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Published: 2018/06/29
by Dean Budnick

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones: More Rocket Science

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones debuted in 1988 when the banjo player received an offer to appear on the PBS’s Lonesome Pines Special. Fleck was spurred to assemble the lineup due to a recent cold-call, as he has explained, “Victor Wooten called me one day out of the blue and played his bass for me over the phone. It led to many things, and life changed dramatically after that. He introduced me to Future Man [percussion], and I introduced both of them to Howard Levy [keyboard and harmonica].” This group toured and recorded three albums through 1992 before Levy departed. Then, after a period of performing as a trio, Jeff Coffin joined the Flekctones in 1997, changing the sound of the group, by contributing sax, clarinet and flute before he left twelve years later to tour with the Dave Matthews Band. Then in 2011, Levy re-entered the fold as the Flecktones recorded a new album, Rocket Science, and the original quartet has since returned to the stage together for brief, intensive stretches over the intervening years. The Flecktones are currently on the road through July 14, and on Saturday they will offer a free webcast of their Capitol Theatre show.

Fleck took some time to discuss the history of the group and also to share some insight into his upcoming projects, including a banjo camp, dates with Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer and also his touring plans with wife Abigail Washburn, which were put on hold following the recent birth of their second child.

Can you talk about the different eras of the Flecktones? The version with Howard was the first one that I ever saw and it is the one that really has continued to resonate with me.

First of all, I am thankful to have different versions of the band. If it’s your life and you have to live with it, you try to make decisions that make you feel proud.

It’s hard to beat those first years with Howard. That was the magic that started the whole thing. Then after he was ready to leave, we were in a bind how to follow that but evolution was kind of the only way.

Even when Jeff joined, I thought he was going to be there for a year or two. But because we all hit it off so well, we kind of formed a whole other group with Jeff. So for a lot of people who never heard the first version of the band, that’s what the Flecktones are and they don’t really know what this Howard thing is all about. So then they come check it out, which is interesting.

I view it like this: a lot of people love Chick Corea. My entrée to Chick Corea was with the band Return to Forever. And so for me, nothing that he did after that can ever have the impact that it had on me, as a first time listener. He’s done wonderful things, every band he’s had ever since has had a lot to offer but, for me, that’s my thing. Although, if you came in fifteen years later and your band was the Elektric Band and then you hear Return to Forever, you might be like, “Ah, I like Electric Band better.” I’ve seen that syndrome with Flecktones fans.

I think with Jeff we got into a real groove version of the band. It was a different kind of pocket and a different particular time, but with Howard it’s like an explosive situation where he’s constantly digging and pushing in a way that brings out things in us that don’t come out in any other setting. Howard’s gonna blow people’s brains. When he play the solos, it’s just shocking. Not just the decibel but the intensity level of the band is very high with Howard. He’s like a circus act on the harmonica, he can play the piano at the same time as he plays the harmonica. Or he can sound like he’s playing with two harmonicas at once. He just does the impossible and you go, “Wow.” And so when then Victor does that on the bass and then Future Man does that on the drumitar people will go, “Wow, I didn’t know you could do that.” And then I’ll do whatever I do on the banjo.

I think the impact of all of that together made people really interested in the band and given the music a chance to work on them a bit, because at first we heard, “Oh, it’s a gimmick.” But it never bothered me that people said that because in the beginning I thought it got people’s attention to check us out. Then once they checked us out they stuck with us because they liked the music.

It’s funny to look at older pictures, to see the clothes we were wearing and how skinny we were. Now we’re these old guys who have been around forever but when I look around, there’s nobody around who has ever done anything like this band. This band is truly bizarre and the fact that it worked at all is a miracle, in my mind, so I’m just glad we’re still doing it.

When you returned in 2011 with Howard, you also released a new album. Do you anticipate that you’ll record a follow-up to Rock Science at some point?

I don’t really see why not. Somebody just has to propose it. Maybe at the end of this tour I need to talk to everybody and say, “What do you think? Do we want to do another a short run or do we want to do a little bit more of a new project again and see where everybody’s at?” I don’t see why people wouldn’t be into it. We have a great time together, it’s just how busy everyone is and also me, as a parent. I can’t do what I used to do because I have a brand new baby, a five year old too, and I’m not willing to go on these year-long jaunts like I once was. But I think it’s a possibility we could find a nice middle ground where we create some new music over the course of the next year or two and go out every three or four months for a couple of weeks with a new record. That would be a lot of fun.

When we used to get together, we would do a new record and then tour for a year, and that was sort of the basic idea of the band. But the problem was, as the years go on, it was harder to get everyone to be available for one year. So a few years ago we tried this idea of going out for three weeks to play old songs and have fun together. That became a template for the last few years. We’ve been getting together once a year and done something. So it could be that we’ll go create new music again, at some point. I would kind of be surprised if we don’t, but for right now when everybody’s doing different things, it’s really fun just to get together and play for a few weeks and go deep. We’ll see a lot of people that we don’t see when we’re not together. It feels very famly-ish. It’s a sweet situation.

A song like “Sinister Minister” has spanned the history of the group. Even though you’re back playing it with Howard, rather than Jeff, do you find that you approach it differently than you originally did?

In certain ways, that’s true. “Sunset Road” is another good example. I had a hell of a time learning to play the banjo on that song. When we recorded I could barely play a solo. I really wanted to play a solo with space and that was 30 years ago. And now I know how to play that song, I can build my own structure spontaneously differently every night, and I really look forward to it. So I feel like I’ve gotten better, we all have. The changes are part of us and now, instead of it being this new music we’re doing, it’s just music that we own.

Here’s another Chick Corea example, I remember one of the first time Chick Corea played with the Flecktones we played “Spain,” and whenever we’ve got to the one section he would just play it all avant-garde and weird and then I see him go play it with another band, he’d have a brand new arrangement on it. Then a few years ago I was playing with him and I said, “Do you want to do “Spain” and he said, “Sure,” and I said, “How do you want to do it, do you have an arrangement?” and he said, “You know what, I’ve kind of figured out that if I play ‘Spain,’ I should play it the way people want to hear it.” I was surprised because I always thought it was so neat that he would play the hit but he would play it all screwed up. You had to really be smart to figure out that he was playing “Spain.”

So we could do a rearrangement of “Sinister Minister” but is that really what people want to hear? Or do they want to hear that meat and potatoes group with the interlocking bass and banjo parts and harmonica soaring melody on top? It doesn’t need to be reinvented, but the improvisations are going to be different and they’re going to be improvisations from approximately 60-year-old guys rather than 30-year-old guys and that’s different because we all have continued to grow and find ways to improve and I hear that in everybody. And, back with Howard, that was how he’s grown, and he’s a better harmonica player and piano player than he was back then, and he already was one of the greats. So he’s continued to be more and more like himself, and so has Victor, and so has Future Man.

I just try to be true to myself, find projects that intrigue me and try to play in a way that intrigues me. Sometimes I’m trying to play less and find space and try to find the beauty in the instruments that I play and the combinations that I can find with the people I play with. Sometimes I’m feeling more aggressive and I want to rock and kick ass and I want to find some new way of playing fast that I haven’t figured out before, or some cool complicated changes that I really want to figure out how to do as fast as I can do. It’s combinations, all these different moods.

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