On the way to Carmel, Béla Fleck talks about reconvening the original Flecktones and their lasting appeal.
Thursday, March 1, 2012
About 20 years ago, something magical happened. An innovative banjoist, Béla Fleck, hooked up with bassist Victor Wooten (who’s been named Bass Player of the Year in Bass Player magazine more than anyone). Wooten’s brother Roy “Future Man” Wooten, who pioneered the “drumitar,” a modified SynthAxe engineered to play percussion samples, and pianist/harmonica player Howard Levy also met with them. The culmination: the Flecktones and their thick stew of world music, jazz, bluegrass, futuristic sounds and classical training that has seduced everyone from Phish fans to diehard scholars of traditional African music.
On Live Art, the Flecktones’ two-disc live masterpiece, tunes like “Far East Medley” bring together the music of the Middle East and improvisational jazz to create seven-plus minutes of trademark magic – and a second part of the tune that’s bluegrass-fueled. It’s unexpected platinum goodness that’s catchier than Hanson’s “MMMBop.”
Not long after the beginning of the Flecktones and the release of Live Art, Levy decided to pursue a solo career. But the Flecktones never died. They enlisted multi-saxman Jeff Coffin and continued touring and churning out killer albums. In 2010, they returned to the place where it all began with their recent release, Rocket Science. Levy jumped back on board and the quartet – playing the Sunset Center on Tuesday – is back to its original form. That reunion was just one of the themes the Weekly explored with frontman Fleck.
When we last spoke, you said, “Life is good… [because] of all the variety.” How do you remain so versatile?
My secret is: I just play like myself in every situation. By surrounding myself with inspiring musicians and changing the situations regularly, I am constantly inspired and have something to rise towards.
How would you describe the overall sound of Rocket Science?
Rocket Science picks up where UFO-Tofu left off in 1992. That’s kind of interesting, since the band has been together the whole time, in between those two albums, but with one different player. In a four-man team, one person can make quite a difference. I am happy about all the music we have done, with and without Howard Levy, who returned after 17 years for this album and tour. I have to say, the band was designed with him, Victor and Future Man in mind, and so this is satisfying in a different way.
After playing with the guys for so long, how do you ensure that every show you play ventures into uncharted territories?
The set list has a mix of songs from the first three albums and the new album, so we try to mix it up. To keep from getting in a rut, we alter the list regularly. Sometimes it’s because we played a song so well recently that we need to give it a break, so we don’t try to play it the way we just did.
You guys always have side projects going on. How do you encourage each other outside of The Flecktones?
It’s a league of extraordinary gentlemen, and we are proud of our association with each other. We play what we are working on outside the group with each other, and what better people to give feedback on creative musicians than our partners.
What kind of role does the audience’s vibe have on a Flecktones’ concert?
I am always aware that the music is for people, and has to work on a variety of levels. There is the self-satisfaction part of things, but for all of us, we want to know that we connected with the people that honored us by showing up and buying a ticket. Now exactly how that happens is mysterious, but there is a transfer of energy that is palpable and actually addictive. If that doesn’t happen, I don’t consider it a great night, no matter how well we might have played technically.
To this day, Live Art is one of my favorite all-time albums to listen to straight through. How was that collection compiled?
I went through piles of shows, looking for the gems. I think there were 40 shows, maybe more. If there was a magical performance that happened with a friend sitting in (Branford Marsalis, Sam Bush, Chick Corea and Bruce Hornsby), all the better. Ironically, Warner Brothers did not want to count that album as part of our deal, because “live albums don’t sell.” It became our biggest seller. That’s hard not to like.
How are you able to have your hand in so many projects all at once? How do you make time for your family?
I have a wonderful partner, my wife Abigail [Washburn], who is also a touring musician. We have an unconventional situation, where we are both touring, and there are times when we don’t see each other for a while. But we make our time together special, and support each other.
How do you feel about being lumped into the “jam-band” category?
I don’t mind being part of the category, if that is one of many categories that I am in. It is only when that is the only one that I feel pigeonholed. We are part of the jazz world, the world music community, the bluegrass and extended bluegrass acoustic scene, the classical world at times, etc. It’s all music, and it’s great to be included.
BÉLA FLECK & THE FLECKTONES play 8pm Tuesday, March 6 at Sunset Center, San Carlos Street at Ninth Ave., Carmel. $39; $49; $59. 620-2048.