Bela Fleck is something of an anomaly. He completely defies the notion of what a banjo-toting music man has come to represent. He's unafraid to venture into realms far afield of bluegrass or the traditional turf that's always provided a comfortable fit for his instrument.
Both on his own, and in collaboration with his various star-studded associations -- the New Grass Revival, Strength in Numbers, and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones -- he's consistently pushed the parameters and fearlessly experimented with jazz, folk, pop, Americana, classical, and avante-garde. The fact that he's been nominated for Grammys in more categories than any other musician on record is testimony in itself to his striking diversity and ability to challenge boundaries.
Fleck is touring with Chick Corea, another master of musical dexterity. Their initial collaboration, 2007's The Enchantment, offered the first hints of what to expect from the talented co-op of these veritable virtuosos. Currently on tour for the first time since '07, the duo are rekindling their partnership and exploring even more possibilities.
New Times caught up with Mr. Fleck between gigs, and asked him to share a bit of background and also offer some insight into the things that motivate him as a musician.
New Times: When you first started playing the banjo, was it always your intention to stretch the possibilities of the instrument in such nontraditional ways?
Bela Fleck: I just loved the sound of the banjo, and when I finally got one in my sweaty little hands, I couldn't put it down. I think I evolved into my particular playing style from growing up in New York City in the '60s, and everything that that entailed.
Given the way you expand the boundaries and use the banjo in such nontraditional settings, do you ever have your doubts as to how its going to work out? What inspires you to go into these uncharted realms?
I don't ever imagine it not working, so I just do it. You must believe! As far as inspiration, all my favorite musicians were, and are, individualists who push into new territory. I figured it was just what you were supposed to do.
Given your incredible scope, and the diverse categories that have garnered you many Grammy nods, which genre do you feel is really your comfort zone? Is bluegrass your home base and launching point?
Bluegrass is a touchstone for me, although sadly, I play it remarkably rarely. That being said, some of it is in everything that I do. The Flecktones are a home base as well, whatever we call that music. It comes back to life regularly, and I know what to do instinctively in those situations.
Did you play guitar prior to picking up the banjo? How did you acquire your banjo skills so quickly?
I started on guitar, which taught me how to press my fingers down on a neck. But I never caught fire until I got my first banjo. Then I put in the time that was needed to make fast progress.
Did you ever get any pushback from the country/bluegrass establishment when you began venturing into your other arenas?
You know, a lot of people had already taken a lot of heat by the time I came onto the scene. Tony Trischka, who was my teacher, really took a whipping for being so progressive. I was just more of the same, and people had cooled off somewhat by then. New Grass Revival also took some amazing crap, but they got their due, and ended up at the top of the scene before it was all over. I played with them from 1981 to 1990.
There seems to be a lot of improvisation in what you do, especially with the Flecktones. Is that really the case, or is it all mapped out beforehand?
There is a lot of improv, but it doesn't tend to be the form that is improvised. We do know what's coming next and the basic thrust of each section. People get to fill in the details freely and spontaneously each night.
How much of your playing is improvised in concert?
Quite a lot of it is improvised, except when I play my banjo concerto which is 99 percent set.
You do a lot of session work in addition to your own projects, When you play sessions for other people, do you still have a chance to improvise and veer away from the template?
When you are learning new music and recording, you have to do a lot of experimentation to create the template. And since the music is new to you, you can't fall back on anything and so you have to improvise. Some great things happen at those sessions, and quite often it becomes difficult to improve on what you played the first time.
You must believe!
After all the accolades and critical kudos you've received -- especially in the way of your many Grammy nods -- do you still relish the recognition after all these years?
I am always a little surprised to get the attention, I keep expecting people to get tired of me and stop being so nice! That's not what I do this for, but I can't say it isn't fun... At least until I've been on tour too long that is, and then it can be an ordeal. The trick is to keep the trips from getting too long, so that you can put your best energy out to the people that appreciate what you do.
There are a lot of artists pushing the parameters of Bluegrass these days. Are there any musicians of that ilk that you follow? And why do you think that bluegrass music as a whole lends itself to such different treatments?
I love all the offshoots, and I love the guys that do it the old fashioned way. It's all good. Bluegrass is a relatively simple form, and I've learned from classical music that simple music is easiest to develop. Think of all the great themes and variations Beethoven and Mozart did!
When you formed the Flecktones, did you have a specific concept in mind? What was your vision for the band and how did you go about recruiting the musicians that became part of the group?
I wanted to surround myself with weirdos like me. I wanted the nerds to run the show! The right people turned up when I was ready, and no sooner.
What's the status of the Flecktones at this point? When can we expect a new album or a new tour? I spoke to your bassist Victor Wooten a few months ago and he indicated that the band is on an indefinite hiatus.
Yes, we are off for a few years, just after spending an intense and beautiful year together. When the time is right we shall return!
Is there any genre you've yet to tackle that you haven't had a chance to do yet? If you had a bucket list as far as your musical goals are concerned, what would be on it that hasn't yet been scratched off?
The big focus these days is composing for banjo and classical musicians. I wrote my first stand-alone banjo concerto last year, and followed it with a piece for banjo and string quartet. I love composing, and it's fun to sink my teeth into a complex and lengthy piece that great musicians will be able to play on sight. The banjo concerto and the banjo and string quartet project will be out in August, and I'll be touring with an amazing string quartet called Brooklyn Rider.
Tell us about the current tour.
This tour is with the incredible Chick Corea, whom I have basically worshipped since I was 17. Playing with him is a dream come true, and I'm very excited that we are doing this again together. It's a very intimate and charged concert, and I am so looking forward to it! Chick is a force of nature, and a wonderful person.
Bela Fleck performs with Chick Corea at 8 p.m., Friday, March 21 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $50 - $100. Phone 561-832-7469 or 800-572-8471.