When Bela Fleck and the Flecktones arrive in Tulsa for a show at Cain's Ballroom, it's a reason to celebrate for Flecktones fans. Although the band has never gone away, it has returned to its original lineup of Fleck with bassist Victor Wooten, drummer Roy "FutureMan" Wooten and pianist/blues harpist Howard Levy with the 2011 release of Rocket Science and the corresponding tour.
Over the years, Fleck has proven to be one of the most versatile and prolific banjo players in the music world, touching on everything from bluegrass and folk to world music and progressive jazz with a variety of projects and parings with other artists. Just as the Flecktones wrap up the tour behind Rocket Science, Fleck is preparing for the release of Across the Imaginary Divide in June, which he recorded and will be touring behind with Marcus Roberts Trio this summer. He also has more performances of his banjo concerto planned with various orchestras in the coming months, another treatment to just how versatile and busy he is.
Future Now. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones reunite their original quartet at Cain's April 11.
I recently caught up with Fleck via email to discuss the Flecktones and plans for the future, but it was before the untimely passing of Earl Scruggs, so I didn't have an opportunity to discuss his passing or influence of Fleck. We did, however, discuss the excitement around the current Flecktones reunion, which recently won a GRAMMY award for Best Instrumental Composition for the track "Life at Eleven."
When asked how the current reunion came about, bringing the original members back together more than 20 years after initially forming, Fleck revealed that the story has a few different layers. "A few years back, while we were on a couple year hiatus, Leroi Moore, who played sax with Dave Mathews Band had an AV accident and eventually died," he said. "They asked our sax player Jeff Coffin to fill in for him and eventually take a full time job with DMB. We encouraged Jeff because we had no immediate plans to tour."
"A year or so later we realized that it was a good time for Victor, Future Man and myself to get back together, and we now had a vacancy," Fleck said. "We all thought it could be intriguing to see if Howard would be interested in coming back. He was with us for the first several years of the band, and when he left, there was still plenty left unexplored creatively. Luckily he was into it, and in our 24th year, we are reunited with the original lineup. And it's amazing!"
Although Fleck has an incredibly loyal following and the ability and opportunity to play a variety of different styles with many different artists, the Flecktones remain the act that seems closest to many fans' hearts. When asked what makes the Flecktones -- and specifically this lineup -- so special, both to himself and the fans, Fleck responded, "There is an alchemy that this lineup brings, a chemistry that is palpable. Howard is an incendiary player and brings different things out of us. The music has a certain edge and push that can only come with him."
"I loved the band with Jeff too," he added, noting that the two lineups are almost different bands.
Fleck specifically made note of how Levy impacts the chemistry of the band by sharing, "Well, for anyone who doesn't know Howard Levy, I'll attempt to explain it. He is one of the greatest to ever pick up a blues harp, and also is a ridiculous piano player. He has reinvented the harp and does it again every night on tour, in front of the audience, often while playing the piano at the same time. He is a big part of the genesis of this band, as he, Victor and Future Man were the guys that inspired me to create the band."
Amidst all of the different projects that Fleck consistently juggles, which currently include Marcus Roberts Trio and the banjo concerto, I had to ask how Fleck manages to balance and prioritize his different endeavors. In typically thoughtful form, he explained that "The Flecktones is the one that everything has revolved around up to this point, in that I play with the Flecktones, then I do something else, then I play with the Flecktones then I do something else and so forth. It's like the classic rondo form = A B A C A D, etc."
Perhaps most intriguing at this point in Fleck's career is the banjo concerto which he has composed and performed with the Nashville Symphony. When asked how that particular project came about, he explained, "I was commissioned by the Nashville Symphony, after I begged them, and they took pity on me."
"Actually it is something I have been needing to do for my own self respect," he continued. "After co-writing a pair of concertos with the great Edgar Meyer (one a triple concerto with Zakir Hussain composing as well) I needed to see if I could create a massive work like this on my own. I did employ a copyist, but I did the orchestration and wrote for all the instruments. And it came off better than I deserved it to! Plus we recorded and filmed the premiere for release, and it looks like it will come out next year on a major classical label."
Although Fleck has plenty of other projects, the current reformation of the original Flecktones lineup is what has kept most fans the most excited over the past year. As the current tour wraps up at the end of April, however, many may wonder if there are future plans for the group. In addressing that topic, Fleck stated that "Well, we always have gotten back together, so I would say the odds are quite good that we will play together again. Initially it seems like it could be several years before that is an option for everyone. ... We are recording this tour, so there is the option of releasing something during the next down time."
In the meantime, Fleck shared that as the Flecktones go back into hibernation, he will be performing the concerto with various orchestras and playing with Marcus Roberts Trio in support of "Across the Imaginary Divide."
For Tulsa fans, however, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones bring the final leg of the tour for Rocket Science to Cain's Ballroom this coming Wednesday, April 11. If there's any question whether you should be there or not, Fleck told me: "Getting to see this version of the band should not be missed, and I don't blow smoke." Get your tickets now to see the original lineup of one of the most influential jazz fusion acts of the past 20 years.
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