Banjoist Béla Fleck has created more music in more contexts than most any instrumentalist in recent memory: redefining bluegrass with the New Grass Revival; breaking new ground in fusion with the Flecktones; writing classical pieces for symphony; playing jazz, Indian, and African music with luminaries of each style. So when well-meaning souls advised him against touring as part of a banjo duet with his wife, Abigail Washburn, Fleck had faith that his instincts would be vindicated.
“We had been warned by friends who were looking out for us not to perform together,” he says in a recent interview, conducted via e-mail due to a busy road schedule. “And for most couples that’s great advice. For some reason, it works with us, and we love it.
“It is a very special thing to go out on stage together, learn to depend on each other in different ways, and be creative together. Plus, we have a lot of fun talking to the audience.”
Fleck says their musical partnership has grown to the point that he and Washburn are conceiving a new album together, marking the first truly extensive songwriting collaboration between the two. “We have written occasionally throughout our years together,” says Fleck, who produced Washburn’s first album, Song of the Traveling Daughter, in 2005, prior to their romantic relationship. “And there have been friendly suggestions we make to each other while composing separately—I value her ear, and I have been able to lend her mine.
“We’re now writing more for the new album we’re working on, and the things we come up with are very sweet and reflect our personalities in an interesting way. It reminds me of our baby boy, Juno, who has big parts of both of us combined.”
The material the duo is currently performing includes a mix of both artists’ solo material, in addition to some bluegrass/traditional songs, and “some solo bits, for me show off a bit,” Fleck adds.
Fleck says the performances showcase his improvisational skills; Washburn is less of a free-form soloist, though he she is an adept accompanist, and provides vocals throughout the set.
“I improvise constantly,” he says. “Some of the tunes are quite simple and spare, so I can look at them as a canvas to paint differently every night. Abby is not really an improviser, but she knows how to support and react when I go off on a tangent.”
Of course, there are challenges involved with writing or arranging songs for two banjos. But Fleck is no stranger to those kinds of challenges; in recent years, he has composed and performed with the Nashville Symphony, with double-bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer, and with tabla player Zakir Hussain.
And he approaches his duets with Washburn with characteristic creativity.
“It’s important to find different roles, so we’re not occupying the same sonic space,” he says. “Sometimes I like to get on my new baritone banjo, on which I can provide the low notes and bass lines, beneath Abby’s clawhammer grooves. Sometimes she plays the cello banjo, and I go way up high. And sometimes we both play our regular banjos and don’t worry about it. There’s actually a lot of variety of sound for a band with two banjo players and a vocalist.”
Fleck’s most recent album is the 2013 release The Impostor, a concerto for banjo and orchestra with the Nashville Symphony and the Brooklyn Rider String Quartet. It reflects what seems to be a growing interest on his part in adapting his instrument to classical music.
“I soaked up as much as I could working with Edgar [Meyer],” he says. “Now I’m flying solo, with several pieces I’ve written on my own. I love the chance to work in that medium, and create another new kind of banjo music in a time-tested setting.”
But Fleck says the music he’s making now, with Washburn, constitutes a sort of new territory for his explorations, despite its apparent familiarity. “I had played on a record with Doc and Merle Watson, on which Merle and I did a couple of songs with two banjos, which sounded great,” he says. “I also had a duet with Mark Schatz on my 1982 album, Double Time. But if Abby and I hadn’t gotten together as a couple, it might have taken me a long time to get around to collaborating with another banjoist. I rarely do it. In this case I just love it. And her.”