Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain
Bela Fleck keeps the banjo fresh in eclectic trio
Chico, CA 95929
The long-suffering banjo is regarded by too many people as the backwoods cousin of more cultured instruments, suitable solely for sound-tracking square dances, shotgun weddings and Ned Beatty’s greatest degradation.
Banjo discriminators need look no further than Béla Fleck to change their perspective. Best known for his work with the Flecktones, Fleck has collaborated with everyone from Chick Corea to Phish, won 11 Grammys and been nominated in more categories than anyone else.
One of Fleck’s latest endeavors is touring with virtuoso bassist Edgar Meyer and world-renowned tabla player Zakir Hussain in support of the trio’s 2009 album The Melody of Rhythm: Triple Concerto & Music for Trio. The album’s title tracks are a three-part concerto performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the rest a dizzying demonstration of master musicianship. Among other endeavors, Fleck is also at work on his first solo concerto, commissioned by the Nashville Symphony. Busy as he is, Fleck managed to squeeze in an interview with the CN&R in advance of his trio’s Chico Performances gig at Laxson Auditorium Wednesday, April 13.
CN&R: How was writing a classical piece with collaborators different from your normal writing process?
Fleck: This was a very different challenge, since there were three voices to consider in the writing and the playing. Edgar was the commander in chief, with more of an overview of how to make this work for the orchestra. Zakir gave us a lot of source information to build from, and whenever a solution was needed for a problem, he could be counted on to sing us the solution. I stuck my nose in wherever I could.
The song “Bubbles” lists you as the sole songwriter. Did you write it for this project or was it written earlier?
This is a piece I originally wrote to play with Evelyn Glennie, but we never got to it. I showed it to Chick Corea, but it didn’t get picked for our collaboration. I have lots of pieces that are sitting around waiting for the right home. You never know where that will be until you try.
I understand you first met Edgar playing on the street. Do you guys ever put on disguises and sneak out to play street corners?
No we don’t, but we wouldn’t be averse to it in the right situation. I have done that sort of thing on occasion with Tony Trischka, my banjo teacher. I learned good things on the street in Boston, when I did that a lot. You have to figure out how to hold a passing crowd. It’s not that easy.
Does the Grammy office have you on speed dial?
We have a dumbwaiter. It goes from L.A. to Nashville.
Listening to The Melody of Rhythm makes my brain tingle in odd places. Can listening to music make you smarter?
I think that when you open yourself up to new music, there can be a settling-in period. Then on repeated listening, you “get it.” I imagine something positive has happened in your brain during that process. The challenge is good for you.
You’re writing a new concerto just for banjo. What are the pros and cons of tackling it alone?
The positive is that I can work at my pace, and follow my own ideas through. With Edgar and Zakir, everyone had to OK everything, and I didn’t feel very free. That being said, I love what we came up with. There were a lot of restrictions though. So this time, for better or for worse, I can follow my muse freely, and I think I am coming up with different ideas than I have had before.
Have you considered scoring films?
I like the idea of scoring the right film that I am well suited for. In order to get that work, you have to be willing to work on anything and learn the ropes, plus develop a reputation. And the director is your boss and you have to write very quickly, when the cut is finished. So if the cut were done at an inconvenient time—like when I was on tour in India and they needed the music in two weeks—it would cause a lot of difficulty. Those are the impediments, but I’d love to do the right film, or films. I recently got to play on a film score for a film called The Convincer. They gave me a prominent role and I enjoyed doing it.
The Flecktones have made a new album together, this time with Howard Levy, the harmonica/ piano player who played on our first three albums. We’ll be touring through this next year. I am also doing a collaboration with jazz-piano great Marcus Roberts. First we are doing one show, and if it goes well, it could turn into something more. I look forward to doing a duet project with Abigail Washburn one of these days as well.
Finally, I just inherited a banjo from an old friend and am determined to play it. Any advice?
Slow and steady wins the race!