It was a big deal when the original Flecktones quartet reunited back in 2010, but kind of a small deal as well, since banjoist Bela Fleck had recorded and toured with Victor Wooten and Futureman (aka Roy Wooten, Victor’s older brother and drummer in his band) off and on between their various solo projects in the 18 years since harpist/ pianist Howard Levy took an extended break from the band.
So for fans of the original Bela Fleck and the Flecktones franchise, the band’s Grammy win in February for Best Instrumental Composition for “Life in Eleven” came as a welcome gift, a kind of promise re-fulfilled.
The cut itself, a sprawling, multi-sectioned, chops aplenty affair, is more or less the center of gravity of the band’s reunion CD Rocket Science from 2011, combining dizzying syncopated lines and flourishing solos by Victor, Levy and Fleck himself. Vintage Flecktones.
Fleck talked about it a little in a recent interview with us. The piece sounded to us like a composition that stitched together some improv bits wrapped around a central piano-based figure of Howard’s, but Fleck said that analysis was … well, kinda close, but not really.
“There is very little improv until the ‘gospel section’ that occurs about halfway through,” he explains. “It is largely a set piece that explores the various ways to break up an 11/8 measure in different phrase lengths. So, it may sound like that, but everything was pretty highly composed until the solos in the gospel part. I think it’s cool when the composed parts sound improvised and the improvised parts sound composed, but we go back and forth between the two so often, I can’t see how a listener could tell the difference, at first.”
The CD plays tricks with the listener, bending in and out of fleet soloing and melodic runs that snake their way out of slower, delicately unwrapped passages. There’s furious playing here, of course, but Fleck and this band promote compositional dynamics to a role of uncommon prominence.
“We wanted the album to be more than a set up to show off hot playing,” Fleck says.
“We want to make music that runs the emotional gamut from A to B. Sorry — A to Z is what I actually meant. I think we usually make it from G to X, but we are trying to stretch the ends.
“I went up to Chicago a couple of times to go through ideas that Howard Levy had, and compose with him. I also had sessions with Victor and Futureman separately and together. I also had a lot of tunes saved up to try out. Once we had a big pile of interesting tunes to choose from, we worked each one up and then recorded it, fixing all bugs as we went along. When we had a little more than enough for the record, we stopped.
“We became a crack unit at learning and recording these tunes, it was a very studio.”
Fleck is also predictably complimentary about pianist Levy, who has always lent a certain warm, harmonic fabric to this improbably compelling outfit.
“Howard is amazing at feeling the complex times and improvising freely. And he can offer so many different things to an arrangement, from supportive piano and soloing in any style to insane harmonica improvs and parts. He is also able to write the music down and look at it in a classical sort of way, and see what is really going on with the tunes.”
And elsewhere, we wondered if Fleck was showing off some of his influences — bits like the lithe and buoyant “Like Water” struck us uncannily with an ECM-era Metheny Band vibe.
“Well, I do love that period,” Beck says. “Metheny is wonderful, and his music from that time was very inspiring to me, as was Chick Corea and his many groups, Coltrane, Miles, Bach, Earl Scruggs, and the list goes on. I think the earthy and kind of ‘legit’ traditional elements that the banjo and harmonica bring truly set our music apart from any other in the ‘jazz’ world. It’s a strange combo.”
Strange, maybe, but a language familiar to Colorado ’grass and extra- ’grass fans, many of whom have supported and promoted bands that can trace their musical pedigree to the Flecktones, or Fleck’s work with the seminal New Grass Revival.
“Yes, I love playing in Colorado,” Fleck says. “I feel completely under-creative time. Since we were not on stood there.” tour, everything had to happen in the