Bela Fleck is a restless virtuoso. The inventive banjo legend can’t help but take his instrument in as many different directions as possible. He’s probably still best known for his work as a bluegrass expansionist with Sam Bush in the boundary-breaking outfit New Grass Revival or for fronting the exploratory jazz-fusion-minded Flecktones. Lately, though, with the Flecktones on hiatus, Fleck has been diving back into classical music. Last August he released The Impostor, which features as its centerpiece Fleck’s first stand-alone banjo concerto. The 36-minute “Impostor Concerto” was commissioned by the Nashville Symphony and composed by Fleck over a six-month period, resulting in what he calls the “most musically ambitious project I’ve ever taken on.” The album’s other piece, “Night Flight Over Water,” was written for the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, who will join Fleck for a number of shows during the first part of the year. During a recent interview with BRO, Fleck discussed his classical compositions as well as other projects that will keep him busy in 2014, including duo shows with his wife, songwriter and fellow banjo player Abigail Washburn.
BRO: What was the inspiration that led you to compose the “Impostor Concerto”?
BF: I guess I had a little something to prove, after co-composing several collaborative classical pieces with my friend Edgar Meyer. I wanted to see a banjo concerto for symphony orchestra, and I wanted to create it on my own. The kind of piece I wanted wasn’t really out there, and I thought it would be a great creative endeavor. Also, I love to put myself into situations which push me. In this case I wanted to use my limited composition and orchestration training as a positive and hoped to work intuitively.
Tell me about the collaboration with Brooklyn Rider.
I was excited about the idea of writing for banjo and string quartet. Edgar and I wrote one of these pieces back in the early 1980s and I knew it was a great combination. I kept hearing about Brooklyn Rider. I went up to Brooklyn and showed them some sketches. After that trip I was convinced that they were the perfect group to work with, and I composed “Night Flight Over Water” for them.
Now that we are on tour, I am finding that it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. These guys knock me out. We have put together a sweet two-set show, which includes “Night Flight,” a Flecktones tune and a New Grass Revival tune, along with another brand new piece I wrote for us over the summer. Then there are several pieces from Brooklyn Rider’s repertoire that I have learned, and we each play some solo music. It’s rich.
After the upcoming Brooklyn Rider dates you’ll be touring with your wife Abigail. How would you describe the evolution of your duo show?
Abby and I started doing occasional shows, a benefit here and there, a house concert, a few tunes at a party. It always seemed to go very well. So we felt that at some point we would want to really do this duo thing. This year when our baby boy Juno was born, we decided to go for it. Neither of us wants to be apart for long now that we are parents. We toured extensively in September and October and had so much fun doing these shows together. It’s just us and 6 or 7 banjos, intimate and fun. We’ll do some recording this winter and hopefully put something out next fall.
You’ll also sneak in some dates with jazz great Chick Corea. How would you characterize this musical partnership?
Chick is a true hero of mine, and so I am thrilled that playing with him is now one of my regular experiences. We are both excited by tight intricate rhythms, and he’s a mentor to me as well.
You and Abigail played a much-discussed impromptu show in a hotel room during the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards and accompanying festival, which this year seemed to rejuvenate the scene with its move from Nashville to Raleigh. What was your lasting impression?
I was very happy to be included in the IBMA conference this year. I let myself get a little bit estranged from the bluegrass scene and I’ve regretted it. So for me personally, it meant a lot. I was also highly impressed with the way Raleigh made us all feel welcome.
Nashville just has too much going on, and it felt like just another convention. The move was very wise.
What drives your desire to explore the banjo in so many different styles and genres?
I love challenge, and I love the banjo. And I love the musicians I get to play with in all of these situations. As my musical abilities have grown, some unique opportunities have materialized. It’s a lot of work to play so much different music, but it’s very satisfying.
I know how lucky I am to get to spend my life doing this, and I never take it for granted.
Bela in the Blue Ridge
In March, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn will spend nearly the entire month playing in the South with Virginia shows in Charlottesville and Roanoke; North Carolina dates in Charlotte, Winston Salem, Wilmington, and Chapel Hill; Georgia dates in Savannah and Atlanta; and a Tennessee stop in Maryville. Fleck will also perform with the South Carolina Philharmonic on May 3. Belafleck.com