To say that Bela Fleck has redefined the role of the banjo in jazz is like saying Neil Armstrong took a long trip.
Others have played banjo in a jazz context, going back to the music's birth, but in Fleck's hands, there is never a sense of novelty in hearing the banjo blend with any type of setting, but instead the promise of endless possibility.
With the Flecktones, he can explore any and all ideas. And if some of his notions, such as adding a few vocals, fall distressingly flat, when this band clicks, as it did nearly throughout their Ravinia set Wednesday, they approach the energy and aural charisma of classic fusion pioneers like Return To Forever and Weather Report. This comparison deepens when one considers Victor Wooten. Bass Player magazine's bassist of the year for two years running, he is the 1990's equivalent of Stanley Clarke or Jaco Pastorius, with a breathtaking technique and a melodic sense that approaches that of a Dave Holland.
Since Chicagoan Howard Levy departed the group several years ago, the band has featured various guests, but have now settled down with multi-reedman Jeff Coffin, who proves to be a terrific addition, bringing a much needed edgy assertiveness to the band. Particularly impressive was his composition, "WWW.Stinkyblues.com" (they are a '90s band alright), where he pulled off the Rahsaan Roland Kirk trick of playing two saxes at once, to great--and kitsch-free--musical effect. And unlike on the Flecktones' recent recording, where it has somehow been emasculated, his soprano sax soloing was robust to the point of being raw, managing to evoke Sidney Bechet in both thrust and his searing, almost desperate tone.
The Flecktones' nearly decade-long maturation process has even brought Roy Wooten back to occasionally mixing acoustic percussion with his synth-axe drumitar, though his frequent lack of subtlety still proved irksome. As a jazz fusion unit, however, the Flecktones transcend the usual banalities of the genre, bringing a rare respectability to that label.
Leading off the double bill was mandolinist David Grisman and his quintet, an acoustic jazz outfit of extraordinary sensitivity and flexibility. The range of musical styles Grisman explores, from latin and bop to bluegrass and funk, are all infused with his own swinging personality and woven into the music that has been dubbed "dawg" for almost a quarter century.
Once an all-strings ensemble of dual mandolins, fiddle, guitar and bass, the most recent incarnation of the quintet features Joe Craven on percussion and occasional mandolin and fiddle, and flutist Matt Eakle. What the flute lacks in incisiveness, it compensates for by providing contrast, pushing mandolin or guitar solos into even greater relief when following Eakle's flute.
With Craven and Eakle however, the group is able to achieve almost magical textures. In one otherwise lithe latin number they performed Wednesday for example, the tune shifted suddenly into a hushed, introspective mood of menacing darkness that conjured the ghost of Piazzolla, thanks to an instrumentation consisting of bass flute, violin, mandolin, guitar, and bass. When a few moments later this same band was burning through Miles Davis' "So What," with Fleck sitting in, the inversion brought an altogether pleasant sense of stylistic vertigo.