When long time Marcus Roberts fan and banjo virtuoso, Béla Fleck stayed late at a Savannah Music Festival jam session just to hear Roberts play, the last thing he expected was to be up on stage performing with him and his band but “it seemed to work instantly. Marcus seemed to really like it. And the 20 or so people at the jam session seemed to think that something very special had just occurred.”
A year later they had agreed to perform together for the first time at the same festival in Savannah. “We threw together a set of music, and played it for a packed and intrigued crowd. The gig was honestly amazing. There was a natural rapport between Marcus and me from the first note, and Jason Marsalis (on drums) and Rodney Jordan (on bass) were just incredible. I loved their trio conception, and was thrilled to be able to find a way to exist within it,” said Fleck.
The Marcus Roberts Trio is known for its virtuosic style – a style that is strongly rhythmic, melodic, and filled with dynamic contrast. The group was founded in 1995, and they are known around the world for their signature trio style.
Béla Fleck is often considered the premier banjo player in the world. He has virtually reinvented the image and the sound of the banjo through a remarkable performing and recording career that has taken him all over the musical map and on a range of solo projects and collaborations.
“It was a lot of fun working with Béla on this project. He has a limitless imagination and, like our trio, he is willing to do whatever it takes to make a great record. The recording brings our two styles together in a way that I think will be really enjoyable for the listeners,” said Roberts.
(2012, from the Rounder Records Press Release)
To coincide with the release of Across The Imaginary Divide, I had the pleasure of asking Béla Fleck some questions regarding his experiences performing and recording with the Marcus Roberts Trio, as well as touch upon his own philosophical approach to collaboration in the process.
As a longtime fan of Marcus Roberts, can you describe what drew you most to his work initially?
Béla Fleck:I loved the complexity of his conception combined with such an earthy and old fashioned sound. Everything he played sounded ‘right’ to me, and yet new – so it opened up new possibilities for me, and I could learn much from listening.
Over the years, how have your impressions of his work deepened?
Béla:Every time I have heard Marcus, my original feelings were verified. He’s a very serious musician. I have followed his work all along the way. When I heard him play in Savannah, I brought several friends, and they were also knocked out.
In what ways has his work influenced and inspired your own work?
Béla:I’m not sure that it has, except as another reminder of how great music and jazz in particular can be. I haven’t tried to emulate him, as I did with Pat Martino, or Chick Corea, or Charlie Parker, but I call myself a fan. I try to stay aware of who is who in the jazz world and he is a personal favorite.
I read that you first joined the Marcus Roberts Trio at Savannah Music Festival jam session (a session you intended to attend as a fan, but quickly became a participant). Can you describe this experience of your first time playing with them?
Béla:Yes, I saw Marcus play with his group earlier in the festival. Then I went to the jam, hoping to say hello. I wasn’t expecting to end up on stage, but I did. There was an instant empathy when we played that surprised both of us, I believe. It definitely seemed like an invitation to go further. And we both accepted.
A year later you agreed to play together again at the same festival. Can you discuss your experiences putting the set together, performing, and how that inspired the idea of taking the steps towards making a record together?
Béla:On that set, there was to be very little rehearsal time, so I took a quick trip to Tallahassee to get the ball rolling. We threw around some song ideas, and arranged some stuff, so when we got to Savannah we had chosen our material and we just basically ran it down a few times. This gig went kind of perfectly. And that’s what made us both feel confident about the idea of actually doing a project together. If you were in the room that night, you could feel that something very special was happening.
In what ways did you feel most closely connected to the trio?
Béla:I felt very comfortable with them rhythmically. Since I’ve have had very little experience in a straight ahead jazz setting, there was a lot that I had to get used to. But there was also a lot that felt right instantly. I should say that with nearly every group that I have really ended up loving to play with, there was something instantly right about it. This had that to a very high extent.
Were there any differences to overcome, or different perspectives that you opened each other up to during the collaboration?
Béla:Yes, there were things for us all to get used to, learning how each other communicates, finding a way to come to consensus when we didn’t agree on something, etc. These are all the things that new partners have to work through. But the level of the music pointed to the fact that it would be worth the work to learn!
Can you describe the writing process between you and the trio?
Béla:Most of the writing was done separately, with only one tune being co-written. That one is called Petunia. I had most of that written, with four or five parts. Marcus instantly came up with a new essential part, which we incorporated immediately. Otherwise, we each brought a set of tunes to pick from.
The arranging was where the true collaborating happened, and it was very natural. We often found ourselves finishing each other’s sentences, we were so on the same page about how each tune should go. It was very exciting. We had a limited time to learn all these pieces and then record them, so I am thankful that we saw it so similarly.
Béla:I think when we recorded "Some Roads Lead Home", we felt that we were really onto something. Another really thrilling one was the title track. Although it’s quite complex, it came together very quickly, we were excited to hear it back.
Were there any preconceptions or a set direction for the record? To what degree did "just getting together in the same room" shape the process?
Béla:I think that based on our conversations, we knew we were looking to create a sound together, but still have a lot of variety. But with music, notes speak louder than words, so it wasn’t until we were laying the stuff down that we found out how similarly we were really thinking.
For me, for instance, it was very important to have Marcus's ragtime influence included. For Marcus, it was important that my bluegrass influences were a part of this. So, overall we were reminding each other of things about each other that would bring breadth to the album.
I read that you "loved their trio conception" and that you were "thrilled to find a place in it". Can you describe your transition from initially searching for your place within the trio's context to becoming an equal contributor?
Béla:It’s hard to put into words, but trying to be strongly individual, and to carve out a spot for myself without ruining the beauty of their trio ethos was actually quite difficult. Sometimes a suggestion from one of them would help, and sometimes it just had to happen by playing and playing together, until it all made sense.
What were you listening to during this time?
Béla:I listened to some Eric Dolphy stuff, a lot of Marcus’s music, some Oscar Peterson Trio, Ahmad Jamal, and lots more. I quickly realized that I would not be able to assimilate all of these amazing musical directions in time for the recordings, but I could be inspired by them.
Your own history as a collaborator is rich and diverse. I find myself impressed by your intuitive and natural pursuit for something new with each project you take on. What would you say these experiences of working with the Marcus Roberts Trio have added to your sensibilities?
Béla:It’s good to realize that I will be collaborating with a lot of people in my life, so each project doesn’t have to encompass the whole world of music. It was fun to dig deeper into the jazz part of life, and I look forward to learning a lot from Marcus and his amazing friends throughout our time playing together.
What would you say sets this collaboration apart the most from your other collaborations?
Béla:It’s quite different in that it is the first extended project I’ve done within a conventional jazz setting. These musicians are far from conventional, but the setting is more traditional.
Although I collaborated with Chick Corea, that was in a duo format. And although I collaborated briefly with McCoy Tyner, it was a quick hour long session, without much time to explore.
So this is a bath in jazz that I had not yet gotten to take!
What would you say are the common threads between this album and your previous works?
Béla:It’s always me in everything that I do, so it’s the context that’s really changing. I do try to be very responsive to the musicians I am playing with so that different things can come out from me, and that I can truly be changed by the collaboration. That definitely happened here, and I believe it happened in both directions.
Béla:We’ll start with the tunes from the album, I’m sure, but we’ll also have all the tunes we did on that first show to draw on. Those are older tunes from both of our repertoires, so it should be a diverse set list.
Can you share what you been listening to lately that has been particularly inspiring and exciting to you?
Béla:My friend Edgar Meyer is writing some great new music. I got to see his new concerto in Birmingham and it was really great. Also, I am a fan of the group Punch Brothers, they are always doing great stuff using the bluegrass instruments. Alabama Shakes is a cool new band, and I love Derek Trucks, I just got to hear him play live.
What's next for you?
Béla:I am in the process of completing a recording that includes my banjo concerto, which premiered in Nashville in September. It has been recorded, and now I am writing a piece for banjo and string quartet to complete the album. I’ll be touring both with the orchestra and string quartet in the coming years.
This feature originally appeared in Chris Mateer's Uprooted Music Revue.
Chris Mateer is a freelance music writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He is the founder and writer of the Uprooted Music Revue and has been contributing regularly to No Depression. In addition to music writing, Chris teaches visual art and plays the mandolin, banjo, and drums.
As a player and music writer, Chris is always excited to share and learn more. He believes a community thrives on participation and enthusiasm, and he's thrilled to contribute.
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