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By Michael Fagien
Béla Fleck sees no boundaries for the banjo, as he continues his exploration of jazz, fusion, world music and the bluegrass that first fired his imagination. A new album with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain fits right in with his eclectic oeuvre.
Michael Fagien: I’m here with Béla Fleck, best known for his supergroup, the Flecktones. But his collaborations have been fantastic, with his wife Abigail, who’s a stellar banjo player, bassist Edgar Meyer and the legendary Chick Corea. Béla’s also played with the Dave Matthews Band and Asleep at the Wheel. He’s worked with phenomenal artists like Jean-Luc Ponty and Stanley Clarke. I actually saw a video recently with my new buddy, Corey Wong. Béla, you’re all over the place. It’s great to have you, welcome.
Béla Fleck: Thank you. Wow. What a great intro.
Michael: You deserve it. We’ll talk about your new album, As We Speak, as well, with Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer. But I wanted to start by making a formal apology to you. You may not even remember this …
Béla: What did you do?
Michael: The very first time I wanted you on the cover of JAZZIZ, I remember them designing the cover and the headline was “Béla Fleck, Smoking Grass.” And the whole idea was, here’s Béla Fleck, this incredible banjo player, doing things you can never imagine. You may not remember, but you called me and you said, “Man, I wish you didn’t use that headline, ’cause that’s not me. I don’t want people to get the wrong idea.” And I said, “Don’t worry, Béla, that will never happen again.”
Béla: Right. Well, I think what it was for me is, is I feel like a freedom fighter for the banjo as a musical instrument. And of course, typically people wanna put the banjo into the hillbilly point of view. And what I was doing with the Flecktones was trying desperately to point out that there are other avenues for the banjo and places where it can be at home and make a contribution outside of that world. And hey, smoking grass, now it’s legal in most of the States. But the band wasn’t like a pothead band, even though we were associated with the [Grateful] Dead for some of our audience. That wasn’t what we were trying to be. And some people make a distinction of positioning themselves in that world because it connects them with the people that are of a like mind.
We take all-comers, but we also always wanted to be a band that kids could come see. So at that time, absolutely, that [cover headline] was a connotation that maybe we weren’t that. So that’s all it was. I mean, I was thrilled to be in JAZZIZ — I couldn’t believe I was on the cover. But then when I saw that it was “Smoking Grass,” I was like, oh man, I’m trying so hard to be taken seriously. I’ve always been a serious kind of a person about the banjo, because I think banjo music is deadly serious. It can be fun, but it’s not a joke. It’s not a joke.
Michael: I wanted to mention Flecktone Roy “Future Man” Wooten’s SynthAxe. Now, there’s actually a story behind that, that I was kind of involved in. In the earliest days of JAZZIZ, I featured Lee Ritenour with the SynthAxe on the cover. And I get a call from the company that made the SynthAxe, in Oxford, England. And they said, “Wow, you’re the first magazine in the world to feature the SynthAxe on the cover. We wanna meet you at NAMM, we wanna do a whole presentation.” They had like a 20-foot JAZZIZ cover of Lee Ritenour playing the SynthAxe. And I went to that party. I’m a horrible guitarist, but was enamored by the fact that I was in great company. I put one of the SynthAxes on, I started playing it, and in walks Allan Holdsworth and David Torn, and I just slowly took it off, not to embarrass myself … only to find years later, that’s where Roy got the guitar.
Béla: The first one, yeah. It might not have even been the first electric drum controller he created, but it was, it was the first serious one. And he discovered in the end that it actually wasn’t a sensitive enough instrument for him to use. So he built a whole new instrument on top of the synth. And he used the body, but he just built his own triggers that were much more dynamic. And that’s how he got his whole thing. And he was really into being dynamic. Ironically, when he plays the drums, he’s a monster. You know, he’s a banger. When he plays the SynthAxe, he’s looking for dynamics though. He only calls it something else [the Drumitar].
Michael: As many things that mesmerized people at your live shows, it was pretty incredible to say, “Wait, is the drum coming from that guitar thing?”
Béla: It was a lot of fun. We’re getting back together in a couple of weeks to play for the first time in five years. It’s gonna be nice.
Michael: I look forward to that. Now, nationally, you’re doing a tour. I looked at your tour schedule, but I didn’t see anything in the Southeast, where I am.
Béla: No, we’re just doing six shows. We’re working our way out to Telluride for the 50th anniversary [of the Bluegrass Festival, which was held in June], and they asked us if we would appear. So I said, “Well, if everyone’s available and we can get enough dates to get it together.” So we have six shows, and after that, we’ll talk, we’ll see what everybody feels like, if we wanna try and do some more.
Michael: You and Abigail have done interesting projects together. You’re married to a stellar musician who also plays the banjo. How does that work, blending personal and professional lives?
Béla: Well, in the beginning, it never really seemed like it was something that was gonna blend. I loved her music and I thought she was really special. And I remember being at parties before we were a couple, and she would be singing and all the girls would be sitting around on the floor crying, listening to her singing, not me. But then, as we got to know each other, I got to be a real fan of her singing and playing, which is very earthy and there’s a lot of tradition in it, but also an open mind and connection to other cultures. So she has this rare authenticity when she sings. I don’t work with a lot of vocalists, but, boy, I sure know it when I hear one that speaks to you in an honest way.
She’s always about going to her deepest self when she sings. So I love playing with her. And then we have a really fun repartee when we play as a duo. When we had our first child, Juno, we went on tour together. And it was one of those things where you just say, “This is what we’re gonna do. We don’t know how it’s gonna work out, but we’re not gonna be on tour for 200 days when we have a kid, and we’re not gonna be separate. We’re not gonna be off running, doing different things.” And so we started touring together and luckily it turned out to be a great thing.
We built a duo that really worked in a kind of a folk-slash-banjo-centric world. Like a group with only banjos in it, which doesn’t really exist. And especially someone who plays in the old claw hammer style the way she does, and me in the bluegrass technique — finding a way to make those go together has never been an easy thing to do. So, in that way, it spoke to me and my desire to find new ways to play the banjo. And then I got to be the bass player on a bass banjo or a cello banjo. I got to play a piccolo banjo, or I got to be the soloist on a song. And so I found a lot of ways to be creative and have a lot of fun.
And then we started writing songs together, too. During the pandemic, we had our web series called “Banjo House Lockdown,” which was a lot of fun. And now we’re kind of in a situation where the most recent collaboration we did was an orchestra piece, a song cycle for the Colorado Symphony, which we recorded and it turned out really well. And we’re gonna be putting that out and hopefully get to do more of that. But we have a 5-year-old and a 10-year-old. So it’s hard for us to be away from home very much.
Michael: There’s an interesting connection between Abigail and her interest in and exploration of Chinese culture. Have you seen people connecting a little more with China through the music?
[caption id="attachment_55706" align="aligncenter" width="1240"] Photo: WIlliam Matthews.[/caption]
Béla: Well, I think it’s, it’s a way to bring Chinese culture into situations where you wouldn’t normally see it. Like, for instance, at a folk festival, all of a sudden we do a traditional Chinese song. But, you know, because we were doing folk songs, there were also people that took exception. “Hey, you’re not Chinese!” You know, it’s the Me Too era. So people are looking to be sure that you’re not taking advantage of other people or making jokes about other people. But those people themselves would enjoy it, so it’s ironic. But we loved doing that music and going to China. When we would do anything traditional over there, Chinese people would flip and just really be happy.
Most countries are a little bit egocentric. And if you show up in another country and you learn a song of theirs, they like that better than anything else you do. Even if it’s a children’s rhyme, which is lucky because you don’t have to learn the hardest thing in their repertoire to make a connection and find a way to play with the musicians. It can be something quite simple. It’s more about the effort that people really care about. And then, along the way, you learn things. And if you go deeper, you don’t have to “keep it simple, stupid.” But sometimes a simple theme in jazz or classical music is easier to expand and grow and be spontaneous with than a quiet, complex theme.
So, anyway, we love that part of it. She’s done, I think, maybe 17 tours to China. Together we went over there and were able to go to Tibet and perform with the Chinese and American governments in partnership, back when we had our Sparrow Quartet. That was a very weird time to go. And we questioned whether we should go, but we decided it was better to go and see what was going on over there.
Michael: I was actually surprised years ago when I read that you’re originally from New York City. Obviously, bluegrass banjo is not typically thought of as a New York thing. And you grew up in the city, so you were a city guy. I read a story how you were listening to something on the train and that sort of inspired your love for the banjo.
Béla: It was TheBeverly Hillbillies theme. That’s what got me first. Earl Scruggs. And for most people that are gonna be banjo players, it’s Earl Scruggs. It turns the key and activates them from being a dormant possible banjo person to being a rabid banjo freak. And that’s what happened. Earl Scruggs. People talk about B.B. King having that power on guitarists. There’s lots of banjo players out there, but Earl is always the one who turns the key. And so when I heard that, I didn’t tell anybody about it because I was a New York kid and it was a laughing stock honestly.
It wasn’t [considered cool] until “Dueling Banjos” came out a while later, my grandfather saw that I was trying to learn some guitar in a half-assed manner. He said, “Oh, maybe you’ll like this.” And so the day before high school, I went to visit him and, and that’s the train part of the story. I took the train up to Peekskill where he lived, and he gave me this banjo. He got it at a garage sale. And I didn’t have the nerve to think I could play the banjo. I didn’t think anyone could really play it. It was so intimidating. But when someone put one in my hands, I couldn’t put it down. My grandfather did that. And from day one of high school, I was a banjo player, first and foremost. I was just in love with it. But then again, I was growing, like in jazz appreciation class in high school in New York City. They played me Chick Corea, “Spain.”
And then I went to see [Corea] just about three blocks from my house, where I lived on the Upper West Side. I went to see him at the Beacon Theater with Return to Forever. My mind was blown and my life was changed, and I wanted to do that even though I was a banjo player. So it was just a weird thing, you know.
Now also, I have to say, there’s a lot of great New York banjo players, some of them very well known. And they tend to be innovators. Bill Keith would be one of the ones who also played with Bill Monroe for a little while, but was mostly known for transforming the banjo into more of a jazz instrument from the bluegrass perspective. And then there’s Tony Trischka, who was my teacher. And he’s just a freewheeling progressive, primitive modernist. He’s just very much himself. And, also remember, that this is coming out of the folk boom of the ’60s. So now I’m a kid in the early ’70s. There’s lots of banjo playing in New York City and some really good players.
Michael: Before I’d heard of the Flecktones, there was this new acoustic movement. And it was Tony Trischka and Sam Bush and Mark O’Connor.
Béla: David Grisman, he was the king.
Michael: And yet, while you continued to do that, you then went in this other direction. And it makes sense when you talk about Return to Forever, basically, this music that you were turned on to and said, “I wanna do some of that.”
Béla: Well, the other piece of it for me is I was watching all of these guys, Tony Rice, David Grisman, and they were starting to do music without a banjo. Because there really wasn’t a person on the scene who could follow them into that music. And it stamped it with that same irritating stamp of “hillbilly music.” And they wanted to grow into a new place. And I was like, “I don’t wanna see banjo taken outta this music. I wanna be the guy who plays with you guys.” And so I just clawed my way into that scene and tried to find my place. But I was really very much coming from the same place as Tony Rice and Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas and Tony Trischka and all these guys, just looking for a way to be myself on the instrument.
And maybe I had a little more legit jazz. Just from growing up around it, I had a tendency to be able to assimilate a little bit more. Like Tony, he would have a lot of jazz in his music, but he wouldn’t go and play in a jazz group. He would just bring jazz elements into his bluegrass. But I was actually going to jazz clubs and trying to sit in and trying to play the tunes and read the changes and learn the language more directly. So that gave me some different tools when I went back to bluegrass, which I did again here recently with the MyBluegrass Heart album. But we gotta talk about Zakir and Edgar.
[caption id="attachment_55578" align="aligncenter" width="726"] Photo by Jeremy Cowart[/caption]
Michael: They’re on the new album, As We Speak, and two artists who are absolutely stellar. And this is an album that takes you, I wouldn’t say in a completely different direction, because it includes some of the music that you’re so great at. But you’re seeing the influences of Edgar, and the tabla and the Indian music of Zakir. Tell us how that collaboration happened and what it meant to make this record.
Béla: I think it’s important when you’re collaborating to play with the best people you can play with. And try not to feel intimidated and remember to bring yourself to the party. The reason I say that is because Edgar, Zakir and also Rakesh Chaurasia, who plays flute with us, are people with a lot of information that I don’t have, that I didn’t grow up with. And Zakir and Rakesh, they’re at the very highest levels of Indian music. Zakir is probably the most beloved living Indian musician at this point. He’s a superstar in India and around the world. And Rakesh grew up in that world learning from his uncle, Hariprasad, who was the king of the bamboo flute for ages and ages.
And so, being around those guys, there’s a tendency to go, “I’m not worthy and teach me about Indian music.” But that’s not what we’re there for. We’re there to bring ourselves, as well. So we have to find a way to learn from each other while bringing ourselves to the party. Edgar, the same thing. I’ve known Edgar for so long and I’m still blown away by his his musical mind, the things that he does. And he has the whole classical world at his fingertips, in his brain. He he grew up with that world. He knows how to compose like nobody I’ve ever met. And then his ability on the bass is so idiosyncratic. We talk about trying to be yourself. He’s the most himself. Nobody plays like him in the world. And usually that means, you know, “show-off town.” It’s not just that. It’s like, sometimes it’s the subtlety, sometimes it’s the way he plays with the bow, the expression he can get with an instrument that’s that hard to play, the command — but also this bigger picture about music. There’s a lot to learn from all these guys.
I’m just happy as can be. I’m learning from everybody. Everyone in the room can be my teacher, which is the way the Flecktones were, too. Everyone in the band can teach each other things. I like that.
So, anyway, this thing started with a project that Edgar and Zakir and I did together, which was an orchestra piece, a triple concerto written for the opening of the new Symphony Hall in Nashville when it opened back up. And they invited me and Edgar to pick a triple concerto partner and write something. They wanted Nashville writers to write the piece to commemorate the opening. So we wrote a piece called “The Melody of Rhythm.” And then we filled out the album with several other trio pieces. And then we went out and did some touring and really had a great time playing, and after a couple of years, we all went back to our normal lives. At some point, we went to India to jam with Zakir one year, and he introduced us to Rakesh. And that was a whole new world. It suddenly kind of gave us a new place to go with this trio. And certainly it became a band because with the trio, we didn’t have a way for Edgar, Zakir and I to groove together underneath a soloist, because there was only three of us.
It was very sparse. We’re always looking for that space, a way to make Edgar comfortable to solo. And then when I soloed, [they were] like a rhythm section with no chords. But Rakesh suddenly gave us this opportunity to have the biggest sound the group could have, where the flute is cranking and the three of us are really building underneath him. And you could really take it somewhere. So we decided to do some touring that way. And we made a record sort of right at the end of the tour of all this new music, which was, I believe, maybe October or November, just before the pandemic hit. So all this stuff sat in the can for whenever we were gonna tour again.
We were like, “Let’s put it in the can. When we’re ready to tour again, we’ll put out a record.” So now we’re finally doing that. And I was the one who was fortunate enough to have the job, since we recorded at my house, of taking all those raw tapes and making them into the album. And I mixed it and edited it myself with some instruction and help from the guys. But everybody liked what I did apparently, or at least they’re telling me that. And I’m really proud of it. But it wasn’t hard to do. It was a joy because there was just so much good music on those takes. It was just really, really fun. And we worked really hard to get a good sound.
That’s another thing about collaborating. When people have a good sound and they know who they are, it’s not that hard. I just try to be myself and try to make it sound right and feel right and be honest to myself. And when you have four people that are all doing that, and they’re all being themselves together, but really listening to each other, again, it’s just not that hard. It’s hard when somebody doesn’t have a beautiful sound to blend with or doesn’t have a good sense of time or pitch. Not a problem here. So, in a way, it was about as natural as it could be.
Michael: And to quote one of your band mates on the album, the music emerges “as we speak.” That’s the title of the album, which I thought was very apropos. It’s the language, the respective language of the individual players. But you’re all talking and listening and it makes for a great album.
Béla: Let me put it this way: Instrumentalists all wanna sing with their instrument and speak with their instrument. I play my banjo. I don’t sing, I don’t talk, I just play my instrument and that’s my way of speaking. And so, As We Speak is kind of a nod to the fact that all four of us have made instrumental music our way of communicating. So you can have that phrase mean whatever you want it to, but to me it, it was a little bit ironic because no one is speaking and yet we all are.
Michael: Well, I’m sure it’ll speak to not only your fans, but to fans of really good music that maybe explores a genre they’ve never heard before. And that’s one of the things I’ve always appreciated about you, Béla: I never really listened to the banjo before you, and it just gave me a new appreciation.
Béla: Well, I’m glad. I mean, I love the banjo. Sometimes I think if I played guitar, I wouldn’t have had as fortunate a career because I stick out. I feel like I’m all alone sometimes. I mean, that’s not fair to my banjo brethren, because there’s some phenomenons out there. But I’m kind of out there on a limb trying to figure out how to interact with people and I’m the only banjo player in the room usually. So, yeah, in a way, it’s a brand, and if you hear it, people might say, “Oh, that must be Béla.” Well, a lot of other people started creating serious banjo music that I consider very beautiful. So I’m glad to be part of the movement. Glad to be one of the forerunners. Tony [Trischka] is, too. He was there before me. Bill Keith was there before me. It’s a continuum. You’ve got the ball for a while. Keep it in my air as long as you can until your arms get tired and someone else will take it. And they’re, they’re lined up behind me.
Michael: Well, we hope that you continue to run with the ball before you pass it on, because we want to continue to hear great music, not only from your duo and collaborative projects, but the Flecktones.
Béla: Yeah, man, I do have to say one thing since this is JAZZIZ. I’ll let you know about two projects that will be coming out next year sometime. Before Chick Corea passed away, we did a last tour in which we did all new music, and that tour was recorded. And then, during the pandemic, we started collaborating on new music and sending music back and forth. So there’s a whole album of new music from Chick and me that’s gonna be coming out next year. That is, I think, the high point of what we were able to come up with together as a duo. I’m really proud of my association with him, as he was my hero. He was the guy that made me see the possibilities of all of this musically, and becoming good friends with him and getting to play music with him at all was incredible. I’m really thrilled that at the end of our association, we pushed the ball a little bit higher together. And I think we found some really nice new directions. We were “jazzed,” to use the word. And it was very, very sad to lose him.
And then the other thing that I’m working on is also a pandemic thing, where I had time on my hands. I’ve always loved “Rhapsody and Blue.” I grew up in New York City two blocks from one of Gershwin’s residences. And I saw the movie [1945’s Rhapsody in Blue] when I was a kid and I just always loved that piece. So I decided to sort of explore whether I could play any of the piano part on the banjo. And it turned out I can play almost all of it. And I’ll be starting to perform it with orchestras all around the 100th anniversary of the pieces premiering, which also happens to be just a matter of weeks from Earl Scruggs 100th birthday. So, that’s some of what’s coming.
Michael: We look forward to all that, and to exploring some other musical things that you’re doing.
Béla: All right, man, it was a pleasure talking to you. Thank you.
Featured photo by William Matthews.