music (2006-04)

ReFlecktions of an Icon

Bela and his Flecktones prep for the next chapter in their career

FLECKS OF GENIUS: Bela and his gang shine below the radar.

by Mike Gibson

The pairing of a banjo wizard from New York City with a brother duo consisting of a slap-happy bassist and a dreadlocked drum synthesist seemed unlikely when Bela Fleck first joined forces with Victor and Roy “Future Man” Wooten back in 1988. But sometimes unlikely pairings are the best kind.

Ten albums later, Bela Fleck and his long-running Flecktones are fusion standard-bearers, iconoclasts who became icons by virtue of their pioneering forays into jazz/bluegrass cross-pollination. According to Fleck, the eccentricities and apparent contradictions of their partnership are also the reasons for its continuing success.

“All the people in the band are the kind of people who are so different that it is hard to find a home where they actually fit in,” says Fleck.

“In the past, we all tended to be the weird duck in any group we were in. We all kind of like the idea of being like—what’s that movie, The League of Unusual Gentlemen , or something like that. We’re all weird ducks, but when you put us together in the same room, it sounds totally natural. Natural, but different, in a profound way.”

Coming off a hiatus, the Flecktones have only recently reconvened in preparation for a long series of concert dates in support of their forthcoming album (their 11th) on Columbia Records, entitled The Hidden Land .

“I feel like there is a lot of music—like ours—that happens off the charts, beneath the radar of the big mass-marketed music machine,” Fleck explains. “I had this thing in my head where if you looked at earth from light years away, and based everything on our media, you wouldn’t see all this great stuff that’s happening. But once you got close, you’d discover there was this whole other ‘hidden land’ underneath.”

The last year has seen the band members pursue outside projects, endeavors that included Fleck’s own sojourn to Africa to study the roots of his chosen instrument, and to collaborate with native musicians in Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali. The trip resulted in 200 hours of documentary film footage, and more than 50 recorded songs. Fleck says he’ll edit that material over the coming months and release it in a yet-undetermined format, probably in 2007.

“Part of the Africa trip was a musical safari, just to find cool new musicians and play with them,” Fleck enthuses. “And part of it was to research the roots of the banjo in West Africa, so it was the adventure of a lifetime. My hope is that some of what I learned there will get together with the other mishmash of styles in my head, that it will all mix together and come out in my playing as a new me.”

Fleck helped the fermenting process along by spending much of 2005 collaborating with a host of Western musicians as well, an expansive, genre-spanning list of virtuosos that included traditionalists like Doc Watson, jazzbos like Stanley Clarke, and tye-dye rockers like Keller Williams.

Just how all of those divergent side projects will affect the Flecktones’ music remains to be seen, as the whole of Hidden Land was recorded in 2004 in the months leading up to the band’s break. “We use new material as a means to progress, as a way to leapfrog ourselves into new places, musically,” Fleck says.

“All of the material we’re going to be playing from the new record is stuff we had just barely evolved and recorded and somehow got a good enough version to put on the record. Then we all took a year off from the group. But it’s a little like when you’ve been jogging, and you stop jogging but you’re still cooking for a while afterward. Because the Flecktones have only played four gigs since we came back, and already it feels like everyone has moved forward—that even the band as a whole has moved forward—though we haven’t seen each other. We’ll see how that develops as 2006 wears on.”

Like the Flecktones themselves, the notion that the band has grown as a unit even while its members were living apart seems unlikely. But Fleck believes their evolution in absentia is reflective of those same elements that cemented their enduring partnership in the first place—an improbable collaboration that has survived and thrived for the best part of 20 years.

“We’re fortunate, because most musical relationships don’t last long enough to mature,” Fleck says. “A lot of the best bands break up after two or three years, but we’ve actually been able to continue and develop our relationship. That’s kind of rare, especially with improvising musicians. Because when you have a bunch of guys who are creative, they’re often volatile. These guys aren’t. We’re proud of what we’ve built, and we’re proud of each other.”

Who: Bela Fleck & The Flecktones