Banjo-lover Fleck creates eclectic jazz

Grammy winner shatters stereotypes on way to top of pop music scene

Bela Fleck likely shattered notions about the banjo last month, when he took home Grammys for his work in jazz and country.

But besides winning best-contemporary-jazz album with his group, the Flecktones, for last year's "Outbound" and best country instrumental performance for his contributions to the track "Leaving Cottondale" on Alison Brown's "Fair Weather" album, a Flecktones track was also up for best pop instrumental performance, a category he and the band won four years ago.

"Country, jazz, rock � it all ultimately comes from the same place," Fleck said after winning this year's pair of Grammys, bringing his total to five. "I think any musician knows that. Sometimes people can't see it that way because of the way things get marketed. But whatever the sound, we're all just trying to make music."

If all goes well, he might be up in yet another category next year. Fleck has been spending time working on his first straight classical album for banjo.

"It's a dream come true for a banjo player," Fleck said from his home studio in Nashville, Tenn.

After more than half a dozen albums for Warner Bros. in a decade, Fleck said he signed with Columbia last year just so he could diversify on projects such as the one he's devising for Sony Classical, due for summer release.

It's not as if classical music were foreign to Fleck. He was named, after all, for composer Bela Bartok when he was born in New York 42 years ago. And he and the Flecktones took off on Aaron Copland's "Hoedown" on the "Outbound" album.

But for the classical album, Fleck said he moved away from the orchestral to focus on more spare pieces of music that "tended to be piano music and violin music. ... Keyboard music takes two people to play it. Left hand is usually done on cello or guitar, and I play the right hand."

When the classical album is finished, Fleck's going to try something else new � "a straight-ahead jazz record," he said.

That will be different, too, he said. Despite his jazz Grammy, Fleck said the Flecktones are considered jazz "only if you consider what Weather Report does is jazz. We blend a lot of different kinds of music in there."

It has worked for the Flecktones, where the original trio of Victor Lamonte Wooten on bass and Roy "FutureMan" Wooten on drumitar � an elaborate electronic drum kit in the shape of a guitar � have been joined by guest horn men for years before they settled on their newest permanent member, Jeff Coffin, four years ago.

The Flecktones originally were a quartet when they began in 1990 with Howard Levy on keyboards and harmonica on the first two albums. From there, they used a series of guests on tour and on albums.

"Outbound," to suggest its diversity, included vocal contributions from artists as diverse as Shawn Colvin, Yes lead singer Jon Anderson, Tuvan throat singer Ondar and Indian classical vocalist Rita Sahai.


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