It's hard to define the absolute "best
" in relation to any professional occupation, especially in the vastly populated and dense music industry. The best guitarist, drummer, bassist, etc. are a constant interchange between a distinguished group of 5-10 legendary musicians who replace one another as king of their aptitude. But there is one musician who stands undoubtedly on top of the throne in his field, who has revolutionized his instrument beyond any classical measure. This man is Bela Fleck
Considered the premier banjo player in the world, Bela
has taken the music universe by storm having won 11 Grammy awards and receiving 25 total nominations. Releasing his first solo album in 1980, Bela
hasn't looked back since, and continues truckin' along with various musical collaborations (Flecktones, Strength in Numbers, Sparrow Quartet), guest appearances with world renowned artists (Warren Haynes, Dave Matthews, Phish, Ginger Baker and more) and solo work. With the recent release of his documentary DVD, Throw Down Your Heart
which follows him through his musical journey in Africa, and his current tour with The Melody of Rhythm
is doing his part as a musician to keep harmonic and melodic ambience alive by producing and distributing beautiful music for listeners worldwide.
Presently on tour with his most recent partnership, The Melody Of Rhythm
plans to add to his 40+ record repertoire and continue fascinating the music world with his phenomenal musical abilities and undeniable creative influence on the music scene. After a brief hiatus, a city wide tour with the Africa Project will ensue followed by a follow up tour with The Melody Of Rhythm
throughout next summer, not to mention surprising and interesting projects in between.
spoke with Bela Fleck
to discuss his past history, his recent and future projects and what expectations are in store for the undeniable sole king of the banjo.
Hey Bela, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.
Jarrod, no problem, my pleasure.
So let's jump right into this. You're currently touring with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain (The Melody of Rhythm). How do you decide between the various projects you associate yourself with (Flecktones, Melody of Rhythm, etc.)? Let me rephrase thatas in when to tour with which and when to create an album with whom or whether to just do a solo album/tour?
Things kind of fall into a rhythm that begins when the group decides to play together. Then we begin to compose, put a recording out, and then continue as long as it makes sense to all the parties. I do feel it is very important to support recordings. You really have to get behind each one and be its backbone. You can record so easily, but touring is a real commitment to the music. I have to feel that each one is an idealistic pursuit in which I can learn and achieve something.
You were born in New York City and attended the High School of Music and Art where you studied the French horn along with the Banjo. What drove you to become so musical and to navigate your life in the direction of becoming a professional musician?
"I fell deeply in love with the banjo."
I fell deeply in love with the banjo. It was such a powerful magnet that everything else simply fell away. When I got out of high school I had applied to no colleges [laughs]! You really couldn't study banjo in school in those days. So that was the direction I went in.
Who were your musical inspirations growing up? Whether they were professional musicans, family, etc.?
I loved the Beatles. Then later on I got hooked on Earl Scruggs. That led the way to Tony Trischka and then eventually Chick Corea. The list goes on and on. They're just so many influences.
Would you say your banjo style is unique to your own innovation or did you comprise it from players you grew up admiring?
I took a lot from everyone I heard and loved. I tried to avoid sounding like anyone else. And as soon as I got out of high school I was playing professionally. I had to work hard to stop sounding like Tony Trischka, since he was my absolute hero. Then I kept digging stuff out of myself that I hadn't heard anyone else do. And basically it formed the sound that you hear today.
During the 1980's you spent a lot of time playing with Doc Watson. What did he mean to you personally and as a musician?
Playing with Doc made me feel like I was a legit traditional player, which was honestly what I always wanted. Growing up in New York City, it was important to me to not be considered a 'Northern Picker." You know, one who didn't really "get" bluegrass. Playing on his bluegrass album 'Riding the Midnight Train" was a big deal to me.
I read that you've collaborated with Ginger Baker previously in a studio session. If I'm not mistaken, it was on three tracks of his Falling off the Roof album. What was he like in person? Were you able to jam out together?
That was a very strange session. The story is he actually had fallen off the roof a couple of days before. So evidently he was on pain meds during the entire session. Despite all of that it was Amazing to play with him. The other musicians involved were Charlie Hayden and Bill Frissell and it was amazing to play with them as well. An all around great time.
You've collaborated with a bevy of artists; from Keller Williams, to Dave Matthews and Warren Hayneseven ex-New York Yankee Bernie Williams. What is your most memorable collaboration, live and/or in studio?
My trip to Africa was the most amazing musical experience of my life. Throw Down Your Heart,' the film and recording captured a lot of it.
In 1995 you were awarded your first Grammy award after numerous nominations dating all the way back to 1986. The album was titled Asleep at the Wheel. Did you know at that time that This was the record that would finally rope in the Grammy?
It was kind of odd actually. All I had done on that recording was play the banjo solo on one track.
Then, most recently, in 2008 you won a Grammy in the Best Pop Instrumental Album category, for your Christmas album, Jingle All the Way. Were you surprised that a holiday themed album would be Grammy worthy?
I think the Holiday recording is one of the best things the Flecktones has recorded, so I wasn't that surprised. But pleased Yes!
If you could bring a legendry artist back from the dead to play with for one last live performance, who would it be? If they're too many, feel free to name a few.
I would love to see Chopin play live, Charlie Parker, Miles... lots of em.
You've clearly been influenced by past musicians. What are your personal feelings on the modern state of music and Rock & Roll? Is blood still pumping through its veins?
There is always great stuff happening somewhere.
Victor Wooten of the Flecktones is one of the most badass bassists of all time. How did you two find one another?
He actually called me up and played bass over the phone. It was a wonderful surprise. And the rest is history
You average at least one album per year which is unbelievable for a recording artist. Are ideas constantly flowing through your head that you need to immediately lay down on record?
"I took a lot from everyone I heard and loved."
I am actually quite behind at the moment. I have a huge backlog of tunes and ideas that are waiting for the right group to bring them to life. But I always try to pair the music with a group that will go out and play it, so I have to work that thru and find the right situation.
How has your musical preference changed throughout the years? What direction is it going as you continue your journey in the musical world?
I am moving away from playing fast and complicated for show. I desire more depth to the music now. I want to be moved.
What's coming up for Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (concerts,albums,etc)? What should we expect?
Well, now that Jeff Coffin is full time with Dave Mathews Band we are exploring other options. One thing we are going to try is doing some dates with Howard Levy, the original fourth guy in the band. He is a ridiculous harmonica and keyboard player. Jeff will also play with us when it makes sense, such as this winter for the holiday tour.
And without the Flecktonesany solo work or other musical collaborations after The Melody of Rhythm tour is complete?
I am doing quite a lot of touring with African artists in February, March and April. Then Melody of Rhythm comes back again to tour throughout June, July and August.
Seems there's a lot to look forward to. Thank you so much for your time; it's truly been a pleasure. Good luck on tour!
Interview by Jarrod Dicker