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Published: 2011/09/21
by Randy Ray

Bela Fleck: "You Can Go Home Again!"

The musical odyssey of Béla Fleck continues with the debut performance of his Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra with the Nashville Symphony on September 22-24 at Schermerhorn Symphony Center. The collaboration is an inspired choice, and marks another milestone for Fleck, who is already ensconced in a full-scale reunion album, Rocket Science, and tour with the original Flecktones in 2011.

“The tour has been fantastic,” said Fleck in an interview with during rehearsals for the pending concerto performances. “Every show we push it a little further, and I feel that we have taken the album versions, and pushed them into new fertile ground. And we had a lot of fun being together again.”

Indeed, the quartet featuring Fleck on banjo, Victor Wooten on bass, Roy “Futureman” Wooten on percussion and Drumitar, and Howard Levy on piano and harmonica have found a fresh language while playing new material with the sense of urgency sometimes lacking in a collection of old friends. This collaboration…well, just works. “After Jeff Coffin joined the Dave Matthews Band,” explained Fleck, “we had an opening in the group. We all felt that Howard was at the top of our wish list to have as a new member. Of course he played with us for about five years when the band started, and he was an architect of our original sound. The harmonica and piano, mixed with the banjo, electric bass and electric drums created a real template for the band.”

That sense of what works and what should be altered, enhanced, or just plain changed was quite evident once Levy moved onwards. “When he left, he couldn’t be replaced,” admitted Fleck, “so we moved into a different sound, which was also a lot of fun. But it wasn’t ‘that sound’. So now it is ‘that sound’, once again. Sessions went great; they were our re-introduction to each other, and a very creative time.”

Which makes the world premiere of Fleck’s concerto even more startling, since it takes place amidst a year that has seen such groundbreaking new work from the Flecktones. The writing process has been focused and determined for Fleck as he slipped in and out of his various bandleader/composer roles to find a voice for his new creation.

“I started writing the concerto in October of last year,” detailed Fleck, “and have been fixating on it in every spare moment. I had a first draft ready in May, and did some rewrites and rebalancing after hearing it with the symphony at a run through. This is a piece I have wanted to do for a long time, and though I have co-written two concertos for banjo, one with bass and one with banjo, bass and tabla, there is not a stand alone banjo concert in the repertoire, and I really thought it was time. Luckily the Nashville Symphony agreed, and commissioned the work. It is fitting that the piece happens here in Nashville, a town with a long banjo history.”

That sense of history is evidenced by one of the concerto’s muse, in a way. “I have dedicated the piece to Earl Scruggs,” said Fleck, “who has lived here since the 1940s, and who continues to be an inspiration to so many musicians.”

Fleck’s current concerto has a precedent when one looks back to Fleck’s 2001 release Perpetual Motion, a work that combined his talents and training on the banjo with the sometimes perilous high wire act of classical music composition. “It was the most ambitious technical project I had ever taken on,” admitted Fleck. “In learning the great classical pieces by Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Beethoven and others, it put their music under my fingers for the first time, and therefore into my brain. It was a great way to become intimate with some of the greatest music ever. It also reminds me to not to be scared to write complex long forms.”

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