Béla Fleck & The Flecktones
February 5, 2010
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.
Some say Béla is the premiere banjo player in the world. Others claim that he 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. If you are familiar with Béla, you know that he just loves to play the banjo and put it into unique settings.
Although the first Flecktones albums were created live-in-the-studio, the group went on to experiment with overdubs and guest artists on later albums, with contributions from artists as diverse as Chick Corea, Bruce Hornsby, Branford Marsalis, John Medeski, Andy Statman, the Alash Group and Dave Matthews. The Flecktones went on tour with Dave Matthews Band in 1996 and 1997, and Fleck is featured on several tracks on DMB’s 1998 album Before these Crowded Streets. In 2003 Béla Fleck & the Flecktones released the landmark three-disc set Little Worlds simultaneously with a highlights disc entitled Ten From Little Worlds.
In 2006 the band released The Hidden Land, which won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2007. In 2008 Jingle All the Way, the band’s holiday album was released, and in 2009 it was voted best Pop Instrumental Album at the Grammies
Any world-class musician born with the names Béla (for Bartók), Anton (for Dvorák) and Léos (for Janacek) would seem destined to play classical music. Already a powerfully creative force in bluegrass, jazz, pop, rock and world beat, Béla at last made the classical connection with Perpetual Motion, his critically acclaimed 2001 Sony Classical recording that went on to win a pair of Grammys, including Best Classical Crossover Album, in the 44th annual Grammy Awards.
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.
The recipient of multiple Grammy Awards going back to 1998, Béla Fleck’s total Grammy count is 11 Grammys won and 27 nominations. He has been nominated in more different categories than anyone in Grammy history.
This performance was co-sponsored with Mountain Groove Productions.