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Published: 2008/11/23
by Randy Ray

The Many Lives of B Fleck

B Fleck returns with the Flecktones for a string of dates through December which ends at the Blue Note in New York City. The quartet has also released what could be an intriguing and alternative perennial holiday album classic, Jingle All the Way. The composer, producer, band leader, and banjo player has been quite busy of late in his various projects which extend from work in China with Abilgail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet (and a sublime album also produced by Fleck), numerous dates with jazz great Chick Corea, and recording with another legendary jazz pianist on McCoy Tyner’s Guitars. In 2009, Fleck will tour behind an orchestral composition written along with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain. Stay tuned to the site after the new year as Fleck also delivers the “most ambitious project of my life”an album and film titled Throw Down Your Heart in collaboration with his brother, Sascha Paladino (with a tour to follow as well). Fleck isn’t quite ready to talk about the album or film yet, but he is more than willing to discuss his other fine collaborations in this always fascinating look into the many lives of B Fleck.

RR: Let’s talk about the genesis of the quartet’s new album, Jingle All The Way. This is an album for me as I am definitely someone who was tired of the way traditional holiday music is presented.

BF: Oh yeah, I know what you mean. I think it was that when we first started going on tour, and Christmas would come around, Victor [Wooten] used to play that musical arrangement of “The Christmas Song” on the bass as a solo piece. We worked up a Christmas medley with the Flecktonesmaybe it was 1990. People loved it, and we liked doing it. As the years went by, we would always do that every year, and we would always talk every year and say, “We should really do a whole record of stuff like this.”

We would never do it.

Maybe about six, seven years ago when Jeff Coffin was in the band, we worked up another medley with “Silent Night” and “Sleigh Ride.” Again, audiences went crazy for it, and people would tell us, “You’ve gotta do a record. You’ve gotta do a record.” It was just a matter of finding the right time in the sense of everything else that was going on in all of our lives. This was the right time because we’ve been touring heavily for the last few years, and this year, we were only going to play a couple of months. We were looking to do separate projects. We also didn’t want to go out and play our old stuff. We wanted some new material. This was the perfect solution for us in terms of a long-term desire to do a recording like thisa new project that we could create new music for, and it didn’t require a year-round commitment like a new regular record would. It just seemed like a good time for this sort of thing.

RR: Are you playing this material through your run in December at the Blue Note?

BF: Yes, sure are. In fact, last night was the first night we were able to get “The Twelve Days of Christmas” on stage, and it was a hit, I’ve got to say. (laughs) It’s a bitch to play that piece because of the twelve times of the verses and twelve keysit’s a lot of work.

RR: The Flecktones vary the themes in that song in a rather unique way.

BF: Yeah, you have to change the shape of the melody to make it fit when you go up to 11 or 12/8. Each time we have a different day, we have a different time signature, and you have to change the theme to fit each time signature. As it starts to move fast at the end of each verselike the “three geese a’layin’, four farmers whatever” part, you know, it’s dropping down? That’s when it really gets complicated to play because you’ve got to make these changes very fast. It has to become intuitive rather thanyou can’t count them at that speed. You have to know them, so it’s hard, but it’s going to be really good. We got through it twice last night on the two shows, and that’s the only song that we repeated because we wanted to play it some more.

It was also great because we had Edgar Meyer [double bass] and Andy Statman [mandolin and clarinet] on [the album track] to make the days different. We gave them some days to be in charge of. Live, we’ve got the days split among the three melody instruments, and it works fine.

RR: There is also a diverse melodic and cultural range on the overall album from “The Hanukkah Waltz” to “What Child is This/Dyngyldai.”

BF: We’ve had a fondness for Tuvan throat singers for a long time ever since our association with Kongar-ol Ondar [Author’s Note: the Tuvan throat singing by Alash Ensemble is featured on several tracks, including “What Child is This/Dyngyldai”; whereas, Statman’s excellent clarinet work is also featured on the traditional “The Hanukkah Waltz”]. He is the most well-known and foremost Tuvan throat singer, and featured in the movie Genghis Blues, and [Alash Ensemble] are all protes of him. They do Tuvan throat singing in four-part harmony, and they were coming through the States around the time we were making our record, got in touch with us, and said, “Hey, we love the work you did with Kongar-ol, is there anything you can use us for?” I said, “Yes, why don’t we get you guys in,” so we scheduled a few days to try some stuff, and everything worked so we used it.

Andy Statman has been one of our long-time friends and heroes. What he does with Klezmer [clarinet] music and jazz has been an inspiration for me pretty much since I started playing music. I’ve been looking for a way to get him on one of records for a long time, and this seemed like a quirky fun way to do that.

RR: Thoroughly enjoyed the final track on the album, as well. How did you choose the arrangement for Joni Mitchell’s “River”?

BF: Well, when I was 15might have been even youngermy stepfather gave me that album Blue as a birthday present. We put it on for the summer. (laughs) We had a record player, and we put one side on, and it went all of July. In August, (laughter) we turned the record over, and played it all of August. That record became imprinted into my consciousness as one of the greatest records of all time so I always wanted to do something with that song.

What I did with it was an idea I’ve had for a long timethe idea of playing a piano and a banjo at the same time: playing the bass notes with my right hand, playing the melody, and then hitting the bass notes again. Basically, that was the idea. Could I do this piece solo with piano and banjo? And it was hard. (laughs) I actually had to stick duct tape on the piano keys, and write the names of the notes on it because when I get into playing banjo, and I’d look up and reach for piano bass notes, I would hit the wrong one because I’m not a good piano player. I think in the end if you didn’t know that I was playing it all as one person, it would just sound like a piano player playing closely with me, but it did all happen simultaneously with me.

RR: Speaking of piano. Would you mind speaking about your involvement on the great jazz pianist McCoy Tyner’s latest album titled Guitars?

BF: Sure. Yeah. That was an unexpected call that I got to go play with him. Of course, it’s a ridiculous honor, especially for a lowly banjo player.

RR: I think only you would make that comment about a “lowly banjo player.”

BF: Well, it’s not even a guitar, you know? I don’t know. It may be the highest honor paid to a banjo player by a jazz musician up til now to play on a McCoy Tyner record. It was amazing. I went over to the session in New York, and we did the three tracks in under an hour. We did “My Favorite Things” in one take. I’ve never really done that before (laughter)worked that fast. The rhythm section was ready to leave so we did it fast, and got that out and it sounded great. Then, they did a couple of my tunes, which was really fun, and McCoy sounded awesome on it, and it was an honor.

RR: You will also tour in 2009 with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain.

BF: Zakir Hussain is the foremost tabla player in the world. We’ve done an orchestra piecea triple concerto, which means the three of us in front of an orchestra, playing complicated music. We’re recording that concerto in January with the Detroit Symphony, and then we’re going to finish the other half of the record and it will be trio music, which will set us up with a nice record where we can play with orchestras, and also play trio concerts in September and October, so far, of ’09.

RR: Along with another big project next year, the film Throw Down Your Heart.

BF: The biggest project is the African Project, which is probably the most ambitious of my life. The film is not out yet. It’s been funny. We’ve been sending it out to film festivals, but we haven’t been trying to get the full press out on it. We’re trying to save that for when it comes out. You could mention that it is a very important project that is coming out, the album is coming out in late February, and there will be a tour starting in March and going through July with African musicians coming over to perform. Readers can go to a great web site we have upor and find out more. There are some clips and they can hear some music.

[Author’s Note: Throw Down Your Heart is the story of Fleck’s pilgrimage to Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia, and Mali in pursuit of the roots of the banjo and its rich and vibrant cultural heritage, which is now so much a part of American culture and music. The film was an Audience Award Winner at the 2008 South by Southwest Film Festival, and won Music Documentary at Silverdocs, an AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival. As previously mentioned in our feature introduction, stay tuned to the site for album and tour details, and a comprehensive look at Throw Down Your Heart next year.]

RR: I was fortunate that the day I covered the festival for our on-site newspaper, the Bonnaroo Beacon, Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet played. Let’s talk about the origins beginning with the 2005 EP. [Author’s Note: the quartet consists of Washburn on banjo, ukulele, and multi-lingual vocals, Fleck on banjo, Ben Sollee on cello, and Casey Driessen on fiddle.]

BF: I worked hard on it. Loved it. The EP came out after we all went to China together. Abi’s been going over there for years, and she’s obviously the only one of us with a true connection to Chinese music. She asked us all, and we were all friends, we all agreed to do it, and when we all got over there, we said, “Oh my Goda cello, a fiddle, and two banjos. How are we going to make music out of this?” (laughter) It was more like, “Oh, this will be fun people to go to China with.”

We sat down and started making some songs together, working off her songs, and it sounded really good. We were all surprised out how cool it was, and how much potential it was so when we came from that trip, we recorded some of the songs that we had been doing on the tour in China and that was the EP.

The next year we went back to China, and learned more Chinese traditional songs, got a little bit more ambitious, and when we came back after that, Abi was trying to figure what her next record would be, and I could see this year coming up when I was not going to be in the Flecktones, except for November and December [2008]. I had the space and the time to give so I said, “If you want to do this band, I could do it.”

At first it was going to be limited dates, and we were going to do lots of other things, too, but more and more as we made this recording and got excited about it, we all decided: “Let’s really go for this thing.” We played pretty much non-stop from May to October.

I can’t tell you exactly how many dates, but it was a pretty brutal schedule. The upside of it was that we got really good playing the music, and it’s a great bunch of guys and gal. We have some more dates planned for January and Februarysome limited datesbut after that, I have to go back to my other lives, but I’m sure we’re going to do it again. I don’t know if we’ll do another record in a year or two, or just go back and do it again in a couple of years, but I’m hoping it will be an ongoing lifelong project. It’s a great group, everyone is all talented, and we all love each other.

RR: Let’s talk about your duo record, 2007’s The Enchantment with Chick Corea, and the live dates that you played with him within the last year.

BF: Yeah, that has been another huge thing for me playing with Chick because he’s one of my biggest heroes. We did 70 or more concerts around that record. It was a real learning experience for me, and an exercise in humility in certain ways because he’s so advanced that I really had to fight to hang in there with him, but sometimes I did, sometimes I did. Just one of the great turning events, he really has been such an inspiration for me in a more direct way than McCoy Tyner. Although, I listened to Coltrane and loved it and learned some of the music, I’d never really gone to see them play [Author’s Note: Tyner, who turns 70 on December 11, was a member of John Coltrane’s “Classic Quartet” in the early 1960s]. I’ve seen McCoy once or twice and loved it, but Chick was one of those guys that every concert that he did, I was at. Every record he did, I had it. Every turn of his career, I was familiar with. Every interview, I had read. I had transcribed significant numbers of his songs, parts of solos and so forth, so it was a big deal for me.

RR: Is some of the intimidation coming from the fact that your listening skills while playing with Chick Corea have to be on a different level, or was it the fact that you had all of that background with someone who is really a hero to you?

BF: I think it’s because he’s got a language that I don’t have. In other words, he speaks a language that I’m not as familiar with which is, you know, a jazz language and a Chick Corea language that he’s developed. While some of it, I can play, some of it, I can’t, so when he goes into areas where I’m not fluid and solid in, I’m guessing at what to play; whereas, I don’t have that problem in bluegrass, and fairly rarely in the Flecktones.

With Chick, there were a lot of times where I didn’t have the information in my brain, and when he was improvising so much and throwing so much stuff at me, I really just had to rely on spontaneous inspiration because it’s a test you can’t study for. (laughs) That was what was frightening and that was what was wonderful. I think more of the time it

worked more than it didn’t. When it didn’t, it was my fault (laughs) because I was reaching past myself. I realized that, after a while, that’s what people were enjoyingseeing the two of us from our different worlds coming together, and the audience didn’t really expect me to operate on Chick’s level in a jazz language. I was there to be myself, and he was there to be himself, and that was what was great about it.

RR: Over the years, every time I’ve seen you play, in whatever context, I have loved the absolute confidence you appear to project while playing, so it is surprising to me that you would actually feel that way about playing with another musician.

BF: Well, he’s a heavy cat. He’s a heavy cat. That’s all I’m sayin’. Playing with Zakir, it’s the same thing. There’s a whole world of Indian music that I cannot pretend to know. I can jam along, and play what comes to me, but I can’t all that material. I don’t know all that language so I have to be the best me’ I can be in that situation, and study as much as I can. I can’t necessarily be a student when I’m on stage playing. I have to take charge, and be forcefully me so, at that point, I forget about being intimidated, and just go for it. Usually, it works out.

RR: I was fortunate to speak with Keller Williams again for the site this month. Ironically, Keller and I had begun our first interview, early last year, talking about you. Perhaps, we should end our discussion with some words about Keller.

BF: I love Keller. He’s a super creative guy. He’s found his own unique direction on performing and using technology. Basically, anything’s he’s got, he’s going to use. If he can barely play one instrument, he’s going to find a way to play that one instrument. If he can barely hit a high note, he’s going to hit that high note, and loop it, and stack harmonies against it. He’s just real thoughtful and creative and he’s got such a great sense of humor about himselfa great humility and talent.

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