Béla Fleck - Going back to the banjo's roots


American musicians are well used to putting in the miles as they tour coast-to-coast. And as one of the most exciting, talented and busiest American musicians in any genre, Béla Fleck is as used to travelling as anyone. Even so, the banjo phenomenon’s schedule over the next few days might leave him wondering what time zone he’s in.


Tonight [Saturday, January 17] he launches his African project at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and on Wednesday, he’s due onstage with the Sparrow Quartet at the ABC, just a few hundred yards along Sauchiehall Street. In between, however, he has the small matter of a concert on the White House lawn with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, as part of Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration on Tuesday.


The unusual twist on the meaning of coast-to-coast touring aside, these three gigs provide a typical snapshot of a musician who gets around as much musically as he does geographically. In recent times his banjo has turned up on recordings with jazz piano giants McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea. The Sparrow Quartet finds him playing Chinese and European classical music and 1960s pop in a group that features two banjos, cello and fiddle, and he’s as likely to be found playing with rock musicians such as Dave Matthews, Bonnie Raitt or Adrian Belew as he is creating sparks on the bluegrass scene that initially piqued his interest in the banjo.


With the forenames Béla Anton Léos (after the composers Bartok, Webern and Janacek respectively), Fleck might have been expected to become a classical musician. That may even have been what his father wished for through nominative determination but soon after Béla was born his parents split up and he and his older brother, Sascha, didn’t meet their father until recently.


As Beatlemania gripped America, Fleck took up the guitar, although with typical self-deprecation he’ll tell you that the world didn’t get to hear him impersonating the Fab Four for a good reason. His road to Damascus experience happened on the family couch in front of the TV as he watched the Clampetts bumble through their new life as Californian sophisticates in the Beverley Hillbillies to a soundtrack by bluegrass legends Flatt & Scruggs.


“I can’t really explain what it was about the banjo that made me want to play it,” says Fleck. “But most players will tell you that they had a moment when they heard someone and they said, Wow, what is that? I had that moment when I heard Earl Scruggs playing the Beverley Hillbillies theme. It was a silly programme but the banjo picking was heavy and I just felt that that was what I wanted to do. It wasn’t like I transferred my knowledge of the guitar onto the banjo because I had no knowledge of the guitar to speak of at that point – it was only later that I picked it up again. When I got my first banjo I couldn’t put it down and that’s still pretty much the way I feel about it. It’s a passion.”


That first banjo’s arrival coincided with the beginning of Fleck’s first term at New York’s High School of Music and Art. Banjo wasn’t on the curriculum, so he studied French horn and choral music officially and sought out banjo lessons elsewhere while sneaking in every possible minute of practice in and out of school. Erik Darling of the Rooftop Singers, who had a big hit with Walk Right In in the early 1960s, was among the teachers who pointed Fleck towards the bluegrass scene in New York and later Boston. Meanwhile, though, the idea that the banjo could fit into any musical situation had already taken hold and when Fleck went to see jazz fusion supergroup Return to Forever in the mid 1970s, he was not only planting a seed that would later grow into his amazingly malleable band, the Flecktones, he was also watching future colleagues. As well as recording with Return to Forever’s leader, keyboardist Chick Corea, Fleck works in an occasional band with RTF bassist, Stanley Clarke.


“I never thought that I would one day be playing with those guys,” he says. “But I loved what they did and I wanted to play it on my banjo. It’s amazing when you find yourself playing with people that you’ve looked up to so much, and I’ve had that quite a lot. It was the same in bluegrass, getting to play with people who were heroes. I’ve been very fortunate in that respect. But at the same time, when I go into a recording session with someone like McCoy Tyner, who brings a lot of history to his music, I start with a blank sheet. People’s expectations of the banjo are very low – it’s not like the guitar, where you’d be expected to have the highest level of jazz knowledge. I’m more of a dabbler and I’m really just looking to make the instrument fit into the music, to do something that works.”


After leaving high school Fleck moved to Boston, where he made his recording debut with the group Tasty Licks. He continued his jazz explorations, spent a summer playing on the streets with bassist Mark Schatz, who latterly played with Nickel Creek, and recorded his first solo album, Crossing the Tracks, with contributions from dobro wiz Jerry Douglas, before moving on to the bluegrass heartlands of Kentucky and then to California. It was here, with the formation of progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival, allied to his continued solo output for Rounder Records, that his reputation really began to spread.


Still hankering after a band that would let him take bluegrass into the Return to Forever style, he got his wish when a friend called and suggested he listen to a bass guitarist, Victor Wooten, who had arrived in town and was looking for work. Wooten played some bass licks down the phone for Fleck, who then called a keyboards player he’d met, Howard Levy. All they needed was a drummer, a problem solved when Wooten introduced his brother, Roy, who was working on his drumitar – a synthesiser that allows the fingers to trigger drum sounds and is played like a guitar. The Flecktones were born.


With a touring schedule that has seen them play to an average of 500,000 people a year, the Flecktones are one of America’s most exciting musical attractions – they blew the Old Fruitmarket apart when they made their Celtic Connections debut two years ago. They work hard but even after twenty years together, with just the one personnel change (saxophonist Jeff Coffin replacing Howard Levy), they’re still having a lot of fun, which is one of several reasons Fleck gives for their durability.


“As the leader it’s my job to figure out how to keep everyone interested and we do that through having a good time onstage, letting new music into the repertoire constantly and having time off to do things by ourselves, so that we come back to the group feeling fresh.”


The two concerts that Fleck plays at Celtic Connections are good examples are what he does in his time away from the Flecktones. In 2007, he travelled to Africa, curious about the banjo’s roots there and looking, as he says, “for people like me in different countries.” In Mali he found the amazing Oumou Sangare, whose singing carries on hundreds of years of tradition. He also jammed with kora master Toumani Diabate and the virtuosic player of the banjo’s antecendent, the ngoni, Bassekou Kouyate. His travels were captured on film by his brother, Sascha, but although this was released as the documentary Throw Down Your Heart, the Glasgow concert will be the first time these musicians have joined him on a stage.


“My goal in Africa was always to make the banjo sound as if it belonged there,” he says. “It wasn’t a tour in the gigging sense because when I played with these musicians, it was usually in someone’s house or in a field or occasionally in a town square, where the only audience was the camera. So it’s very exciting to be bringing it to a concert stage, particularly since the Glasgow show is different from the one we’re taking round the States. Oumou Sangare can’t do the American dates, so you people are getting something special.”


The same might be said for the Sparrow Quartet which was put together by fellow banjo player Abigail Washburn, formerly of bluegrassers Uncle Earl (another group who have made a big impression over here), when she was invited to tour China. A lover of Chinese culture since her student days, Washburn visits China regularly and decided that, in Fleck, fiddler Casey Driessen and cellist Ben Sollee, she would have kindred spirits with open minds and an enthusiasm for embracing new music.


“I think she got that spot-on personality-wise but I’m not sure that she thought about the combination of instruments till we actually got to China and had to play,” says Fleck. “I mean, two banjos, fiddle and cello isn’t everyone’s idea of the dream line-up. But you know, we got there and we worked it out under fire, you might say, and these are the sorts of experiences that make the musician’s life interesting.”


From The Herald, January 15, 2009.


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