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When Fleck and his longtime jazz fusion group The Flecktones decided to take a year off from their usual constant touring schedule for the first time in 15 years, Fleck was like an eager kid with an entire summer vacation staring him in the face. “I was thinking about this year and what could I do that I normally wouldn’t have the time to do right,” he explained. “I thought maybe I’d go back to school and study composition, or do a residency somewhere. I wanted to have it be a really different year, and take advantage of the fact that I wasn’t going to be touring all year. And I came up with the idea of taking a trip to Africa…I kept hearing about how the banjo came from Africa and I wanted to explore the roots of the instrument and the music. And I thought, this is the time to do this, while I was relatively young, so we went.”

Bela enlisted the help of his brother Sascha, a filmmaker, to properly document the epic trip, and went about finding a crew to help make it a reality. The group traveled to Uganda, Tanzania, Mali, Senegal, and Zambia to explore the roots of the banjo and record the music in its most natural element, and the results, according to Bela, were stunning.

“We found incredible people to record and film with, from recording studios to out in the woods, and we camped out for awhile during some of it. In some cases it was directly related to the banjo, and in other cases it was just really cool musicians I was excited to play with. The reason I really wanted to go to Africa, beside the history of the banjo, was African music – I love the singing, the drumming, the guitar playing, the flute playing, and we recorded a lot of personal vignettes with maybe two to three musicians in a compound where someone lives and we’re filming it while they’re teaching me the music.”

As accomplished a musician as he is, Bela still found the African music to be challenging at times. “African music is rhythmically complex, but I don’t think I was prepared for how complex it would be at some parts. I thought I would be able to grab it pretty quick and go, but there were some times that were very intimidating when I discovered I had learned a piece on the wrong beat and there was no way for me to relearn it because we were filming it that day. So I would just have to go with it. It’s all pretty unbelievable though, what we ended up with. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.”

Bela will share the results of his trip on both a new Sony CD and a documentary, which he is funding himself and hopes to release next year. Returning from Africa in February, he expected to take it relatively easy, maybe doing a few bluegrass gigs and working on the new Flecktones record. And then the opportunities came knocking. Loudly.

The first was a chance to work in a bluegrass trio with fiddler Casey Driesen and guitarist Bryan Sutton. The three decided to do some stripped-down gigs together, and proved to be a winning combination with fans, so Bela soon found himself out on the road again, though in a much more laid back atmosphere than the usual Flecktones gigs.

“Those guys are two of my favorite bluegrass guys of the next generation, and I wanted it to be fun and relaxed…no complicated sound checks and have tons of guys. I just wanted to show up at the festivals and have a good time and be part of my old scene. And with the music we went back to my album Drive, and some of the New Grass Revival stuff. It was really fun.”

While working the trio dates, Bela got a call from jazz great bassist Stanley Clarke asking if he would be interested in playing with himself and Jean Luc Ponty. Since Clark had been a huge influence on Bela in the early days growing up, he could hardly say no.

“I went to hear Return To Forever with Stanley and Chick Corea’s band, and it blew me away and changed the way I thought about music…I started thinking a different way about the banjo and what could be done on the instrument after seeing those guys play,” recalled Bela. “So with Stanley calling it was impossible for me to say no. I thought it was going to be a few weeks, and gradually it turned into 60 dates, but it was hard for me to say no because Jean Luc’s coming all the way from Europe and then the dates started to pour in, and we actually headlined at Carnegie Hall -- my mother was very excited. And we did some jazz festivals, but then the bluegrass trio wanted to play too, so I stuck these tours with Jean Luc in the middle, and I have been going non-stop since June pretty much.”

During this time Bela also managed to work in a week of shows at Yoshi’s in San Francisco with the legendary sax player Bill Evans and rock drummer Vinnie Colliuta to showcase the music they had created when Evans came to Nashville to record a jazz-grass album. Evans had fallen in love with bluegrass and the whole Americana movement, and wanted to play with some of the best, and he enlisted the help of Fleck to co-produce the project. When asked if he considers himself part of the burgeoning Americana genre, Bela reflects on the definition of the hard-to-categorize movement.

“Americana is a catchall phrase for a lot of music that doesn’t fit into the mainstream, and I think a lot of times it’s music that’s a little less glossy, maybe has some more roots origins but not necessarily. I think it’s a nice thing, it’s a broad thing. When you think about it, things I’ve done with Bruce Hornsby, or Shawn Colvin or Dave Matthews, basically that’s the niche that I’m existing in a lot of time, unless I’m doing more jazz-oriented stuff or world music stuff or classical that might not fit. But I like to be in as many different worlds as I can be. And any club that will have me in it, I’m happy – we’ll go play a jazz festival and they’ll say, ‘OK they’re a contemporary jazz act,’ or a blues festival and they think we’re a bluegrass act, but we don’t care, because if we get to get part of that audience and they dig the music then we’re just adding people from all these different places.”

Bela Fleck’s band, The Flecktones continues to add fans worldwide with devotees who return to see them perform their magic live three or four times a year. Currently putting the finishing touches on their latest CD, due out in January, Bela admits the group has to play together a great deal to maintain the level of musicianship they achieve while on tour. And often fans are amazed to find that there are only four members making all of that unique, progressive music.

“The key is always having a lot of new music to work on, and keeping the tours down to two weeks as much as possible, because once you’ve worked together for so long, once you’re out for three weeks, even though it’s the greatest music, you start to feel a little burned out. It’s also really important for us to play a lot because we all play on a virtuosic type level and you can’t really play that way unless you play a lot. It’s like a runner, you can’t just start training the week before a big marathon -- you have to train all year.”

The group hopes to return to basics with this latest record, stripping it down a bit and narrowing the focus to include just the four of them, instead of having multiple guest artists as they have on projects past. “That used to be the way we’d do records, just play together live and everything you heard had to have been played while the tape was rolling with no extra things added. The reason we did that is people didn’t believe we were playing all at once – they come to the show and hear electronic drums, acoustic drums, banjos, harmonica, keyboards, bass, synthesizer, and they’d be like, ‘It sounds like 6 or 7 guys!’ Howard would play keyboard and piano at the same time while holding a drone on a synth. And Victor would do a melody on top while playing basslines. Futureman would do things on the drums that sounded like six guys playing. So we wanted to get back to that formula. And generally when we show up it’s the four of us and people are knocked out, so why not put that foot forward this time.”

As if all of these projects weren’t enough for the impossibly busy musician, Fleck was also tapped by several new acts this year to produce their debut CDs, including the Duhks and Uncle Earl’s Abigail Washburn, who recorded her own solo CD, Song Of The Traveling Daughter. Talent just seems to seek the soft-spoken artist out and surrounds him on all sides, whether his own or that of others who are aware of his lifelong dedication to excellence in the creation of music and long to achieve some level of it themselves. It’s both a blessing and a curse for the man named for composer Bela Bartok, whose destiny seemed to be written in the stars from the time he was born.

“I guess I’m very competitive…I wanted to be the best at what I did, and that was to play the banjo at the highest possible level and really do things right. I’m a real detail guy – I’m willing to spend time searching for a better note in a busy fiddle part that’s out of tune or doesn’t have a good tone. I spend time doing things that most people don’t worry about.”

With a busy band of his own to manage, Bela doesn’t really have time to produce outside acts, but still finds himself working on multiple projects and stretching as thin as possible when the music is just irresistible. “I only want to produce when I can’t help it, when the music is so good I can’t help it. It usually takes so much effort. When I was in New Grass Revival I started doing so much producing that I started to wonder what would happen if I put all that effort into my own music. At that time I was producing Maura O’Connell, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band, and Stuart Duncan, and that was really fun for me to do but I was in that cycle busy mode where I’d come off the road and produce in the studio and all that energy was going into all these side projects for other people. And now I’m back in that same position where I’ve got so much going on that I need to work on for myself that I have to call halt on outside productions unless I cannot turn it down or stop myself from getting more involved.” / Issue 50 - September 1528
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