When you talk about banjo virtuosos, there’s no list where Bela Fleck doesn’t sit at the top. Bela grew up in New York City and though he became enchanted by the banjo at an early age, he’d be a teenager before the relationship would become real and lead him on a lifelong adventure around the world. From his early days with Sam Bush in New Grass Revival and his studio work alongside some of music’s biggest recording artists to his solo efforts and the formation of the Flecktones, Bela Fleck brought the banjo into the 21st Century by exploring the instrument’s history and challenging its role in contemporary music. Bela’s style is anything but orthodox. He incorporates jazz as much as bluegrass, finding a classical link between the two while embracing modern applications. He’s a composer, an innovator, and a master– and on February 14th, Bela Fleck comes to Macon.
AI- You started out as a kid in New York City watching Earl Scruggs on the Beverly Hillbillies— tell me about the first time you met Earl. What was it like to play together?
BF- It was pretty incredible. The meeting was facilitated by John Hartford, another hero of mine. He made it happen. It was a complete thrill. Over the years after that, we became very friendly. I spent a good deal of time with him during his last years. I dedicated my first banjo concerto to him, and he actually came to the premiere!
Back in your New Grass Revival days, you also did a lot of studio work— what was the strangest session, then or now, that you’ve been a part of?
It was probably playing with Ginger Baker, for his Falling off the Roof album. He had actually fallen off his roof and was pretty dazed due to pain meds. Bassist Charlie Hayden was on the session as well, and he was suffering from extreme tinnitus, so he would only play bass from within a soundproof booth– with no headphones! So he couldn’t hear any of us. Occasionally he’d walk into the control room to hear playback, but then he would run back out, yelling. It was highly dysfunctional, but somehow we made music together. Bill Frisell was on the date as well. I was pretty sure Ginger hated my guts, but it turns out he was in a lot of pain…
Over the years, you’ve spoken about the Flecktones and the odd formula of traditional bluegrass, jazz, and electronic music. It’s safe to say that you play music without boundaries— is that a challenge that remains fresh today?
It’s hard to not repeat one’s self, and perhaps that is an unnecessary obligation. More and more my goal is to truly be myself at all times, and not worry about whether I have done something before. I hope if I do repeat myself, I will do it better than before, but maybe it’s enough that it simply be good!
Do you feel a difference as a composer vs being an improvisational performer? Is there a point where the two meet?
Yes, these are two different mindsets, which need to be balanced. I’ve heard it said that composing is slow-motion improv, or improv is high-speed composition– but the truth is that you get different results from each. Some surprising things can only be arrived at by improvising.
During the course of a performance, maybe in a back & forth improv moment, have you ever hit a lick or a particular run and thought, “Whoa– what did I just do?” And were you able to do it again?
I have had that happen, and it’s usually followed by a horrible mistake! See, when you become self-conscious, improvising becomes very hard to do well. It needs to be a flow and the ego needs to back off, and allow things to go forward without it. I have spent way too much time attempting to repeat something which was unique and which should be allowed to drift away, making room for a fresh idea.
Your ability with the banjo is matched only by your reverence for its history. You aren’t the first western musician to travel to Africa in search of answers and origins, but what was it that led you to that journey and the making of Throw Down Your Heart?
I heard some great African music which made me very hot to go over there. Oumou Sangare was the artist who lit the fire, and I still love her early records– they are so cool! It was an incredible experience, going to Mali, The Gambia, Uganda, and Tanzania– four very different worlds really.
You’re working in the studio now. Can you talk about that project? What can we look forward to in 2019 from Bela Fleck?
I am exploring playing with a bluegrass ensemble, but doing a variety of new music. I’ll be recording with quite a few of the great players of our day.
Who’s coming with you when you perform in Macon on February 14th– what’s the Flecktone lineup? Will your wife be a part of the show? It is Valentine’s Day after all…
Hey– Macon is a solo concert! Nobody’s coming but me— and some banjos. I started doing solo concerts several years back, and I love the format. I have arrived at quite a variety of solo banjo music, from classical to African, to Jazz, to Bluegrass, and some free improv as well. I use several different effects and even a ‘prepared banjo’. And sometimes I play “Rainbow Connection”!