By Mike Zielinski
Banjo legend Béla Fleck & The Flecktones are like no other. Their propulsive and imaginative journey through a staggering amount of genres travels like a lit fuse.
Their music is as if an unsolvable jigsaw puzzle suddenly developed audio and blossomed into a totally unique mosaic in pursuit of the infinite.
Fleck and his splendidly talented ensemble of Victor Wooten (bass), Roy “Futureman” Wooten (percussionist/drumitarist) and Howard Levy (harmonica/keyboards) have been creating some of the most forward-thinking music during their long, storied career.
Music that they are transporting to the 30th anniversary Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest as presented by the Berks Arts Council on Sunday, March 29, at 6 p.m. at the Santander Performing Arts Center.
The band is celebrating 30 years of remarkable music and friendship.
While all manners of genres come into play when it comes to The Flecktones — from classical and jazz to bluegrass and African music to electric blues and Eastern European folk dances — the result is an impossible to pigeonhole sound all their own, a meeting of musical minds that remains, as ever, utterly indescribable.
In this genre-blending era, music creators can aesthetically do pretty much anything they want to do, but few musicians have embraced as wide a range of musical idioms as Fleck.
“What we play is very natural for all of us, especially after all these years,” Fleck explains. “The music is second nature. What we each do differently each night is the motor towards keeping it alive and fresh.
“But all the toughest work was done separately long before we met. And I mean everyone’s life experiences that brought them to the point where we met and were inspired by each other.”
While Fleck first made a name for himself as a teenager playing newgrass (a harmonically and rhythmically progressive off-shoot from bluegrass), he quickly began exploring jazz and soon reached a huge audience with The Flecktones by merging jazz, bluegrass, funk and lots of other musical ingredients into something that no one could quite define.
His talent borders on pure genius. He obviously was blessed by the gods. But a relentless work ethic also has been an integral part of the equation.
“There certainly is a propensity for music that is stronger in some kids than others,” Fleck says. “If you combine that with a serious work ethic, you really have something. “You ready need to want to play all the time for many years. Most folks would become pretty darn good if they put in that kind of time consistently for that long. But there is that undefinable something that makes that work worth doing, the desire perhaps, and a special connection to the instrument or a type of music.”
Their music dances delightfully across a scale of genres, concocting an exquisite smorgasbord. They have become proficient in so many genres by fusing talent and drive into a single organism.
Their music is made only when the four come together. The four collaborate with different people in various projects, pursuing an expanse of ideas. And when the four come together, they pour all of that into one pot and birth a delightful concoction of music.
It all falls into place with cosmic elegance. The sheer magnitude of their creativity and exploration seemingly mangles the algebra of physics.
“The simplest answer is that we spark together,” Fleck explains. “Do you know that feeling when you meet someone and the conversation is easy but surprising, there is chemistry? It’s a lot like that. Music is the conversation, and the more we keep other languages out of it, the better it goes.”
Fleck has had a myriad of collaborations — duos with his wife and fellow banjo player Abigail Washburn; Chick Corea and Chris Thile; in a trio with Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer; performing his concertos with symphonies; concerts with the Brooklyn Rider String Quartet; performances with African artists such as Oumou Sangare and Toumani Diabate; in jazz collaboration with The Marcus Roberts Trio; rare solo concerts and doing bluegrass with old friends.
Victor Wooten has his own band tours, camps, recording sessions, clinics and CD releases (including an incredible collaborative project with Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller called SMV that yielded the album Thunder), and Roy “Futureman” Wooten has his creation of the amazing Black Mozart project and continued development of new instruments.
Fleck has been called the world’s premier banjo player. Many say that he virtually reinvented the image and the sound of the banjo all over the musical map. He constantly demonstrates the remarkable versatility of the instrument. In his exquisite hands, his banjo glows.
He has taken his banjo playing to some very unlikely places — not just bluegrass and country and newgrass — but also into classical concertos, jazz and a documentary about the banjo’s deep African roots. And then there’s the time when Béla toured with throat singers from Tuva.
One questions if there are any musical horizons left for him to explore.
Dumb question. Of course there are.
“I’m loving exploring what’s possible within a bluegrass ensemble again,” he says. “It’s been 24 years since my last bluegrass project, and there are a lot of new faces, with new energy and abilities that have arrived in my absence. I’m very excited about this project and the tour that will follow.”
Fleck’s creativity has been limitless and bottomless. Does he ever worry about that bountiful fount suddenly drying up?
“Sure I do,” he says. “But I have learned that it does not. It needs to be replenished at times. Chick Corea talks about times in life when we are inputting and times when we are outputting. I like that idea.
“You replenish by resting, changing your viewpoint, listening to new or old things that are less familiar, going to see people perform. There are cycles, and you don’t want to force it when you are on the down part of the cycle.”
The pairing of a Jewish kid from Manhattan’s Upper West Side with the banjo ranks as one of the musical world’s more astonishing love stories. Fleck felt sparks the first time he heard the legendary Earl Scruggs playing The Beverly Hillbillies television theme.
“I just love the sound and the story of the banjo,” Fleck explains. “It’s compelling in every way for me, and I can’t really explain it. I didn’t grow up in a world that had banjo but when I found it, I was grabbed hard.”
Fleck has won 22 Grammy Awards and been nominated (a staggering total of 44) in more categories than any other artist in Grammy history, winning for country and jazz in the same year and also winning in pop, world music, classical crossover and folk. That’s what you call festooning yourself with glory.
Think about those numbers for a second. Bounce them around in your mind and commit them to memory. Then bless them. For those figures are indeed sacred.
“It is satisfying to feel that what I do has resonated,” he says. “With any competition, it is important to not live and die on the results, but it is certainly gratifying. I never would have predicted it.”
Fleck teamed up with his wife Abigail Washburn to win a 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album for their CD Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn. Abigail also is a banjo virtuoso but plays a more traditional, roots-style claw-hammer or frailing technique than Fleck’s three-finger fingerpicked style invented by Scruggs and common to bluegrass.
The Berks Jazz Fest has been a mecca for the Flecktones, who are making their eighth appearance this year. And Béla also has performed at the fest with his Africa Project and with Chick Corea.
“When you find a place where your music resonates, you want to come back as much as is appropriate,” Fleck says. “I’ve played at Telluride Bluegrass Festival every year since 1982, so 38 times of coming back to a place is my current highwater mark. I do love Berks and I’m very happy to be able to keep returning and that folks are interested in what I do.”
Their affinity for Berks has been a blessing for audiences. Listening to The Flecktones live in concert truly is a glorious, uplifting expenditure of time. Indeed, their sound is so uplifting it could bring a mummy back to life.