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Published: 1998/12/15
by Bob Makin

Bela Hears a Who

Friends are a beautiful thing.

Six years ago, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones joined the first HORDE tour and turned on a whole bunch of jam band fans onto their jazzy funkgrass. The past couple of years, the Flecktones have opened for and jammed with Dave Matthews Band, gaining their largest audience in the process. Seemingly too slick at times for the bluegrass community — which Fleck has been a part of for 17 years as a member of New Grass Revival, Spectrum and Strength in Numbers in addition to the Flecktones — and too far out for commercial radio and video play, the brilliant banjo player and his inventive cohorts — Victor Wooten, continually voted the best jazz bassist by several critic and fan polls; his “drumitar”-playing brother Roy “Future Man” Wooten, who slings a combination drum machine and synthaxe that he customized, and relatively new saxophonist Jeff Coffin — have become as a much a part of the jam scene as they are the contemporary jazz world. Playboy readers may have voted them best jazz band this year, but its mainly the yopps of jam fans that greet the Nashville-based Flecktones these days. Matthews also has had something to do with that in the studio. He provided guest vocals on the Flecktones’ latest disc, “Left of Cool,” a follow-up to the Grammy-winning 1996 outing “Live Art.” Fleck returned the favor by picking on DMB’s “Before These Crowded Streets.”

“Left of Cool,” Fleck’s first foray into lyric writing and Future Man’s vocal debut, describes the aforementioned perception of the band. I spoke with Fleck about how he doesn’t mind that space as long as he has the company and respect of other musicians, the uncharted music that they create together and the occasional yopp of a booty-shaking crowd.

After 17 years in the bluegrass community, you’re finally getting mainstream attention. Comment on how the Grammy for ‘Live Art’ and the tours with Dave Matthews Band added to that.

I don’t think the Grammy helped. It was a nice thing, but I didn’t see any professional change. We got a 10th more respect. After being nominated so many times, it was like, ‘Wow, now we won one.’ But it didn’t seem as big a deal to everybody as it was to my mom, for instance. But it was cool. We really felt complimented by our peers in the music industry. Playing with Dave Matthews Band has been much bigger for us. We’ve seen a sizable growth in the size of our audiences. We’re finding a lot of young people coming out to see the Flecktones.

That’s one of the best things to happen to us in a long time. It was one thing to play banjo on their record. That was a real treat. I just thrive on playing banjo in an unusual situation, but to be in a full out, kicking rock band — not that they’re your typical rock band — but it was a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy of mine to be on the stage with them at Giants Stadium in front of 70,000 people.

When Dave came here — we did the record at my house — and we just felt like we were really going to be friends, not just a show business friendship. It’s more than that. The two bands really bond together and enjoy being together. It’s been really fun to play with other bands over the last 10 years. We haven’t done that many co-bills. It’s mostly our own show. But with Alison Krauss and Union Station, David Grisman, Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident, it’s nice to hang out with another band all day instead of being in your own world. Alison’s band everyone is friends with. We might even have a musical collaboration.

Matthews, as well as Amy Grant, sing on ‘Left of Cool.’ This is the first Flecktones record for which you’ve written lyrics. Did you have a lyrical burst of energy?

I wrote a good bit of them a couple of summers ago when we were on an off period. They’re just about stuff that was going on emotionally at that time. For some reason, I was in a real reflective space, so I started writing songs. They just came pouring out. They weren’t all very good, but they had some good ideas in them. I didn’t know what to do with them. I thought I’d start another group to explore that side of things. But as the year went on, Future Man decided he wanted to sing more. He had been scatting with the saxophone. So we decided he’d sing a couple of songs, and they sounded really good.

In the five years since your last studio album, does it seem like young people’s taste in music has improved, more of them having been turned onto such jazz-oriented acts as the Flecktones and Medeski, Martin and Wood, as well as this whole swing thing?

I think the kids are OK. I don’t think what they’re exposed to is OK, but they have a way of finding out cool stuff that’s not on radio and TV. There’s a real thirst in the ‘younger generation.’ They’re interested in deeper music than TV and radio has to offer. You have to go to shows to see it. Some bands, like Dave Matthews Band and Phish, tap into great music from years before them. Great rock, R&B, folk, bluegrass and jazz all come out in their music. They do it with integrity.

We all make music that’s special to the people who know about it. You know about it, but not everyone else knows about it. As long as that’s the case, it’s OK. I have room in my heart to love everybody in pop music and radio who doesn’t play us. If we couldn’t survive, I’d be more angry.

Have you heard about or seen Dean Budnick’s book ‘Jam Bands’? How do you feel about the Flecktones being in there and considered a part of the jam band scene.

I’m glad to be a part of it. The more different things that I’m considered a part of the better. If I’m considered a part of the bluegrass community, the jazz community — we just won the Playboy Readers’ Poll for Jazz Band of the Year — plus a jam band, that’s three completely different things that people can check out. That’s great.

You had already left New Grass Revival when you first started playing with Victor and Future Man. What’s amazing is that the first time you heard Victor play was over the phone. Given the way the Flecktones go where y’all have never gone before musically, do you often still feel the same playing with them now as you did in the beginning?

The simplest answer is that we’re all incredibly enthusiastic about music. It makes life very pleasant to play with each other. We’re good musicians who can interact with other kinds of music and different musical worlds. That’s a lot to feel good about.

On top of that, I feel like I’m part of this community of musicians who create a bigger picture than a lot of them can see. Going from group to group in bluegrass, jazz and rock circles, we’re able to see the big picture that sometimes all the separate factions can’t. We’re proud to be a part of that community of musicians.

What is ‘Left of Cool’?

For me, when you’re too weird to be cool by normal standards. Popular radio formats, MTV and VH-1 won’t play us, because we’re too far out. We’re too far left of the dial. Or to people from the traditional jazz and bluegrass camps, we’re too slick, too modern and trendy, which is the reverse situation. It’s a good ambiguity in the title that says it all. That’s where we end up, left of cool.

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