Revved and rested: Béla Fleck is rejuvenated after a year's hiatus.
By Alan Sculley
Béla Fleck admits that when he and his group, the radical jazz-bluegrass amalgam known as the Flecktones, began their year-long hiatus at the start of 2005, the thought crossed his mind that the group might never get back together.
Instead, one benefit from the break was that it showed the four band members--banjo virtuoso Fleck, bassist Victor Wooten, percussionist Roy "Future Man" Wooten and saxophone player Jeff Coffin--just how valuable their association, which began in 1988, had become.
"At first, I was a little worried about it," Fleck says of the hiatus. "I was afraid the band might not come together if we took a year off. It turned out to be a great thing for me, as well as, I think, everybody, both in terms of appreciating the group and in terms of having outside experiences that are healthy and good for musicians to have."
Actually, it's hard to believe that any worry about the Flecktones' future was more than just a passing thought. Fleck noted that the band actually had planned the hiatus some two years in advance. They also left behind a pretty strong clue that the hiatus would be temporary in the form of The Hidden Land.
That is the title of a studio CD the Flecktones recorded before going their separate ways last year. The fact that the band made The Hidden Land (which was released this January) provided a rather sure sign that the Flecktones intended to reconvene and hit the ground running.
"I was trying to be smart in the planning and say when we come back it would be great to come back with a new album, the excitement that a new album generates and the excitement that a band coming back on the road after a year generates," Fleck says. The band appear at the Wells Fargo Center on June 26 with the Yonder Mountain String Band and singer-songwriter Keller Williams as part of the Acoustic Planet Tour.
As it happened, the hiatus was hardly an idle year for the band members, especially Fleck, who took on several major outside projects. In February, he traveled to Africa, where he explored the roots of the banjo by recording with a variety of musicians from Mali, Tanzania, Uganda, Senegal and Gambia. The trip was filmed for a documentary, and Fleck has begun editing the performances for a CD that will be released next year.
Fleck found the time to embark on several tours, playing a number of dates with bassist Edgar Meyer, with whom he has toured and recorded frequently over the years. He also joined forces with fiddler Casey Driessen and guitarist Bryan Sutton in a bluegrass trio, and later in the year toured with legendary bassist Stanley Clarke and violinist Jean Luc Ponty.
In recording The Hidden Land, Fleck and the Flecktones took a polar opposite approach to the project from their 2003 release, Little Worlds. That disc continued the band's trend of collaborating with outside musicians and grew into a three-CD set that included performances with such notable talents as Bobby McFerrin and the Chieftains, to name a few.
The Hidden Land features only the four core members of the band, and because they decided to record the songs in a form they could play live, the CD offers perhaps the first true studio representation of this edition of the Flecktones in their pure ensemble form.
The sound is a bit more sparse without extra players, but their trailblazing blend of jazz and bluegrass works just fine in this setting, as on such finely crafted songs as "Labyrinth," "Kaleidoscope" and "P'lod in the House," where Coffin and Fleck deftly weave the saxophone and banjo around each other and trade enticing solos.
"It's certainly a reaction from doing a series of records with a lot of guests on them, with Little Worlds being the last one like that," Fleck says. "I got a little nervous that that would be the Flecktones' only identity, as sort of this massive thing where there's always a bunch of extra musicians around, and sort of a freak show of great musicians all ganging together. I was thinking, 'Well, that's a great part of our trip.' I just think if that's all you do, you just sort of become, I don't know--it starts to be the same. You've got to find ways to make the music different."
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones appear on Monday, June 26, at the Wells Fargo Center as part of the Acoustic Planet Tour with the Yonder Mountain String Band and Keller Williams. 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. 7pm. $35-$65. 707.546.3600.