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FLECK - Fleck May Jazz Up Audiences for Bluegrass (Bela Fleck, Chgo Trib, 7-5-99)

Bela Fleck



Page 4, Sunday, July 4, 1999


By David Royko

How does a vagabond go home?

Because Bela Fleck plays the five-string banjo, bluegrass purists will

swear that his only true home can be with them in their little cabin

homes on the hill. And if they think that Fleck's stunning new

bluegrass-based CD bolsters their argument, Fleck doesn't necessarily


"It probably feels like I'm coming home," he says.

But for Fleck, whose energies in the last decade have been dedicated

to the jazz/fusion Flecktones, a group whose music is as much like

bluegrass as a Mack truck is like a bicycle, his musical home seems to

be wherever he happens to be arriving at the moment.

"The funny thing is, after playing bluegrass, when I got back to the

Flecktones, that felt like coming home too," says Fleck, 40. "I feel

very at home with (classical bassist) Edgar Meyer, or with Dave

Matthews, or Bruce Hornsby, or with Chick Corea. So I just might be a


"But there is something about playing with the bluegrass guys. Those

are the guys I've known and played with the longest."

In some cases, that means for 20 years. Fleck's solo career began with

his 1979 album "Crossing the Tracks," which featured a version of

Corea's "Spain" with Jerry Douglas on dobro. For most of the 1980s,

Fleck was a member of the now-legendary New Grass Revival, led by

mandolinist/fiddler Sam Bush. That group was known for breaking, in

the most beautiful and exciting ways, every bluegrass rule while still

being able to deliver a ripping version of Bill Monroe's "Roanoke"

when the mood struck.

The name of Fleck's new album, "Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Volume

2: The Bluegrass Sessions" (Warner Brothers), refers to his eclectic,

non-bluegrass CD from 1994, "Tales from the Acoustic Planet." But in

spirit, the new album could be seen more as a follow-up to his 1988

classic "Drive," a collection of Fleck compositions in bluegrass


"The Bluegrass Sessions" features the same all-star sextet of

progressive bluegrass pickers that appeared on "Drive": mandolinist

Bush, guitarist Tony Rice, dobroist Douglas, fiddler Stuart Duncan,

bassist Mark Schatz and Fleck. The program, with a few exceptions, is

made up of Fleck originals, and the result is an instrumental album

that stands as one of the finest ever examples of instrumental

bluegrass-based music.

The compositions are harmonically rich and complex, yet tuneful and

emotionally direct, and the arrangements build organically on the

thematic material, from the dense and swirling introduction of "Valley

of the Rogue" and the haunting Monroe-style "Dark Circles" to the

exoticism of "Katmandu." When soloing is called for -- whether slow

and thoughtful, jaunty, or furiously fast -- there are no better

musicians alive, in any idiom, than those gracing Fleck's disc.

With this major-label album, Fleck has the power to bring listeners to

a form of music they otherwise might never try. Whereas Ricky Skaggs

pulled mainstream country fans to his new bluegrass reincarnation and

the late Jerry Garcia brought Deadhead rockers to bluegrass via his

band Old & In The Way, the pop/jazz/fusion/jam-band crowd that follows

the Flecktones represents another potential audience.

But neither Skaggs nor Garcia, nor even bluegrass poster girl Alison

Krauss, has released bluegrass on a label like Warner Brothers. Not

since Columbia Records' work with Flatt and Scruggs in the '60s, or

Mercury Records' "Dueling Banjos" hit from the early '70s, has

bluegrass received big-label treatment. The International Bluegrass

Music Association cites recent statistics gathered by the National

Endowment for the Arts that indicate interest in bluegrass is surging,

so Fleck's -- and Warner's -- timing might be perfect.

"The label went from being a little bit iffy about my doing a

bluegrass record to being completely supportive," says Fleck. "In

fact, the president of the Nashville division called me up and

congratulated me on the record. He even called some of the other

musicians because he loves it so much."

Since the 1960s, bluegrass has chafed under negative stereotypical

associations from the likes of TV's "The Beverly Hillbillies" and the

movie "Deliverance." With Fleck as a mass-market ambassador, the music

might begin to gain the wider respect granted jazz and blues that,

together with bluegrass, represent the three forms of great original

American music.

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