Unplugged adventures

When Bela Fleck and his cohorts on the current Bluegrass Sessions tour first played together in the 1980s, they were the youthful renegades of the genre. Describing his now-40-ish tour mates, though, Fleck notes with a laugh, “I used to call them the young guns of bluegrass, but I can’t call them young guns anymore. They’re the middle guns now.”

The core group heard on Fleck’s latest CD, Tales From the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2: The Bluegrass Sessions (Warner Brothers, 1999), includes mandolin player Sam Bush, dobroist Jerry Douglas, guitarist Tony Rice, fiddlers Vassar Clements and Stuart Duncan, bassist Mark Schatz and banjoist John Hartford. In true Fleck fashion, the live show in support of the disc has also been known to feature surprise guests — young- and not-so-young guns among them.

“This group is kind of the all-star bluegrass free thinkers,” Fleck continues. “It’s a group of people that I’ve played with over the years, but [we’ve] never actually been [an official] band. So we came together and made this record, and also got Earl Scruggs to come in and do a couple of duets with me, which was a wonderful banjo experience.”

Born in New York City in 1958, Fleck was named after composer Bela Bartok. He began to appreciate the banjo’s unique sound as a young boy, after hearing Weissberg & Mandell’s “Dueling Banjos” and Flatt & Scruggs’ “Ballad Of Jed Clampett” (The Beverly Hillbillies theme song). “That [sound] sent a shiver through my spine,” he once told Downbeat magazine. At age 15, Fleck was presented with his very own banjo by his grandfather.

Soon thereafter, the budding banjoist heard the music of alto-sax titan Charlie Parker. “I just could not believe it. There was [such] a rhythmic intensity,” gushes Fleck incredulously. He also vividly recalls hearing (at age 16) “Spain,” by Chick Corea’s Return To Forever. “It was like all this light was shining in on me,” he remembers. “I realized you could put chords together that way, do licks like that, and solo on an instrument that doesn’t have a lot of sustain. The Rhodes electric piano Corea plays on that cut has a crunchy sound, and it made me think maybe that kind of music could also be played on a banjo.”

The glorious marriage of jazz and bluegrass that has become Fleck’s trademark was born.

After graduating from LaGuardia High School of Music and Art in New York City, Fleck found himself attracted to what he calls “psychotic bluegrass bands.” He moved to Boston to play with one such group, called the Tasty Licks, and studied jazz with Billy Novick. “Billy kept saying: ‘Leave some space. You don’t have to play all the notes. Learn to phrase, lay back on the beat. Don’t always push it. Develop your ideas, think about what you’re doing. Thinkthe whole solo into something.'” Tasty Licks disbanded in 1979, and Fleck briefly played with a Kentucky-based group called Spectrum. His first solo album — 1980’s Crossing The Tracks (Label??) — was promptly voted Best Overall Album by the readers of Frets magazine.

In 1982, Fleck joined the New Grass Revival (then under the leadership of Sam Bush) and followed the group to Nashville. “[They were] fantastic musicians, and they had a very open-minded approach to bluegrass, so I fit,” he says. Fleck stayed with New Grass for eight years, during which time his talent and stellar reputation continued to blossom. The Fleck-penned “Drive” was nominated for a Grammy in 1988. In 1989, Fleck, Bush, Jerry Douglas, fiddler Mark O’Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer teamed up as Strength In Numbers and recorded the much-lauded The Telluride Sessions (Label??).

Frets magazine added Fleck to its Hall Of Greats in 1990. Also that year, the banjoist was asked to put together a band for PBS television’s Lonesome Pine Special. The group he assembled included bassist Victor Wooten, his brother Roy “Future Man” Wooten (who played an electronic drum of his own design), and Howard Levy on keyboards, harmonica, ocarina and a host of other instruments. This group became Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, which has recorded six albums to date. With sax player Jeff Coffin added to the mix, the band won a Grammy this year for Left Of Cool (Warner Brothers, 1999) and was voted the top electric-jazz group in Downbeat magazine’s “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” category. Fleck has also recorded with Bruce Hornsby, Shawn Colvin, Phish, the Dave Matthews Band, Ginger Baker and numerous other luminaries.

“I needed to do The Bluegrass Sessions because 10 years had gone by since I’d worked with any of these people in a serious way,” Fleck explains. “It was time to do that again. Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas — those guys are all sort of the gods of new bluegrass,” he contends. “Now that everybody’s in their ’40s, it doesn’t seem like [‘new bluegrass’] is what you should call it, because the jazz-influenced bluegrass/fusion thing has been going on for a long time. But it’s cool. I’m really proud of it. It’s exciting. There aren’t enough dates to give shows to all the promoters [who] want [them].”

Naturally, the best way to appreciate Fleck and company is live. “One of the things about live music is that you don’t have the opportunity to over-obsess that you do in the studio — sit and tweak every note and get worried about everything,” notes Fleck. “On the live gig you just play, and you’re playing to an audience — which brings out the best in … musicians.”

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