Thursday, August 24, 2000
FLECKTONES' SOUND GAINS EXTRA DIMENSIONS
By David Royko
When the full contingent of band members and musical guests fanned
across Ravinia's stage Tuesday night, they numbered nine, playing
steel drums, bassoon, tablas, saxophones, drums, harmonica, bass and
oboe. And in the center stood the leader of this expanded version of
the Flecktones, banjoist Bela Fleck.
Even if the music world has come to expect the unexpected from Fleck,
it was still an extraordinary sight, and an even more extraordinary
Touring in support of his new CD, "Outbound," Fleck brought along
the key guests who appeared on the album, and they are much more than
window dressing. Fleck, whose Flecktones music is best described as
jazz fusion, understands how to build textures to suit the wide range
of his compositions.
Thus, the sound of the band remained lean and clear most of the
evening, even when the ranks swelled.
Fleck also is a leader who shares the spotlight, allowing all of his
sidemen numerous opportunities to solo in the pieces in which they
were most effectively utilized.
Of course, Fleck would be insane not to step out of the way when the
guests include steel drum innovator Andy Narell, tabla master Sandip
Burman and reed player Paul McCandless and regular Flecktones Jeff
Coffin (saxophones) and bass guitarist Victor Wooten.
However, for all the excitement that came with such talent, the
greatest moments occurred when the band reached back to its decade-old
For two tunes, "Mars Needs Women" and "Tell It to the Gov'nor," the
Flecktones reverted to the founding quartet of Fleck; Victor Wooten;
percussionist Roy Wooten, playing his invention, the drumitar; and
harmonica genius Howard Levy.
Levy left in the mid-'90s after three Flecktones albums, and Fleck has
yet to find a player to truly replace him. After rotating through a
stable of honorary members for a few years, they have settled in with
Coffin, a genuine jazz player who fits the band nicely.
But Levy, who lives in Evanston, remains the only Flecktone, past or
present, who can challenge Fleck, in terms of technique, creativity,
and the emotional impact his presence brings. To put it another way,
Levy is the Bela Fleck of the harmonica. Both play instruments that
historically have been ghettoized within certain genres, and each of
them have freed their instruments to the point that they are accepted
in virtually any setting.
But more than that, it is the sound that Levy brings to the band that
helped make the Flecktones unique. To hear him soaring again over the
pumping funk laid down by the Wootens, injecting an emotional heft to
convoluted time signatures--mainly 7/8 in the tunes they played
Tuesday--was almost bittersweet in that it reminded at least a few
listeners of what the band lost with his departure.