It’s near impossible to hear a song these days that isn’t the love child of multiple genres merged together. Notable examples include hip hop and rock, EDM and funk, and, in the case of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, bluegrass and jazz. (Yes, we just said that.)
If you’re thinking those two genres could never work well together, The Flecktones, led by the innovative 16-time Grammy winning banjoist Béla Fleck, are celebrating their 30-year anniversary, making a stop at Port Chester’s Capitol Theatre. Their concoction of jazz and bluegrass, while musically complex, grooves charismatically, held together by the rhythmic genius of the Wooten brothers: bass virtuoso Victor and the eccentric “drumitarist” Roy, a.k.a. “Future Man”. Howard Levy’s dynamic talent behind the piano and harmonica tie The Flecktones’ muso-minded sound together, reviving the original lineup that encouraged so many later musicians to step out of their comfort zone.
Below, we catch up with Fleck before the band’s June 30 show to talk Westchester memories, their eclectic sound, and the future of the group beyond this anniversary.
You’re a New York native and have performed in Westchester in the past. What’s your impression of the area? Is there any particular place or aspect that stands out to you the most?
I have great Westchester memories as I spent lots of time with my grandparents in Peekskill, got my first banjo there, and was in a band in Dobbs Ferry called Wicker’s Creek. And I’ve played all over it, especially back then — in the 70’s!
It seemed like the wild west to a Manhattan-raised teenager…
Of all your musical projects, the Flecktones stand as one of the most eclectic in sound and influence. How do you make such complex compositions so listenable, without coming across as “esoteric/obscure”?
I think it comes down to all of the guys in the group wanting to communicate. And the fact that there is such a strong rhythmic talent in the group, it makes folks want to tap their feet, even if the harmony or melodics are a little out there at times. The ‘out there’-ness seems like a draw for folks with us, while for some other groups it puts people off. Banjo and harmonica are not very threatening, I also suppose.
You’ll be performing with the Flecktones’ original lineup, 30 years after your first performance. What sort of lessons come with 30 years of touring and exploring the art that you love?
Be yourself, play your own game and everyone wins. There is no one to even compare this group with, it’s such an individualist venture.
We are more and more comfortable exploring the music we’ve built, and coming back to it makes us all proud.
The group is renowned for your jazz-fusion/bluegrass crossover, but have explored the blues, African music, funk, and various forms of folk. Are there any other genres or sounds you’ve found the group has been venturing into recently?
The band is in a curious state of alive and not. We get together most years to do some touring and revisit/enjoy the group, but these tours aren’t long and we generally play our old material.
Since we are together so rarely (two weeks to a month each year), playing the old material doesn’t get old at all.
Although the upcoming tour is only two weeks long, we do have a couple of new things that popped up at rehearsal. That should freshen things up a bit!
Congratulations on your new baby boy. Will your wife and kids be on tour with you over the next few months? After listening to ‘Juno Concerto’ it occurred to me that an experience as special as having a child might affect you creatively. Is this the case currently?
Yes — life is just different once you’ve had kids. And the way you approach music can be impacted, both in the time available and the choices — what has become important to you as a person, and how can that be expressed in the music?
Abby and Juno won’t be on tour, our new child is 3 days old, and Abby will stay off the road for the summer and most of the fall. We’ll take the family back out in December.
What are you excited to see with your Blue Ridge Banjo Camp? What are you hoping to get from the experience; what are you hoping to provide?
If I had a pie chart that represented my activities, I would say it has been pretty un-balanced, in that there was very little educational outreach in the pie. I’ve been wanting to have some part of my activities revolve around sharing what I’ve learned, and this is my first attempt to address it. Mostly I’ve been the only banjo player there, in my career, and I miss the fellowship of the banjo world.
At Blue Ridge Banjo Camp we will nerd out and celebrate the banjo, and take it very seriously.
Your recent Tiny Desk performance with Abigail on NPR was really sublime. Beyond this tour and the Banjo Camp, can you key us in on any upcoming projects you are most enthusiastic for? Anything to get your fans really amped?
Thanks so much re: Tiny Desk. I love performing with Abby and look forward to the next chapter with her.
Upcoming, there are a few things brewing for sure.
Touring wise, I’ll be going out solo much more. It’s something I did when our son Juno was brand new, and now I am coming back to it. Performing solo is a joy and a challenge and something I really want to grow at doing. I have a lot of ideas for that. Also, I’ll be reigniting a collaboration with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain, this time adding flutist Rakesh Chaurasia. That will be in November.
Also I’ll continue my collaboration with Chick Corea next Spring. And there will be other fun stuff coming up too, including figuring out a next step for the Tones!