The baddest banjo man on the planet, Bela Fleck, lights up Sunset.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Béla Fleck has recorded and appeared on more than 75 albums, consistently toured from Ithaca, N.Y. to Uganda for 30 years and utilizes every inch of his instrument. In a single performance, Fleck can make his banjo sound like Wes Montgomery jazz guitar, the deep country of Bill Monroe’s mandolin and a Mozart concerto.
Make that one of his banjos. When asked how many he owns, Fleck responds quickly, “I don’t really know, but I have a couple of rooms full of them.”
His 1930s Gibson, which he’s toured with since 1981, has a special meaning for him. “It’s very valuable but that’s not why I like it,” Fleck says from a laundromat in western Pennsylvania. “I like it because of what it sounds like and I’ve played my own sound into it over the years.”
Fleck’s a musician’s musician, having collaborated with some of the best of the best, from Chick Corea to David Grisman and Bobby McFerrin.
Fleck continues to expand his musical knowledge through these collaborations; each alliance is different and each has its own story. His newest partnership – performing Wednesday at the Sunset Center – includes longtime friend, accomplished bassist Edgar Meyer, and renowned Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain.
“[Collaborations] need to be organic for it to work the best and that was there for Zakir and Edgar,” Fleck says. “It’s all about respect.”
The trio was born after Fleck and Meyer came together to compose and perform an original orchestral piece for the opening of the new Nashville Symphony Center. They needed a third musician and Hussain was on the top of their lists: they admired his musicianship and had never played with him.
“I have so much to learn from [Hussain],” Fleck says.
The trio’s triumphant Nashville performance led to a recording and subsequently a national tour continuing through August.
Fleck says the trio plays similar set-lists every night, with heavy doses of improvisation to keep each performance fresh.
“There’s a ton of improv, but there’s also a lot of composition,” he says. “There are certain things that happen when you’re improvising that can never be written and there are certain things that come up when you’re composing that can never be improvised; to show as many concepts and emotions as possible, you need to do both.”
Meyer and Hussain are definitely on the same wavelength as Fleck. Though Meyer is from the Western classical composing world he’s a great improviser. Hussain’s Indian classical roots, meanwhile, are founded on improvisation.
“I come from the bluegrass-jazz world, so it all works very well together,” Fleck says.
In a video of a recent performance at Carnegie Hall, the trio playfully trades off solos with visible admiration for one another.
One of Fleck’s most striking characteristics remains his unequivocal passion for music and work: After the tour, he will reunite with the Flecktones to record a new album, and is working on solo banjo music he says is “hard to describe but I’m really trying to use the banjo in some different ways.” He also plans to write a concerto in the near future.
“Life is good,” Fleck says. “Lots of variety, lots of great audiences and lots of great musicians to play with.”