What banjo master Béla Fleck and his almost offensively talented band do best is take music you might not want to hear and make you want to hear it. And that's how they made Christmas music worth listening to on Jingle All the Way, a collection of holiday standards played thankfully without any sugared up vocals. The album was recorded far outside of the holiday season, which is why when I fired Fleck an e-mail (he was in South America and couldn't be reached for a phone interview) I asked how in the hell can you write a banjo arrangement for "Silent Night" in the middle of summer.
"The [Christmas] spirit was there with us. Really we just tried to play the tunes right, and that brought us there," wrote Fleck.
Some might say that Fleck is the Michael Jordan of the banjo, but that doesn't do Fleck justice. Michael Jordan would have needed to score about twice as many points and win at least two more titles (and appear in five less Fruit of the Loom ads) for this sports-to-music analogy to work properly. Fleck is that good.
Fleck has earned his masterful reputation by defying the genre-fication of the instrument he's been playing since he was a teenager. Rather than tucking himself into the bluegrass world, Fleck has transposed the banjo into other genres ranging from jazz to funk and powering the Flecktones into a classification of their own. While Fleck is a genius on the banjo, a hearty argument could also be made for similar honors to be bestowed on the rest of the Flecktones, something Fleck doesn't take for granted.
"I am always amazed by these guys, especially when we haven't been around each other for a while. All of them are such natural musicians, and they continue to find new ways to do things," Fleck notes.
Victor Wooten is one of the world's most renowned bass players, laying down some of the most technically complex lines in popular music, while his brother Roy "Futureman" Wooten holds down the rhythms on the Synthaxe Drumitar, a mess of wires and buttons that looks somewhat like Robocop's bowel movement and provides other worldly beats. Jeff Coffin is a saxophone virtuoso who can play two horns at once when he so pleases and also filled in on last summer's Dave Matthews Band tour after the death of the band's LeRoi Moore. A Flecktones show can be a festive dance-a-thon, but more often Flecktone fans find themselves immobilized with jaws dropped during "can-you-believe-what-they're-doing?" moments. During a show in Los Angeles in 2003, I saw Vitcor Wooten and Fleck standing face to face, ripping away on their instruments and then suddenly reach out with one hand to play the fret board of the other's instrument, all the while still plucking their own strings. Uh yeah, that's crazy.
Fleck has established himself as a celebrated musician, and his appearance in the recent documentary Throw Down Your Heart, directed by his brother Sascha Paladino, has further escalated his mystique. In the film, which has already garnered some positive festival feedback, Fleck takes the banjo to Africa, the birthplace of the instrument, and plays with African musicians."I was very interested in the origins of the banjo. I knew I needed to go there one day, and this felt like the right time for it," explains Fleck of his decision to make the trip.
While Fleck's time in Africa and the light-hearted Christmas album might seem diametrically opposed, it probably shouldn't be all that surprising that his interests are so varied. The dude's a genius - and geniuses are allowed to be unpredictable.
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones
7pm Sunday, November 16. Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St., 317-0700. $36-$70.50. Tickets at towertheatre.org and the Tower box office.