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Béla Fleck

Banjo master Béla Fleck is known as one of the most innovative players in the world and has done much to demonstrate the versatility of his instrument, which he uses to play everything from traditional bluegrass to jazz, classical, and world music. Although his solo career began in 1979, Fleck's reputation was earned in the 1980s as a member of the progressive bluegrass outfit, the New Grass Revival. He later formed his own group, Béla Fleck & the Flecktones whose eclectic, genre-blurring sound led to widespread international acclaim and collaborations with everyone from Nanci Griffith and Doc Watson to Neil Young. Throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, the Flecktones released a succession of seminal albums including 1992's UFO Tofu, 2000's Outbound, and 2006's The Hidden Land. Meanwhile, he continued to release boundary-pushing solo albums like 1995's Tales from the Acoustic Planet and 2001's Baroque Perpetual Motion. As his career progressed, Fleck consistently sought out interesting projects and collaborations, touring China as part of fellow banjoist Abigail Washburn's Sparrow Quartet and traveling throughout Africa, where he recorded with masters like Toumani Diabaté and Baaba Maal. Fleck and Washburn later married and began a musical partnership that yielded the Grammy-winning 2016 release Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn. Around this time, he also recorded his second album with famed jazz pianist Chick Corea. At home as a soloist, in duos, large bands, and even symphony orchestras, Fleck has transformed a traditional folk instrument preloaded with associations into something almost genre-less in its versatility. With little left to prove, he slid easily back into bluegrass mode on 2021's star-studded My Bluegrass Heart, approaching the genre of his roots with the same eclecticism that has remained his hallmark. Fleck, born in 1958 in New York City, was named after composer Béla Bartok. Around age 15, Fleck became fascinated with the banjo after hearing Flatt & Scruggs' "Ballad of Jed Clampett," and Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell's "Dueling Banjos." While attending the High School of Music and Art in New York, Fleck worked on adapting bebop music for the instrument. Fleck always had diverse musical interests, and his own style was influenced by Tony Trischka, Earl Scruggs, Chick Corea, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, the Allman Brothers, Aretha Franklin, the Byrds, and Little Feat. After graduation, he joined the Tasty Licks, a group from Boston. They recorded two albums and dissolved in 1979. Afterward, Fleck joined the Kentucky band Spectrum. That year, only five years after he took up the instrument, he made his solo recording debut with Crossing the Tracks, which the Readers' Poll in Frets magazine named Best Overall Album. In 1982, he joined New Grass Revival and stayed with them until the end of the decade. During this time, his reputation continued to grow, and in 1990, Frets added his name to their Hall of Greats. In 1988, one of his compositions, "Drive" (from the album New Grass Revival), was nominated for a Grammy. Fleck, mandolin player Sam Bush, fiddler Mark O'Connor, bassist Edgar Meyer, and Dobro player Jerry Douglas teamed up in 1989 to form Strength in Numbers and record The Telluride Sessions. Late that year, Fleck was asked by PBS television to play on the upcoming Lonesome Pine Special; in response, he gathered together a veritable "dream team" of musicians to form the Flecktones. The original members included Howard Levy, who played piano, harmonica, and ocarina, among other instruments; bass guitarist Victor Lemonte Wooten; and his brother Roy "Future Man" Wooten on the drumitar, an electronic drum shaped like a guitar. Though the special wasn't aired until 1992, the Flecktones recorded their eponymous debut album in 1990 and followed it up with Flight of the Cosmic Hippo (1991). In 1993, the group released their third album, UFO Tofu, which featured music blending different genres ranging from bluegrass to R&B and worldbeat. In 1995, they issued Tales from the Acoustic Planet; Left of Cool followed in 1998, and Tales from the Acoustic Planet 2: The Bluegrass Sessions was released a year later. Outbound followed in mid-2000. Busy and prolific, Fleck released an album of classical pieces, Perpetual Motion, in late 2001, followed by Live at the Quick in 2002, the ambitious double-disc Little Worlds (and its truncated single-disc version, Ten from Little Worlds) in 2003, and Music for Two (with bassist Edgar Meyer) in 2004. Fleck appeared on Abigail Washburn's first album, Song of the Traveling Daughter, in 2005. Hidden Land, another album with the Flecktones, appeared on Columbia Records in 2006. The band released their first holiday collection in 2008, appropriately titled Jingle All the Way. The Melody of Rhythm: Triple Concerto & Music for Trio appeared in 2009 from Koch Records, which teamed Fleck with cellist/bassist Edgar Meyer and the Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain along with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra directed by Leonard Slatkin. Fleck was also part of Washburn's Sparrow Quartet (with cellist Ben Sollee and fiddle player Casey Driessen), which, sponsored by the U.S. government, toured China and released Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet in 2008. Also that year, Fleck went to Africa to take part in a documentary film directed by his half-brother Sascha Paladino, and collaborated with over 40 of the continent's finest musicians, including D'Gary, Baaba Maal, Vusi Mahlasela, Toumani Diabaté, Bassekou Kouyate, and Oumou Sangare in Tanzania, Gambia, Mali, and Uganda. In 2009, Throw Down Your Heart, Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3: Africa Sessions -- both a film and a recording -- was released to widespread critical acclaim and commercial success. Fleck reunited the original Flecktones for the spring 2011 release Rocket Science, and toured with the band, and as part of a trio with Hussain and Meyer, which resulted in the concert album The Melody of Rhythm: Triple Concerto & Music for Trio. In 2012, Fleck collaborated with the Marcus Roberts Trio, recording the co-billed Across the Imaginary Divide. Ever ambitious, he composed both an orchestral concerto and a chamber work around his banjo playing, and performed and recorded with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, respectively. The recording appeared as The Imposter in August of 2013. Fleck's next release was also a double-billed collaborative effort with his wife, fellow banjo maestro and composer Abigail Washburn. The self-titled recording featured originals, traditional songs, and a thoroughly reimagined medley of two sections of Béla Bartok's "For Children" combined with his "Children's Dance." The album was released by Rounder in October 2014. The late summer of 2015 saw the release of Two on Concord, a duet album between the banjoist and pianist Chick Corea. It was compiled from over seven years' worth of their live performances. In 2017, Fleck released the contemplative Juno Concerto. Named for his firstborn son, the album was recorded with the Colorado Symphony, and included a pair of tracks with the Brooklyn Rider string quartet. That same year, Fleck and Washburn collaborated with the dance theater troupe Pilobus for an original work commissioned by the American Dance Theater entitled Echo in the Valley. The title, as well as some of the material, adorned Washburn and Fleck's second duo offering in 2017. It featured the pair performing on seven different banjos "ranging from a ukulele to an upright bass banjo." With an emphasis on three-finger and clawhammer styles, the arrangements reflected the necessity of being performed live. Outside of a few adaptations of traditional tunes, including Clarence Ashley's "My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains" (transformed into a blues), and a studio recording of their oft-played live medley "Sally in the Garden"/"Molly Put the Kettle On," the remainder of the material was co-written by Washburn and Fleck and reflects various narrative points of view and historical and topical concerns. Echo in the Valley was issued in October 2017. In January 2020, Fleck released a previously unissued collaborative album, The Ripple Effect, with kora master Toumani Diabate from their 22-city 2010 tour as part of the three-disc/one-DVD compilation Throw Down Your Heart: The Complete Africa Sessions. In 2021, after decades of exploring various different genres and styles, Fleck revisited his bluegrass roots with the Grammy-nominated My Bluegrass Heart. Among the album's numerous guests were star instrumentalists like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Sierra Hull, and Chris Thile.
© Sandra Brennan /TiVo
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