It's hard to figure out where to position Bela Fleck
and the Flecktones. Since their inception in 1988, the Grammy
-winning band has been at the vanguard of the newgrass movement, primarily because Fleck started out in bluegrass and is one of the greatest living banjo players. The rhythm section of bassist Victor Wooten and his brother Roy Futureman" Wooten on percussion had a funky feel and a jazz-like intuitive rapport. Together, they are capable of cutting their own swath through jazz, bluegrass, European folk traditions and classical, country, rock and pop.
The quartet was originally rounded out by the universally revered chromatic harmonica player and pianist Howard Levy, who dropped out in 1992 after three classic albums with the band. He was subsequently replaced by saxophonist Jeff Coffin in 1996 after a series of special guests had filled in. Coffin then moved on to play with the Dave Matthews Band
in 2010. With the fourth seat empty once again, the Flecktones reunited with Levy to record the brand new 'Rocket Science' and tour for much of the summer.
I'm not coming out here saying that nothing we've done since without Howard is crap," Fleck tells Spinner of this development. I'm not going to say some jive like that. I'm very proud of everything we've done. We've always been idealistic about our music and put our best foot forward and tried to make the best music we could. That being said, I do think there is something special about the original band and what it was supposed to be."
The band originally hit the ground running because of a wildly successful debut performance on PBS' Lonesome Pine series. This immediately led to more work and major label deal, and suddenly they were touring everywhere to bigger and bigger audiences and popping out albums during the rare breaks. But while the music was immensely creative, Levy felt tied down by the band's relentless schedule.
According to Fleck, There were never major disagreements nor were we ever mad at each other beyond what happens with musicians and people who work together. I think the hardest part of him leaving the band is that he talked for six months about whether he should leave the band. That was very hard on me because this band was my dream. He's just a very open person who was struggling about what he should do, but after six months of it I finally told him: 'Howard, you need to leave the band. I can't talk about it anymore. I wish you would stay, but you don't want to. If you've been talking about it for six months then I think you should do it.'"
Fleck says that Levy's departure forced the other three to step up. Whenever there was a difficult musical problem in a solo or a complex harmonic problem to solve, the band would just toss it to Levy because he was generally regarded as the brains of the band and the other three were more of the brawn. Now the other three had become better musicians as players and more grounded in theory.
The three continued to flourish, taking the band to new commercial heights with Coffin, but after 14 years together the creative fire had died down. The band played less and less toward the end and finally went on indefinite hiatus as they each explored other musical settings. This break allowed Coffin to hook up with the Dave Matthews Band, which was looking for a replacement for Leroi Moore, who died in 2008.
When Jeff got that opportunity we all encouraged him to do it because we didn't know when we would be getting back together again," Fleck recalls. Then when he did leave to go do that, it sort of put the idea of bringing Howard back on the table. And that to us seemed intriguing. It changed the game. It's not that Jeff wasn't an awesome part of the group and could be again, but we'd done it for 14 years we didn't have the same pile of questions to ask that we had before. I had all these tunes that didn't really work with Jeff and I got creatively jacked every time I thought about trying them with Howard."
The core three talked and invited Levy to do a few weeks of touring where they would dust off some of the old material and see how they felt. Levy was available and very open to doing it, so they played the tour and had a great time. This led to talk of doing a year together, which would include recording 'Rocket Science' and then touring heavily behind it. After that, who knows?
Although on par with the three classics with Levy, 'Rocket Science' has a more collaborative approach than the band's initial releases. Fleck had distinct ideas and objectives for the band in the early days, which meant that the band wasn't always open to what Levy brought in. Whereas the earlier version of the band was more about a focused sound, this time around the band is looking to broaden its approach and try new things.
Back in the beginning, I was a really intense guy," Fleck says. I had the music that I wanted the band to do, and while some of the music that Howard did was awesome I don't think it fit the band that well. I think that it was frustrating for him and might have even been a mistake on my part. So this reunion was a sort of fix for that. Before I even brought in music, I went up to Howard's in Chicago and heard everything he had that might work and tried to draw out some ideas that he had because we all have to love it because we are going to be playing these tunes for at least a year."
Fleck still does the lion's share of the composing on 'Rocket Science,' but fans will notice that Levy has three songs (including the tricky 'Almost 12,' a piece with an 11/8 time signature that is co-written with Fleck). Victor Wooten has a track co-written with Fleck called 'Like Water,' and Futureman wrote 'The Secret Drawer' on his own. Highlights from Fleck's hand include the epic jazz fusion-istic 'Storm Warning,' which he originally wrote for a project with Stanley Clark and Jean-Luc Ponty, and the bluesy 'Prickly Pear.'
Originally, the Flecktones' studio albums were made up of stuff that had been worked over on tour, but this time around the band had to write, rehearse and record without playing it live. Although nothing replaces refining a song on tour in front of an audience, the old hands have a pretty good handle on the material and it came together fairly quickly. This, according to Fleck, means that there is a freshness to the material that might not have happened otherwise.
The Flecktones benefit from a rhythm section that has been playing together their entire lives. The Wootens aren't straight-ahead guys playing bluegrass or bluegrass guys playing jazz; they take an alternate path that just works. Then add Howard Levy to the stew and you've got a mix of something very solid imbued with a fresh perspective that is more mercurial, jazz-like and, according to Fleck, even a little dangerous.
Howard was always a wildcard," Fleck says He's a very provocative player who plays stuff that he's never played before every time he picks up the instrument and that forces everyone around him to step up to that if they want to play with him. His playing might not be as refined, but his incendiary style means that you'll end up playing something that you wouldn't have thought of playing in a million years. It's incendiary and with that comes risk, fear and danger."