Some people hear the sound of a banjo and they never want to hear about any other instrument again. They’re enchanted.
That’s what happened to Béla Fleck, and to thousands of others who heard Earl Scruggs of Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys in the 1940s, the band after which the genre took the name, and became banjo players as a consequence.
Despite being enamored by the uncanny, nervous rhythm of this new American music, Fleck at first felt like an outsider to bluegrass. He was a New Yorker, and this was the music of the Appalachia, a sort of acoustic country that incorporated, among other things, a banjo, a guitar precursor brought to the U.S. through the African slave trade. Fleck picked it up as a 15-year-old and took it for a ride where bluegrass was the first stop, and jazz the second. There were many more.
“There’s no rhythm like the bluegrass rhythm,” says Fleck, who is coming to Sunset Center on Dec. 13 featuring music from his new double album, My Bluegrass Heart. Because bluegrass has always been a team sport, “a dance” between musicians, he is bringing with him a bunch of top-notch collaborators: Sam Bush (mandolinist), Jerry Douglas (“in his hands the dobro is the greatest instrument by far!”), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Edgar Meyer (bassist) and Bryan Sutton (acoustic guitarist), presented by the Monterey Jazz Festival and Kuumbwa Jazz. These musicians are his bluegrass family, Fleck says: “They are some of the greatest players on the planet, we’re having so much fun on this tour.”
In bluegrass, unlike blues where notes are behind the beat, notes are anticipated. Here, as in some forms of jazz, one or more instruments each takes its turn playing the melody and improvising around it, while the others perform accompaniment. “What I tended to want to do was expand the banjo’s role and look for new things to do with it,” Fleck has said.
Fifteen Grammys later, we can safely say he succeeded, becoming the most recognizable and commercially successful banjo musician in the world. And now his tour takes him through Carmel.
“I always love being in the area,” he says. “Many great shows have happened there, and great hangs.” And why the dual album? “It just evolved that way. I couldn’t stop once I got started.”
MY BLUEGRASS HEART concert happens at 7:30pm Monday, Dec. 13. Sunset Center, San Carlos Street at 9th, Carmel. 620-2048, sunsetcenter.org.