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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1642

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Béla Fleck & the Flecktones: Rocket Science
by George Graham

(E One Records 2133 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/25/2011)

I don't think there is a band who has come to personify musical eclecticism like Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Led by a virtuoso banjo player joined by a pair of brothers: a funky bass player and someone who plays drums on a guitar-like instrument. The Flecktones create music that ranges from jazz to jam-band, with a sound is quite unlike virtually anything else on the scene. The group's original personnel also featured another remarkable musician, a harmonica player who has really stretched the boundaries of his instrument. And what is more remarkable is that the core of this highly unlikely group has been together now for more than 20 years. They have just released a new CD called Rocket Science, which reconvenes their original personnel for the first time in some 18 years.

I think that Béla Fleck is one of the most innovative musicians of our time. He just happens to play an instrument that is usually associated with bluegrass, the five-string banjo. As a teenager he was winning national bluegrass competitions, but was quickly taken by the so-called New Acoustic music scene in the 1980s, with musicians like David Grisman and the band New Grass Revival, whom Fleck joined for a while, taking the instrumentation of bluegrass and playing jazz-influenced music. Indeed, on his own debut recording, Fleck included a version of a Chick Corea jazz-fusion piece.

After a series of bluegrass albums and a run of a few years with New Grass Revival, Fleck was working with various one-off groups, including a memorable one called Strength in Numbers with Jerry Douglas, Mark O'Connor and others in 1989. At about the same time, he was invited to appear on a public radio and TV program called the Lonesome Pine Special, for which put together a highly eclectic group which included a young African-American bass player named Victor Wooten who was drawn to Fleck's approach to the banjo, and they soon began a collaboration which also included Victor's brother Roy, dubbed Futureman, playing a guitar-synthesizer controller which was hooked up to the sound-generator of a drum machine, thus playing drums from a guitar-like instrument. Rounding out the group was Chicago harmonica man and keyboard player Howard Levy, who is known for getting all the notes of a scale out of a diatonic harmonica, and developing other distinctive techniques. The result was a kind of fun novelty for the radio show, but the members quickly realized they were on to something special, and after they released their debut album in 1990 they quickly developed a following, and toured extensively.

But the touring was a bit too gruelling for Howard Levy, so he dropped out on friendly terms and the group continued as a trio for a while, before being joined by saxophonist Jeff Coffin.

In recent years, the individual members, especially Fleck, have been doing a series of outside projects, with Fleck doing such things as a duet recording with Chick Corea, and his ambitious, Grammy winning African musical journeys. The Flecktones have essentially been inactive since 2008. Meanwhile, Coffin accepted a position with the Dave Matthews Band replacing the late LeRoi Moore.

With a desire on the part of Fleck and the Wootens to reconvene the band, Fleck approached Levy about rejoining, with the intention of a more relaxed touring schedule. He agreed, and so the original Flecktones were back together for the first time in some 18 years.

While the Flecktones as a trio, and with Jeff Coffin, were always interesting, there was something about the original personnel with the weird but wonderful combination of the banjo, harmonica, funky bass and manually-played electronic percussion, along with terrific writing that made the Flecktones something to behold. And now that musical magic has been reunited on the new CD Rocket Science. The members went into the project determined not just to play their old hits or recreate their early recordings. Each of the members has done a lot of other things since the early Flecktones, and they were anxious to bring that into the newly reconvened band.

The first thing that happened was that Fleck visited Levy in Illinois and they spent a while writing, jointly and separately. Levy was interested to bring in some Eastern European influence, and Fleck had a number of ideas for pieces that were like multi-part suites. Then they got together for fairly informal sessions and rehearsed, working out tunes while recording them, and generally enjoying the musical chemistry.

The result is a thoroughly excellent album that recaptures the spark that made the original Flecktones so special, while at the same time exploring some new musical territory. For long-time fans of the band, one could not ask for more.

A couple of interesting factors: In addition to his harmonica, Howard Levy plays acoustic piano, which is the only keyboard on the album. He sometimes plays both at the same time, even in the recording process where he could have done them separately. Fleck mostly plays his regular banjo, but as on some previous Flecktones recordings, he played an electrified banjo that has a guitar-like sound. Futureman plays a combination of his electronic percussion plus acoustic drums. Victor Wooten plays a wider range of styles and techniques on this CD than in the past. This is a group of equals, and there are compositions by all and each has opportunities in the spotlight. But the ensemble playing and arranging are also very strong.

Stylistically, the CD's original material ranges from rather jazzy and acoustic to more cranked up, but this incarnation of the Flecktones is decidedly less amplified than the previous version with Coffin.

Opening is a piece by Fleck called Gravity Lane, which is rather typical of the multi-layered approach of the music on the CD. It's upbeat but not driving. It has a melodic ound but with lots of twists and turns. <<>>

Two pieces by Howard Levy segue as a continuous sequence. Joyful Spring is a kind of multi-faceted ballad with Levy's piano in the spotlight. <<>>

That leads into Life in Eleven, based on an 11-beat rhythm taken from Bulgarian folk music. The band uses it as a chance to stretch out on the challenging piece with solos all around. <<>>

A Béla Fleck composition called Falling Forward shows the group's jazz direction. The tune is in waltz-time has bits reminiscent of John Coltrane's Giant Steps and Chick Corea's No Mystery.

One of the lengthier tracks is another Fleck composition called Storm Warning. It's a kind of suite with different sections with different musical colors. There's lots of interesting ideas, along with opportunities for the individual players. <<>>

A piece called Like Water, co-written by Victor Wooten and Fleck is an attractive, melodic ballad which nicely shows the band's laid-back side. <<>>

Futureman's composition is a percussion piece called The Secret Drawer, which is an example of his mixing of the sampled and triggered percussion and sound effects with the hand-played percussion. <<>>

Levy's other composition also brings in his Bulgarian ethnic roots. Sweet Pomegranates has an intriguingly exotic sound while all the members do some fine playing. <<>>

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones' new CD Rocket Science reunites the highly eclectic group's original personnel, and really re-ignites the musical chemistry of unlikely ingredients that made the group's first two CDs so utterly distinctive. With the return of harmonica player and pianist Howard Levy, the group sets out to explore new music possibilities rather than trying to duplicate the old sound. While it's great to hear the unique lineup with the banjo and harmonica on the front line again, the group definitely succeeds in moving forward, bringing in their some of their experiences in the intervening years into the new material. The composing is first-rate, fully up to what we have come to expect from Fleck, with music that is often intricate and multi-layered but quite appealing for those who just want to enjoy the ride.

I'll definitely give this CD grade "A" for sound quality. Fleck always has high standards in how his music is captured on record, and this CD is no exception. The instrumentation is recorded with very good clarity and minimal studio effects. The dynamic range is also quite commendable, giving the percussion a nice impact, and not trying to compete in the loudness wars.

It's often the case that trying to reassemble the original personnel members of a band is done for the nostalgia, if not the commercial prospects. But Rocket Science from the Flecktones shows that a reunion can be the source of great new music.

(c) Copyright 2011 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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