Fleck likes to stretch his boundaries

October 08, 2003|By Jeff Rivers | Jeff Rivers,HARTFORD COURANT

One day, a black cat he would name "Animal" walked into Bela Fleck's Nashville, Tenn., home and never left.

The Grammy-winning banjo player says songs come to him like that: out of nowhere, only to make themselves at home with the right care and feeding.

"I compose in the dark a lot," says the 45-year-old native New Yorker, who dares to make music without the illumination of "being grounded in theory."

Like his grandfather, Fleck says he loves to tinker. But instead of focusing his attention on things like septic tanks, as his grandfather did, Fleck uses his banjo to play everything from classic bluegrass to compositions by the great composers of European concert music.

"I wait until I have to handle stuff, and I figure out how to do it," says Fleck, who stops with his band the Flecktones at Lisner Auditorium Friday and Saturday. "I just love all kinds of music."

Fleck and his longtime collaborator, bassist Edgar Meyer, co-produced the Grammy Award-winning album Perpetual Motion, featuring works by masters Chopin and Bach. Fleck chose the masterworks because they lend themselves to the banjo or because they allow him to explore different aspects of his instrument and the classical genre.

Fleck says he chose the songs from about 100 CDs he was sent from Sony Classical Records, his classical label.

Fleck often auditioned the songs as he traveled. If they didn't hit him in the first minute or so, "bye-bye Beethoven."

The child of a schoolteacher mother and cellist stepfather, Fleck said hello to the Beatles when the "Fab Four" hit the United States in 1964. He was 5 when Beatlemania gripped America, but he got swept up in it just the same. "Their music kept ... growing," Fleck says.

In an effort to grow as a musician, Fleck studied guitar at Manhattan's High School of Music and Art, made famous by the movie and TV series Fame.

He also studied banjo with Tony Trischka, Erik Darling and Mark Horowitz. In 1976, he joined Boston's Tasty Licks, a bluegrass band. Three years later, he helped form the group Spectrum in Lexington, Ky.

Fleck cut his first solo album, Crossing the Tracks, in 1980. Two years later, he joined three other musicians in New Grass Revival, a group that stretched or shattered boundaries in bluegrass music.

He met Meyer during the 1980s, when the bassist was playing on the street in Aspen, Colo., where Meyer had come to study. "I could have reported him to the authorities," Fleck says, laughing.

Instead, Fleck remembers being "blown away" as Meyer played a Beatles tune.

The two have been friends and collaborators since. Meyer has been hailed as a virtuoso musician and a contemporary composer with broad reach.

His compositional skills augment Fleck's strengths as an improviser and risk-taker, the banjo player says.

Since 1989, Fleck has been the leader of the Flecktones, a quartet that combines jazz, pop, bluegrass and other influences.

They've produced albums such as Outbound and Live Art. At the same time, Fleck has enjoyed solo projects with such guest musicians as jazz pianist Chick Corea and bluegrass banjo legend Earl Scruggs. The latter's "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies TV show, introduced Fleck to the joy of the banjo.

This is a particularly busy period for Fleck. He and Meyer have been writing songs together. Fleck has composed for the Nashville Symphony. He is working on the score for a PBS special on a Louisiana leper colony. The Flecktones, meanwhile have released a three-CD set called Little Worlds to wide acclaim.

Among the tunes on the new CD is a re-imagining of "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" with vocals by Bobby McFerrin.

Because Fleck is constantly open to new approaches to music, he says, it's precluded him from producing a signature song.

Consequently, despite fan favorites such as "Sunset Road," Fleck says he's been too eclectic to produce tunes he feels he must play in his concerts.

While he knows he has a core of dedicated fans, he often finds himself performing before those who are new to him and his music. He likes that.

"It's one of the best feelings when you play for an audience that's never heard you before, and they end up liking you. That's a real joy."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


What: Bela Fleck and the Flecktones

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Where: Lisner Auditorium, George Washington University, 21st and H streets, N.W., Washington

Admission: $35

Call: 410-481-SEAT

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