Music for Everybody with Bela Fleck
Perhaps the most fitting description of Bela Fleck I've ever heard was from the Flecktones bassist Victor Wooten who introduced Fleck at a show referring to Bela Fleck as "the man who has done for the banjo what George Washington Carver did for the peanut."
As namesake for the Grammy Award winning Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Fleck has entirely removed the "Deliverance" connotations from the banjo turned it an instrument that can play anything and everything. With the release of 2003’s Little Worlds, Fleck and his Flecktones (Victor Wooten-bass, Jeff Coffin-saxophones, and Future Man-synthaxe drumitar) established, over the course of three CD’s and a heap of special guests, the band’s vision of making all-encompassing music nearly everyone can relate to in some way.
From The Bluegrass Sessions to the classical album Perpetual Motion; from Bonnaroo to Sesame Street; Bela Fleck’s solo career has been equally expansive. With the April release of Music for Two, Bela Fleck reunites with long-time collaborator and neo-classical bassist extraordinaire, Edgar Meyer. The incomparable duo has set forth on a quest that spans Miles Davis, Bach, and engaging co-written material. Accompanying Music for Two is a DVD entitled Obstinato: Making Music for Two. The forty-minute DVD features backstage, concert and road footage that gives humorous insight to the unique relationship the pair have together , their uncanny togetherness in the live setting, as well as their near obsessive-compulsive behavior (well, Meyer’s at least) in mastering incredibly complex material (i.e. the track "Canon").
I had the chance recently to speak with Bela about Little Worlds, Music for Two, and making music for everybody.
MP: It took a three-hour traffic jam for me to finally listen to all of Little Worlds in its entirety. How did that album evolve into three-CD’s?
BF: Originally it was just going to be the four of us and then, as we got into it, we over-recorded more than a little bit. It just sort of snowballed I guess. It was cool and it was a really fun thing to doto be able to make a record that was that involved and went that many different places. Once we realized it wasn’t just going to be the four of usthat’s when we started opening it up to guests. We figured if it was going to be two whole albums worth, it’d be good to have some variety. But as we got into it, we still didn’t realize it was three albums until we turned it in.
MP: With so many special guests on Little Worlds, what has it been like replicating some of those songs in the live setting?
BF: It works. A lot of the music we were playing before as a quartet playing it live and practicing it. It always kind of worked for us. It’s kind of coolsometimes when you go see a band when they had somebody on a record and you go hear them without themit’s sort of interesting to see how they handle it. And in our case, sometimes we will cop the parts that other people have played that we’ve gotten fond of. For instance, Derek Trucks got play a solo on one of the songs and, you know, you have to have the solo. So I get to play it and try a rock solo on this song. And I don’t normally play that way, and I’m definitely not trying to play like him, but that’s the solo people have in their head. He played it with a slide and I do it a different way. But you know, it’s fun.
MP: I was recently exposed to Jeff Coffin’s side project the Mu’tet and of course people are familiar with Victor Wooten’s band as well. How do you all approach being able to pursue other interests without taking away from the band’s direction?
BF: I just think it’s really cool when you’re a musician and you can get to play with other musicians. It’s not like you’re betraying your band when you go play with somebody else, in fact you get fresh energy and fresh ideas. And so I’ve learned to embrace that.
I remember I’ve been in bands before where people in the band were threatened when I went out and did other things. I wasn’t going to leave the band; I just had to go play that music. So I’ve learned that lesson from being in other bands. In this band (Flecktones), I never wanted it to be that way. The honest truth is that if it was that way then the band wouldn’t have stayed together. These guys deserve that kind of respectand so do I. We’ve all been around for a long time and all have music we want to do. Some of it works great in the band and some it we’re going to do in other places. I think it’s great for everybody.
For instance, Jeff is a great horn player and he writes his own stuff and can play in more of a straight ahead jazz context. And he should get to do thatthat’s what good horn players need to do. I’m an acoustic musician, I like to get a chance to play with instrumentsmandolins, banjos, acoustic guitarsand not plug in and play very acoustic music. But it doesn’t make me love the Flecktones any less; I’m crazy about being in that band. And Victor, he’s playing with a real funk show. It just makes sense. Everybody gets a chance to do what they want and we all support each other.
Once you get over your fear about things like that you get to where you’re just proud of everybody. That’s how I feel, I’m proud to be in a band where everybody can lead their own groupsit’s amazing."
MP: I thoroughly enjoyed the advance I got of Music for Two and the accompanying DVD.
BF: Did you watch it"
MP: I did, and it seems you and Edgar have a pretty interesting relationship.
BF: We really do.
MP: It almost reminds of the way my grandparents act with one another
BF: I know (laughs). And I don’t act that way with anybody else. He brings out my best and my worst. And it’s really funI really love it.
MP: But aside from the humor, it was amazing to see how you two interact musically. Especially the insight into what goes on in rehearsal rooms and practicesI don’t think most people would ever imagine yourself or Edgar Meyer struggling to learn a piece of music like "Canon."
BF: I thought it was cool for people to see how much angst and pain goes into making the music. A lot of times they don’t get to see that they just hear the end project and they don’t know it got that way. I actually like for people to know how hard we’re workingwe’re really fighting for every note.
The funny thing is is that we look for things to struggle with. We want to struggle because when we struggle and we succeed then we’ve actually learned something that we’ll take with us forward. Whereas if we’re just doing things that we’re comfortable with or that we can get quickly it’s not much of a challenge."
MP: I’m not even sure if this is a question or not. But your music has served as a medium for people to meet influences like jazz and classical and world music that they most likely would not have been exposed to. For the jamband crowd and people far removed from that scene, like my parents, to enjoy the same band is a really cool thing.
BF: "I think it’s cool, too. Really, I’m just sharing stuff that I dig. If I love it, I figure everyone will love it too. If I can find a version of it thatif we can learn something about some kind of music from some other place and find something about it that we can include in our music or point people towards other musicians that are doing itit seems like it will work out well for everybody. It opens people’s minds, it opens us musically, and it’s fun."