Bela Fleck has won 9 Grammy Awards, released 10 solo albums and 7 with his band The Flecktones, yet I doubt most of you reading will have heard of this incredibly talented musician's music. Why? Possibly because he plays the banjo, which in modern musical terms could be deemed as being as fashionable as a mullet and shoulder pads. However, Fleck's incredible virtuosity has earned him the respect of not only the country and bluegrass community (he was inducted into 'Frets' magazine's Hall Of Greats in 1990), but a burgeoning jazz and crossover audience as well. The Flecktones are now so established in the States that they've opened for the likes of the Dave Matthews Band in 10,000-seater venues as well as touring almost non-stop for the last 10 years, building their own loyal cult following. Formed to record a PBS Lonesome Pine Special, the Flecktones featured the then relatively unknown bass virtuoso Victor Wooten, his brother Future Man (his adopted name, obviously) on Drumitar - a guitar-shaped drum machine, and Howard Levy, an astonishingly talented chromatic harmonica player and pianist.
Their eponymous debut featured a beguiling blend of Americana soundscapes, snappy funk grooves and neo-classical and jazz-tinged melodies that were both bewitching and memorable. A truly original band with a visionary musician as their catalyst, the Flecktones are a nimble-fingered vehicle for propelling a sound that no one would ever have conceived could work on so many different levels. Having finally parted company with Warner Brothers and striking a new five-album deal with Sony Jazz and Classical, Bela and his Flecktones (multi-reedist Jeff Coffin replaced Levy for 1999s 'Left Of Cool'), are taking their sound even further into the future with a new opus 'Outbound', and it's their most ambitious project so far. Talking on the phone from his tour bus somewhere in deepest darkest America, Bela expressed his joy at the group's third Grammy. "It seems like a really special one to win because Contemporary Jazz usually goes to very 'smooth' music, so it's nice when we're pushing ourselves as hard as we can, musically, and we're recognised for it."
'Outbound' is an expansive piece of work that features many guests - from John Medeski on Hammond, ex-Bowie and Zappa guitarist Adrian Belew, Shawn Colvin, and even YES's John Anderson on vocals. The new deal with Sony offered opportunities previously unavailable to the group, as Bela explained, "I think it was more that we wanted to do something different from what we've been doing before. Going into the studio, it felt like 'what can we do that's different and that's special?' So this time we decided to open up the floodgates and have a lot of people playing on it. Then the challenge was to do that and still have the band, as this was the band's debut on a new label - and that should be at the forefront, too. It was important that the band be focused on as well. It was kind of walking that line between having a lot of guests and friends that we respect, having cameo parts, but also making sure that we were being focused on as well, and playing at our best. For instance, if there isn't some amazing bass playing going on a lot of people would be disappointed - 'sure, there's a great bassoon player, but I bought the record 'cos I love Victor' [Wooten] or 'I love Bela' or whatever. I think we've also got something really good in live situations where we can bring some of these guests out and we can really open it up."
These pan-global influences reflect a growing interest in eclectic musical styles and one of the most wildly diverse audience demographics imaginable. There simply is no 'average' Flecktones fan, ranging as they do from young parents and their kids, scruffy stoner teens and bluegrass and jazz boffins all taking a different inspirations from this intense yet entertaining group's awesome live shows. Bela's response is sincere as ever, "Yeah, it's pretty wild. That's exactly what it's about for us. We love all kinds of music equally - we don't put one above the other, we don't say jazz is better than blue grass, or rock, or world music, or Indian music. There's a lot of value out there in different kinds of music, and we put it all together in a way that challenges us, and that makes us feel good about playing."
Categorization, however, remains the enemy of such diversity - on both sides of the Atlantic, as Fleck is more than aware, "It happens over here, too - in fact I think it's harder to break out if you're doing something different. But in our case it's worked out to be something very positive because we're different from everything else - and there's a lot of interest in that right now."
The Flecktones unfortunately remain very much an American phenomenon and it's something the fans over here and Fleck himself are more than ready to put right. Having only played one gig in Britain in the mid-'90s, the Flecktones are arriving en masse for four consecutive dates at the start of May in four different venues around London. As Bela states, it's something that's been needed for a long time now, "The truth is we have never really been able to translate that overseas. It seemed like it should, that people would enjoy the music if we could just do what we did here, which is to come around a lot. It gets people's attention, to hear the music and decide and see whether it was something they wanted in their lives too, you know what I mean? I'm glad we're having this opportunity to come and sit in London for a few days. I know these venues are going to be small, but we'll just play and have a great time and hopefully start to turn things over, over there. It's hard though, isn't it? I mean, you can talk about it all day but until you hear and see the music live, it's hard to get across."
As if to reinforce this point and his never-ending search for the outer limits of the banjo's technical limitations, Fleck has been recording a classical banjo album with the likes of guitarist John Williams and percussionist Evelyn Glennie. It seems that despite playing everything from spaced-out blue-bop (bluegrass and bebop, obviously) world music, funk and reggae-influenced pieces, it's only when people hear the virtuosity required of classical music that they're truly dumfounded at this man's abilities.
Despite this pioneering achievement, Fleck remains incredibly humble in his opinion of himself, and never assumes he deserves any amount of respect from a crowd because of his obvious brilliance. As for getting accepted as a banjo player with such eclectic taste his response is similar, "It's never been a problem - I've never just expected it. My expectations aren't that high, in terms of people saying…I don't know what. My expectations are really that I'm going to try as hard as I can to improve as a musician in the time that I have here on earth. One of my driving things in life at the moment is just trying to get better - I wish people wouldn't hear some of the early stuff - I hope I'm getting better. I think it's growing, and my comfort with improvising in a jazzier sort of style, like the Flecktones do. I've only really been doing that since the band became full time, which is about 10 years, and I'm only just feeling how it's all supposed to work now. Yet I've got six or seven records out, and I'm still learning from it."
Text © Mike Flynn