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Banjo Bela Brings It On

November 16, 2011 By:
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Back to the future -- and "Futureman": The original quartet of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones reunites at the Keswick Theatre. From left: Roy "Futureman" Wooten, Howard Levy, Bela Fleck and Victor Wooten. Photo by Jeremy Cowart

So, Bela Fleck, when you throw down your heart, does it always come up with a banjo riff?

"Absolutely," says the legendary picker and pick of the Grammy Award committee innumerable times for his musical musings -- including the 2011 Best Contemporary World Music Album, "Throw Down Your Heart, Africa Sessions, Part 2: Unreleased Tracks."
 
Indeed, the instrument releases an emotional well of passionate playing. "The banjo only plays music of the heart," says Fleck.
 
"Sometimes the heart beats very fast."
 
The heart does quicken for his throngs of fans as they anticipate a special concert coming to the Keswick Theatre www. keswicktheatre.com : The four forces of nature that make up Bela Fleck and the Flecktones will be reunited for the first time in two decades when they take the stage of the Glenside site on Nov. 17.
 
What audiences will hear from the leader of the pack is the art and heart of a musician whose deliverance took place in 1973, when his granddad presented him with his first five-stringer at age 15.
 
Without his zayda's present, would Fleck -- born Bela Anton Leos Fleck, after composers Bela Bartok, Anton Webern and Leos Janacek -- have checked out banjos on his own? "I suspect that I would have, but there is no way to know for sure."
 
One thing's for certain for the iconic instrumentalist: "It's hard to imagine my life without it."
 
A banjo on his knee became a need even early on. And there were those who offered sound advice, even if inadvertently. The world-class performer found early inspiration in Beverly -- "Hills, that is, swimmin' pools, movie stars" and a big fat No. 1 TV series.
 
Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs' "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" was Texas gold for native New Yorker Fleck, who recalls watching The Beverly Hillbillies and taking that jalopy ride alongside them in the 1960s. "Flatt and Scruggs had an amazing band sound and it was just a great setting for the banjo," he recalls.
 
Did he feel like singing along? More like strumming along. "I wasn't attracted to the singing; it was the fast rippling banjo that did me in." Fleck is known, in fact, for performing the theme song at his concerts.
 
Fleck's flicker of interest in bluegrass was fanned into a major fire, lit by hearing other great names in the business. Fleck's first solo, the 1979 "Crossing the Tracks," did just that, establishing him in the field, presaging years of touring with the noted Sam Bush of New Grass Revival, which Fleck joined.
 
That experience became the green, green grass calling him home, as he and Bush also did concert time with Doc Watson and Merle Watson.
 
A longtime favorite of Grammy voters, Fleck's most recent win for "Throw Down Your Heart, Part 2" -- the first edition won 2010 Best Pop Instrumental Performance and Best Contemporary World Music Album as well -- is a sequel that may outstrum the original.
 
Is "Part 2" No. 1 in his heart? "Honestly, every album that has won a Grammy has been a big deal," says Fleck of the honor.
 
The biggest deal was one signed onto in 1988, when Fleck and Victor Wooten jammed and joined Howard Levy and Roy "Futureman" Wooten in making banjo Bela Fleck and the Flecktones' flick-of-the-wrist music magic.
 
One need not be a rocket scientist to know that the 20-year reunion at the Keswick and elsewhere on this tour of duty and dulcet tones will likely ignite "Rocket Science," which lifts off where the band started out, as all original members rejoined forces to rejoice in their new album's release.
 
Fleck flexes his musical Jewish muscles, too. Klezmer artist Andy Statman -- with whom Fleck laid down some tracks on the just released "Old Brooklyn" -- is an old friend and longtime influence.
 
"He is a very special musician and has inspired me for a long time, since I was in my teens," notes Fleck.
 
"He is a very deep player."
 
Fleck has gone deep, too, in a different field of dreams, this one with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, which commissioned him to compose a concerto and then performed it recently.
 
Is going classical in concert with Fleck's future plans? "I would love to have more chances to be in that world," says the world-music performer who's made that space odyssey before: In 2001, Fleck snared a Grammy for Best Classical Crossover Album, "Perpetual Motion," alongside Edgar Meyer and Joshua Bell.
 
"I want to write another classically oriented piece, possibly for banjo and string quartet," he says.
 
Maybe Fleck's also eager to prove his Chopin chops: "Solo banjo sonatas would be fun to compose."
 
Elly May, ya lookin' to commission? 

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