No one has expanded the possibilities of his instrument more than Béla Fleck, the banjo virtuoso. Even the phrase "banjo virtuoso" didn't exist in the musical lexicon before Fleck burst on the scene in 1990 with his band the Flecktones, with an eponymous release that immediately redefined the possibilities of bluegrass music and the range of the banjo.
Fleck had been honing his skills for years before that. He first picked up the banjo in 1973, when he was starting high school, and by the time he graduated was playing with Tasty Licks, a progressive bluegrass band in Boston. At the age of 19 he recorded his first solo album, Crossing the Tracks.
In 1981 Fleck joined the New Grass Revival, a group that pioneered the fusion of bluegrass with rock and country music. That paved the way for the Flecktones — Victor Wooten on bass, his brother Roy (better known as Future Man) on "drumitar," a guitar-style instrument that samples percussion sounds, and pianist/harmonica player Howard Levy and saxophonist Jeff Coffin in the early years — which pushed the limits of bluegrass even further, incorporating elements of jazz into the mix.Not content to stay in one genre, Fleck took his instrument places no banjo player had ever gone before. He shattered existing stereotypes of what the instrument could do in collaborative projects with double bass player Edgar Meyer, who also straddles the pop and classical world, and jazz pianist Chick Corea. He took his banjo to Africa and jammed with musicians in places like Uganda and Tanzania, resulting in a CD and documentary film, both titled Throw Down Your Heart.
In the process, Fleck was nominated for 30 Grammy Awards and won 14 of them. His nominations have come in more different categories than anyone in the history of the awards.
Perhaps it was inevitable that someone named for giants of classical music — Béla (Bartók) Anton (Dvorák) Leos (Janácek) Fleck — would turn to that genre as well. In 2001, he and Meyer assembled a group of crossover performers that included superstar classical violinist Joshua Bell for Perpetual Motion, covers of classical pieces ranging from Scarlatti to Debussy. On the 2004 release Music for Two, he and Meyer started with Bach and ended with Miles Davis. For their 2009 CD The Melody of Rhythm, they added tabla master Zakir Hussain and composed a concerto that the trio performed with backing from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
Fleck and Meyer had already written a double concerto for banjo, bass, and orchestra that was premiered by the Nashville Symphony in 2003. In 2010 that orchestra reached out to Fleck again and commissioned anther concerto, this time composed solely by him. His Banjo Concerto premiered in September last year to generally good reviews. The concerts at Severance Hall this week mark the fifth performance of the piece, and Fleck's first appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra. He answered questions from Scene via e-mail.
While the Banjo Concerto is not your first foray into classical music, it is your first solo classical composition. How did you feel about the challenge going in?
I took it very seriously. I've had a lot of time to think about what I would do if I ever had the chance to do one of these, and I was feeling the need to write a concerto on my own. I have co-written two with Edgar Meyer, including the one with Zakir Hussain; he and I were able to lean on Edgar's knowledge. It was a very different challenge to do it without him. Several of my other friends, like Mark O'Conner and Chris Thile, have written concertos. I'd been putting it off because I knew what a huge job it would be. Finally it seemed like the right time, and that's when Nashville Symphony commissioned me. I was excited and a little scared!
Were there any particular composers or other classical influences that you drew on in composing the piece?
I was inspired by Bartók and Beethoven and Bach and Barber and Brahms, but I was careful not to pull from them directly. I wasn't trying to write in anyone's style, but rather to search for my own.
Some reviewers thought they heard references to American roots music, in particular jazz, in the concerto. Was that something you deliberately tried to include?
I didn't try to keep anything out of the piece, so I'm sure you can hear many things in there, depending on your point of view. But neither did I try to include anything in particular. I let the writing dictate what should come next. It's almost easier to say what it isn't than what it is. It's certainly not a pops piece. And I wouldn't consider it a "jazzy" classical piece, like Rhapsody in Blue or some Duke Ellington pieces. Nor is it a Copland Americana-type piece, or a bluegrassy piece. It follows its own impulses. It moves fast, and often feels like a journey through diverse terrain. Come to think about it, I don't know what the heck it is!
What was the experience like playing as a soloist with a symphony orchestra?
The hard part is playing music that is completely written out, even though I did all the writing. Generally I am involved with music that has a big improvisational component, and this has none. This cuts me off from most of my "go-to" solutions. And that's exactly why it was such a great experience for me. The thing you gain from not improvising is the ability to work with ideas and techniques that take time to develop. You couldn't think of this stuff on the spot.
Have you done any fine-tuning or made any adjustments to the piece since the premiere?
After each performance, I have made a few small adjustments to the orchestration. I was figuring out where what I originally wrote didn't work naturally for the orchestra, and looking for more elegant solutions. But these are very small changes.
You played the premiere on your 1937 Gibson Mastertone. Did you write the piece with that particular instrument in mind?
I've had a love affair with that banjo for over 30 years. I have something like 20 others, and none of them inspire me the same way. It's a style 75, which means it cost $75 in 1937! Now it's probably worth 100K.
What prompted you to dedicate the piece to Earl Scruggs?
Earl is the guy who brought the three-finger style into prominence and, while he was at it, pretty much put bluegrass music on the map. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be playing the banjo. Not only was he an incredible innovator, he played with a depth that moved people, and a lot of them became banjo players. But he never got to play with an orchestra. I felt I was continuing on with something he would have wanted to do. He was able to come to the premiere, and I was able to send the piece out to him personally — the audience stood and applauded him for quite a while. That was the most satisfying part of the whole concerto experience for me. Then he passed away about six months later.
How are you feeling about playing the Banjo Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra?
I'm very excited to hear what they will bring to the piece. And I am very fortunate to have the great Giancarlo Guerrero conducting. He conducted the premiere and he knows the piece well, which puts me ahead of the curve. I'm trying to keep my self-doubt to a minimum, but I am mildly petrified!
What do you hope audiences here will take away from hearing the Banjo Concerto?
I would hope that they could see the banjo as a viable member of the orchestra, with sounds that no other instrument can provide. Also, I hope that the stereotypes associated with the banjo can be put aside for the evening. The banjo has been ghettoized as a "hillbilly" instrument. The truth is actually more complex. The banjo was brought to North America by the slaves and played a fundamental role in the origins of jazz. Just listen to the early music of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, and you'll wonder why we look at the banjo as strictly a white Southern instrument. That being said, bluegrass is one of America's great musical offerings to the world, and bluegrass rocked my world.