by Caroline Wright
Science of the Hands
Béla Fleck has been called a banjo wizard, the Einstein of the banjo, the premiere banjo player in the world.
Is he intimidated by such titles?
"I'm complimented!' the 42-year-old musician laughed, in a recent interview. "I think there's a certain truth to it, because all I do is sit around and try to figure out how to play the banjo in more scientific ways."
Named for composer Béla Bartok, Fleck began to play banjo at age 15, after hearing the popular themes from "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Deliverance", both of which featured the banjo. It was a heady introduction to the instrument. "That was just a spark, you know?" he recalls. "As I got deeper, there was so much incredible music happening in the bluegrass banjo world that you could really fall into it."
After graduating from New York City's High School of Music and Art, Fleck joined Jack Tottle's band Tasty Licks, and then spent a year busking on the streets of Boston. In 1980 he joined the New Grass Revival, where he stayed for almost eight years, making classic recordings with the well-known progressive bluegrass band and simultaneously releasing a series of solo recordings. In 1989, he formed the Flecktones, and they released their first album in 1990 to the acclaim of fans and critics alike.
The only musician to be nominated for Grammy awards for jazz, bluegrass, pop, country, spoken word, Christian, composition and world music categories, Fleck finally won his first award for Best Pop Performance in 1997, for "Sinister Minister", a song on the Flecktones' Live Art album .
"It was very special," he said. "The Grammies were held in New York that year, and my mother was there. We had never won, and we had been nominated lots of times. VH1 said I was the Susan Lucci of Grammies!"
Fleck has won two more statues with the Flecktones, three for other projects he was involved with, and has received 15 nominations (as far as he can remember).
The musician inspires a devoted following wherever he performs. Many of Fleck's fans call themselves Fleckheads, after followers of the Grateful Dead, with whom the Flecktones once toured. One fan has seen the Flecktones play over 75 times; another got his autograph tattooed on her leg.
This year, Fleck inked a deal with Sony Music that will result in two albums for Sony Classical and three albums for Columbia Records. Outbound, his first Columbia project, was released in July. All of the Flecktones - bass guitar wizard Victor Wooten, "Future Man" on the Synth-Axe Drumitar (his own hybrid guitar/synth/drum machine invention), and saxophonist Jeff Coffin – appear on the album. Guest musicians Jon Anderson (lead singer for Yes), Shawn Colvin (legendary folk songstress) and guitar monster Adrian Belew also contribute their talents. The album contains an enormous variety of diverse influences, including reggae and Brazilian motifs, country flavorings, fusion grooves, and Indian inflections – and a cover of Aaron Copeland's "Hoe Down".
Is this a preview of the first recording for Sony Classical, now in the planning stages? Well, not really, says Fleck, who has gone back to the early classics for his next project. "I'm doing some more inside stuff: a lot of Bach, a couple of Beethoven, a Paganini, some Chopin. So I'm practicing and studying. I looked for some Bartok to record for this project, but I didn't find anything that fit with the other music. That's going to have to wait."
Though many musicians would crumble before the challenge presented by the unique arrangement with Sony, Fleck embraces it. "It's cool because I'm being pushed by the label to be more aggressive musically. Usually the artist pushes the label to let them do something. In this case they've signed me and said, 'We want you to really do a classical record, to really do a jazz record.' To me, that's a lot of fun because I'm being forced to grow musically just to fulfill the contract! That's the kind of challenge I like."
Labels can be confining, but the wide spectrum of words used to describe Fleck's music certainly bear mentioning: jazz fusion, Blu-Bop, jam band music - even alternative rock. Fleck himself doesn't waste much time thinking about it.
"I think it's contemporary music – music you play and write as a reaction to everything you've grown up with, as opposed to learning an old style and continuing it, like traditional bluegrass and classical music. I just play banjo based on growing up in this time period. It feels really natural."
Wherever Fleck turns for his next inspiration - chasing bumblebees with a stethoscope, pressing his ear against the heart of an oak tree – he'll simply be doing what comes naturally.
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones will appear at the House of Blues in North Myrtle Beach on Friday, October 6 at 8:30 PM. Tickets are available for $19.50, $22.00, $39.00, and $49.00; call 272-3000.
Caroline Wright is a freelance writer. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 347-5634.
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