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Tucson Weekly Breaking the Banjo Barrier

Bluegrass, new grass, folk-rock Bach -- whatever you call it, Béla Fleck's the man pulling the strings.

By Dave Irwin

MAY 26, 1998:  SCENE: A DARK, smoky jazz club. The band is jamming a deep groove. Out of the shadows, a man with a banjo enters. The vision, a nightmare to some, is Béla Fleck's dream come true. Some people think there are places where banjos don't belong; but Fleck is working to break the banjo barrier.

Celebrating his 10th anniversary with The Flecktones, the Scottish vocalist/musician has radically revised perceptions of his chosen instrument. "I listened to Chick Corea when I was 15, Charlie Parker, Pat Martino," Fleck, now 40, says. "The more I listened, the more it started to make sense to me and I started to figure out a role for the banjo in that music. Which is a lot of work--it's hard, it's a different technique than playing as a bluegrass musician. You have to learn to improvise and create spontaneous music that makes sense and goes somewhere. It's a great game."

Fleck first made his mark with New Grass Revival after playing straight bluegrass for several years. From there, he and New Grass leader Sam Bush would form acoustic powerhouse Strength in Numbers, which also included Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor. That band played a televised PBS Lonesome Pine concert, which led to an invitation for Fleck to return for another session.

It was then that he put together a one-shot band, the Flecktones, for the show. The band consisted of a bass player he'd recently met, Victor Wooten, and Howard Levy, a keyboard player he met through Jethro Burns. For drums, he called Victor's brother Roy, who goes by the moniker "Future Man" and plays a one-of-a-kind touch-sensitive drum synthesizer shaped like a guitar, using the tips of his fingers.

"That was like the dream coming true," Fleck remembers. "After I'd seen Chick Corea play, I wanted to put the banjo into that kind of setting. Not just a traditional jazz setting or a traditional bluegrass setting, but a place where it would embrace all different kinds of music and all different kinds of musicianship, with the joy and complexity of all the elements. I didn't really have a plan for it to become a band. I just met these guys, I had an opportunity to do a television show...I put the band together for it, we rehearsed some, did the show and people went crazy for it! Suddenly it had become possible to play that kind of music and not only that, but people would like it. The success of that one night gave me the strength to push forward and believe in it." They signed with Warner Brothers, where their last album, the double-CD, Live Art, won a Grammy for live instrumental performance.

Their sixth album, Left of Cool, is due out in early June. Playing some 200 gigs a year, Fleck has demonstrated that what people think a banjo can do is usually a very limited vision. He plays everything from the Beverly Hillbillies theme to jazz to Bach. "I guess the real truth is I've been eclectic since even before I started my band," he admits. "It's really natural on a banjo to play chromatically, because the tuning is very close, so it's a lot easier to get some of the intervals than on other instruments. I think the banjo lends itself toward chromaticism, but also it just sounds good to me."

Fleck has deep respect for his fellow band members. "Victor's got a lot to say on his instrument, a lot of stuff that hasn't been said before," he affirms. "He has a very spiritual core about the way he plays and the way he thinks."

Talking about Future Man, Fleck notes, "He's such a musical guy that whatever he plays, something good happens. The mental thing is splitting all those separate strokes with his fingers to different drums, making it polyphonic. It's really remarkable, a combination of physical dexterity and mental gymnastics." When Levy left, they started a tradition of adding a fourth player.

"It's always been a kind of utility function for whatever poor schmuck got the gig," laughs Fleck. "Not only do you have to be able to play your butt off and solo like crazy, you have to make the music complete for the rest of us. So it's not an easy gig." The utility list has included Al diMeola, Sam Bush, Grover Washington, Branford Marsalis, Stanley Jordan, Corea, and Bruce Hornsby. Guesting in Tucson will be woodwind player Jeff Coffin, who also appears on the new album.

"Jeff's been playing a lot of great clarinet, great saxophone, adding whatever a song needs," Fleck reports. "Everybody gets to do their own thing and be their own person. There has to be a lot of freedom, but also, everybody holds up their end when we get out there on stage. It's a real art to work together."

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