Béla Fleck Crosses Over Every Which Way

Banjo player steeped in jazz and bluegrass jams with rockers and calls on some exotic players for Outbound.

If banjo modernist Béla Fleck is guilty by association, woe to anyone who tries to categorize those collaborative deeds.

Consider the guests on Outbound, the new disc with his merry band of Flecktones. Jon Anderson of prog-rockers Yes, folk-pop princess Shawn Colvin and Tuvan throat-singer Ondar all vocalize on "A Moment So Close" (RealAudio excerpt).

Other tracks include oboe ace Paul McCandless, guitarist Adrian Belew, organist John Medeski and steel-pan stylist Andy Narell. A tabla player and a string quartet contribute to a syncopated romp through Aaron Copland's "Hoedown" (RealAudio excerpt).

And all this comes from a band that already boasts a virtuoso electric bassist, a multisax magician and a percussionist who triggers his beats from finger pads built into a guitar synthesizer.

Oh yeah, there's also this association with the jam-band scene, which is partly responsible for the salad above.

"There are a lot of bands with common energy," Fleck, 42, said with a smile, sitting backstage at the recent Berkfest in Massachusetts, where he had just played separate sets with the Flecktones (joined by guest DJ Logic) and bluegrass veteran Peter Rowan. "This is a good example of a place that you could argue whether we fit or not, but when we play, the people like it — which also happens at a jazz festival or a bluegrass festival. This is a very open audience.

"Without really changing anything about ourselves, we've been accepted into a whole other world," he said of the jam circuit, which includes his Berkfest comrades the String Cheese Incident, moe. and Medeski Martin & Wood. "Suddenly, here was a genre that seemed to think we fit."

And how did that lead to the crazed patchwork of Outbound?

"The fact that we allow taping of our concerts has changed our approach to making records," said Fleck, who also has jammed and recorded with Phish and Dave Matthews. "What's the incentive of buying a record of the same stuff without an audience to get the band excited? The point of the record is giving the audience something that they can't get live. And it's created an opportunity for us to go into the studio and explore."

Switch To 'High-Tech' Primitive Instrument

Fleck's love for exploration goes back to his upbringing in New York City, where, at age 15, he switched from guitar to banjo. "I just loved the sound. There was an earthiness to it, and also a precision. It's a high-tech, primitive thing."

"I was growing up and hearing all kinds of music, and I wanted to play it all," Fleck said in a conversation a few weeks before Berkfest, from his Nashville home. "Because I played the banjo, I really needed to learn to play bluegrass if I wanted to play with people, and as I got deeper into it, the more I learned to love it, and I do love it. But at the same time, I was trying to learn jazz standards and classical pieces and Irish tunes, and play with rock bands. It was an exciting time for me to push the boundaries."

That trail continued through the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival. Then Fleck was told he could do anything he wanted for a public television show, and enlisted bassist Victor Lemonte Wooten and his percussionist brother Roy Wooten, a.k.a. Future Man. Along with keyboard/harp wiz Howard Levy, now replaced by saxman Jeff Coffin, the Flecktones were born.

"I always thought I would get into jazz as a banjo player because it was a high jump," Fleck said. "But when I met the guys, I realized there was a much greater opportunity to make a different kind of music, where it's not just a band backing a banjo player who's playing a different way. You hear that kind of stuff all the time, with [jazz harmonica player] Toots Thielemans or whoever, people who play their instrument, but with a conventional backing. But what if everybody in the band was doing something unconventional? That was the opportunity that presented itself to me, just by sheer luck."

A Sonic Patchwork

Along the way, the Flecktones have forged a more cohesive identity, moving beyond jazz fusion (similar to pianist Chick Corea's Return to Forever) and world-music dabbling to create the sonic patchwork that became Outbound.

"Instead of more overdubs, we decided, 'Let's have real people playing instruments,' " Fleck said. "Oboe, English horn, bassoon, steel drums, tabla. That's what we used to orchestrate the album instead of a pile of samples.

"It's a combination of electronic and acoustic music," said Fleck, who plays both kinds of banjo, while Future Man plays both his Synth-Ax Drumitar and acoustic percussion. "There's an earthiness, but also an experimentation. Maybe Future Man represents the wilder side of it, and the acoustic banjo represents the earthiest side, but we both go both ways."

Berkfest mate Medeski, who played on Outbound, said, "The chromatic stuff he does on banjo is really difficult on the instrument, and it's amazing. Plus he's really musical with it. He's taken a bluegrass sensibility and combined it with jazz improvisation. And the other thing [the Flecktones] have is a really subtle way of communicating onstage."

Fleck's future under his new Sony contract also includes two classical releases and a jazz CD as well another Flecktones outing. "I'm working really hard right now on a classical repertoire for the banjo, which is another area I've always been interested in," he said. "And when I'm ready to work on this jazz record, I'm going to need to play with these [other] musicians for a while before I'm ready to record.

"The Flecktones are always a fusion — we're always building it around what the banjo does well, but in a jazz context, I will have to do a lot more work on making the banjo work legitimately. I'm going to try and give it my best shot, and people can debate whether it works or not, but I'll ultimately learn a lot from the process."