Béla Fleck and The Flecktones, a jam-outfit that plays an eclectic mix of progressive bluegrass, jazz, folk, classical and world music, pulled into town Friday to play at Binghamton University’s Anderson Center — one stop of dozens on a national tour that will run through April of next year.
Band leader Béla Fleck is an accomplished banjoist and composer who has won 12 Grammy awards and been nominated for another 25. He holds the distinction of having been nominated for Grammy awards in more separate categories than anyone else. Since 1990 he has made 10 albums of original material with the Flecktones, for whom he serves as chief songwriter. Fleck has also collaborated either on albums, songs or in bands with Chick Corea, Dave Matthews, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer and Phish among others. He is perhaps best known for his efforts to revitalize and reinvent the banjo, using the instrument in non-customary settings and genres, adding pedal effects and varying playing styles. Fleck spoke with Pipe Dream about his influences, band, approach to music, the symphony he recently wrote and more.
Pipe Dream: I’ve read that Earl Scruggs, the legendary banjo pioneer, is a hero of yours and has had a large musical influence on you. Who are your biggest influences outside of the bluegrass genre?
Béla Fleck: I have been influenced by The Beatles, Chick Corea, Joni Mitchell, Charlie Parker, and the list goes on.
Pipe Dream: Unlike many bands, the Flecktones change up their set list on tour, and refuse to repeat songs the same way, note for note, every time they’re played. How do you go about rehearsing improvisation? Or, since what you play is fluid each night, do you bother to rehearse at all?
Béla Fleck: We rehearse so that we are familiar with the materials. Once we are familiar enough, rehearsing stops helping — so we avoid playing the music till we get on stage and let the audience and each other inspire us to find fresh approaches each night. Sometimes at soundcheck we touch up an orchestrated section, or discuss a different conceptual approach to try at the show.
Pipe Dream: Since 2009, original band member Howard Levy has rejoined The Flecktones on piano and harmonica, filling in for saxophonist Jeff Coffin, who now tours with the Dave Matthews Band. Levy also replaced Coffin on The Flecktones’ most recent album, which came out in May this year, “Rocket Science.” Is this arrangement temporary, or is Coffin completely done with The Flecktones, and Levy once again officially the fourth member of the band?
Béla Fleck: The future is unknown to all of us! We do know that we have made plans through April with Howard. After that we will likely go back to working separately. When we are ready to come back, we’ll see what everyone is thinking. That could be summer of 2013, or even later. We love Howard and we love Jeff. Howard has certainly invigorated the band, just as Jeff has done for Dave Mathews Band. It’s all very healthy and positive.
Pipe Dream: In addition to The Flecktones, it seems like you’re always involved with a million other musical projects and collaborations. Who’s a contemporary musician you’ve never gotten to play with, but you would like to play with very much?
Béla Fleck: I admit to being a Pat Metheny fan and could imagine we might find some cool stuff to do together. Jeff Beck could be interesting, Marcus Roberts, Wynton Marsalis, U2, etc.
Pipe Dream: What’s your favorite type of venue and audience to play to?
Béla Fleck: I love the variety of many different types of venues. I do care that the audience be tuned in, so we can get the back and forth with them that makes for a great night. Audiences that talk a lot during the show are a turnoff, but honestly they are pretty rare.
Pipe Dream: I’ve also heard that you recently finished composing a work called “Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra,” which you’ll debut with the Nashville Symphony at the end of September. What inspired you to try such a compositional undertaking? And how would you characterize the Concerto?
Béla Fleck: It was an area that I had never gotten to explore on my own and it held a lot of potential for musical growth. It is really just “Béla Music” with banjo and an orchestra. Some of it sounds “classical,” some of it does not. It was very challenging to write for all the instruments and to think in terms of a long piece — 33 minutes or so.
Pipe Dream: Other than to practice, practice, practice, what advice would you give to a young person who’s looking to make music his or her career?
Béla Fleck: One needs to have something to say, so listening is as important as practicing. Strong perspective makes for interesting music, so don’t be afraid to explore ideas that seem bold. Playing it safe won’t get you there. And selling out rarely works. And practice, practice, practice!