Béla Fleck and the Flecktones on Lineup Changes and Ditching the Jazz Fusion Tag

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones are back. The prog-jazz maestros never really left -- 2008's Christmas-themed Jingle All the Way won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album -- but they haven't seemed quite this loose or vibrant in years. The group's spring album Rocket Science is a seductive hybrid of bluegrass, funk, and jazz. Ripe with rubbery melodicism, the new tracks unfold like an extended jam session, building to a slow, psychedelic burn.

Much of Rocket Science's success can be attributed to Howard Levy, who returned to co-songwriting duties in 2009 after a 16-year hiatus.

Checking in from his home in Nashville, Fleck spoke with New Times about the Flecktones' aesthetic evolution.

County Grind: Rocket Science, the new album, was released to pretty sterling reviews in May. Would it be fair to call it a comeback?

Béla Fleck: Sort of. The band never split up, though, and our last two albums with Jeff Coffin won Grammies and sold well, so we weren't actually tanking. But having Howard back is bringing out a lot of old friends that are very happy to see the original lineup. Turnouts have been up, and the vibe is very strong.

Much has been made of Howard Levy's return to the Flecktones; he departed in 1993. Was there an element of discord or discomfort with him, at least initially? Did it take time to reignite that old chemistry?

No, we never really had any serious discord. That being said, it took a little while to relax into being back together. But it really sounded great pretty much immediately.

You cowrote "Life in Eleven" with Levy. How was that?

It was fun. We had unfinished business with [an 11-beat time signature]. We had planned to do something with an 11 in the early '90s and never got to do it. After Howard left, Victor wrote "Almost 12," and that was a really cool 11. But Howard really loves 11s, and it was right to go much deeper into it with him.

Levy originally left the group in part because of the rigor of your touring schedule. Have you had to make any adjustments on that end to ensure that he doesn't get burnt out again?

We are taking it a lot easier. We have busy periods buffered by off months. We will play for about seven months over the course of a year. That should keep everyone's lives more intact!

You shared a unique synergy with Levy on your first few albums. Do you think that spark, for lack of a better word, was missing on the group's later efforts?

There was always something going on on our recordings and shows, in my opinion. We had many amazing people join us onstage and reached our professional heights well after Howard's departure. Jeff stayed the longest, and we did have good chemistry with him. That being said, Howard is the guy we wanted in the band when we started it, and there was a good reason for it.

Jeff Coffin left the Flecktones for the Dave Matthews Band in 2010. Would you describe his departure as amicable?

Yes, it was even gradual. We were working less and less and just touring in December every year, around our holiday album. That was when Dave Matthews needed him, and I thought he brought a lot of new life into that group. I realized that a change could do the same for us. And since he was not available anymore, it was very easy.

On a more general note, the Flecktones have always thrived at making "proggy" records that are still eminently hooky and tuneful. Is that a difficult balance to pull off?

It comes pretty naturally for us.

From what I can gather, everyone in the group is fairly involved in the songwriting process; more than most, you guys seem like the sum of your parts. Do you think that's accurate?

Well, maybe so. Although this is my favorite band to hear Victor and Howard and Future Man in. I may be biased, though! Although Howard and Victor and Future Man contributed in major ways to the writing, a large part of it came from me, as it usually does. I think I wrote more than half of it and cowrote as well. Howard's voice as a writer is finally heard in the band on this record, he was underutilized in the past, and he writes great stuff.

Your work often gets pigeonholed as "jazz fusion," but you've always thrived at bending a lot of different genres. I'd argue that you defy genre distinctions. Is a term like "jazz fusion" oversimplified or marginalizing?

"Jazz fusion" does seem wrong. It leaves out a lot. Jazz fusion was happening when I started playing banjo and didn't have a lot of the roots and ethnic elements that the Flecktones have. But I do love a lot of the fusion musicians. I care more about whether it is good music than what kind of music it is.

You've self-produced every album. Does that allow you to get closer to the records, so to speak? 

That may be where I get the control I need as the leader. It's almost like a movie, in that everyone works together to get the best stuff on tape possible, and I do the director's cut of what gets used, or at least where we start. Then everyone kicks in opinions again and makes the most out of my "cut."

Béla Fleck & the Flecktones. 8 p.m. Wednesday, October 19, at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $40. Click here.

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M.T. Richards