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Over the course of his storied, nearly 30-year career as a professional musician, Bela Fleck has been recognized by many as the world's premier banjo player. It takes only a few seconds of listening to his nimble fingers to hear why. His fret hand seems to blaze across the neck of the instrument with a speed comparable to raindrops in a South Florida downpour. Meanwhile, the fingers of the other pluck at the strings with an almost mechanical pace and precision.
But technical mastery is only one facet of Fleck's abilities. The true measure of his talent lies in the incredible inventiveness and unbridled creativity that shine through each note of his compositions. It's what's earned him the unlikely title of "banjo renegade."
"I grew up in the '60s, and it seemed like all my favorite artists were pushing the envelope," Fleck says. "It made me want to do the same in my little banjo world."
And while the banjo is typically associated with country and bluegrass, Fleck has pushed its sound far beyond those genre constraints. "I tend to fall in love with different styles of music," he says. And yes, to say that Fleck has flirted with diverse styles of music throughout his many recordings would be somewhat understated. Rather, he masters sundry genres and bends them to his will, coaxing bebop to serve his purpose, cajoling African styles to take up his cause, and even charming Indian music into doing his bidding, as he does on his latest record, The Melody of Rhythm. "Everything new I learn expands my musical language, and it keeps me open to learning and changing," he says.
The latest musical metamorphosis, Melody of Rhythm comes from a deep appreciation for Indian music; an extensive track record with longtime collaborator, bassist Edgar Meyer; and a long-standing fascination with an Indian percussion instrument known as the tabla. It's similar in appearance to bongo drums but capable of producing mnemonic syllables by applying pressure to the skins.
The tabla, Fleck says, has long been an instrument that he wanted to work with. "I have always felt that the banjo and tabla had an appointment to keep one day." And to satisfy that yearning, Fleck and Meyer realized another long-lived aspiration when they enlisted the talents of renowned Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain, whom both thought of as their dream collaborator for the project. "He has been a hero for both of us, and his musical energy really seems to fit well with ours," Fleck says. "He lit the collaboration up and gave us a lot of new ideas to incorporate and adapt to."
But like any new cog introduced into a well-oiled machine, Hussain's incorporation required some initial care. "Edgar and I already had a lot of stuff developed as a duo, in the way we leave space for each other and what we think makes for good music," Fleck says. "I believe every musical group is a set of relationships. Each musician needs to have a one-on-one musical relationship with every other musician on stage for the best outcome. So Edgar and I were already set. Now we both needed to develop our relationships with Zakir." In the end, though, the three did gel, as evidenced by the intricately woven compositions that make up Melody.
The album was released this past August to the sort of acclaim one might expect, and even reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart for classical recording. And now, Fleck, Meyer, and Hussain find themselves in the midst of a month-and-a-half-long tour of the U.S., which will bring them to the Gusman Center. Of the tour, Fleck says, "We will be doing dates both with orchestras and without. The trip music has a lot of room for improv, so I expect it to open up and develop very fast for the next while. People will see us going for it. The orchestra dates will be more about us playing the Triple Concerto and getting inside that 30-minute piece of intense music." Fans will be thrilled to know that the Miami date will, indeed, feature that orchestra.