Reclining in an easy chair, his banjo lolling in his lap, a relaxed Béla Fleck smiles out from the posters advertising the “Concerto for Banjo” scheduled for Thursday and Friday, May 3 and 4, at the Tivoli Theatre. In contrast, in an interview about the event, Kayoko Dan, Chattanooga Symphony conductor and Fleck’s partner in the performance, seems considerably less sanguine. “At first I didn’t know what to do because I’ve never accompanied the banjo before,” she said. “I’m kind of nervous, but in a good way.”
A mild case of nerves is hardly surprising. The event will only be the third time Fleck has played the piece since its premier with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra last September. And the music itself presents a unique set of challenges. The result of a collaboration between Fleck—whose music is demanding and complex—and musicians with the Nashville Symphony, it features some unusual percussion instruments (that were apparently just “lying around” back stage in Nashville), including sea urchin chimes.
Despite the challenges, CSO’s musicians are excited to play with Fleck. “What’s fun about commissioning a work, and working with the composer,” said Dan, “is that you can ask them questions.”
Originating in the Baroque period to feature a soloist (or soloists) along with the orchestra, the concerto is ideal for Fleck’s restless creativity. In the 20th century, concerti have been written for almost every instrument in the orchestra including alto sax, marimba, tuba and trombone.
So why not the banjo? “I’m a fan of music, and I’m curious,” Fleck said of his inspiration for the piece. “I want to know how music that I love works. And I also love the banjo, which is my vehicle to understand music through.”
Growing up in New York City, Fleck first played the guitar, but switched to the banjo after hearing Earl Scruggs play the theme song to “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Listening to Scruggs’ banjo “was like sparks going off in my head,” he said later.
But when he enrolled in The High School for Music and Art, banjo wasn’t an option, so he took up the French horn. That was a mistake. His teachers told him he had no aptitude for music. Undeterred, he took lessons from local banjo players Tony Trischka and Erik Darling, both of whom encouraged him to develop his own voice.
Fleck played with a couple of groups after high school before joining Sam Bush and John Cowan in New Grass Revival in the early 1980s. Formed in the early 1970s, the group’s intention was to take bluegrass where it had never been before. Adding elements of jazz, blues and rock to bluegrass, they created a distinctive hybrid they called “new grass.” From the time Fleck heard Chick Corea’s Return To Forever in New York in the early ’70s, he began mixing bop with bluegrass. He was a natural fit with Sam Bush and John Cowan in New Grass Revival.
The band’s first album featuring Fleck made it clear that this would not be Bill Monroe’s bluegrass, even though it features the mandolin, banjo and guitar, as well as traditional three-part, high-tenor-harmony vocals. The band had at least two distinctive voices in Bush and Cowan, but Fleck’s contribution, a banjo instrumental called “County Clare,” signaled his already innovative approach.
Within two years, Fleck had come into his own, as evidenced by the heady instrumental “Seven By Seven” (nominated for a Grammy in 1987) on the album New Grass Revival. Featuring Fleck and Bush on banjo and mandolin—trading licks like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in full flight—this was a bluegrass group, but one as far from Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys as Monroe’s music was from the old-time banjo and fiddle tunes he’d heard his mother and uncle Pen play in Kentucky in the 1920s and ’30s.
Fleck stayed with New Grass Revival until the group broke up in the late ’80s. Almost immediately, he formed The Flecktones, a quartet of prodigiously talented visionaries who developed a fresh and original approach to the music. In 1988, Dick Van Kleek, artistic director for PBS’ “Lonesome Pine Series,” based in Louisville, Ky., had offered Fleck a solo show. The show became The Flecktones’ first gig. Fleck had met Howard Levy, the group’s keyboard and harmonica player, at a festival in Canada the previous summer. Soon after he was introduced to bass player Victor Lemonte Wooten, who introduced him to his brother, drummer Roy Wooten. Roy, thereafter known as “Futureman,” had developed an instrument he called a drumitar.
Shaped like a guitar with buttons instead of strings, the drumitar plays pre-recorded percussion samples unlike anything played by a traditional drummer. Even Elvin Jones would’ve had trouble reproducing these patterns. Futureman and his brother play like other siblings sing—it’s hard to tell where one’s thoughts start and the other’s stop. Take a tune like “Stomping Grounds,” an airy, Return To Forever-ish blast of free jazz melody and harmony with a bottom end worthy of Funkadelic. Victor opens the tune with a funky, jittery run until Fleck joins him playing a parallel melodic line. Soon after, Futureman’s percussive samples begin to skitter in and around his brother’s bass and Fleck’s keening banjo. Melody and rhythm fuse in a breathless, relentless stomp. They call it “blubop.”
It’s another giant step from New Grass Revival—and a world away from Monroe—and yet it’s as quintessentially American as Monroe’s mountain music. This is truly the melting pot. A roiling gumbo drawing on every indigenous strand from the blues to bop to rock and beyond—it’s a unique fusion of past, present and future.
But the problem for the musicians, as always, is keeping it fresh. Levy left in the early 1990s, and has only recently returned. They were a trio for a time, and then saxophonist Jeff Coffin brought in a whole new set of colors. But as Fleck told an interviewer for Nashville Scene recently, “It’s really a trap when you’re successful in a group like that. When everybody decides to really like you and you’re working a lot, it gets harder to keep it fresh. It’s always been one of my challenges as the leader to try and make sure everybody’s into it and intrigued, making sure that I’m keeping enough new, challenging information coming at everybody, whether it’s mine or theirs, so that people don’t just become complacent. Because anything can just turn into a gig.”
In an effort to find new challenges Fleck took off for Africa in 2005. For a month he met and jammed with musicians in Mali, The Gambia, Tanzania and Uganda. In a note about the trip on his website, he wrote: “My goal was to collaborate with incredible African musicians, and look into the origins of the banjo and banjo music.”
Fleck has also collaborated with bassist Edgar Meyer on a couple of projects. The first was an album called Perpetual Motion, a collection of classical pieces by Bach, Scarlatti and Debussy and others; they later wrote a double concerto for banjo and bass that made its public debut with the Nashville Symphony in November 2003. In 2009, Fleck wrote a second concerto with Meyer and the Southern Indian percussionist, Zakir Hussein. They recorded the piece they called a “triple concerto” with the Detroit Symphony on an album with a title that neatly summarizes all of Fleck’s work, The Melody Of Rhythm.
Fleck began work on his own concerto in October 2010. In part, he wanted to “prove” he could do it. In an email to me about the two concerti, he bemoaned the fact that “when we performed these pieces, people tended to assume that Edgar really wrote them. He certainly led the approach,” he went on, “but Zakir and I contributed significantly. So for my self-respect, I had to see if I could do it without my big brother!” He added that Meyer “knows what a great inspiration he is to me, so I think he was happy to see me go do it myself too.”
After his debut performance with the Nashville Symphony, a reviewer wrote that the concerto “offered an intriguing glimpse into Béla’s path as a musician.” The concerto, he wrote, “had moments of swing, Gershwin, contemporary classical, and more. If anything predominated, many moments of orchestration sounded like a symphony playing Flecktones-style music.”
Fleck, describing his writing process, said, “The way I chose to write was to create lots of short ideas, and then choose from them to find my main themes, and sonic landscapes to build from. Then I expanded the strongest ones.”
The concerto form is designed to allow a conversation between the soloist and the orchestra. CSO Conductor Kayoko Dan said that when she looked at the score she noticed that some of Fleck’s sections were not notated to allow for him to improvise in performance. “It’s hard. It’s really challenging for the orchestra,” she said. “But,” she added, “I’m confident that the musicians will rise to the challenge.”
For his part, Fleck hopes the performance will help the audience “appreciate the banjo apart from the stereotypes that surround it, and simply enjoy what it brings to the orchestra—a unique sound and set of properties that no other instrument can duplicate.” If his work so far is anything to go by, it will do just that.