Jazz may be the closest thing we have to a universal language. In its variety of instruments, its profusion of forms, and its embrace of influences, it owns a global musical lexicon and a glittering treasury of artifacts.
All of these facets are on display in Live at the Quick (2002), a concert documentary of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones at the Quick Center For the Arts in Fairfield, Connecticut.
The ensemble features the core Flecktones group: Bela Fleck, the world’s most accomplished banjo player on acoustic and electric synth banjos and guitar; Victor Lemonte Wooten on fretted and fretless basses; Jeff Coffin on tenor, alto, and soprano saxophones, clarinet, and flute; and Future Man, a percussionist who invented the synth-ax drumitar, an instrument that produces pre-recorded electronic percussive effects that he plays along with a traditional drum kit.
Andy Narell plays steel pans and keyboards; Paul Hanson brings on the bassoon; Paul McCandless handles oboe, English horn, soprano and sopranino saxes, and penny whistle; Sandip Burman works the tabla; and Congar ol’Ondar, a Mongolian Tuvan throat singer, resplendent in native costume, sings in transcendent style.
Bela says, “I heard the banjo when I was about eight or nine years old. I fell in love with it, just the sound of it… But growing up in New York City, I was also hearing everything that was happening in the Sixties. The Beatles, Joni Mitchell – those were some of my favorites – all the bands, Chick Corea and jazz, classical music. I just loved it all. And so I’ve tried to play those musics on the banjo and find ways to make it fit… Through the years I’ve run into people that play strange instruments in strange ways…”
“Here’s a guy,” Andy Narell observes, “who took the banjo out of the bluegrass band and is doing something totally different with it. And the band is kind of full of people like that who are doing something different with their instrument.”
“I might be a good guy to call to play the oboe and the English horn,” Paul McCandless notes, “because there aren’t that many guys who improvise and are comfortable in sort of an extemporaneous style on those instruments.”
Jeff Coffin asserts, “I think Bela is an amazing leader of a group that he professes not to lead in some ways.”
“As a leader of a band, I’m a leader among equals.” Bela explains, “It’s not like I can tell anybody, ‘Hey, now I want you to do this.’ It’s not like that. I mean, everything has to be arrived at… in a way where everybody feels good about it. There’s a lot of input. Everybody does their own thing. I don’t really tell people what to play. Unless I have to. Like unless it’s a pressure situation and I feel like I have the solution. That’s another part of my life, that’s producing the records or being the traffic cop in a big situation like this. It’s stressful, but it’s very rewarding when it all comes out good.”
The Quick performance reprises tunes from the Flecktones’ Outbound album (2000) and other numbers, with guest performers accumulating song by song as the set progresses. The video is intercut with interviews of Bela and the band members.
1. intro – “That Old Thing” (woodwind unison with Coffin, Hanson, and McCandless)
2. “Earth Jam” (introducing Wooten, Future Man, and Fleck)
3. “Lover’s Leap” (adding Narell)
4. “Zona Mona”
5. “Ovombo Summit” (solo by Future Man playing synth-ax with the left hand, drums and cymbals with the right)
Bela: “When I was in Newgrass Revival and in the bluegrass world, I learned from Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, and Sam Bush and Stewart Duncan and Vassar Clements. Everything they played I tried to figure out how to play. In the Flecktones I try to figure out what Victor’s playing… I try to learn the rhythms that Future Man is playing. I try to learn the saxophone language – the jazz language that Jeff plays in his solos… It just starts to all creep in. And so, even though my heroes… Chick Coreas and the Charlie Parkers… I probably studied them more. The truth is I probably learned more from the people I play with.”
6. “Hall of Mirrors” (Sandip Burman appears)
7. “Scratch and Sniff” (deploying synthesizers on Hanson’s bassoon and Coffin’s tenor sax)
8. “Amazing Grace” (solo by Wooten in bouncy blues style, melody expressed in overtone harmonics)
9. “Big Country” (full band)
Bela: “Big Country” is one of those tunes that just sort of arrived in my head – done – in my mind. And what I do when that happens is I call myself. I call my machine at home. And I sing the melody. And I can’t, I’m not, I shouldn’t be singing in the first place. But it’s just the only thing I can do since the melody’s gonna be gone; in another minute it’ll be gone. That’s the nature of composition… the inspiration factor. And then there’s the craft. How do you take that inspired moment and how do you make it into something that’s complete and makes sense all the way through?”
10. “Alash Khem” (Alash River Song”) (solo by Cogar ol’Ondar)
Bela: “Ondar would have to be one of those things that just fell into our lap. It was just a perfect fit from the first time. And audiences, their minds are blown when they hear a guy get up there and sing three notes at one time. You know they’ve never heard that before.”
That includes your reviewer, who feared, on first hearing Congar, that he was having an auditory hallucination.
11. “A Moment So Close” (featuring vocals by Future Man and Ondar)
12. “Prelude From Violin Partita No. 3” by J.S. Bach (Fleck, acoustic banjo solo)
Bela: “So we always change things around… We don’t even write the set list ’til right before we go on stage. Never play the same show twice in a row. We do all these things to try and trick ourselves into being spontaneous… And it happened. It works a lot of the time.”
13. “Hoe Down” (from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo ballet, with full band, featuring a blues raga break with Fleck and Burman trading measures on banjo and tabla)
14. encore – “Ah shu Dekio” (Congar ol’Ondar on morinchur and vocals with full band)
The Live at the Quick video was directed by Marc Smerling for Notorious Pictures. A Live at the Quick CD was also released in 2002.
There is no better way to enjoy music than to be there with the musicians while they make it. Since we cannot always be with world class performers where they work, we can be grateful for the medium that transports them to us. At our leisure we can hear and see Bela Fleck coaxing the contrapuntal intricacies of Bach from the banjo, Congar ol’Ondar conjuring a trio from his throat, and countless other priceless coins from the inexhaustible mint of concerts on film.
(Review posted on Amazon.com, May 8, 2017)