Does anyone not recognize the name Bela Fleck? A show of hands? No one? OK good. Bela Fleck has touched so many types of music and musicians in his 55 years of life that he is probably known throughout them all. He has played bluegrass, newgrass (New Grass Revival), classical, jazz (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Chic Corea, Marcus Roberts Trio), rock (Dave Matthews Band and Phish), I have seen him play with an Paddy Keenan (ilean piper), a tabla player, throat singer, I have even heard him playing with a rapper. More than anyone else, Bela has shown the world that the banjo is a real instrument. Banjo players already knew this of course but the general public maybe did not know it so much. There have been others before him blazing a path for the banjo in non-Appalachian musical styles. Obviously, Earl Scruggs lit the world on fire with his playing (thanks to Bill Monroe’s constant touring schedule in the 1940s); Don Reno showed that single string playing was possible on banjo much like it is on guitar and that opened banjo to a variety of jazzy outlets; Bill Keith figured out and showed us all that melodic playing allowed literal playing of fiddle tunes and that led to him and many others exploring jazz and ragtime on the banjo; Courtney Johnson and Bobby Thompson excited the public with their chromatic playing that helped push the banjo into southern rock; Butch Robins seamlessly incorporated all of these things into his own style and made a successful career from playing with one foot in the traditional camp and one in the new/daring/envelope pushing camp; Tony Trischka did this as well but also took on the responsibility of teaching the world exactly how to play all of these banjo styles and songs through the writing of a myriad of instructional books and videos (and an innovative online school for banjo players). Bela Anton Leos Fleck was born in New York in 1958 to a music loving family. He was named after Bela Bartok, Anton Webern, and Leos Janacek, all European composers. He attended New York City’s High School of Music and Art and studied french horn while there. At some point he also heard the music of Flatt and Scruggs on the television show Beverly Hillbillies. (Flatt and Scruggs played the shows theme song, The Ballad of Jed Clampett.) While it may seem counter to his background, it was the sound of the banjo on that show that seemed to excite him mu]ch more than the french horn he was learning at the time. Lucky for us all, he was born into a family that loved and supported music and so he eventually found himself in possession of a banjo and sitting in front of Tony Trischka. Personally, I hear a lot of Trishcka influences in Bela’s playing and musical journeys, especially on his days in the Flecktones. Bela studied banjo and became a very good player and soon moved to Boston to join the bluegrass group Tasty Licks, which was made up of Mark Schatz, Pat Enright and Jack Tottle. The band recorded two albums, Tasty Licks and Anchored to the Shore. Around this time he recorded his first solo album as well- Crossing the Tracks. In 1981 he moved on from Tasty Licks and along with Schatz, Glen Lawson and Jimmy Gaudreau, helped form Spectrum. A series of albums were recorded with various bands and as solo projects quickly came about and around this time he was asked to join the super group New Grass Revival. I think his years with New Grass Revival really made him a household name. In my experience at least, when he joined that group people started talking about him. A lot. The first time I saw him play live was in a tiny little establishment in Roanoke, Virginia named Howard’s Soup Kitchen. The place was a combination bar/restaurant and was so small that while sitting in my chair near the stage, I could hear and understand the words that new members Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn were exchanging while playing the songs. The two were brand new to the band and it was a pleasure to watch them listening to the songs and responding to them. I don’t exactly know that they were learning the songs on the fly but they were definitely exploring ideas about what to play and it was exciting! After several years in NGR, Bela left the group and started a new group called Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. This is another reason that his name is known in most households. That band was new and exciting and really pushed the envelope for a lot of people. The band combined banjo with piano, drums, harmonica and jazzy ideas and melodies. They recorded a lot of albums and played to millions of fans. Volumes could be written about the Flecktones so I will leave that to you to explore. I saw them many times. As the Flecktones were coming to a close, Bela seems to have become interested in classical music once again and recorded and composed several pieces- including a banjo concerto. His interest in the roots of the banjo took him on a trip to Africa (which was filmed and released in a film called Throw Down Your Heart). Bela has given us much to listen to and learn from. Today I am recommending: Now the banjo player in me has to ask this question- Why is the album called Drive? Obviously, the cover art shows Bela in the drivers seat of a car. Is that a subliminal reference to Bela being in the drivers seat in terms of being band leader? Is the title in reference to a song on the album, perhaps Open Road? (Although it might be a stretch, there is also See Rock City, which you would need to drive to as Rock City is on top of a very high mountain which not a lot of people live on. And by the way, you should definitely see Rock City, it is quite something to behold!) Or is Drive in reference to that nearly inexplicable thing that musicians talk about. Drive, as in a feeling of forward movement in one’s playing. I don’t actually know the answer but I do think about it every time I see the album, which is often because I listen to it a lot. The musicians on Drive are an amazing collection of top-notch acoustic musicians. Sam Bush on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Mark O’Connor on fiddle, Tony Rice on guitar and Mark Schatz on bass all accompany Bela Fleck and the result is exactly as you would expect. First rate musicianship, and an inspirational listening experience all around. Give the album a listen, it has a lot to offer. My personal favorites are Whtewater, See Rock City and The Legend.
|Recordings-CDs – Level 4||M1630.18.F543 D75 1998||AVAILABLE|