Quick ‘Tones

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)

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The Three Fathers of Bela Fleck

In the summer of 2010 the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, home of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, commissioned Bela Fleck to compose a concert piece for banjo and orchestra. “How To Write A Banjo Concerto” (2011) is the intimate documentary film that follows Fleck step by step as he brings the project to fruition.

Since Nashville is also the home of the Grand Ole Opry, a splendid platform for banjo artistry, it was fitting that the world’s first composition for banjo and orchestra should be entrusted to Nashville resident Bela Fleck, the world’s primo virtuoso of this instrument.

Tony Trischka, Bela’s banjo teacher, said of him, “In a very short amount of time he sort of ‘osmosed’ everything I could show him.”

Zakir Hussain, who co-wrote the orchestral “The Melody of Rhythm” with Bela, noted, “To have the double duty of composer and soloist must be a daunting experience.”

Although he was raised in a musical family and studied at New York’s The High School of Music and Art, Bela does not read or write traditional musical notation, but banjo tablature, a skeletal shorthand that indicates note placement with staff lines representing the five strings. To compose a concerto for orchestral instruments, Fleck employed Sibelius, a software program that translates tablature into notation.

The circumstances of his upbringing underpinned his motivation for the concerto project. When he was very young, Fleck’s father, a professor of music, “flew the coop”, leaving Bela to be reared in New York City by his step-father Joe Paladino, a concert cellist.

“I’m not just a banjo player trying to write a concerto,” he says. “I’m Bela Anton Leos trying to write a concerto. Bela Bartok, Anton Webern, and Leos Janacek. The person who gave me all those names disappeared after I was born. I think that’s why this whole project is so important to me. Because of my father.”

When Trischka wondered aloud whether it might be time for Fleck to meet his father, Bela agreed. At the University of Maryland, “Some of the students were waiting in line at his father’s desk… Bela got in the line. When it was his turn, he said, ‘Hi. It’s Bela. I’m your son.’ It was a pretty intense moment.”

Early on in the project Bela makes it very clear to his wife Abigail Washburn, a singer, songwriter, and banjo player in her own right, that this concerto must necessarily be his own composition, arising from his own imagination, bearing his personal stamp. He was determined to divorce his concerto from the bluegrass music traditionally associated with the banjo, even to the extent of side-stepping the key of G Major.

“My banjo is tuned to G Major. That gives it that classic bluegrass sound. Mostly I avoid that sound intentionally.” Although he admits, “(G Major is) inevitable from the point of view that it’s a banjo concerto.”

To insulate himself against distractions, Fleck made two writing journeys, to Cannon Beach in Tillamook, Oregon during October 2010 and to Tecate, Mexico in January 2011.

Fleck found that daily runs along the shoreline and forest trails while listening to classical composers on his iPod stimulated his creative process.

“Right now Bela Bartok is in heavy rotation. I’ve never listened to him before now.” Fleck discovered that the music of Bartok (1881 – 1945), who fled his native Hungary to New York City in the 1930s to escape Nazi oppression, is “wild and complicated and tense.” Bela reads a Bartok biography, “The Naked Face of Genius”, that describes the composer strolling same streets where Fleck grew up.

Bela was averse to collaboration, but he did solicit advice.

“The first concerto I saw that was written and performed by a living human being was by Edgar Meyer. He’s my entree into this world, and without Edgar I wouldn’t be doing any of this stuff.”

Bela’s Nashville neighbor Edgar is a virtuoso double bass player and composer trained in the classical tradition. With impeccable gravity about music, Meyer can be counted on never to spare anyone’s feelings. In the short film “Obstinato”, about their 2004 “Music For Two” tour, Bela jokes, “I met Edgar in 1982. We were best friends from ’84 to ’86.”

There is feedback from Meyer and others who have performed with Fleck, including Chick Corea, Future Man, Chris Thile, Noam Pikelny, Marcus Roberts, Julian Lage, Greg Liszt, Steve Martin, and Earl Scruggs.

Bela complains, “Everybody hates the ending except…” (Flecktones percussionist) Future Man: “It’s pulling, pulling, pulling… Man, that’s the hippest classical ending ever!”

At the Schermerhorn Center, Bela requests consultations with Nashville Symphony Orchestra principals.

“When I go play with an orchestra, I really don’t develop the kind of friendships or direct contact that I have worth most of the musicians I play with.”

“It’s kind of unorthodox, but I asked them if there was a way I could go meet the principal musicians of each section, get explanations of what their instrument does, what they love about their instrument, and what I might think about in writing for their instrument.”

“With an orchestra you’ve got people sitting sixty feet from each other. There’s no possible way they can hear each other.”

Sam Bacco (Percussion Principal), on orchestral timing: “Great conducers really help. The speed of light is much faster than the speed of sound.”

Leslie Norton (Horn Principal) points out, “You’ve been driving the Jaguar… Really, this is an aircraft carrier. Nothing’s gonna turn on a dime.”

The third of Bela Fleck’s fathers, the man who provided his “first exposure to banjo”, was Earl Scruggs with his rendition of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”, the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies television series.

“Every time he played the banjo time would stop for me.” And, “Every time he played a song, he played it differently.” It would not be hyperbole to state that every player who has taken up the banjo since Earl Scruggs walked on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1945 has been influenced by Earl and his Scruggs licks.

“Without him I would never play the banjo, so I’ve dedicated my concert piece, the concerto, to him. And I think he’s coming to the show.”

One might think Bela Fleck’s place in the pantheon of banjo players past and present would relieve him of performance anxiety. It does not.

Having been asked to bring his banjo to an interview, he remarks wistfully, “They always want my banjo. I’m not good enough without the banjo. I’m like nobody without the banjo.”

Rehearsals with the orchestra are occasions of stress: “I am sucking,” he moans. “I want to kill myself.”

“It feels like the nightmare where I walk around in public with no clothes on.”

The day before the Nashville premiere, he laments, “I’m trying think about what to stress about now, where to put my stress energy.” He itemizes his worries:

1. Premiere of the concerto, sold out performance

2. Live worldwide telecast

3. Concert is being recorded for a CD release

4. Filming it for a documentary

5. Playing a 36-minute piece from memory – with a brand new cadenza

6. Peers, family, and friends will attend – and possibly Earl Scruggs as well

The premiere performance at Schermerhorn Center on September 22, 2011, conducted by Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero, presented in excerpts in the film, is a seamless success. The audience acclaims it with a standing ovation.

Best of all, Earl Scruggs does indeed attend. After the concert he tells Bela, “You had it all in your lap.”

“Well, I was petrified.”

Scruggs concludes, “Nobody else knew it but you.”

The documentary closes with a relaxed celebration brunch on the back porch of the Fleck residence with an infectious jam (“Come and Stay With Me”) featuring Abigail and Bela, Sam Bush, Future Man, Rayna Gellart, Jeff Keith, Kai Welsh, Jun Iwasaki, Brittany Haas, Lauren Rioux, and Bryn Davies.

“How To Write A Banjo Concerto” was directed by Bela’s half-brother Sascha Paladino. Fleck’s comments not expressed in the dialog are scrolled in white letters superimposed on the screen.

“The Imposter Concerto” was released on CD in 2013 accompanied by a three-movement piece for banjo and string quartet called “Night Flight Over Water” with Bela and Brooklyn Rider.

Earl Scruggs passed away on March 12, 2012.

Joe Paladino died on August 13, 2013.

Bela avows, “Abigail is easily the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” With the birth of their son Juno in May 2013, Bela Fleck is now himself a father.

(Review posted on Amazon.com on March 7, 2017)

Heart Felt

    Mother Africa is the cradle of our species. She has also given birth to so much of our music that we sometimes lose our ear for its origins. “I thought it was important for people to realize where the banjo comes from because it is so much associated with a white Southern stereotype,” says Bela Fleck, the world’s primo virtuoso of this instrument. In Throw Down Your Heart (2008), he documents his six-week sojourn to Africa to discover whether the modern banjo still has a vibrant voice in the land where it was born.

    The banjo is a descendant of an instrument that African slaves brought to the New World in the 16th century. It sat in the laps of musicians in cane and cotton fields, in plantation shacks and sheds, atop the levees and bales of raw goods that stood along the rivers that brought the blues to the bustling gulf ports.

    By the early 19th century, the banjo was an essential element in plantation cake walks and white minstrelsy. It accompanied sailors in their sea chanteys and traveled west with hopeful miners toward the Gold Rush. After the Civil War, the presentation banjo was adopted as a parlor instrument alongside the player piano. In the early 20th century, it sang in the ragtime orchestra and the nascent New Orleans jazz bands. By the 1930s, the banjo had disappeared from the jazz ensemble, though it continued to flourish in folk music and in the jigs and reels of barn dances in the Appalachian states that reached a national audience through radio broadcasts. In the mid-1940s, the banjo burst forth as an instrument of arresting brilliance when it was featured in bluegrass music.

    In the four countries on his itinerary, Bela Fleck steers clear of big cities and large venues. He, along with sound engineer Dave Sinko and director Sascha Paladino’s filmmaking crew, head for the bush and the villages “to play with great African musicians and find a role for the banjo in their music.”

    In each of his stops, Bela connects with a musician to serve as host and translator and to introduce the party to locals and their particular instruments and tradition. He emphasizes that he has no wish to be front and center among the players, but prefers to take a seat on the backbench. In every group setting, he adds his banjo’s voice as if he were politely joining a conversation already in progress.

    The first destination is Uganda. The filmmakers stage a boisterous audition in Jinja to recruit musicians familiar with the local music. From there the party travels to the village of Nakisenyi. In nearby Lwanika, Bela meets his first guide, Walusimbi Haruna, a professional musician whose specialty is the thumb piano. “Music is in every aspect of life,” Haruna explains. The visit includes a stop at the grave of Haruna’s late father, where burial customs in Africa and America are compared. In a touching moment, Bela is visibly caught off guard when Haruna is overcome with grief as they play a song about his father.

    The thumb piano is culturally regarded as a man’s instrument, but Jinja’s prodigy, it turns out, is Ruth Akello, a woman who sings like an angel and plays like a “wizard.” Nakisenyi possesses an enormous marimba, a communal instrument played by many people at once that sounds “like a rock band.”

    The filmmakers depart Nakisenyi with sadness. Dabbing at tears, Bela notes, “I felt truly welcomed.”

    The second destination gives the film its name. Bagamoyo, in Tanzania, means “throw down your heart.” Bagamoyo was a seaside collection point for the transport of slaves. Unfortunate captives knew that when they glimpsed the sea they should thrown down their hearts because they would never see their homes again.

    The Tanzanian guide is John Kitime. Bela had hoped he might meet Hukwe Zawose, the legend of traditional Gogo music, but is disappointed to learn that Zawose had died a few years earlier. He is delighted to find blind vocalist and thumb pianist Anania Ngoliga alive and well. The two compose and record seamless inventions from their very first session.

    At a brief stopover in Dar Es Salaam, Bela becomes acquainted with determinedly tribal young Masai, who are pleased to demonstrate their traditional forms of dance.

    The travelers cross the continent for their third destination, the Gambia, believed to be the birthplace of the banjo. Sniffing the Gambian air, Bela quips, “I can smell banjo.”

    Jil Ekona Jatta is the Gambian guide. He introduces Bela to the akonting, a 3-string banjo ancestor. We see an akonting constructed as American banjos had been until the early 1800s: an animal skin is nailed to a hollowed calabash with a shaved hardwood pole run through it. After several days of drying in the sun, a carved bridge is glued to the head and strings of gut or hemp fiber are attached.

    “It felt really natural playing with the musicians in Gambia,” Bela reports. “It felt like the banjo was supposed to be there.”

    The fourth and final stop is Bamako, Mali, the “crown jewel of the African music community.” The hostess is Oumou Sangare, the great “songbird” of Mali’s Wassulu music, who owns the hotel the filmmakers enjoy during their stay and moves among adoring crowds with the regal grace of one born to the purple.

    Bassekou Kouyate, the town griot (“keeper of customs”) introduces Bela to guitar hero Djelimady Toukara and ngoni master Harouna Samake.

    As we listen to the handcrafted lutes, harps, flutes, whistles, shakers, and drums of contemporary Africans, we are hearing instruments designed to perpetuate continuity with the ancestral past as well as the throbbing heart of the present. Some of this very music comforted the enslaved people dragged away to the Americas.

    Music of all cultures in every age evokes exuberance and despondency, celebration and rapture, discovery and contemplation. The modern banjo evolved to express the musical forms of our European-derived Western tradition with its machined instruments and tempered tuning systems. Does the banjo have a role in Africa music? Of course it does because the voice belongs to the player, not the instrument. “I just want to make great music,” says Bela Fleck, a man of endless imagination and expansive heart. His banjo voice is and always has been sublime. In every setting it is truly welcomed.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, June 2010)