|Cheeseballs In Cowtown||Tales From The Acoustic Planet|
|Jalmon With Salmon||Deviation|
|Prelude, Suite for Unaccompanied Cello||Perpetual Motion|
|Throw Down Your Heart||Africa Sessions (Tales Vol.3)|
|Amazing Grace||Live At The Quick|
|What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?||Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn|
|Truth Revealed||The Impostor|
|Big Country||Left Of Cool|
|Seven Variations on God Save The King||Perpetual Motion|
Contributor: David Lewis
Banjos, sadly and ignorantly, invoke for many people either the movie Deliverance or the American sit-com The Beverly Hillbillies. Leaving aside for the moment that both shows feature outstanding bluegrass banjo (Dueling Banjos in Deliverance and the theme in The Beverly Hillbillies), the banjo is a much misunderstood and maligned instrument. It is capable of great beauty, of tremendous emotional range and in the right hands the banjo is an instrument of great virtuosity and musicality.
The greatest living banjoist today is, in my view, Béla Fleck. His range, his touch and his mastery of the instrument is unmatched. To understand Fleck’s importance, I’d better put in a little context. Banjo is generally played in two ways – clawhammer (or frailing, or rapping), in which the banjo is struck with the fingernails, and Scruggs Style – named after Earl Scruggs – in which the banjo is plucked like a guitar might be.
Young Béla was born in New York to a musical family. He was named after Béla Bartok, the great Hungarian folk collector and classical composer. At the age of 12, while watching The Beverly Hillbillies, he fell in love with the banjo. He badgered his parents for one and eventually got one. He then worked very hard to learn that most vexatious of instruments.
Béla made a name for himself, and replaced the great Courtney Johnson, in New Grass Revival (see Toppermost #164). After NGR broke up, Béla formed the Flecktones, one of the great fusion (and truly named fusion) groups. The Flecktones featured Sam Bush (see Toppermost #155), the great bassist Victor Wooten, Victor’s brother ‘Futureman’ on percussion and drumitar (an electric drumkit built in a guitar synth body) and Howard Levy on harmonica, and later Jeff Coffin on clarinet and woodwind. Béla also played in Bluegrass supergroup Strength In Numbers, but is a gun session player and has had perhaps the most peripatetic career of any musician. He has played with Chick Corea, composed a banjo symphony and is one of the few prepared to push the line in what jazz is. He almost singlehandedly reintroduced the banjo to jazz (it was originally a chordal, rhythm instrument), and he continues to produce.
So to the 10 songs. After much consternation, I have decided to include works from the Flecktones, though they deserve their own Toppermost. However, I have cheated a little, in that I’m including one from a New Grass Revival album which is credited to Béla Fleck and New Grass Revival.
I’m opening up with Whitewater, the first track from Béla’s classic solo album, Drive (1988). There’s a sense in which I could just list all of the tracks from this, but that would be no fun. Sam (again) on mandolin, Tony Rice on guitar, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Mark O’Connor and Stewart Duncan on fiddle and Mark Schatz on bass. An outstanding modern bluegrass piece, Chris Thile (perhaps the greatest living mandolinist) has called it the greatest opening track of all time.
Tales From The Acoustic Planet is another classic album (ok, they all are, but bear with me). Featuring a new take on bluegrass, the album also features jazzers like Chick Corea and Branford Marsalis. Cheeseballs In Cowtown is a terrific bluegrass infected romp.
The album credited with New Grass Revival shows Béla’s first stretches into what might be termed ‘hard core’ jazz. Deviation was released in 1984, and features the whole of the New Grass Revival. Jalmon With Salmon is a terrific track featuring a great banjo riff and with Sam Bush on lead mandolin.
Bach’s Prelude from Suite for Unaccompanied Cello No.1 is astounding on banjo. Read like that, it seems like a joke. However, Béla’s touch, tone, and approach makes it seem almost as if Bach used the cello reluctantly – that he was waiting for the banjo to play the piece properly. Almost. Perhaps as a short historical note, I should mention that the banjo was redesigned by the Gibson company in the 1910s in the hope that it would play classical music within an orchestra context. It took until Béla to make it a credible classical instrument.
Béla’s third album in the Tales From The Acoustic Planet series was a selection of African tunes, from all over Africa, including Mozambique, Uganda, Madagascar, South Africa and other countries. Throw Down Your Heart, featuring Malian instrumentalists Harouna Samake Trio and Bassekou Kouyate, gives a taste of this wonderful album. Béla travelled around Africa for thirty days and brought back a cornucopia of amazing music. The banjo developed in Africa, which is why Béla went back there.
Actually an electric bass tour-de-force, Victor Wooten’s Amazing Grace is too gorgeous to pass up. One instrument, one man. Two hands. As a professional musician, the technical virtuosity in this is almost unbelievable. (Indeed, until I saw a video of this, I thought it was two instruments).
Béla is married to Abigail Washburn, a very fine banjoist in her own right. She is a clawhammer banjoist – the ‘other’ style. I was privileged to see them in Sydney earlier this year, and it was one of the very best concerts I have seen. From their album Béla Fleck And Abigail Washburn, which is a gem, I’ve picked What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?. This astonishing gospel piece was found by Abigail, and its interpretation is wonderful.
No Béla Fleck list would be complete without Béla’s concerto. The Impostor (Banjo Concerto) premiered at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville. It’s a long piece but I’ve picked, pretty much at random, the third movement Truth Revealed.
The penultimate piece is Big Country: probably Béla’s most successful work – a mixture of Copland, bluegrass, jazz and pop, it is a masterpiece. At a concert in Sydney this year, I saw it performed with just two banjos – Béla’s and Abigail’s. It lost none of its power and appeal. I add the original version to demonstrate its complexity and musical power.
As this is a UK site, Béla’s rendition of Beethoven’s Seven Variations on “God Save The King” is both reverent (in the good way) and unique. As Queen found, there was no better way to finish a set – and so I finish with this one (with an acknowledgement to my good friend and Toppermost contributor Andrew Shields – he knows why).
Béla Fleck, coming out of a tradition which starts with Earl Scruggs, but which stretches through Tony Trischka, Bill Keith, J. D. Crowe, Butch Robins, and through to Alison Brown, Scott Vestal and Noam Pikelny today. (Aficionados will realise I’ve crammed about 50 years age difference into these banjoists – they’re all worth chasing up – plus many more). I’ve missed Béla’s later collaborations with Chick Corea and his excursions into Chinese music among many others; he is an impossible artist to pin down. He is one of the world’s best musicians, and remains at the apex of banjo playing.
Perpetual Motion (2001) – which contains 2 of these 10: Prelude from Suite For Unaccompanied Cello No.1 (Bach) and Seven Variations in C on “God Save The King” (Beethoven) – is an album of classical music, unique in that none of the pieces featured on it are played on the instruments for which they were written. Fleck assembled a group of musicians well-known on their own instruments: violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Gary Hoffman, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, double-bassist Edgar Meyer, mandolin player Chris Thile, and guitarists John Williams and Bryan Sutton. (source, Wikipedia).
Big Country is on the 1997 album Uncommon Ritual by Edgar Meyer, Béla Fleck and Mike Marshall and was included a year later on Left Of Cool, the 5th studio album released by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones
David Lewis has written several posts for Toppermost. He lives in Sydney and lectures in Popular Culture and Contemporary and Roots Music at the Australian Institute of Music. A guitarist, mandolinist, banjoist and bassist, he plays everything from funk to country. He writes on music here.