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.