Bela Fleck interview


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We interviewed banjo genius Bela Fleck by email in advance of his Barbican gig with two other astonishing musicians, bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla-player Zakir Hussein.

Fleck tells the story of how this group got together, and also gets to talk about – among other things- ice cream, amplification and Michael Jordan…

LondonJazz: How did you originally meet Edgar Meyer and start playing together?

Bela Fleck:I first met Edgar in Aspen, Colorado in 1983. He was there studying at the summer chamber music festival, and I was playing there with New Grass Revival.

I heard about him, and that he might be playing in front of the Häagen-Dazs store on the mall in the evening. I went and heard him and ended up playing, we have been pretty much fast friends ever since.

He opened my mind to a lot of great music, and his talent and knowledge has continued to be a huge inspiration. Steal from the best, they say – and Edgar is the best.

LJ: How did the collaboration with Zakir Hussein arise?

Zakir is someone Edgar and I have had on our wish list to collaborate with someday…
When we were offered the chance to write a triple concerto for the Nashville Symphony, we asked him to join us. And it has been a very wonderful experience.

There is so much that we can learn from him, with all of his indian classical music experience.
Edgar and I have been stealing from him now too – he is also the best.

LJ: He must be great to work with.

Bela Fleck: Yes, we have been developing a wonderful rapport. I try to respond to him rythmically as much as possible. There are a lot of thigs about banjo and tabla that fit together like magic.

LJ: As far as I am aware you always play amplified?

Bela Fleck: When we play with the orchestras we lightly amplify with good mikes.
When we play as a trio, we add in a little more, especially when we are playing larger venues outdoors. As much as we prefer the acoustic qualities, we do want to be heard. Even so, we try to keep a very acoustic sensibility.

LJ: And what about the sound when you work with a symphony orchestra?

Bela Fleck: You just need to have a sensitive sound man. If you could hear the soloists without amplifiction, we wouldn’t use it. We just keep it light. The orchestra parts are as important as our parts, and we don’t want to be way louder. Just want to be audible.

LJ: Where does your material come from? Do all three of you compose for the trio?

Bela Fleck: The music we are playing is written fairly equally be all three of us.
Several tunes are three way cowrites, we each have a couple of pieces we wrote on our own, etc. There is no outside material at this point.

LJ: I was intrigued by your Twitter comment from Philadelphia “The music is coming back and growing into a new place simultaneously.”

Bela Fleck: I think that each time we start again after an absence we pick up where we left off, and try to take it to the next level.
At this point there are things that we had wished we could do better that the break has helped us to realize, and then there is the freshness of starting again.
Since we are improvising, there is always the hope that we will dialog in a cool new way, and that the proper spaces will be left for that to really develop.

LJ: You have often talked about your affection for a sustained melodic voice This project might be seen as side-stepping that issue?

Bela Fleck: Edgar Meyer handily covers that aspect of things. His work with the bow is pretty much unparalleled. Think cello and piano rather than bass and banjo, and you get an idea. The other side is that I am forced to be the melodic voice more often, when he goes to bass function – and that is actually a nice thing on the banjo.

LJ: How important has it been to you to appeal to wider audience? Are you getting used to the bigger notoriety? What helps you to keep the feet on the ground?

Bela Fleck: The Flecktones have certainly had some big success, and even before that I was in bands that had great audiences – like New Grass Revival. I don’t court success in particular these days, having found that that usually blows up in one’s face – usually mine.

I do want communication in the music – I want it to speak to the audience.
These days I play with people that I can grow and learn from. I think I am probably becoming more esoteric.

LJ: What are your interests in other arts – what heroes from other disciplines?

Bela Fleck: Mostly it is music, although I always love to see great dancers such as Barishnikov, and the occasional stand out sports dude, like Michael Jordan – who transcends and transforms the idiom.

LJ: The future of the instrument: are you phased by the thought of scary/ younger/ fitter/ faster players whom you might have taught or inspired coming up?

Bela Fleck: I think I have overcome my fear of the next generation!
There are some amazing cats coming up, and I can’t wait to hear what they come up with. I am friends with most of them. My teacher Tony Trischka set such a great example, by sharing his ideas with me when he was the top cat on the modern banjo scene.

We are looking forward to getting to London.

LJ: I’m looking forward to July 16th at the Barbican. Thanks for the interview.

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