In 1989, Béla Fleck was in a bit of a predicament: He found himself scrambling to find a band to back him for a PBs Lonesome Pine television special. Given the short time Fleck had to assemble the Flecktones, the outcome is amazing. Since their formation, Béla and the Flecktones have recorded five records, one of which made the No. 1 spot in the Billboard jazz chart, played a huge number of live shows and festivals and won five Grammy nominations.
“I think it was supposed to happen,” says Fleck. “It was just the right time for everybody. I’d just happened to run across Victor (Wooten, the Flecktones bassist) and Howard (Levy, former Flecktones keyboard/harmonica player) and realized they were remarkable and unusual — people I wanted to play with — I just didn’t know how it would all work together, and that’s what was exciting, to see how it actually worked.”
The Flecktones’ appearance on the jazz charts says a lot about the wide interpretation of the term “jazz” in popular music — these are the same charts where Yanni appears above Joshua Redman. Béla and the Flecktones’ music is about as genre-bending as it comes; incorporating composed sections of Baroque counterpoint with long improvisational dialogue between players more common to jazz. Incluences of all the Flecktones’ apparently isatiable listening habits are found throughout their music, and it’s not uncommon to hear a Far Eastern melody performed just before a reggae or soca tune. Fleck’s most famous work from the period before the Flecktones is from the string band New Grass Revival, while Wooten and brother Future Man, on the SynthAxe drumitar, have their backgrounds in funk and R&B. The Flecktones have been joined on stage and on record by Branford Marsalis, Chick Corea, Paul McCandless (of the band Oregon), and Fleck’s former partner and New Grass Revival frontman, Sam Bush. Yeah, you try affixing a label to the Flecktones.
“I think there could be a time when I’m playing in a bluegrass band, if it were the right group of guys, but I imagine I’d want to continue to be doing a lot of different things. As long as the ‘Flecktones are vital and alive there’s no reason to go anywhere else, because the band can play so many different kinds of music well. I guess this is the only group where I get to do so many different things I like to do in one band,” Fleck says.
Fleck’s most recent record, the 1994 Tales From The Acoustic Planet, is listed under Bela’s name only, but the two other Flecktones play on most of the tracks. Tales draws influences from many different cultures, but Fleck never worried that Wooten and Future Man would face any challenges.
Fleck recounts, “They were able to go all the way. It was neat for me to put them together with old friends of mine from the acoustic music world-to be able to introduce them to each other and have them play together has been a great thing. Sam Bush did about 60 shows with us last year. This trip, Paul (McCandless) is the fourth Flecktone, so it’s different each trip. I think we’re going to be together with both those guys at the Jazz Fest.”
The Flecktones last record, Three Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1993, saw the band regrouped as a trio after the departure of Howard Levy. While Levy is certainly missed, the remaining three Flecktones were given more room to stretch out …on their instruments and incorporate technological effects to fill the space left by Levy. Three Flew Over was also the first Flecktones record to include guest players Bruce Hornsby on piano and Branford Marsalis and Roderick Ward on saxophone. Still, Fleck says Levy’s departure was amicable on both sides.
“When you’re in a band situation like (the Flecktones) the band always comes first and it takes a lot of your personal control away. It was also hard for a guy who was used to being a freelance musician his whole life, so I think he missed just doing all kinds of stuff. Eventually it just became time for him to go and we gave him a happy good-bye and moved on. I can’t imagine either he or us wanting to go backwards, but we do play with him once in a while. It was really fun, I’m glad we’re good enough friends that we can do that. There are no bad feelings,” says Fleck.
Howard Levy fans need not despair — Bela and the Flecktones are currently working on a double live album due to be released this summer. Fleck says of the record, “It’s going to go way back. There will be cuts with Howard, and cuts with a lot of other people sitting in. But then a lot of good trio, and quartet, and quintet, and on up.”
Despite the band’s warm critical acceptance and numerous awards and accolades — Wooten was voted Best Bassist by Bass Player in 1993, and Fleck has twice won Best Miscellaneous Instrumentalist by Jazzlz, in 1993 and 1994-the band has not let praise go to their heads. Even after Flecktones records had hit the number one spot on jazz charts (Flight of the Cosmic Hippo) and earned Grammy nominations (UFO-TOFU), the band agreed to play the fledgling H.O.R.D.E. festival for a number of dates in the Southeast in 1993. Since then, Fleck continues to offer his banjo prowess on the records and in performance, with such bands as Phish and Aquarium Rescue Unit.
“We fit in (with the H.O.R.D.E. tour) about as well as we do anywhere else,” Fleck believes. “I like doing that type of stuff because there’s a whole crowd there that would never get to hear us, and they have no problem with it. That’s the thing that’s so interesting is that the audience is cool with it — it didn’t seem to occur to them that we’re not an alternative rock band. We obviously seemed to fit in. The same thing happens when we play jazz festivals. There are people who might say, ‘Well, they’re not really a jazz band, so ‘why are they at a jazz festival?’ But the audience loves it. The same thing happens when we play a bluegrass festival-there’s all this conjecture about whether we fit or not, but the audience is happy.”
Happy indeed. The Flecktones currently log over 200 performances a year. Fleck has traveled as far as India and China to record with musicians there, and to continue his examination of music across genres, and even across civilizations.
“There are certain properties that all good music has: one is beautiful melody, one is great rhythm, one is improvisation. I think that music has probably had that way, way, way earlier than any of us ever got to hear. Successful music should incorporate all those things. What changes is the context that it’s put in — the particular kind of beat, or particular kind of improvisation, or particular kind of melody — that sounds current to people at a given time. But the basic elements of what makes the music great is always there, throughout history. A lot of times we think it’s all new, you hear somebody play and are thinking, ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe how good that guy is playing, he’s got to be the best guy who ever played.’ But, you know, he’s probably just a really great player, and carrying on the musical energy that’s continued from the beginning of time. Maybe he’s tapped in the flow of the real thing,” Fleck says.
If the real thing, musically, can be found anywhere, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is a good place to look for it. Some of the best live performances of the year will undoubtedly happen’ at the Fair Grounds, and, Fleck plans on catching as many as possible.
”I’m sure we’ll be getting in early and wandering around the festival, and if we’re not (playing) late at night we’ll be wandering around then, too. It’s a great festival and I love the diversity of it — all the different kinds of music that are represented and just the high level of it. It’s sort of the Holy Grail of festivals, and one of the big ones that whenever you talk about the greatest festivals out there it always comes up.