For Bela Fleck, it’s always been the banjo. Wikipedia claims he studied horn as a teenager, but that’s a laughable notion to the four-string maestro.
“Completely false,” Fleck stated in a recent interview. “Music and Arts in New York didn’t teach guitar … so they assigned me to French Horn. I had absolutely no aptitude for that instrument and eventually was demoted to the chorus. Meanwhile, I feverishly practiced my banjo.”
A genre-bending approach made Fleck synonymous with his instrument in the same way Jerry Douglas defines the Dobro. He’s played bluegrass with countless ensembles and made pop music with Shawn Colvin, jazz with Chick Corea and classical with Edgar Meyer, to name a few.
One of his earliest forays into pop came with Bruce Hornsby in 1990 after the two met at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Fleck was there with his first band, New Grass Revival.
“We were all big fans of his, and he invited us to sit in with him. I got to do a couple of recordings with him, and he also played on some Flecktones stuff. And we did some duo touring.”
It was a precursor to even bigger gigs further on.
“I came out and guested with The Range, at their peak. I think it prepared me for … playing with Dave Matthews a few years later. It’s a different experience playing an arena than a theater or club,” he said.
Fleck is working of late with Brooklyn Rider, a chamber ensemble equally comfortable stretching musical boundaries. “Night Flight Over Water: Quintet for Banjo and String Quartet” is the centerpiece of The Impostor, their album recorded last year for Deutsch Gramophone — Fleck’s first for the label.
“I really liked the idea that if I were doing a classical project, it should be on a classical label,” he said.
It’s also his first time collaborating with the young group of violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen.
“I was not aware of them at all until I began to look for the right string quartet to work with,” remembered Fleck. “They popped up pretty fast. At that point all roads led to Brooklyn Rider.”
Making The Impostor was a much different experience from working with Meyer in 2001.
“Edgar tends to have strong views and enjoys a good scuffle in the cause of making great music. The Brooklyn Rider guys tend to find consensus and flow. They have completely different personalities and styles.”
Rehearsals happened in front of a live studio audience.
“I think that had a very positive impact on the recording,” Fleck said. “Because we had taken this very complex piece and made sure we could perform it in front of people, we were able to keep the live performance aspects in mind. … We had something to refer to at times when there was doubt about how the whole thing was going to work together.”
Their tour stops at Manchester’s Dana Center on Jan. 30. The shows are “very exciting, a true collaboration,” Fleck said. “The night goes by fast, with a lot of variety.”
Included are selections from the new album, Flecktones and New Grass Revival material, Fleck playing solo and a Brooklyn Rider set.
When this run is done, Fleck is looking forward to working with his wife, claw hammer banjo player and singer Abigail Washburn. The duo recently booked a Sept. 17 show at Derry’s Stockbridge Theatre. Asked about any dream pairings yet unrealized, Fleck didn’t disappoint.
“When Pat Metheny, Yo Yo Ma or Herbie Hancock call me up, I’ll be on the next flight to jam with them,” he said. “Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Randy Newman — just those guys. … Oh yes, and U2 could really use a banjo. And Peter Gabriel.”
As seen in the January 30, 2014 issue of the Hippo.