The world tonight

There’s a phenomenon, unique to city life, that’s captured perfectly in Bela Fleck & The Flecktones’ latest release.

It occurs when, walking alone along a busy street, you suddenly find you have time to spare. You stop to lounge in a particularly inviting cafe, sip your favorite hot beverage and stare out the window at the animated sidewalks.

And you begin to do something you don’t do nearly often enough: simply sit and listen.

Through distant sirens, clattering spoons and background radio, you overhear snippets of conversation. Then, as you attune to the unfamiliar voices and surreptitiously study the strange faces, it happens. You begin to grow comfortable among the throng that has stopped here for similar reasons despite their different backgrounds, different lives. Suddenly, the wash of disparate sensations and textures seems part of a grander scheme.

For a fleeting moment, the world makes sense, and you are full of promise.

Outbound (Columbia Records, 2000), the band’s new CD, creates just such an impression. Fleck, a New York City native who’s widely considered the world’s premier banjo player, grew up in a virtual bluegrass vacuum. But perhaps that’s why he’s such an innovative bandleader today — garnering Grammys in jazz, bluegrass, pop, country, spoken-word, Christian, composition and world-music categories. Fleck never set out to play bluegrass or country. He just fell hard for a very unusual musical instrument — and he continues to challenge himself to find new uses for it.

“I can’t explain it,” Fleck told Mountain Xpress from the recording studio in his Nashville home. “They call it the banjo bug. I definitely got bit by it.” Fleck didn’t pick up a banjo till age 15, when he heard “Dueling Banjos” and the theme from the Beverly Hillbillies. (Basically, those were the only two banjo tunes capable of infiltrating NYC at the time.)

“I just got so excited by the sound,” Fleck remembers. “I just had to know what it was. It’s got this rough, rootsy thing going on, but it’s also this incredibly perfect, stunning kind of thing. Just listening to Earl Scruggs, I hear everything from African music to almost metronomic, metallic perfection — the speed and dexterity of an incredibly talented classical musician. You know, it’s all in there. Someone called it ‘high-tech primitive.'”

By age 26, Fleck had been knighted “Best Banjoist” by Frets magazine readers and claimed a space in its “Gallery of Greats.” But at 41, he continues to test the limits of the instrument — and his own prodigious talent.

You can definitely hear the “high-tech” in Fleck’s approach, which makes use of contemporary mathematics and mixes roots influences with gadgets like modern synths and electric sitars. “A Moment So Close” is a case in point:

“It’s a pop song in 27/8,” Fleck explains. “Hey, Led Zeppelin and Yes got away with playing songs in odd time signatures — why can’t we?”

Yet the primitive crouches close behind. While Scruggs’ music evokes hints of exotic sounds, Fleck purposefully includes these elements. “A Moment So Close” begins with the otherworldly echo of Ondar, a Tuvan throat singer. Other guests also provide vocals on the track — there’s Shawn Colvin, Jon Anderson (of Yes) and Indian classical singer Rita Sahai. A horn section and string quartet are thrown in for good measure.

“Sometimes you have to be careful, especially in the studio, not to get everything all lined up and too perfect,” Fleck notes. “I’m trying to learn that — not to overdo it.” On “Something She Said,” the studio version “had grown into something real nice.” Fleck changed that by inviting fellow Nashville resident Adrian Belew to add distorted electric-guitar parts.

“Before that, the song sounded a little too pretty,” Fleck admits. Outbound is the first of five recordings he will create for Sony Music. Two will be classical albums (banjo renditions of Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Paganini and others), one a solo jazz outing. The rest will be with the Flecktones.

“We’ve been together so long as a group [that] we don’t want to keep making the same album over and over again,” Fleck explains. Ironically, to keep things fresh, the band finds it necessary to structure albums around certain concepts and rules. On earlier recordings, when playing live was a priority, the band made “no overdubs” a rule. On Left of Cool (Warner Bros., 1998), overdubs were permitted — but band members had to play all the instruments themselves.

“Our new rule for the first album at Sony was to open the doors to guests who could flesh out and color the tunes,” Fleck continues. “So we invited musicians who are serious and unusual to orchestrate the record … we recorded as a quartet, but then went hog-wild bringing in our guests to put meat on the bare bones.”

The guests are fabulous. They include, besides those mentioned above, oboe player Paul McCandless, keyboardist John Medeski (of the jazz-jamband Medeski Martin and Wood), classical bassist Edgar Meyer, and Sandip Burman on tabla. However, as Fleck suggests, the Flecktones — bassist Victor Wooten, Future Man on percussion/vocals and Synth-Axe Drumita (his hybrid guitar/synth/drum machine invention), and virtuoso saxophonist Jeff Coffin — remain the bones of the operation.

Each adds to the melange — and the result is what Fleck calls “a party going on with people from different cultures all there hanging out.” The album’s fluctuating Indian, Irish and African rhythms make it unlikely to get widespread radio airplay, but who cares? Certainly not Fleck, who’s obviously having the time of his life with the album’s new feel.

Like a person at home in a city sanctuary, he looks around, perceives elements both sonorous and harsh, and combines them somehow, creating a harmony with its own special beauty.

Best of all, you can tell he takes pleasure in all of it.

“If I learn a bebop lick or … an Earl Scruggs banjo lick off of a record, or … a Paganini violin caprice or Bach, there’s revelation throughout,” he reflects. “[G]etting to have it under my own fingers — sort of owning it myself, learning it, taking it in — it’s a real treat. It’s like candy.”


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