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Little Worlds – Bela Fleck and the Flecktones

Columbia Records 90539

When I heard Bela Fleck mention during a press conference at Bonnaroo
Music Festival that the Flecktones' next release would be a three CD set, I
couldn't help but think that it meant the band was finished with Columbia
Records. I
mean, that sort of artistic expression just doesn't happen anymore on a
label, right?

Well, I was pleasantly surprised to find that when my copy of Little
Worlds showed up, it would be out on Columbia. Talk about record company
As a compromise to the expansive project, there is also a single disc
of Little Worlds being released as well.

What may have eased the record company's pain of packaging three discs in
one is that the new album features a bushel of guest artists: Derek
Trucks, the Chieftains, Bobby McFerrin, Branford Marsalis, Nickel Creek, Sam
and Jerry Douglas. I can't help but wonder if all the contributions give an
indication that Bela and the Flecktones needed a little inspiration from
sources; something to get 'em moving in the right direction.

Again, my presumption was dismissed by the tracks that feature only the
band. In fact, minus any of the special guest tracks and, possibly,
this comes out as a great Flecktones' release. For the most part, the added
musicians do what's necessary, contribute in such a manner that it becomes
with the rest of the band's personality. Only McFerrin's vocal acrobatics
Marsalis' tone and playing are highly noticeable. And, in Branford's
case, that's never a band thing.

Disc one displays the genius of Bela Fleck as a producer and bandleader.
He doesn't need to hog the spotlight in order to satisfy his creative ego.
fluid nature of the rhythm section – Future Man and Victor Wooten – consistently give songs their playful quality and steam engine movement
forward. As for
saxophonist/flutist Jeff Coffin, he slides back and forth to the forefront,
supporting the melody line (the times he doubles what Fleck is playing on
tracks such as "Bill Mon" and "Puffy") and soloing on top of it ("Puffy"

For their first new studio album in three years, it seems as if the members
want to try most anything. The combinations work much of the time. No matter
how many times I've listened to the bluegrass-meets-jazz-meets-hiphop
that is "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" still doesn't work for me. It may give
thrill to those in concert, but it just seems out of place, especially as
second track of the entire album.

McFerrin's vocal doodling on "Clampett" gives way to something more
substantive on other tracks, particularly his duet with Fleck on "What It
Is." I'm getting ahead of myself here. "Puffy" finds the band at the top of its
game, pushing each other to explore new territories, while the Chieftains
become a perfect foil during "New Math." Based on the band's "Down the Old
Road," it's understandable that the Irish group would seamlessly provide a
sympathetic musical atmosphere for the Flecktones to embrace.

"Longitude," featuring Wooten and Fleck on reverse banjo gives New Age
music a good name by providing something contemplative without being devoid

Then, "Centrifuge" with Derek Trucks gives the daydream answer to "What
would a song sound like if King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp played over
of Frank Zappa's electronic compositions?" Still not satisfied? Then maybe
pristine elegant playing of Nickel Creek on "Off the Top (parts A and B)"
will do the trick?

With the journey of disc one over, it's on to disc two and a little fun
is to be had. "The Fjords of Oslo" sounds like one of the brief playful
experiments Todd Rundgren provided on '70s discs such as
Something?Anything? and A
Wizard A True Star.

Soon, Marsalis makes his presence felt on "Sherpa," which is followed by
another splendid Chieftains collaboration. By the time we reach "Mudslingers
the Milky Way," it's hard not to envision this as the Flecktones creating
theme for a crime caper film.

Future Man provides a little something spacy and worldy to open disc
three, as if we were catching the tail end of Mickey Hart on "Drums" and
leading the way towards "Space." In Future Man's case, he does just that,
us to more international flavors on "Next" — Tuvan throat singing , kanjira
and gutam.

"Snatchin'" is not a bad tune, but it just sounds a little more typical
of the Flecktones' past. Among all the newborn sonic offspring contained on
Little Worlds, it sounds more ordinary among the rest of the musical
numbers. P>

That lasts for only a few minutes. Then, the revolving cast of musicians
infuse the remaining songs with grace, strength and the ecstatic feeling of
creation becoming celebration. "The Last Jam" is what the title says. It's
almost a free-for-all yet the track never loses its focus.

That's something that can be said for all of Little Worlds. Bela
and the Flecktones took a ride around the world and came back with a
achievement. I'm not even going to bother discussing the single disc version
because you'd be doing your ears and mind a disservice by purchasing a
compilation rather than joining them for the long strange trip.

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