May 15, 2010

Passionate About the Banjo

by Jim Newsom

For the last twenty years, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones have been one of the most exciting genre-busting bands in music. Anchored by a rhythm section composed of two Newport News natives—bassist Victor Wooten and his brother, electronic percussionist Roy “Futureman” Wooten—Bela Fleck has taken the banjo to musical places rarely if ever visited by the old five-string.

He has continued his explorations in extracurricular collaborations with musicians from a variety of disciplines, most recently with Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain and double bassist Edgar Meyer on the classically tinged, compellingly eclectic CD, The Melody of Rhythm. This trio comes to the Williamsburg Lodge for a Virginia Arts Festival performance on Friday, May 28th.

“We would sit and collect ideas,” Fleck told me recently, describing the threesome’s creative process. “We’d find these amazing tabla rhythms and write pitches to them. The instruments are unusual but they really work together because those guys are such marvelous musicians. I like being surrounded by guys that I can learn from. That was always the thing with the Flecktones. Edgar and Zakir are exactly the same for me.”

It’s the latest musical adventure for the New York City native, one that began when he heard Flatt & Scruggs as a teenager.

“I played some half-assed folk guitar,” he said, “and I knew one blues scale, playing Beatles songs and that kind of thing. But I never played in any kind of technically proficient way.

“When I got the banjo everything changed, and it turned on this super strong flame. The guitar was the pilot light, and with the banjo the flames got turned on strong and I couldn’t put it down. I went directly for technical proficiency.

“I guess I put in the kind of time that Zakir talks about, but nowhere close to what he did. He talks about being a little kid and his dad waking him up at 4:00 in the morning for his tabla lessons.

“Do you know the book [Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell] that talks about the 10,000 hour principle? It’s this concept where anybody who is really good at something has to put in 10,000 hours. Talent isn’t enough; you’ve got to be willing to put in that time. I think there’s something to it. The people that I love to play with have put in that time and they continue to put in that time.”

Bela Fleck has obviously put in a lot of time himself. The most innovative banjo player of his generation, he has shown that his instrument is much more versatile than its stereotypical pigeonhole in bluegrass and old time music. He has been nominated for Grammy awards in more categories than anyone else.

“I didn’t grow up in a cabin on the hill,” he said. “Though I really worked hard on understanding and playing bluegrass as well as I can, that’s still not my natural thing. So it wasn’t exactly honest to go with traditional bluegrass.”

Instead, he emerged via the “progressive bluegrass” or “new acoustic” movement championed by a generation of young pickers in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s:

“That felt honest to me. People like Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas—when I listened to them, I felt there was a place for a banjo player like me. Ricky Skaggs, Jerry and Tony Rice were playing a lot with J. D. Crowe, and though he was a stunning traditional banjo player, they were playing in a very modern way while he was playing in a very traditional way. So I actually felt there was a place for me with those guys; I could see it from a distance and aspire to it.

“Eventually I became good friends with those guys and played in bands with them. I could be the banjo player that could hang with them when they got weird. I tended to fit in a natural way with them. But I have to say that the drama of having them playing with J. D. Crowe was pretty hard to beat because he became the central rhythmic force that they could play off of. With music, it’s not always about being the same; it’s about putting very diverse people together and finding ways for them all to be themselves while being very different.”

He will reconvene the Flecktones this fall for a new recording and subsequent live performances. But he is spending the summer on tour with Hussain and Meyer, exploring the possibilities and expanding their mutual musical palette. With one album together under their belts, they have new material in the works and plans for future get-togethers.

“When I have something to practice for like playing with Zakir and Edgar,” he explained, “it’s easy to motivate myself. I start working on the rhythms and the Indian stuff I’ve learned, try out my own ideas and come up with things to show them. That’s why I’m always looking for something that I’ll be passionate about.”

Bela Fleck with Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer
The Melody of Rhythm

Friday, May 28th – 8:00pm
Williamsburg Lodge
Tickets: $35.00 – 45.00
282-2800; www.vafest.org

copyright © 2010 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.