Sunday, May 24, 2009

May 24: Béla Fleck And The Flecktones, "Béla Fleck And The Flecktones"

Artist: Béla Fleck And The Flecktones
Album: Béla Fleck And The Flecktones
Year: 1990
Label: Warner Bros.

Though it is certainly not the most popular instrument around, and it has gained an unnecessary stereotype, the banjo remains one of the most wonderfully diverse instruments around. When properly played, it is able to convey soulful, slow moods as well as eccentric, hyper-speed feelings with equal power. Though primarily associated with bluegrass music, one man has spent more than twenty years re-writing the books on what can be done with a banjo. Béla Fleck is undoubtedly the most talented banjo player on earth, and from jazz to bluegrass to classical, he is constantly pushing the boundaries on what one should expect from the instrument. Having worked solo as well as with a number of different artists, most of his finest work comes when he works with his “normal” backing band, The Flecktones. Béla Fleck And The Flecktones have released nearly ten albums since the early 1990's, but their finest work may be on their 1990 debut record, Béla Fleck And The Flecktones.

The music of Béla Fleck And The Flecktones falls somewhere between jazz, bluegrass, new-age, and funk. Though the album features a number of session musicians, the band proper is simply four of the most innovate and creative artists you'll find anywhere. With a total of zero lyrics on the album, Béla Fleck And The Flecktones relies completely on the musical prowess of the band, and the record in no way disappoints. Every song, minus Beatles-inspired "Reflections Of Lucy" were composed entirely by Fleck, and this shows that his talent in musical composition is equal, if not somehow superior to his banjo playing talents. Produced entirely by the band themselves, the album cracked the Top 20 on the jazz charts, and also earned the album a Grammy nomination for "Best Jazz Album." Strangely enough, the bands' 1997 live version of "The Sinister Minister" would, in fact, win the Grammy for "Best Jazz Performance." Though their later work would be both chart toppers, as well as Grammy winners, it is on Béla Fleck And The Flecktones that one can find and experience the amazing groundwork for these later triumphs.

Béla himself takes center stage on many of the tracks, but each band member has plenty of time throughout the album to showcase their musical skill. From slow, soulful movements, to lightning-fast pick burners, Béla shows time and time again why he is so highly respected throughout the musical community. However, when it comes down to it, on Béla Fleck And The Flecktones, Béla himself may very well be the LEAST innovate artist on the album. From the harmonica and guiro of Howard Levy to the programed drums and synth work by the man known as “Futureman,” (who is, in reality, the brother of bass legend, Victor Wooten) the Flecktones bring with them a cavalcade of musical expertise. Futreman is also notorious for sporting his one-of-a-kind "drumitar" at the amazing live performances of Béla Fleck And the Flecktones. Using all of these various instruments help to form soundscapes from space-age jazz to country-fused blues to some that simply defy description. It is this seemingly endless range of instrumentation that helps to bring even greater depth to Béla Fleck And The Flecktones.

As if the amazing talents of Béla weren’t enough, one third of The Flecktones is represented by the man who is arguably the greatest living bass player, Victor Wooten. Playing and innovating the instrument like nobody else on the planet, Wooten’s contributions are just as important as those of Béla, and the combination of the two is often nothings short of stunning. At their live shows, it is not uncommon for the duo to play the others' instrument mid-song, often trying to "mess" the other up, yet either musician rarely falters. Routinely approaching the bass with a "slap" or "pop" method, as opposed to the "normal" approach, the sound that Wooten produces, as well as the speed and variation he brings makes the basswork on Béla Fleck And The Flecktones sound like no other anywhere. There are even a few stunning moments on the album where Wooten goes all out and is truly doing "banjo rolls" on his bass, a feat that proves nearly impossible for nearly all other mortal bass players.

The terms "modern jazz" and "new age" have been thrown about carelessly over the past two decades. Nearly any artist that performs with minimal to no vocals, or is somehow "beyond description" gets tossed into one of these two categories. Bringing bluegrass roots and fusing it together with funk, blues, jazz, and electronica, the music of Béla Fleck And The Flecktones does, in fact, defy genre categorization. However, regardless of what you choose to "call" the music, there is no arguing that the music itself is nothing short of phenomenal. Easily accessible to any and all music fans, Béla Fleck And The Flecktones make some of the most original, yet undeniably fun and enjoyable music you'll find anywhere in the modern music scene. While each member spends ample time doing solo and side projects, when Béla Fleck And The Flecktones come together as a group, they are easily one of the most talented and extraordinary music groups on the planet. Though each of their albums is worth owning and enjoying, to truly understand how they came to their current place, one must own their stunning, self titled 1990 debut record.

Standout tracks: "Sea Brazil," "Sunset Road" and, "Tell It To The Gov'Nor."

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