Bela Fleck’s Restless Explorations
The list of Bela Fleck’s collaborators is a head-spinning kaleidoscope through modern music.
Sam Bush and John Cowan in New Grass Revival, a group that redefined acoustic music. The out-there rhythm section of Roy and Victor Wooten and the polymath harp player Howard Levy in the Flecktones. Double bassist Edgar Meyer. Tabla player Zakir Hassain. An assortment of African players and singers. Jazz stars Chick Corea and Marcus Roberts. And, most recently, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and the innovative string quartet, Brooklyn Rider.
“It keeps me excited about music,” he says. “It keeps my job from turning into a job. I want to play music I’m passionate about rather than learning it so well I just do it. I want to actually love it. And I love it more when I keep learning new things.”
That means moving in what is a dramatically new direction for Fleck, who for years has been one of music’s great improvisers on the banjo. Rather than getting together with a group of guys like the Flecktones or an artist like Corea, he’s composed a concerto for symphony orchestra and a quintet for a string quartet, painstakingly writing down every note.
The quintet is a collaboration with Brooklyn Rider, the string players known for their contemporary compositions and their work with Yo-Yo Ma and others, including Suzanne Vega.
They are on tour from Virginia to Indiana to Washington, D.C. over the next few weeks. Fleck, who has won 16 Grammy Awards and been nominated in more different categories than any artist, says to expect to hear not only the quintet, but also their versions of Flecktones tunes, bluegrass tunes, and Brooklyn Rider compositions.
“What I’m after from a string quartet is not to turn it into a meter machine like a bluegrass band or the Flecktones, but to pull the banjo into their world and figure out how to play flexibly,” he says. “There’s going to be a lot of exciting, intense stuff, but there’s also going to be a lot of beauty that you can’t get in a bluegrass band or a jazz band, long notes that hang in the air and evoke a lot of different feelings.”
Fleck’s latest sharp turn is another in a career filled with them. “It’s a period in my life where I’m trying to write things down and I’m trying to compose,” he adds. “It’s something I haven’t done before: write with an overview as opposed to interacting with great musicians who bring a lot of compositional skills.”
“In classical music, the composer writes every single note everybody plays so it’s a whole different challenge,” Fleck says. “I’d like to be good at both.”
Fleck’s challenge began after being commissioned by the Nashville Symphony to create a banjo concerto. Fleck told the symphony’s chief executive officer that he thought a major banjo concerto had not been written and that he would love to write it. To his surprise, the symphony leader thought it was a great idea.
Fleck had collaborated in recent years on concertos with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hassain so it was not foreign soil for him. “The banjo is an instrument that has not gotten its due,” he says. “One idea of creating a classical repertoire is that it will be around a long time.”
Fleck reads banjo tablature, but he does not read traditional musical notation. He turned to technology, using a work-around, a software program called Sibelius that translates banjo tablature into other instruments. It also allows him to explore ideas on his computer, starting with one note and building from there. He wrote for six months, often while on tour, coming off stage and working in the tour bus or hotel rooms or coffee shops, wearing headphones. He spent six months on the concerto, the benefits of being in a band that doesn’t have to practice so he could come off stage and have extra energy to work on the project, giving him something fresh to bounce off of that’s not the music he’s performing.
“There’s a lot of slow work I do to create these pieces,” he says. “In the end, I get them the way I want them.”
He took two retreats, one to the Oregon coast, and one to New Mexico, and he says he hears Oregon particularly in the music. “It was on the beach where there was a lot of interesting water action going on, a lot of diverse waves,” he adds. “I think there’s a lot of water, especially in the concerto.”
The concerto addresses everyone from Stravinsky and Bartók to Copland, Gershwin, and Earl Scruggs and plays off the idea the banjo picker sneaks in with a disguise, becomes convinced he belongs there, but eventually is discovered.
After he’d finished the three movements of the concerto, which appears on his latest, “The Imposter,” he needed more music to flesh out the album. So he began writing sketches for the quintet and then asked around about players. His new classical agent suggested Brooklyn Rider. Fleck did his homework, listening to their records and asking friends about them. They got together for a day, playing the sketches. “They knocked me out,” Fleck says. Then they work shopped the pieces for a few days, making more adjustments.
Don’t think that Fleck is abandoning the other genres he’s explored. He’s playing shows with his wife, claw hammer banjo virtuoso, Abigail Washburn, digging into rootsy music.
“It’s not that I’m going to stop doing the other,” he says. “But there are things that are possible when you write music down like this that are not possible in an in improvisational situation. I’ve always improvised. For this to be different, for me to learn something, I had to see what I could come up with. What if I sat and worked on it for months? What kind of new techniques and sounds could I get by thinking about for an hour what those four bars should sound like?
Fleck grew up in New York, attending Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art, the setting for the movie and television series, “Fame.” He studied the French horn, which he hated, then began taking banjo lessons with Tony Trischka, a banjo pioneer, learning the three-fingered technique of Earl Scruggs. It was listening to Scruggs play the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies that turned him on to the instrument.
“Growing up in the Sixties what was happening to music at the time made a little guy pretty excited about possibilities,” he says. “It seemed like every time the Beatles put out a new record it was a brand new world. Then Woodstock and Jimi Hendrix and what was happening in jazz music. I just thought that was what you were supposed to do — open up the doors and keep expanding. I took that to heart as a musician and that’s what I keep trying to do.”