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Béla Fleck

Banjo master Béla Fleck plays traditional and progressive bluegrass, jazz, classical, and world music. He served in the progressive bluegrass outfit New Grass Revival before forming Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, an innovative, hybrid fusion outfit who wed jazz, funk, country, bluegrass, and jam band improv. Throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, the Flecktones released seminal albums including 1992's UFO Tofu, 2000's Outbound, and 2006's The Hidden Land. Fleck simultaneously released boundary-pushing solo albums including Tales from the Acoustic Planet (1995) and Perpetual Motion (2001). He toured China with fellow banjoist (and later spouse) Abigail Washburn's Sparrow Quartet. He traveled through Africa, recording with Toumani Diabaté and Baaba Maal. The married banjoists released 2016's Grammy-winning Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn. He slid into eclectic bluegrass on 2021's star-studded My Bluegrass Heart, and in 2023 released As We Speak in collaboration with Zakir Hussain, Edgar Meyer, and Rakesh Chaurasia. In 2024, he released Rhapsody In Blue, performing different interpretations of the compostion solo and with different ensembles. He also released Remembrance, documenting his final tour with the late Chick Corea in 2019. Born in 1958 in New York City, Fleck 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, he worked on adapting bebop music for the instrument. Fleck has 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. Later that year, Fleck was asked by PBS television to play on the upcoming Lonesome Pine Special; in response, he gathered 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 was released 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 different genres and styles, Fleck revisited his bluegrass roots with the Grammy-nominated My Bluegrass Heart. Among the album's many guests were Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Sierra Hull, and Chris Thile. In 2022, Fleck enlisted some old friends for a world tour. The quartet also included tabla master Zakir Hussain, double bassist Edgar Meyer, and bansuri flutist Rakesh Chaurasia. Upon returning, they entered a recording studio and cut 12 idiosyncratic compositions using complex Indian rhythms, grooving acoustic funk, progressive bluegrass, and collective improvisation. The completed album, As We Speak, was released by Thirty Tigers in May 2023, and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album., while the song "Pashto" won the award for Best Global Music Performance. In February 2024, Fleck released Rhapsody In Blue. It fullfilled his career-long ambition to record George Gershwin's signature piece. Fleck cut it solo and with several progressive bluegrass ensembles. In May, Bela Fleck Productions released Remembrance. The double length set documented the final tour between the banjoist and jazz piano great Chick Corea in 2019.
© Sandra Brennan & Thom Jurek /TiVo


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