Béla Fleck & The Flecktones
April 5, 2012
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 Madagas car, 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.
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.
Some claim that Béla has virtually reinvented the image and the sound of the banjo through a remarkable performing and recording career that has taken him all over the musical map and on a range of solo projects and collaborations. Béla began his musical career playing the guitar. In the early 1960’s, while watching The Beverly Hillbillies, the bluegrass sounds of Flatt & Scruggs flowed out of the TV set and into his young brain. Earl Scruggs’s banjo style hooked Béla’s interest immediately. “It was like sparks going off in my head” he later said. It wasn’t until his grandfather bought him a banjo in September of ‘73, that it became his full time passion. That week, Béla entered New York City’s, High School of Music and Art. He began studies on the French horn but was soon demoted to the chorus, due his lack of musical aptitude. Since the banjo wasn’t an offered elective at Music & Art, Béla sought lessons through outside sources. Living in NYC, Béla was exposed to a wide variety of musical experiences. One of the most impressive was a concert by Return to Forever featuring Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. This concert encouraged further experimenting with bebop and jazz on the banjo, signs of things to come.
Several months after high school, Béla moved to Boston to play with Jack Tottle’s Tasty Licks. While in Boston, Béla continued his jazz explorations, made two albums with Tasty Licks, and at 19 years old made his first solo banjo album Crossing the Tracks, on Rounder Records. This is where he first played with future musical partners Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas.
Béla spent a summer on the streets of Boston playing with bass player Mark Schatz, then Mark and Béla moved to Lexington, Kentucky, to form Spectrum, which included Jimmy Gaudreau, Glen Lawson, and Jimmy Mattingly. Spectrum toured until 1981.
In 1981, Béla was invited to join the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival, lead by Sam Bush on mandolin, fiddle and vocals. New Grass Revival took bluegrass music to new limits, exciting audiences and critics alike. Through the course of five albums, they charted new territory with their blend of bluegrass, rock and country music.
During the 9 years Béla spent with NGR he continued to record a series of solo albums for Rounder, including the ground breaking 1988 album Drive. He also collaborated with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor in an acoustic super group called Strength in Numbers.
Toward the end of the New Grass years, Béla and Howard Levy crossed paths at the Winipeg Folk Festival. Next came a phone call from a friend who wanted to introduce him to an amazing bass player. Victor Lemonte Wooten played some licks on the phone for Béla and the second connection was made. In 1988 Dick Van Kleek, artistic director for the PBS Lonesome Pine Series based in Louisville, Kentucky, offered Béla a solo show. Béla put several musical sounds together with his banjo, a string quartet, his Macintosh computer and also the more jazz based combo. Howard and Victor signed on for the concert, but the group still lacked a drummer. The search was on for an unusual drummer/percussionist. Victor offered up his brother Roy Wooten, later to become known as FutureMan. The four continued on with an acoustic rehearsal and the last slot on the TV show became the first performance of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.
Next came the self-titled CD, which Béla financed himself. The recording attracted the attention of the folks at Warner Brothers Records. It was released in 1990, dubbed a”blu-bop” mix of jazz and bluegrass, and soon became a commercially successful disc. The album was Grammy nominated, and their second recording, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, followed suit. After several years as a trio and touring with special guests, saxophonist Jeff Coffin joined the Tones. The Flecktones have reached more than 500,000 audience members yearly since 2001.
Still releasing albums and touring, the Tones have shared the stage with Dave Mathews Band, Sting, Bonnie Raitt and the Grateful Dead, among many others, made several appearances on The Tonight Show in the Johnny Carson days and the Jay Leno days, as well as Arsenio Hall, and Conan O’Brian. Béla also appeared on Saturday Night Live and David Letterman’s show as well.
Collaborating with Fleck on Perpetual Motion was his long time friend and colleague Edgar Meyer, a bassist whose virtuosity defies labels and also an acclaimed composer. In the wake of that album’s release, Fleck & Meyer came up with the idea of a banjo/bass duo, which they developed and refined during a concert tour of the US. Live recordings from that tour are the basis for their latest Sony Classical recording Music For Two which also includes a bonus DVD featuring a documentary film by Sascha Paladino (Fleck’s brother) that captures the duo’s collaboration and crafting of repertoire while on tour. Béla and Edgar also co-wrote and performed a double concerto for banjo, bass and the Nashville Symphony, which debuted in November 2003.
This performance was co-sponsored with Mountain Groove Productions.