As the Flecktone Turns

If you think Béla Fleck is hard to pin down, try keeping up with his sidemen.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones may be the most eclectic jazz band in the world right now, if indeed what they play can be called jazz. Starting from Fleck's bluegrass banjo roots, the band has evolved over more than a decade to a world fusion sound that roams the planet in search of great melody and strange sonority. The band's music ranges from Americana to funk, from Coltrane-like jazz to a psychedelic take on Aaron Copland's "Hoedown," with bits of the Beatles, Tuvan throat singing and Indian tablas thrown in.

Anchoring this cosmic resonance is a rhythm section joined at birth, the Wootens. The youngest of four brothers, Victor plays bass and his older brother, né Roy, who goes by the spacey personas of Future Man and Roy·el, handles percussion.

"What makes this unique is that we don't have to work so hard at being the Flecktones. We can just be who we are," says Victor Wooten from his home in Nashville. "That's what creates the uniqueness of this band."

Originally organized by Fleck to play for a PBS television special during a break from his work in New Grass Revival, the pick-up band was supposed to be a one-time project.

"After that show, we went back to our own lives," Wooten remembers. "But the show went so well that the next time Béla had time off, he called us back up to see if we would do four more shows at small clubs that New Grass Revival had played. We did those shows and that's when Béla started thinking more about doing it all the time."

The band signed to Warner Brothers in 1990, eventually releasing six original albums and a compilation disc. They've earned several Grammys and numerous best instrumentalist citations for their individual virtuosity.

After original keyboardist Howard Levy left in 1992, the band often used a rotating roster of guest musicians. Among them were Fleck's fellow New Grass Revival partner, Sam Bush, on mandolin; oboist Paul McCandless from the band Oregon; pianist Bruce Hornsby; and saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Each added something different to the basic trio sound, captured on the 1996 double CD, Live Art. In 1997, after touring with them for a year as a guest, they officially added saxophonist Jeff Coffin as a member.

"He's a strong player and he brings a fire to the band," Wooten says of Coffin. "He brings a melody instrument back to the band that we lost when Howard left. Now Béla doesn't have to try to cover melody as much as he used to."

The four-man Flecktone lineup will be supplemented in Tucson by two guest wind players. McCandless and multi-instrumentalist Paul Hanson will also appear. Both are among the guests on Outbound, the band's latest and its first album for Sony/Columbia after more than 10 years on the Warner Brothers label.

"It's almost like an experimental record," Wooten says. "We brought a bunch of different spices to see if we could still make it taste good and it worked."

The strength of the Flecktone band shows in its ability to stay on a major label at a time when most progressive artists are being marginalized to smaller, boutique companies and Internet distribution.

That success has also allowed the members the freedom to advance their solo careers. The new record deal calls for two albums by Fleck for Sony's classical label. Coffin also continues to tour solo, playing straight-ahead jazz. Victor Wooten has just completed a recording project with his two other brothers, Regi and Joseph.

Future Man/Roy·el is currently developing a new piano-shaped instrument called the RoyEl, whose keyboard is reportedly styled after the periodic table of elements. Roy·el also created his one-of-a-kind guitar-shaped drum synthesizer, the drumitar. The drumitar sounds like traditional percussion, but is actually a complex touch-sensitive MIDI synthesizer. Roy·el can play riffs with 10 fingers that would be impossible for two sticks on a regular kit.

"He just has lots of ideas," Victor says of his drumming brother. "A lot of his ideas are advanced and most people just aren't ready for them yet. But now he's at a place in his life, musically and financially, where he can pursue some of these ideas on his own. He's also at a place where there are people who will listen. Twenty years ago when he was putting together the drumitar, people just had no concept of what he was trying to do, so he was on his own for a long time. He's just got a lot of inventive ideas and ways of thinking."

Victor will also be hosting a musician camp in August that will go beyond music to include philosophy and survival techniques.

"I take a lot of classes that deal with natural living, how to make a fire, how the Indians used to track animals, meditations they used," he explains. "Learning that, I realized how similar it is to music and how much of a help to me that knowledge is. The idea is to bring people closer to nature and use nature to find out more about ourselves and be better musicians."

Next month Fleck and the Flecktones head to Europe, returning in time for the summer festival circuit.

"With the Flecktones, we have four totally unique instruments," says Wooten. "It's not like we have a banjo and a guitar that can get into the same space. With the bass down low and the banjo, and then the sax and drums, plus four very experienced musicians, it's not a problem that we ever get in each other's way."

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones perform Thursday, April 5 at 8 p.m. in the TCC Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets cost $15, $18, $22 and $25. Tickets are available at the TCC, Ticketmaster outlets, Robinsons-May and Hear's Music. Tickets by phone can be ordered through Ticketmaster, 321-1000. For information, call In Concert! at 327-4809.
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