A Jeff Spevak jazz fest interview with Bela Fleck

Jun 25, 2018

Bela Fleck & the Flecktones
Credit Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival

Thirty years ago, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones opened the bluegrass door, and in flew jazz, rock and country music. Classical, even. The quartet embraces a world view of sound, and Fleck has continued to expand his musical interests, in recent years releasing recordings of duets with jazz keyboard great Chick Corea, and recording a concerto with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.

He’s also expanded his family with his wife Abigail Washburn, also a banjo musician of note. With new family obligations leaving his schedule a bit fluxy, rather than a phone interview Fleck found it easier to submit to an email question and answer session before the Bela Fleck & the Flecktones Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival concert Tuesday at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre.

Thank you, Bela. Congratulations on the birth of your son earlier this month, the second for you and Abigail. What advice and warnings are you prepared to give the boys, if they feel inclined to pursue careers in music?

Wow – I guess it’ll depend on who they are and what they play like when and if that time comes. I was kind of hoping they’d be advising me!

They’ll be members of the younger generation that has a better chance of having a clue of what the music scene of that time will be!

Both you and Abigail have integrated geography into your music. For you, Africa in particular. For Abigail, China. The banjo came to the world from Africa. Is there something about the instrument that allows it to easily cross borders?

The banjo is a member of an instrument family that has been crossing borders for thousands of years. And instruments of this type, which mix skin, gourds, wood, and gut do occur naturally all over the world. So it’s an archetypical sound, which resonates deeply in the soul of mankind.

You have won 15 Grammys. More intriguingly, you have been nominated in more Grammy categories than any musician, including bluegrass, country, jazz, spoken word and classical. Does this speak to the versatility of the banjo, or your own musical restlessness? 

Or perhaps it’s an example of musical Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?

I’m just glad I get to be part of all these musical communities, and honestly all the different musical forms do have a lot in common.

I pretty much play like myself, and try to figure out how to fit into things.

Luckily folks do seem to dig it, and periodically these Grammy boxes start showing up at the house!

Early on, as you began expanding on what you could do with the banjo, did you encounter resistance from traditionalists?

I worried about it, but it didn’t happen much to me in person – though I know there were folks who didn’t like it. My teacher Tony Trischka certainly suffered more at the hands of angry traditionalists, and paved the way. So people were not that concerned by the time I turned up on the scene.

Steve Martin once said, “you can’t play a sad song on the banjo.” Is that true?

Not true. There is a ton of beautiful sad banjo music. I believe that idea started with a funny Peanuts cartoon. Then I heard it in Steve’s great routines.

But it’s part of the stereotype that I enjoy disproving.

The Flecktones are celebrating 30 years together. Victor Wooten plays bass, Howard Levy harmonica. When Victor suggested his brother Roy and the drumitar, a percussion-synthesizer instrument he invented, might be a good fit for the band, did you pause and say, “Victor, I don’t know about this, your brother calls himself Future Man and wears pirate outfits…” 

Well – he hadn’t quite started calling himself Future Man when we met. And the first pirate hat took a while to show up.

But here’s the thing – when I starting playing music with Victor and Future Man – it was the first time I sounded the way I had been wanting to for my whole musical life. They gave my banjo a context, and I was able to be myself within it.

Tony Trischka, who’s the Yoda of the banjo planet, told me a few years ago that he gave you banjo lessons when you were 16 but, “Within a few months, it was obvious this guy didn’t need lessons anymore.” Yet I suspect you never stop learning. What’s the latest thing you’ve discovered about the banjo?

Tony was such a great role model for me in every way, what a great musician and person.

I am always digging around, and looking for fresh areas to explore, as he is. Sometimes it’s learning a Beatle song, or a classical piece which opens things up, but usually its in the composition process where I find myself hitting paydirt. It’s really fun to write tunes on the banjo, and there are still lots of possibilities to explore and cultivate.

What do you and Abigail do when you don’t feel like picking up the banjo?

Mostly we are a family, doing our best to raise Juno and now little Wilder, and get them what they need. If we do get some time to chill, we’ll go out to see a movie or just chill out on the couch. It’s a busy life, and a very rich one…

Jeff Spevak

Do you suffer for your art?

I feel the responsibility to contribute something meaningful – and it’s very hard to satisfy my own critical nature; I can end up disappointing myself, sorry that I couldn’t bring more, play better or write better. But I do enjoy the process. I miss it when I am unable to focus on music.

I am not a suffering artist but I do take it very seriously.

Jeff Spevak is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.comHe will be reporting for WXXI throughout the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival.

To see Bela Fleck & the Flecktones:

8 p.m. Tuesday, Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Tickets ($85, $70, $55 and $40, plus service charges, are available at rochesterjazz.com and (585) 454-2060.