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FLECK - Bela Fleck, Bluegrass Sessions, cover story (Bluegrass Unlimited, 11/1999)

Bluegrass Unlimited

November 1999

Cover Story


By David Royko


And so to end my closing argument in the case of The State of the Bluegrass Nation v. Bela Fleck, it should by now be obvious, at least to any and all music lovers who care to look and listen objectively and honestly, that Mr. Fleck, while he may be a master banjoist like none who have come before him, has willfully, even joyfully, broken every imaginable bluegrass law. These include employing--full time!--a drummer, or at least somebody who makes drummer-like sounds; recording, repeatedly and with absolutely no apparent sense of remorse, not only jazz, but rock, classical, and world music; performing on electric instruments, and with other musicians who use electric instruments, and I'm not just talking about the electric bass, which I, like many of us, can tolerate in moderation. And even if one were to argue in his defense that Mr. Fleck has, in the past decade, occasionally appeared on bluegrass recordings and at bluegrass performances, those moments are compromised irredeemably by the infuriating evidence that Mr. Fleck can play bluegrass expertly and with stunning technique and imagination, making his refusal to do so on a regular basis all the more galling. Bela Fleck, for shame!


The court calls upon counsel for the defense.


Thank you, your honor. I will require but ten words in my client's defense: Tales From The Acoustic Planet, Volume Two--The Bluegrass Sessions!


[after a protracted hush]

That's it?


Oh, and Earl is on it.


The court is hereby recessed until the end of this article.


Truth is, the music on Bela Fleck's recent CD, "Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2: The Bluegrass Sessions," veers from the traditional road often enough that it could depend on the wearer of the robe whether or not our defendant would walk--Judge Stanley might be more of a hanging judge in this case than Judge Osborne. And for all his hallowed name, even "exhibit B" could be seen by some to be slightly tainted by his Earl Scruggs Review experiments.

But considering what Fleck has been up to since the waning days of New Grass Revival and the birth of the Flecktones, "The Bluegrass Sessions" is a powerful affirmation of his love, and extraordinary talent, for bluegrass music.

(Incidently, Fleck's first, jazz-based, "Tales from the Acoustic Planet" album was released in 1994.)

 A New Yorker transplanted in early adulthood into the musical rib cage of Nashville, Fleck has been acknowledged universally, if sometimes grudgingly, as a player whose technical abilities alone raised the bar for all banjoists. His career moves--Tasty Licks to Spectrum to New Grass Revival to the Flecktones--appear as brilliantly calculated as one of his improvisational flights sounds spontaneous.

Still, it is hard to believe that any banjoist at the turn of the millennium could reach so many listeners so far from the instrument's usual bluegrass/acoustic string milieu. For that, thank the New Grass Revival booster rocket and the Flecktones space shuttle, but collaborations with people like Edgar Meyer, notably on Meyer's "Uncommon Ritual" CD [Sony Classics], stretches Fleck's net of exposure even wider than somebody like jazz/classical trumpet star Wynton Marsalis (who has a saxophonist brother, Branford, who has collaborated with Fleck). Stir in legions of followers, and band members for that matter, from the ranks of arena rockers such as Phish and the Dave Matthews Band, and multi-cultural world music excursions with, among others, Mohan Vishwa Bhatt [Tabula Rasa, on Waterlily Acoustics], and Fleck comes off as a universal soldier fighting for banjo world dominance.

Yet after all of this, in a move that looks almost aboriginal, Fleck is drawn back to the bluegrass world. Why?

"I felt that I really needed to do this kind of music right now," says Fleck. "I didn't realize ten, twelve years had gone by since 'Drive.'"

In that time, Fleck's "Drive" album [Rounder, 1988] has, in some circles, taken on that aura of "bluegrass classic" reserved for instrumental masterpieces like Bill Monroe's "Uncle Pen" and Flatt & Scruggs' "Foggy Mountain Banjo," the trump card slammed down in arguments over whether Fleck could be considered not only a great bluegrass picker, but a significant bluegrass composer.

"That surprised me when I realized that so many years had passed," says Fleck, 41. "And it's a very grim thing to say, but we've had some friends die in the music community, and you shouldn't wait too long to do things you know you should do."

Though such a sentiment is admirable, it is still sentiment, and not necessarily persuasive to marketing departments at big record companies, where radical shifts in direction are usually viewed as a recipe for career derailment, or at least a CD's quick consignment to the cut-out bin. Fleck's deal is with Warner Brothers, not some indi label that values artistic independence above all other concerns. What would Abbot and Costello's handlers have said if they'd developed an itch to do Macbeth? Fleck had made it big, Warner Brothers big, as a rocking jazz Flecktone, not as a bluegrasser.

"I was probably a little foolish in the way that I approached it," admits Fleck. "I felt the passing of time, and I just decided to make this record, regardless of whether Warners would be putting it out. The truth is, they could've said 'You can't do it. You're contracted to us.' But I had decided that even if they did that, I would record it, box it up, and hang onto it until after the deal was over.

"And some people at Warners were, like, 'This is not the right "next record" for you.'"

Though Fleck has sold plenty of CDs for Warners, the fact is that he still is a member of the fringe world of instrumental jazz. Many musicians in a similar position would be happy to sit back, appreciate the relative security, accept the record company's verdict, and let it go at that. But it is an easy bet that anyone who has chosen the banjo as their life's work must have a sizable stubborn streak, which Fleck's response confirms.

"'Look, if you don't want this record, fine. Let me do it somewhere else,'" said Fleck. "Then I talked to a few more people over there and found that there was some disagreement. There were people that really, really wanted this record, particularly in Nashville."

In fact, once the album was made, the president of the Nashville division of Warner Brothers was so smitten with it that he phoned Bela and some of the other players to rave about it. If that would be reason to gloat, Fleck's not showing it. He is just happy to be able to revisit, in a substantial way, a form of music he adores, and to which Fleck feels he has something to contribute, even if it is harder to etch that contribution into such well-traveled terrain.

"When I'm playing bluegrass, I'm challenged by all of the banjo playing that's happened in the past," says Fleck. "When I'm playing jazz, there is no template, so I don't have the challenge of transcending all of these other banjo players. But to be different in bluegrass, I really have to struggle to try and write tunes that don't sound like someone else's tunes--to not sound like Earl Scruggs, or not to sound like Tony Trischka, not to sound like Bill Keith, or Alan Munde, or Don Reno. To try and have a distinct personality as a banjo player, and that's not as easy as it sounds. In jazz, it is like starting from scratch, where anything that I do is automatically unique, even if it might not be as good--who knows?"

At the same time, perhaps paradoxically, the familiarity Fleck finds in bluegrass brings certain benefits.

"That challenge in bluegrass is also an incredible comfort, because when I'm playing bluegrass, I do know that world so well," says Fleck. "I know everyone that has played it, and I know how I want to approach it. In a way, it is very relaxing because instinct takes over. I have my particular approach to it. And it's very natural with those instruments and the way those guys play."

"Those guys" are mandolinist Sam Bush, dobroist Jerry Douglas, bassist Mark Schatz, guitarist Tony Rice, and fiddlers Stuart Duncan and Vassar Clements, musical partners that in some instances go back more than two decades with Fleck. They, except for Clements, also are the core ensemble that recorded "Drive."

"I play with those guys and automatically I shift to a different state," says Fleck. "The molecules start moving around differently in my brain and in my right hand. The timing of Tony, Sam, Jerry and everybody together, it forces me to play a certain way that I don't play in other situations. That's what I like about playing in certain situations, when it makes me play differently."

The ease of communication between these long-time acoustic string partners also enables Fleck to develop arrangements on the spot with relatively little rehearsal time, no small matter considering that each of the players has a busy professional life. The arrangements on "The Bluegrass Sessions" are logical yet frequently complex, exploiting each of the individuals' personalities, creating a sound that is distinctively Fleck's while allowing each player to lend their own unique musical signature. This gift is one Fleck shares with many great jazz band leaders, most obviously Duke Ellington, whose orchestra sounded like nobody else's even as individual stars, such as Johnny Hodges or Paul Gonsalves, would shine more brightly with Ellington than they did with other ensembles.

One particularly rich example from "The Bluegrass Sessions" of Fleck and company's arranging process is heard on "Valley of the Rogue."

"I remember playing it for the guys [the recording sessions took place in Fleck's home], and everyone thought, 'Wow, this is a neat tune, let's go record it.' And I said, 'I think we can do a little more with it.' And Tony Rice was saying, 'Aah, you're going to mess it up!' And Sam was saying, 'Too many brains!'

Fleck asked them to bear with him. What could they do? It was his house, and his refrigerator.

"We came up with this intro, and everybody started to like it. Then I said, 'You know, it would be really nice if it broke down at the end. It feels like it's leading to something but never gets there, so why don't we take the bridge and break the chords down, and I'll play over those chords, and that'll give me something to do,' because I like the challenge of playing through difficult chord changes.

"In a way I was able to arrange a lot of the songs so I got the hard part. In the Flecktones, a lot of times there's nobody to play the chords behind me. Consequently, I don't always get to solo over chord changes I like to play over. But here I have the guitar, mandolin, bass, dobro, fiddle, all to outline behind me--basically, a bluegrass orchestra. So I was able to have some neat chord motion going and try and solo over it, and that gave me a fun challenge.

"And then bursting out of those kinds of moments back into the original groove is a dramatic thing to do. There is a tension and a whirl. I was pleased with what happened on that tune. And I think Tony ended up liking it at the end, although I think he thought it would've been fine without all that. And maybe it would have," Fleck says with a chuckle.

The buzz about "The Bluegrass Sessions" prior to the CD's release was that Fleck was doing a "Drive II." While in many ways the new disc is a follow-up to "Drive," there is nothing on the former that sounds quite like "Valley of the Rogue." The reason is obvious--"Drive" was recorded a dozen years ago, when Fleck was 29.

"I might not have had the confidence to be as demanding ten years ago when we did 'Drive,'" Fleck admits. "I was very happy with 'Drive,' and it went very well, but the new record is a lot more ambitious in what I asked everybody to do. I was really thrilled, not just with everybody's speed at assimilating this stuff, but their willingness to try these ideas, and just go with it, and allow me to use them, allow themselves to be shaped by me like this.

"And there's a lot here," says Fleck. "Different kinds of approaches from song to song. It was almost like trying to get it all in, because these opportunities are so rare. And since it has been ten years since I've recorded bluegrass or tried to write and perform bluegrass oriented music, I've had time to develop a lot of ideas in terms of banjo tunes I wanted to write. The things that have become precious to me about the music maybe are different than what was precious to me ten years ago."

When pressed for specifics, Fleck does not hesitate.

"I think a lot of it is less technical," says Fleck. "Some of the stuff is hard to do, but a lot of it is not. I also brought in ideas from different types of music in terms of the arrangements."

As goes the old saw, absence makes the heart grow fonder?

"Leaving bluegrass for ten years made me come back with a little fresher approach to it," says Fleck. "Like not feeling hackneyed when I'm playing the older sounding things because I haven't been playing that for the last ten years. It's kind of exciting to play a more traditional roll because I've had a nice vacation from it, and suddenly it's new again."

Can it be? Can this maverick of the banjo, this picker who twists through 11/8 time signatures like a hot corkscrew through ice cream, this player who creates musical palindromes that even sound musical, can he really be espousing the joys of playing a traditional bluegrass banjo roll?

Actually, Fleck sounds pretty happy doing just that in his "Home Sweet Home" duet with Earl Scruggs on "The Bluegrass Sessions." Listen closely, and you can even hear Scruggs ask Fleck if he has "an E roll in there?" After Fleck answers, "Yeah," the two men enter into a musical embrace that is at once tender and, if this is possible, cooperatively competitive. Simply pondering the miracle of musical history inherent in a Fleck and Scruggs duet is thrilling, and begs the question, what can Fleck bring to a form of music that boasts a healthy contingent of fans that can at times seem obsessed with preserving tradition?

"That is a good question," agrees Fleck, who begins his answer with a plug for this very monthly. "I love the title of the magazine, Bluegrass Unlimited. What makes a festival really work, or a record really work, or a scene really work, is diversity. One of the great things about jazz over the years is there has been Duke [Ellington], but there has also been Count Basie. There's been Coltrane, but there's also been Wayne Shorter, or Yusef Lateef, or Sonny Rollins. There have been all these different approaches to jazz.

"I was reading an article recently that made the point that Wynton [Marsalis] is fine," says Fleck, referring to his generation's most powerful and influential jazz musician. "His way of doing things is as valid as any of these other guys, but for his to be the only way is where the problem comes up. And it is the same thing in bluegrass. You really need the strength of a lot of different people's conceptions. That's when the music is strong and vital, when there are at least five or six very strong viewpoints about how it should be played, and that are different from one another.

"That would be the debate as to the state bluegrass is in right now, and the state jazz is in right now. There are a lot of people playing all these different types of music. The leaders are sometimes hard to identify. It is really good for there to be people that maintain the tradition, and fight for that. They serve a great purpose.

"And there should be people out on the fringes pushing the edges of that. They also serve a great purpose. And everyone in between serves a great purpose. So if you see it as one big continuum, instead of 'these guys and those guys,' you can figure out better how to play your part.

"I think what I have realized is that my part of this whole thing is not to play the tradition, because it doesn't feel right to me. If it felt right to me to play like Earl Scruggs, that is what I would play like. But what feels right to me is to search a lot outside of bluegrass music and integrate as much as I can into the mainstream, and then bring those ideas back into bluegrass at various times. Then I feel like I'm serving the music in a positive way, both as an ambassador for bluegrass to the outside world, and as an ambassador from the outside world into bluegrass.

"For example, maybe a bunch of bluegrass people came out and saw me play with a tabla player. Maybe they never would have gone to an Indian concert otherwise, and maybe now they will. Or maybe they love Tony Rice and Sam Bush, but they've never heard [jazz pianist] Chick Corea, but they saw me play out with Chick somewhere. Or maybe someone heard me when they went to hear Dave Matthews, and now maybe they'll come out to hear a bluegrass band play down their street.

"So that might be more my function, being some sort of a bridge. When you think about the New Grass Revival audience, they weren't exactly a closed minded audience. They liked bluegrass, but they liked all kinds of it. So a lot of those people have hung with me as I've gone into different things, and I appreciate that. And I also understand when they don't, which is okay."

Ultimately, what makes Fleck remarkable is not just how well he plays any one kind of music, but how well he plays so many different kinds, and in such varied contexts. Clearly, Fleck would choose to plead "no contest" to any charges of chameleonic musical shifts, but it would be those who would wish to spar with him on whatever turf they choose who should be concerned that it truly might turn out to be no contest, with Fleck smiling when the dust settles.

Thus, let us hope that our hypothetical judge would possess the wisdom to avoid issuing a verdict that might include a sentence suggesting confinement, or exile, or even a slap on either of those MVP wrists, endangering Fleck's rare ability to explore, and return, and surprise us with what those fingers may do next.


David Royko is a clinical psychologist, mediator, drummer, and freelance writer living in Chicago. His book, Voices of Children of Divorce, was published in March, 1999, by Golden Books/St. Martin's Press. He writes about bluegrass and other music for the Chicago Tribune, has been a regular contributor to Bluegrass Unlimited since 1993, and owns but denies any ability to play a 5-string banjo. He also recommends the internet site, to those interested in more information, such as a detailed discography and further reading, on Bela Fleck.

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