Aspen Music Fest: Fleck, the banjo and the ‘new information’

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesBanjoist Bela Fleck joins tabla player Zakir Hussain and bassist Edgar Meyer for an Aspen Music Festival concert Wednesday at

ASPEN – Between the ages of 7 and 15, Bela Fleck spent a good amount of his time as an unpromising guitar student. His biggest accomplishment was mastering the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”; by the time he was in his mid-teens, he was just progressing to learning basic blues scales from an upstairs neighbor in their apartment on New York’s Upper West Side.

The more momentous occasion in Fleck’s 15th year was switching his focus from guitar to banjo. Maybe it was timing, his teenage fingers and mind just coming into musical maturity when he got the banjo. Possibly it was what was going on with banjo at the time – the early ’70s – when Tony Trischka, Bill Keith and others were dispelling the idea that banjo was limited to bluegrass – or worse, that it was a symbol of a backwoods music mentality.

“You find you’re lackluster at most everything – and then there’s something you’re not lackluster at,” Fleck said. “I was like that with music – a lackluster guitarist. But when I got the banjo, it was like a light turned on. With a triple-A battery.”

Fleck has inarguably become one of the great banjo masters. But what has made him, at 52, among the supreme and visionary musicians is that those lights keep turning on, one after another. He has used the banjo to play bluegrass, of course, but also jazz-fusion, classical, African, acoustic jazz, and has even dipped a toe into Chinese music. He has become a composer as well as an instrumentalist. Wednesday in Aspen, he shows off his latest project – a chamber music trio with tabla player Zakir Hussain and bassist Edgar Meyer, an influential and long-term collaborator whose partnership dates back to a chance meeting in Aspen in 1983.

Fleck took up the banjo at a time when it seemed like all the instrument’s boundaries and misperceptions had just been done away with, leaving what must have looked like a wide-open landscape. Trischka, who became one of Fleck’s early teachers, “really turned heads,” Fleck said, from Salisbury, Mass. “He was trying unique things, willing to be very artistic and strange, playing with drums and saxophones. Growing up in the ’60s, with Ravi Shankar and Yes and Led Zeppelin, that made sense to me. Because he had gone through such crap with the bluegrass people, it wasn’t a big deal. I couldn’t see why the banjo couldn’t progress to … anywhere.”

The number of places he has taken the banjo is dizzying, but new doors are still opening. Fleck is at work on a banjo concerto, due to be premiered in September 2011 with the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. Fleck has co-written a pair of concerts previously – including the “Melody of Rhythm” triple concerto, composed with Hussain and Meyer, and which was debuted in 2006 in Nashville, where Fleck and Meyer live – but this will be his first solo concerto. He is writing solo banjo pieces, taking on the task of creating a solo repertoire for the instrument. And he is working on a duets project with his wife of one year, Abigail Washburn, a banjoist and singer who leads the Sparrow Quartet, a group that mixes American gospel and blues with Chinese folk music, and of which Fleck is a member.

As he covers new ground, he also looks to revisit old terrain. Recording sessions are set, for September and November, for the Flecktones, the electric-jazz group that has been Fleck’s most visible and steady combo over the past two decades. But Fleck is looking at the next Flecktones album as a groundbreaking opportunity. Jeff Coffin, the band’s saxophonist since 1997, was recruited into the Dave Matthews Band two years ago, opening the way for the return of keyboardist Howard Levy, a founding Flecktone who left the group early on, in 1992.

“It seems like a good time to try a new direction,” Fleck said of Levy, who did a handful of Flecktones dates last year. “Jeff is one of the best musicians I ever played with, but after 12 years it was hard to think what else there was to do. The music we made with Howard was the seminal Flecktones stuff. The truth is, the band was designed with him in mind.” Fleck has specific ideas for the next phase of the Flecktones: “Howard loves to play in 11” – an unusual and tricky time signature. “We’ll do some serious 11 stuff. I’m shooting for the moon [with the new album].”

Along with new rhythms and styles, Fleck has assembled an extensive list of collaborators. His first prominent band, the pioneering ’80s quartet New Grass Revival, teamed him with mandolinist Sam Bush, who put reggae and funk accents into string music. He has worked with Doc Watson, McCoy Tyner, Phish, Gov’t Mule and John Oates. But after making the 2007 album “The Enchantment” with pianist Chick Corea, and the work with Hussain, with whom he has written, recorded and toured, Fleck may be ready to write off the idea of a dream list of musical partners.

“I got through a bunch of the ones that were on the top of my list,” Fleck said, mentioning the Africa Project – a collaboration with African players that yielded two albums, a documentary film, and a tour that landed in Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House for a spectacular night this past February – as well as Corea and Hussain. “Maybe once you play with enough of the people on the list, the list becomes less important. It’s not gun-slinging. There’s got to be a natural reason for it to happen, and natural connections have to be made.”

And in Hussain, an Indian-born percussionist who has lived in the San Francisco area for nearly 40 years, Fleck may have forged another partnership akin to the one he has with Meyer. Meyer, a former student and current faculty member at the Aspen Music School and a busy composer, has served more or less as Fleck’s tour guide into the classical realm. In addition to writing two concertos together, they have collaborated on Fleck’s album of works by Bach, Chopin and other classical composers; and “Music for Two,” a duo album of mostly original pieces.

The relationship with Hussain, while in its early stages, is becoming deep. The “Melody of Rhythm” album, released last year, features the triple concerto as well as trio pieces. The threesome has toured extensively, and is looking at more dates next spring and, when schedules allow, another album.

“This is actually quite a big one,” Fleck said of the relationship with Hussain. “Not to put Edgar down, but Zakir is the new information. It’s fascinating what he’s throwing at me, all the time. I get inspired by a good, tight, pushing rhythm. It makes my banjo rolls feel real tight. In bluegrass, Sam Bush gave me that; I had that with Chick Corea.

“Zakir is provoking more different playing from me than I’ve heard in a long time. That’s fun, hearing new things coming out of yourself.”