15-time Grammy winner Bela Fleck is one of the most influential musicians of his generation, ranking alongside Earl Scruggs in his work to define the possibilities for the five-string banjo. Theirs was a mutual admiration society, and we’ll explore why on this week’s Saturday Soundtrack.
Where Scruggs defined the instrument and the musical style of bluegrass beginning in the 1940s, Fleck, beginning in the late 1970s, opened up the myriad possibilities of banjo by both looking back to its history in Africa and forward to its future with jazz and symphonic collaborations. In partnerships with his wife and clawhammer banjoist Abigail Washburn, tabla master Zakair Hussain, jazz pianist Chick Corea, bassist Edgar Meyer and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, and his groundbreaking quartet The Flecktones, Bela Fleck has reinvented the image and sound of the banjo.
Along the way, he would check back on his bluegrass roots, the style that first drew him to the instrument. He came to prominence in the late 1970s and by 1981 was playing with Sam Bush in the seminal New Grass Revival. Following the breakup of that band, he released the first of what is now a trilogy of solo bluegrass albums Drive, perhaps best known for the rollicking tune Whitewater. In 1999 he followed that up with The Bluegrass Sessions, which featured the banjo duet Home Sweet Home as shown above with Earl Scruggs.
Fleck recently told The Bluegrass Situation (BGS),
“As much as I may pretend to be something else, I am bluegrass at heart and that’s okay. It’s something I’m proud of and have come to embrace more as time goes on. Part of that is aging — do something when you’re young and you may not want that to be what defines you. Bluegrass just seemed like too obvious a pigeonhole for a banjo player when I was starting out and there was so much other music I loved, too. But after a lot of exploring, it’s clear to me that bluegrass is still my defining element.”
On September 10th of this year, Bela’s first bluegrass album in more than 20 years was released, rounding out the trilogy. With this Saturday Soundtrack, we celebrate My Bluegrass Heart.
These first two albums, as Bela explains on his website,
“…featured a core band that included Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, and Mark Schatz.
As the years since Bluegrass Sessions began to pile on top of each other and grow into decades, I began to amass compositions that were consciously and unconsciously designed for that band. Tony Rice became less available due to his health issues, I began to wonder if that chapter of my bluegrass life had now closed. If I may be selfish for a moment here, this left me in a bit of a pickle. You see, Tony Rice was the only guitarist I had met who could make it possible for me to play bluegrass in the way I wanted to.
Time passed and other interesting changes had been happening on our bluegrass scene. A whole slew of new players had emerged, highly influenced by the movement that John Hartford, Sam Bush, Tony Rice, David Grisman, Jerry Douglas, Tony Trischka, Bill Keith, and so many other great players had pioneered. There were a whole lot more amazing cats of all ages that I never remember there being, in all my years of bluegrass awareness.“
To cut to the chase, Fleck decided that it was time to bring the young cats in and play together for much of 2019 and 2020. As an example of what he means, give a listen to this performance with one of the brightest of the young cats — Chris Thile — on Bela’s Metric Lips.
“Pretty soon I started to see this project as an exploration of the current bluegrass world, and a gathering of a certain segment of the tribe. I must say that there are many fantastic players who I love that I just couldn’t include this time, for space considerations.“
Bela goes into more detail on his website about his association with the various players, but the album…
“…features a who’s who of some of the greatest instrumentalists in bluegrass music’s history alongside some of the best of the new generation of players: mandolinists Sam Bush, Sierra Hull, and Chris Thile; fiddlers Michael Cleveland and Stuart Duncan; celebrated multi-instrumentalist Justin Moses; bassists Edgar Meyer and Mark Schatz; and the amazing Bryan Sutton, Billy Strings, and Molly Tuttle on guitar.“
Let’s jump in and hear Sierra Hull, Michael Cleveland, Justin Moses, Mark Schatz, and Bryan Sutton join Bela to perform the tune Wheels Up.
“The album title of My Bluegrass Heart is actually a riff on an unexpected source, the late jazz pianist Chick Corea, a sometime collaborator of Fleck’s. One of Fleck’s favorite Corea albums was 1976’s My Spanish Heart, an ironic title because Corea was of Italian rather than Spanish descent,” notes the BGS article.
“He was a guy from Boston with a natural affinity for Latin music, which was central to who he was even though he did not have legit entry in terms of ethnicity,” Fleck says. “That resonates for me. I’m from New York, of Eastern European and Russian descent with no natural connection to folk or bluegrass. So I’m defining myself with music that’s not necessarily my heritage, but being an outsider helps you bring new things to the idiom. When I go off to study Indian music, I can come back and write this album’s ‘Vertigo,’ which has very Indian rhythmic devices. Finding a way to insert Indian music or jazz or classical into bluegrass is very satisfying.”
Speaking of Vertigo, here Bela, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Brian Sutton shine on the album cut of the tune, while the Hull, Cleveland, Schatz, Sutton, Fleck combination play it live a few weeks ago at RockyGrass.
My Bluegrass Heart is dedicated to two of Bela’s friends and collaborators — Tony Rice and Chick Corea — who both passed away in the past year.
Thankfully, the next generation is alright. Slippery Eel is the first-ever studio work featuring the pairing of Billy Strings and Chris Thile. Fleck told BGS that he did his best to come up with something that would challenge those two, but notes that, “Of course they made it look easy.”
Fleck is playing several dates in our area, beginning tonight (the 18th) in Berryville, Virginia, and next Wednesday (the 22nd) at Strathmore here in the DC region. As noted on his website and in a teaser in The Bluegrass Situation,
“This month, Fleck will be touring in support of the album with Michael Cleveland, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses, Mark Schatz, and Bryan Sutton…He’ll resume roadwork in late November and December joined by Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Bryan Sutton. And it’s not too early to circle the calendar for January 7, 2022, when he’s headlining the Ryman alongside nearly every musician who makes an appearance on My Bluegrass Heart.
Here’s the band practicing Round Rock for the upcoming show. Jump in and enjoy. Progressive bluegrass doesn’t get any better.
More to come…
Image: Bela Fleck at Merlefest 2012 by DJB