical music and friends from the Irish music world," Fleck says. "The whole idea was to introduce these people to each other and just let things happen. They're all such stellar musicians that they find ways to make it work."
Also on the album is mandolinist Sam Bush, Fleck's former bandmate in New Grass Revival. He'll join the Flecktones for a sold-out show Friday, June 9, at the Temple of Music and Art.
The virtuoso banjoist will be joined by the other two-thirds of the Flecktones: bassist Victor Wooten and his brother, percussionist Future Man.
Percussionist isn't quite adequate to describe Future Man. His homemade drumitar, an electronic hand drumming gadget, was too "plugged-in" for the new "unplugged" album so he played on banjo heads, paper, a music stand, whatever.
Brother Vic is one of the best jazz bassists recording today. Ask the bass players who attended his clinic at the Bass Symposium last year or those who voted him "Best Bassist" in 1993 in Bass Player magazine.
"We're going to do our regular thing with Sam in it," Fleck says of his upcoming Tucson appearance. "Then sometime during the evening, we'll go into our unplugged acoustic thing. Future Man will go into some type of acoustic thing--the banjos or a trash can or something. Victor will play cello and Sam will play mandolin and fiddle. We'll be playing a lot of new music from the record and we'll be touching on a song or two from the New Grass Revival era."
It's been a roundabout way to jazz for the 36-year-old Fleck. As a kid, he fell in love with the sound of Earl Scruggs' banjo on the Beverly Hillbillies television show. As a teen, he tried to cop Charlie Parker's bebopping alto saxophone lines and was amazed by Chick Corea's creativity with Return to Forever. "It was like listening to the holy grail," Fleck says.
Despite his early jazz leanings, he's a banjo player, and most banjo players play bluegrass. He played in a few short-lived bluegrass bands in Boston and Kentucky before joining New Grass Revival. After eight years with New Grass, Fleck formed the Flecktones in 1989. The next year, he received two Grammy nominations, had a video in rotation on VH-1, BET and TNN and played Carnegie Hall and The Tonight Show. But Fleck got a lot of flack from jazz critics and fans who thought the banjo belonged only in Dixieland bands.
Now, with heavyweights like Marsalis and Corea in his corner, he's much more accepted. He sounded a little tentative, however, when referring to himself as a jazz musician.
"Well, when you're standing there next to Chick Corea, you don't feel that good calling yourself a jazz musician," Fleck explains when asked why he said he was "supposedly" a jazz banjo player. "His wife, singer Gayle Moran, thought we were jazz musicians, grounded in jazz very deeply. So I consider that a compliment since I've just been figuring that out by myself. I haven't really studied formally in any way. I've just been listening and learning things off records and trying to figure what the hell is going on."
Recalling his first hearing of Return to Forever in concert in 1975, he says, "I saw how Stanley Clarke and Al Di Meola were playing their lines, just on the necks on these fretted instruments and I thought to myself, 'All the notes they are playing are on the banjo, somewhere, and it's not the banjo's fault that nobody's playing them. It's up to somebody to do it.' So I started an intensive study of the instrument. I found a way to play a major scale, which I didn't even know how to do, and started running it up and down the fingerboard til I knew the instrument. That really helped me to learn to play lots of different kinds of music because I wasn't trapped in the bluegrass vocabulary any more. If you're really going to be a musician, you've got to learn all 12 keys and the modes in each key. It's really a big job."
Jazz great Charlie "Bird" Parker did the same in developing his style, but it was more than technique that drew Fleck to Bird.
"It has something to do with the rhythm...it's not just the notes," Fleck recalls of his teenage encounter with bebop. "I was really attracted to that speed and rhythmic thing. I tried to figure out on the banjo what Parker was playing. I finally gave up because I didn't have the technique yet."
If he didn't play banjo, what would he play? "The piano is taking on new significance after playing with Chick and watching him run up and down it like a maniac," Fleck replies. "I really don't know. The piano world is so huge, there's already enough piano players and enough saxophone players. I like playing the banjo."
Cutline: Picking a winner: Banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck and Flecktones Victor Wooten (bass) and Future Man (percussion) push instrumentation to its outer limits.
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