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(Columbia 90539 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/13/2003)
Some musical instruments don't quite get the respect of others, and their practitioners tend to have careers as specialists in supporting roles. Consider the bassoon, the tuba, the viola, and the banjo. Until fairly recently, the banjo was the butt of almost as many musician jokes as the accordion. But that's hardly the case any more. Following in the footsteps of Earl Scruggs who defined bluegrass banjo, since the 1980s, some real innovation has been going on by banjo players, notably Tony Trischka and Béla Fleck, both interestingly New Yorkers. Both have taken the seemingly humble instrument -- with its lack of ability to sustain notes, and a perceived absence of expressiveness -- the five string variety of which had been inextricably bound to bluegrass, to stylistic places where no banjo had gone before.
Béla Fleck, especially, through his Flecktones band, together since about 1990, has created a really fascinating mix of bluegrass, funk, fusion and world music. Now the Flecktones are out with a new release, actually two simultaneous CDs, that further epitomizes the remarkable eclecticism that Fleck has not only brought to his instrument, but to the state of the musical art in general.
A native New Yorker, named after three classical composers, Béla Anton Leos Fleck would hardly seem to have the background of a typical bluegrass banjo picker. But he became a prodigy on his instrument, after studying with Trischka, and was soon attracting attention on the folk festival circuit and winning national music competitions in his teens. But the seeds of his musical eclecticism were sown early, and by the time of his first album in 1981 at the age of 20, he was already mixing in jazz and playing Chick Corea compositions on his banjo, and spent several years with one of the most eclectic bluegrass bands of their day, New Grass Revival.
Over his more than 20 year career, Fleck has gone from being a highly creative, banjo virtuoso to being one of the most stylistically wide-ranging musicians and composers in all of contemporary music, regardless of genre or instrument. He has gone from very traditional bluegrass to the very distinctive music of his unique band formed with a pair of siblings, one a funky bass player and the other the player of a contraption called the Synthaxe Drumitar, which plays the sound of electronic drums from an instrument that looks like a mutant guitar. Outside of his band, Fleck has also worked with singer-songwriters, including serving as producer, incorporated Celtic influence into his music, contributed to Celtic albums, and also done a classical banjo album. He has written a large body of music that is innovative and fascinating regardless of instrumentation, and he has created some outstanding live albums that incorporate everything from bluegrass to jazz to rap to world music influences.
Fleck's latest offering is a three disc set called Little Worlds, from which an abridged one-CD version called Ten From Little Worlds has also been released. The latter is the subject of our review.
The Flecktones' personnel remains as they have been for about the last five years, with the banjo man joined by bassist Victor Lamonte Wooten, his brother Roy "Future Man" Wooten on the Synthaxe Drumitar, and saxophonist Jeff Coffin. But the CD also has some guest appearances by interesting people like jazz man Branford Marsalis who appeared on previous Flecktones recordings, vocalist Bobby McFerrin, the members of the bluegrass band Nickel Creek, and two different theramin players. Fleck himself has been getting into a banjo synthesizer further widening his range of sounds. Again, there is the mix of jazz-rock fusion, bluegrass and hints of world music influence that have been a Flecktones trademark. As usual, the level of musicianship is very impressive, made more so by the fact that the guest players are such virtuosos themselves. And like so much of the Flecktones' work, the intense level of playing is tempered by a lighthearted spirit of good fun.
The CD leads off with one of two pieces that the band adapted from bluegrass world and sent off into their own particular musical dimension. Big Mon started out as a Bill Monroe tune, but is given an eclectic, spacey treatment, through the addition of Fleck's synthesizer banjo and a guest didgeridoo player. <<>>
A contrast to that is the laid-back sound of Pineapple Heart, on which Coffin plays the flute, and there is a guest appearance by Derek Trucks of the Allman Brothers Band on electric guitar. That alternates with hints of Celtic influence. <<>>
The Celtic influence is genuine on The Leaning Tower, an original by Fleck which features members of the venerable Irish group the Chieftains joining the Flecktones for the tune. <<>>
The group gets decidedly electric on Jeff Coffin's composition Snatchin' on which Fleck uses his electrified and synthesizer driven banjo to create a number of non-banjo-like sounds. <<>>
One of the most appealing pieces is called Puffy. It features a jazzy sound highlighting Coffin on his soprano sax, while Fleck sticks with his acoustic banjo. There's ample solo opportunities for Coffin's sax and Victor Wooten's bass. <<>>
Branford Marsalis makes his appearance a piece called Sherpa, also written by Jeff Coffin. The two sax players work well together on this piece with a reggae beat. <<>>
The most unusual track, and definitely the one that's the most fun on this enjoyable CD is the Flecktones' version of the Ballad of Jed Clampett, the theme from the old "Beverly Hillbillies" TV show from the early 1960s. That theme, originally performed by Flatt and Scruggs, was for many their introduction to bluegrass. But the Flecktones' version is several light-years from the original. Bobby McFerrin appears doing some amazing wordless vocals, while the lyrics are rapped by someone named Divinity. <<>> There are all kind of fun stylistic departures. <<>>
The CD ends with two similarly-named pieces which both feature the three principal members of Nickel Creek as guests, Off the Top (The Gravity Wheel), and Off the Top (Line Dance). Sean and Sara Watkins and Chris Thile of Nickel Creek have much in common with Fleck in that they were also bluegrass instrumental prodigies. The first section is more restrained and melodic <<>> before the second part cuts loose with the fancy picking and convoluted rhythms. <<>>
Béla Fleck has once again shown what a remarkably creative musician he is, irrespective of the fact that he happens to play a banjo. The influences go flying fast and furious on the new CD Ten from Little Worlds, a subset of a larger three-disc set, which nicely integrates many facets of Fleck's music from bluegrass to jazz to something in some other dimension, all with a sense of adventurous good fun. Through Fleck still does most of the composing, this CD is also more of a joint effort by the band, with two pieces credited to all four Flecktones, and two by saxophonist Coffin. The presence of interesting musical guests, which have been a regular feature of recent Flecktones albums, further adds to the CD's interest.
Our grade for sound quality is an A, without any reservations. The studio techniques don't get in the way, and yet add sonic interest to the musical creativity, and perhaps, most notably, there is an admirable dynamic range. Fleck is one of the few artists today who CDs are consistently mastered with minimal volume compression, allowing the music's ebb and flow to be well-reproduced.
In Béla Fleck's hands not only has the five-string banjo gone beyond bluegrass, but Fleck and the Flecktones have created a distinctive and original sound like no other band, and compose music that is fascinating regardless of instrumentation.
(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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