Banjo Beethoven

After rocking the worlds of new grass, jazz and pop, Bela Fleck sets his sights on the classics

by Lee Abraham

There was a time in the not too distant past when banjo players knew their place. Relegated almost exclusively to bluegrass and Dixieland, pluckers of the five string longneck have always been a fast fingered, yet underachieving bunch. Blame tradition. From the instrument’s inception, banjo players have been expected to be ready, willing and able to bust loose with a twangy solo at the drop of a straw hat, but little else. And then it happened. Pioneering an approach as innovative as his name is unusual, Bela Fleck escorted the banjo from its traditional rumble seat at the rear of the Beverly Hillbilly's jalopy to the jazzed up cockpit of his flying cosmic hippo. In the process, he redefined the banjo’s role in modern music.

According to Fleck, he’s not done. Not by a long shot. His soon to be released album, -Outbound-, the seventh record with his band the Flecktones, promises to once again go boldly where no banjo has ever gone before. "It’s important to try different things," says Fleck. "I don’t want to make the same record over and over." No worries there. Fleck’s options are unlimited. Musically, the guy is a virtuoso. Need Proof? Just check out the range of Grammy Award categories he's either won or been nominated for: pop, jazz, bluegrass, spoken word, best instrumental composition and country. Impressive.

But there’s more to Fleck than just jaw droppin’ technique and an overstuffed trophy rack. He’s a man with a plan. "The last record that we did as a group was -Left Of Cool-, which is the first record that Jeff Coffin (sax) is on, so that one is automatically going to be different than everything we’ve done before because we had a new band member," says Fleck. "In the past, everything you heard on the record was played live and there were no additions. That was sort of an unspoken rule of how we recorded. So the last album we decided we wanted it to be different even though we’ve got Jeff, so we recorded multiple banjos, or Jeff would do a whole horn section or Victor would do some extra basses, or Futureman would do different, extra things. That’s sort of how we fleshed that record out. On the new record though, we decided to go back to basically recording live, but then having a lot of different people come in and do the overdubs. We kind of went hog wild on that! Once you get started it’s hard to turn back."

Especially when you’ve got the clout to bring in whoever you want. "For us it was the musicians that we like alot," says Fleck. "It was like, ‘Wow, what if we could get -this- person, or what if we could get -that- person, or what would this guy sound like on this song?" Rather than sit around and ponder the question, Fleck got on the phone. The answers came easily. All he had to do was ask. Guest artists on the upcoming album include: Shawn Colvin, John Anderson (Yes), Adrian Belew (Bowie, King Crimson), and John Medeski, among others.

"The challenge was somehow keeping it from becoming a hodgepodge," explains Fleck. "The way we did that is a lot of times we used to people to orchestrate the songs rather than making a big solo space for them. There was the idea that someone would work, and then you bring them in the studio and figure out how to actually -make- it work. You don’t just throw them on. You’ve got to actually come up with a plan for each song and develop parts. Each guest has a sound that they make that fits. Sometimes you just let somebody play a bunch and you go back afterwards and figure out what worked. The musicians that we got were so great that inevitably something good would happen."

Fleck is particularly excited about working with keyboard player John Medeski. As a member of Medeski, Martin and Wood, a genre bending jamjazz trio that is quickly becoming one of the hottest properties in music biz, Medeski and Fleck are musical soulmates. "In a certain way they (MMW), are one of our only contemporaries," say Fleck. "They are a band that has a lot of jazz influence that plays to a younger audience. Some of the kids that have been coming to see us due to our relationships with Dave Matthews and Phish, so it seemed like we had something in common even though the music that they play is very, very different from ours. Their’s is almost entirely improvised and ours is much more structured with improvisation built in, so I always thought it would be great to do something with him."

More change: -Outbound- will be the first Flecktone album released on the band’s new label, - Sony Music/Columbia Records. "The things that I liked about Sony is that they are encouraging the band and me to do some very different things," says Fleck. "It wasn’t just signing another deal and just going on making Flecktone’s records. They were offering me the opportunity to record on Sony Classical. I have an interest in playing some classical stuff on the banjo. Then also to be able to do records for Columbia Jazz, which is one of the classic, long range jazz labels that’s been going forever that anyone would be thrilled to put out a jazz record on, as well as having the pop department involved on the Flecktone’s releases."

There’s more. Fleck’s recent solo projects, -Tales From the Acoustic Planet-, in ‘95, and last year’s followup, -The Bluegrass Sessions (Tales From the Acoustic Planet Vol. 2)-, have both been critically acclaimed and popularly received. Although a prolific writer, Fleck was originally cautious of solo work, but that too has changed. "For the first five years or so, I wouldn’t do anything outside the band, in terms of performance," says Fleck "The band had all moved to town and dropped their careers to be in this band and start their lives over, so I felt a real commitment to not taking other work that would take away money from their pockets. But as time went on, I realized that for one thing the band was doing really well, and for another thing, nobody really expected me to do that. And noone else was doing that. Everybody else was eagerly working on other things as well, so I thought, ‘Well, I should too. As long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.’"

"As time has gone on, I’ve actually discovered that people need time off from the band," continues Fleck. "Not so much me, but that they do. So if I go do something else for a while, it actually gives everyone else a chance to do their own things too. Then we come back together and we’re really happy to be together. So it’s sort of idealic right now. Everyone is doing a lot of great stuff on their own that they should be really proud of, and then when we come together, we’re doing this on a high level to a much bigger audience. Life is good."