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Published: 2001/12/19
by Bob Makin

Banjo Great Bela Fleck Explores Classical Music

Already a powerfully creative force in bluegrass, jazz and rock, the ground-breaking banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck has made the classical connection with Perpetual Motion,'' his first recording for the Sony Classical arm of Sony Music.

The Nashville-based five-time Grammy winner recently returned to his native New York to perform pieces from Perpetual Motion'' with a frequent, equally eclectic collaborator, bassist Edgar Meyer. The tour Hall also featured jazz and bluegrass compositions, much like the pair's late '80s supergroup Strength in Numbers with mandolinist Sam Bush, violinist Mark O'Connor and dobro player Jerry Douglas.

To tour with Meyer, Fleck took a break from recording an album with the Flecktones: bassist Victor Wooten, his synth-axe-playing brother Future Man and saxophonist Jeff Coffin. They won the Best Contemporary Jazz Album Grammy earlier this year for their worldy all-star Sony Music debut, Outbound.'' The follow-up will be much more pared down, says Fleck, whose five-album Sony Music deal calls for another classical disc and a jazz record.

"In our own studio, we've got four songs down so far," says Fleck, whose continual tour with the Flecktones will feature theater dates in 2002. "The stuff is really good, but it's different from the others. I can't say what direction it will end up being, but it seems earthy, relaxed. We're not concerned about having a hit commercially. There's no radio for us so it's an album-oriented album. It's a record where we just ant to explore and try things and hopefully that spirit will attract people. But it's much leaner, much fewer guests than 'Outbound.' It's much closer to a quartet, but with all different sounds. I find it fascinating how much you can get out of four people at one time… It'll be much different from the classical record. With that, I chose the material, the musicians and the arrangements. There wasn't a whole lot of evolution. It was a set thing. The Flecktones are quite a bit more freewheelng. It's fun to do both projects."

The genre-busting banjoist may do a duet album with Meyer, who helped choose and arrange the 21 classical pieces on Perpetual Motion.'' They include works by Debussy, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Paganini, Beethoven and mostly Bach.

The music just jumped out at me either because I liked it or it would work well with the banjo,'' Fleck says. Bach was such a fundamental trendsetter for classical music. I'm not an expert but from what I understand, he turned the whole thing upside down. So much of the classical music that came after him was colored by what he did. It makes sense that my first classical record would have a lot of Bach.''

Meyer, who tapped Fleck and multi-string instrumentalist Mike Marshall for his 1997 classical album, Uncommon Ritual,'' is one of seven world-class musicians on Perpetual Motion.'' The others are percussionist-marimbist Evelyn Glennie, cellist
Gary Hoffman, mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarists John Williams and Bryan Sutton, and violinist Joshua Bell, who collaborated with Meyer, Bush and Marshall on the
Grammy-winning Appalachian Journey.''

Fleck says, Everybody I got to play with I'd love to have a future relationship with. They're not only incredible musicians but they were incredibly giving and enabling for me as a novice to this kind of music.''

Fleck & the Flecktones recently were seen on in PBS' music documentary series, American Roots Music.'' They were presented as one of a handful of contemporary artists carrying on America's rich music traditions.

Fleck has strong roots in the progressive bluegrass scene both as a solo artist for Rounder Records in the '70s and '80s and as a member of the pioneering New Grass Revival with Bush. But the banjoist questions the inclusion of the Flecktones, which has more to do with jazz, funk, rock and world pop as it does the country music emphasized in "American Roots Music" and its companion boxset.

"I'm not going to argue about it," says Fleck, who's as influenced by be-bop pioneer Charlie Parker as he is bluegrass legends Flatt & Scruggs. "I'm glad to be in there, but I don't want to be marginalized as country music because that would not be accurate. I grew up in New York City. I haven't been playing country music. Commercial country music seldom is about musicality, it's often such a commercialized genre now. The older country music is something I'd like to be a part of, but today's country music… Look you've got me started now.

Fleck says he is looking forward to his next Sony Classical album and his debut for Sony Jazz.

With the latter, he'll take a similar approach to "Perpetual Motion," but with a jazz sensibility. "I'll spend quite a bit of time delving into it," he says. "I want to spend a year playing jazz and composing before I do that. I want to have something to offer that's a special kind of music as opposed to just a jam. It's another world with a whole vocabularly that'll be a great opportunity to learn more of.

"I look at albums as great learning experiences. I've gotten a lot out of the last several because each one is so different. I think back to 'The Bluegrass Sessions,' where I went back into bluegrass on that record. It was about making relationships and improving relationships in that community. Then 'Outbound' was a community thing, a learning experience that just related to a lot of different musicians in a lot of different ways. Now the classical thing is a whole different world. I've got a pretty cushy life in which I get to learn and play with great musicians. I feel very fortunate. I'm a musical explorer."

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