Grammy-winning, genre-smashing quartet to visit Williamsport
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Béla Fleck canceled his spring tour due to the worldwide coronavirus crisis, with makeup dates yet to be determined.)
Groundbreaking, Grammy-winning quartet Béla Fleck & The Flecktones is celebrating its 30th anniversary with an extended tour that will stop by the Community Arts Center on Tuesday, March 24, at 7:30 p.m.
With an impossible-to-pigeonhole sound, the innovative quartet blends a range of genres from classical and jazz to bluegrass, and African music to electric blues and Eastern European folk. Led by Fleck, who has been described by many as the world’s premier banjo player, the group enjoys a fervent fan following around the world and has played with equally excellent musicians the likes of Dave Matthews, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt and Sam Bush.
The winner of 15 Grammys, Fleck has been nominated in more categories than any other instrumentalist in Grammy history. “Béla Fleck has taken banjo playing to some very unlikely places,” said The New York Times. “He’s also baffled the Grammy awards, winning for country and jazz in the same year and also winning in pop, world music, classical crossover and, yes, folk. That’s a lot of territory for five strings.”
A select group of young musicians from the Uptown Music Collective, a nonprofit music school in Williamsport, will get to experience these talents up close at the Community Arts Center when they participate in a professional sound check and question-and-answer session with Béla Fleck & The Flecktones. The opportunity was arranged as part of efforts to engage the local community in the upcoming concert.
Below, Fleck answers questions about his band’s music and longevity.
During your quartet’s 30th anniversary tour, what has surprised and/or delighted you along the way? What have you learned?
Playing in this band has been the gift that keeps on giving. The act of playing music together has been one of the great joys in life for all of us. And now we are meeting up with folks whose parents brought them to see us, and now they are bringing their kids to see us. It’s amazing how the years have passed, and the different place we are all in now. Thank goodness everyone is healthy, and we still get to do this!
It’s obvious you and your bandmates have a special brotherly bond. Why do you think you get along so well? Each of you is considered to be a virtuoso in his own right – Béla Fleck on the banjo, Howard Levy with the harmonica, Victor Wooten on bass, and Roy “Future Man” Wooten with his drumitar invention – and you each pursue your own personal projects. Is that sense of freedom and exploration part of your success and longevity?
I remember one year, back in the ’90s, we were playing at a huge jazz festival in the Netherlands called North Sea. There were hundreds of jazz groups playing around the clock on four floors of a huge conference center. When we arrived, we each peeled out to go see our favorite musicians on the scene. At the end of the fest, we all met up to share notes, and I remember saying, “I saw a lot of incredible players, but nobody I’d rather play with than you guys!” They all agreed. There are a lot of wonderful musicians out there, but not all of them are nerd inventors, too. And now we have all these years behind us, we have so many special bonds to celebrate when we do get back together.
What song generates the most energized/euphoric reaction from the audience?
Hard to beat “Sinister Minister,” but lots of them seem to ignite the crowd: “Stomping Grounds,” “Sunset Road.”
What would you like Northcentral Pennsylvania residents to know about Béla Fleck & The Flecktones?
We love playing Pennsylvania! It’s always an important stop on tour, and we’re thrilled folks come out and support us!
In the documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart,” you journeyed to Africa to research the origins of the banjo. Was there a certain epiphany that continues to resonate for you from that exploration?
Gosh, it was such a life-changing experience for me. It was more about interacting with the African musicians on a personal level that was so moving, being invited into people’s homes and sharing a cultural and artistic moment.
By the way, we are rereleasing that project in March. It will be a complete set, including three CDs – one of them brand new, featuring the great kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté in duets with myself. Also, it will include the film and an hour of extra footage!
“How to Write a Banjo Concerto” is another documentary that follows your work. You dedicated the concerto to Earl Scruggs, and he attended the concerto’s premiere in 2011, a year before his death. Have you been able to encapsulate Scruggs’s impact on your music?
I would not be playing banjo if it were not for Earl. His sound had a way of inspiring un-activated banjo players and making them want to play like him. No one could, but it was a worthy attempt. All the music I play owes a debt to Earl, even stuff that has no relationship to bluegrass music. Case in point, my first banjo concerto, which I dedicated to Earl. He came to the premiere, and it was the last performance he saw before passing a few months later. I had the whole crowd stand for him, and they applauded him for a long, long time.
Jazz pianist and composer Chick Corea is another deep influence on your work as is collaborating with your wife, the talented banjo player and singer Abigail Washburn. What do these collaborations bring to your craft? Is there a new project that you’re passionate about?
Everyone has a unique self, and when we combine our energy with different kinds of people, there is the potential for very special things to occur. With Chick and Abby, for instance, they each inspire me in completely different ways, and allow me to participate in musicalities that I could not conjure without them.
My current passion is a project that reunites me with the bluegrass community, but more about that later.
Your music defies genres. How do you describe your music? How has that description changed over the years?
I don’t try to explain it, unless I’m on an airplane with a stranger who sees my banjo and asks me what kind of music I do. Even then it’s surprisingly hard to make a simple description. Sometimes I say I’m a banjo player who explores and collaborates with people outside the folk tradition, but that leaves a lot out. The more I explain, the less sense it makes.
The CAC is a wholly owned subsidiary of Pennsylvania College of Technology. It is one of the top performing arts venues on the East Coast. Since its reopening in 1993, approximately 1.5 million guests have enjoyed over 1,000 productions.
For ticket information on Béla Fleck and The Flecktones on Tuesday, March 24, visit the Community Arts Center or call its box office at 570-326-2424.
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