by Sandra Brennan
Premier banjo player Béla Fleck is considered one of the most innovative pickers in the world and has done much to demonstrate the versatility of his instrument, which he uses to play everything from traditional bluegrass to progressive jazz. He was named after composer Béla Bartok and was born in New York City. Around age 15, Fleck became fascinated with the banjo after hearing Flatt & Scruggs’ “Ballad of Jed Clampett” and Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell’s “Dueling Banjos,” and his grandfather soon gave him one. While attending the High School of Music and Art in New York, Fleck worked on adapting bebop music for the banjo.
Fleck always had diverse musical interests, and his own style was influenced by Tony Trischka, Earl Scruggs, Chick Corea, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, the Allman Brothers, Aretha Franklin, the Byrds, and Little Feat. After graduation, he joined the Tasty Licks, a group from Boston. They recorded two albums and dissolved in 1979. Afterwards, Fleck joined the Kentucky band Spectrum. That year, only five years after he took up the instrument, he made his solo recording debut with Crossing the Tracks, which the Readers’ Poll in Frets magazine named Best Overall Album. In 1982, he joined New Grass Revival and stayed with them until the end of the decade. During this time, his reputation continued to grow and in 1990, Frets magazine added his name to their Hall of Greats. In 1988, one of his compositions, “Drive” (from the album New Grass Revival), was nominated for a Grammy.
Fleck, mandolin player Sam Bush, fiddler Mark O’Connor, bassist Edgar Meyer, and Dobro player Jerry Douglas teamed up in 1989 to form Strength in Numbers and record The Telluride Sessions. Late that year, Fleck was asked by PBS television to play on the upcoming Lonesome Pine Special; in response he gathered together a veritable “dream team” of musicians to form the Flecktones. The original members included Howard Levy, who played piano, harmonica, and ocarina, among other instruments; bass guitarist Victor Lemonte Wooten, and his brother Roy “Future Man” Wooten on the drumitar, an electronic drum shaped like a guitar. Though the special wasn’t aired until 1992, the Flecktones recorded their eponymous debut album in 1990 and followed it up with Flight of the Cosmic Hippo (1991).
In 1993, they released their third album, UFO Tofu, which featured music blending different genres ranging from bluegrass to R&B to worldbeat. In 1995, they released Tales from the Acoustic Planet; Left of Cool followed in 1998, and Tales from the Acoustic Planet 2: The Bluegrass Sessions was released a year later. Outbound followed in mid-2000. Busy and prolific, Fleck released an album of classical pieces, Perpetual Motion, in late 2001, followed by Live at the Quick in 2002, the ambitious double-disc Little Worlds (and its truncated single-disc version, Ten from Little Worlds) in 2003, and Music for Two (with bassist Edgar Meyer) in 2004. Hidden Land, another album with the Flecktones, appeared on Columbia Records in 2006. The band released its first holiday collection in 2008, appropriately titled Jingle All the Way. The Melody of Rhythm: Triple Concerto & Music for Trio appeared in 2009 from Koch Records, which teamed Fleck with cellist/bassist Edgar Meyer and the Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain along with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra directed by Leonard Slatkin.
Béla Fleck (born July 10, 1958 in New York City, New York) is an American banjo virtuoso. He is best known for his work with the band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, with bassist Victor Wooten, saxophonist Jeff Coffin, and percussionist Future Man.
Life and early career
Béla Anton Leoš Fleck, who is named after famous Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, Austrian composer Anton Webern, and Czech composer Leoš Janáček, was drawn to the banjo when he first heard Earl Scruggs play the theme song for the television show Beverly Hillbillies. He received his first banjo at age fifteen from his grandfather (1973). He was a member of the class of 1970 at P.S. 75 (the Emily Dickinson School) in Manhattan. Later, Fleck enrolled in New York City’s High School of Music and Art where he studied the French horn. He was a banjo student under Tony Trischka.
Almost immediately after high school, Fleck traveled to Boston to play with Jack Tottle, Pat Enright, and Mark Schatz in Tasty Licks. During this period, Fleck released his first solo album (1979): Crossing the Tracks and made his first foray into progressive bluegrass composition.
Fleck played on the streets of Boston with bassist Mark Schatz; and the two, along with guitarist/vocalist Glen Lawson and mandolin great Jimmy Gaudreau, formed Spectrum: the Band in 1981. Fleck toured with Spectrum during 1981. That same year, Sam Bush asked Fleck to join New Grass Revival. Fleck performed with New Grass Revival for nine years. During this time, Fleck recorded another solo album, Drive. It was nominated for a Grammy Award in the then first-time category of “Best Bluegrass Album” (1988).
Béla Fleck and Victor Wooten formed Béla Fleck and the Flecktones in 1988, along with keyboardist and harmonica player Howard Levy and Wooten’s percussionist brother Roy “Future Man” Wooten, who played synthesizer-based percussion. Levy left the group in 1992, making the band a trio until Saxophonist Jeff Coffin joined the group onstage part-time in 1997, eventually becoming a permanent member. His first studio recording with the band was their 1998 album Left of Cool. In 1996, he appeared on the tribute album to Hank Marvin, one of his influences, and The Shadows “Twang” playing a Shadows UK hit from the 1960s, “The Stranger”.
With the Flecktones, Fleck has been nominated for and won several Grammy awards. (Cf. Grammy sections below.)
Other music and recordings
Fleck has shared Grammy wins with Asleep at the Wheel, Alison Brown, and Edgar Meyer. He has been nominated in more categories than any other musician, namely country, pop, jazz, bluegrass, classical, folk, spoken word, composition, and arranging.
In 2001, Fleck collaborated with long-time friend and playing-partner Edgar Meyer to record Perpetual Motion, an album of classical material played on the banjo along with an assortment of accompanists, including John Williams, Evelyn Glennie, Joshua Bell and Gary Hoffman. The album includes selections such as Chopin’s Etude Op. 10 No. 4 in C# minor, Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, and Paganini’s Moto Perpetuo (from which is derived the name), as well as more lyrical pieces such as the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, two of Chopin’s mazurkas, and two Scarlatti keyboard sonatas. Perpetual Motion won two Grammys at the Grammy Awards of 2002 for Best Classical Crossover Album and Best Arrangement for Fleck and Meyer’s arrangement of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum. Fleck and Meyer have also composed a double concerto for banjo and bass, and performed its debut with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.
Fleck names Chick Corea, Charlie Parker, and the aforementioned Earl Scruggs as influences. He regards Scruggs as “certainly the best” banjo player of the three-finger style.
Solo and with the Flecktones, Fleck has appeared at Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Merlefest, Montreal International Jazz Festival, Toronto Jazz Festival, Newport Folk Festival, Austin City Limits Music Festival, Bonnaroo, and Jazzfest, among others.
He has also appeared as a sideman with artists ranging from Tony Rice to Ginger Baker and Phish.
In 2005, while the Flecktones were on hiatus, Fleck undertook several new projects: recording with African traditional musicians; cowriting a documentary film called Bring it Home about the Flecktones’ first year off in 17 years and their reunion after that time; coproducing Song of the Traveling Daughter, the debut album by Abigail Washburn (a young banjo player who mixes bluegrass and Chinese music); forming the acoustic fusion supergroup Trio! with fellows Jean-Luc Ponty and Stanley Clarke, and recording an album as a member of the Sparrow Quartet (along with Abigail Washburn, Ben Sollee, and Casey Driessen).
In late 2006, Fleck teamed up with Chick Corea to record an album, The Enchantment, released in May 2007. Fleck and Corea toured together throughout 2007.
In July 2007 at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, he appeared and jammed with Toumani Diabaté, a kora player from Mali. He is also scheduled to play the 2009 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival with Toumani Diabaté.
In December 2007, he performed charity concerts in Germany to help promote AIDS awareness. His largest concert was held in Grosse Halle Bern on December 1, 2007.
On June 13, 2008, he performed as part of The Bluegrass Allstars, composed of bluegrass heavyweights Sam Bush, Luke Bulla, Edgar Meyer, Bryan Sutton, and Jerry Douglas at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee.
The next day Fleck performed with Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet also at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.
Béla Fleck is often considered the premier banjo player in the world. A New York City native, he picked up the banjo at age 15 after being awed by the bluegrass music of Flatt & Scruggs. While still in high school he began experimenting with playing bebop jazz on his banjo, mentored by fellow banjo renegade Tony Trischka. In 1980, he released his first solo album, Crossing the Tracks, with material that ranged from straight ahead bluegrass to Chick Corea’s “Spain.” In 1982, Fleck joined the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival, making a name for himself on countless solo and ensemble projects ever since as a virtuoso instrumentalist. In 1989 he formed the genre-busting Flecktones, with members equally talented and adventurous as himself.
Throw Down Your Heart, the third volume in Béla’s renowned Tales From the Acoustic Planet series, is his most ambitious project to date. In on-location collaborations with musicians from Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Mali, South Africa and Madagascar, Béla Fleck explores the African origins of the banjo, the prototype of which was brought to American shores by African slaves. Throw Down Your Heart is a companion to the award-winning film of the same name, which Béla and director Sascha Paladino are currently premiering at festivals nationwide. Transcending barriers of language and culture, Fleck finds common ground with musicians ranging from local villagers to international superstars such as the Malian diva Oumou Sangare to create some of the most meaningful music of his career.
The music on the album is as adventurous and varied as anything we’ve come to expect from Béla, ranging from the tradition-based opening track, performed with a group of Kenyan women singers, to the exquisite title track, performed with the Haruna Samake Trio and Bassekou Kouate from Mali. Basseko, who comes from a long line of Griot musicians, is an incredible improvising player who plays the n’goni, the Malian banjo. The music he and Béla make together is gentle and melodic. Equally modern is his duet with South African guitarist Vusi Mahlasela, who is simply known as ‘the voice’ (and what an awesome and expressive voice he has). His music connects South Africa’s Apartheid-scarred past with its promise for a better future.
Nothing can quite prepare the listener for the sound of the giant marimba played by the Muwewesu Xylophone Group in Uganda. Says Béla, “The marimba is reassembled every day, and it seems to be played by a set group of men. Each one plays a certain musical part in the group. I think there are other people who know each of the parts in case someone is unable, or unavailable to play. Also there seemed to be kids who were being taught parts. But a spot in the primary team seemed to be a very coveted spot, and the men who played in this group were very serious and very good. The village did join in – in large numbers, singing and playing flutes and fiddles and percussion instruments. They also danced.” It’s a sound of pure joy.
Another highlight is “Djorolen,” a duet with singer Oumou Sangare, who delivers a vocal that expresses heartbreaking beauty and sadness. “As she points out in this song,” says Béla, “it is often the orphans, those who have lost their parents when they are young, who have the greatest problems in life.”
“D’Gary Jam” is a fascinating amalgam that exemplifies the spirit of the album. Béla explains, “This track started its life in Nashville. We had a great jam one day, which went for 22 minutes straight, the whole take was really cool.
This was in July, about 7 months before we went to Africa. I decided to bring the track along, and add people to it as we went, and even after the trip, a kind of science project, if you will. After things got added, I took some liberties with people’s parts and did a little audio sculpting.” Along with the great acoustic guitarist D’Gary, the track features, among others, Oumou Sangare, the legendary kora player Toumani Diabate, and Bassekou Kouyate.
As to the origins of the banjo, Béla comments, “When I went to Africa I found instruments and players that gave me a better sense of where the thing started. In Gambia and Mali in particular, I found what I was looking for!” This is especially apparent on the traditional song medley “Ajula/Mbamba,” performed by Béla and The Jatta Family from the Gambia. “The akonting could very well be the original banjo. Everyone around Banjul certainly seems to think so! Huge numbers of slaves came west from this area. We were told that the musicians were allowed to play these instruments on the slave ships, and that many lives were saved due to it.”
While many of these recordings were made in the field, in Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia and Mali, the album is beautifully recorded. The lasting impression is that Béla Fleck has revealed many subtle facets of African music, from the fully modern to the deeply traditional. It is some of the most exciting and beautiful music he’s ever made. “[Fleck’s] reverence for his fellow players allows for the honey of the African sounds to seem that much sweeter. And the music, well…You’ll just have to hear it for yourself…” -Popmatters.com
“The banjo sheds its image as the quintessential American instrument to reveal a symbol of deep African heritage and the collective wail of the European slave trade (the film’s title derives from this heartbreaking historical chapter).” – Austin American Statesman
Bela stays faithful to his NewGrass style on `Texas Barbeque’, `Twilight`, `Reading in the Dark’, `Applebutter’, `Dawg’s Due’ (a David Grisman tune); `Crossfire’, and `Punchdrunk’.
There are jazz tunes: Spain’– a few bars into it you’ll recognize this Chic Corea favorite; and a honky-tonk version of Fats Waller’s `How Can You Face Me Now’ (with vocal).
This would not be a Bela Fleck disc few without a traditional bluegrass melody. This disc has several: `Bill Cheatham’ featuring Bill Keith and Bela in a banjo duet; a joyful, bouncy version of `Silverbell` and a NewGrass-y version of `Fiddler’s Dream’.
He also throws in a few Celtic songs—- ‘Growling Old Man and the Grumbling Old Woman’ and ‘Christina’s Jig/Plain Brown Jug’
For fans of his later `jazzgrass’ sound with the Flecktones, `Daybreak’, `Flexibility’, `Old Hickory Waltz’ and `The Natural Bridge Suite’ (reminiscent of Stephane Grappelli/Django Rheinhart) won’t disappoint.
1. Texas Barbeque – Fleck – 3:57
2. Spain – Corea, Rodrigo – 7:10
3. Twilight – Fleck – 2:01
4. Reading in the Dark – Fleck – 2:36
5. Growling Old Man and the Grumbling Old Woman – Traditional – 1:38
6. How Can You Face Me? – Razaf, Waller – 4:52
7. Bill Cheatham – Traditional – 3:13
8. Christina’s Jig/Plain Brown Jig – Fleck – 3:49
9. Silver Bell – Traditional – 2:54
10. Fiddler’s Dream – Traditional – 2:46
11. Daybreak – Fleck – 2:58
12. Dawg’s Due – Fleck – 2:57
13. Flexibility – Fleck – 4:10
14. Old Hickory Waltz – Fleck – 4:52
15. Crossfire – Fleck – 3:25
16. Applebutter – Fleck – 2:41
17. The Natural Bridge Suite – Fleck – 6:54
18. Punch Drunk – Fleck – 2:42
Béla Fleck – Crossing the Tracks
by Steve Leggett
Crossing the Tracks was Béla Fleck’s first solo album, released on LP by Rounder Records in 1979 (for some reason Rounder never got around to releasing it on CD until 2005), and it featured an inspired and forward-thinking string band consisting of Bob Applebaum on mandolin, Russ Barenberg on acoustic guitar, Sam Bush on fiddle, Mark Schatz on acoustic bass, and Fleck, then a 20-year-old banjo player with brilliant chops and a bebop heart. Fleck gets the bluegrass monkey off his back with the opening track, a solid version of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ “Dear Old Dixie,” and then is free to roam through a gentle and sparkling set of traditional tunes (“Growling Old Man and Grumbling Old Woman”), boogie rags (Fats Waller’s “How Can You Face Me Now”), airy and elegant originals (“Inman Square” and the wonderful, endlessly shifting “Twilight”), and genre-jumping jazz covers (Chick Corea’s “Spain”), all done with a bright, joyful élan, before ending things with a beautiful old-timey version of the traditional “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” which features vocals from Fleck’s old Tasty Licks bandmate Pat Enright. In time this sort of thing would come to be known as “jazzgrass” or “newgrass,” but there really wasn’t a name for it in 1979, which certainly didn’t stop Fleck from going there. Crossing the Tracks is full of subtle innovation, and if it doesn’t seem as immediately startling as his later fusion flights, listen again. All the seeds are there.
1. Dear Old Dixie – Flatt, Scruggs – 2:39
2. Inman Square – Fleck – 4:00
3. Texas Barbeque – Fleck – 3:59
4. Growling Old Man and the Grumbling Old Woman – Fleck, Traditional – 1:41
5. Spain – Corea, Rodrigo – 7:12
6. Crossing the Tracks – Fleck – 3:38
7. Spring Thaw – Fleck – 2:27
8. How Can You Face Me Now – Razaf, Waller – 4:54
9. Twilight. 2:01
10. Frosty Morning. 2:58
11. Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow. 2:26
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