David Royko Psy.D
Bela Fleck's Rounder albums, pre-Flecktones
by David Royko, Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1993
Monday, January 4, 1993
GETTING INTO FLECK
HIS RECORDS SHOW HOW HE HAS BEEN REDEFINING BANJO MUSIC FOR YEARS
By David Duckman [David Royko]
If Bela Fleck gets his way, future generations will have a very different impression of the banjo, for Fleck is one very different banjo player. He's redefining banjo music, bringing to it a jazz vocabulary to an extent never approached by anyone else.
At 33, he has been nominated for three Grammy Awards, has played with people as diverse as Branford Marsalis, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs and Spinal Tap, and has had a No. 1 album on Billboard's Contemporary Jazz chart with his group, the Flecktones.
But there's buried treasure for those who are just now getting into Fleck: his earlier recordings on the independent Rounder label. His banjo experimentation was even more varied, and challenging, than his more mainstream "fusion" fare of late.
These seven albums, recorded from 1979 to 1988, fall into a category known as "new acoustic music," which is a blend of jazz, bluegrass and various other styles, and features glistening, usually percussionless textures, performed by the royalty of progressive bluegrass instrumentalists.
Much like the Blue Note jazz label of the 1950s and '60s, an exclusive stable of players call upon one another whenever it is time for a new album. Acoustic string virtuosos such as Jerry Douglas, Mark O'Connor, Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer, David Grisman, Tony Rice, Mark Schatz, Mike Marshall, and Darol Anger all make numerous appearances on Fleck's Rounder albums.
"They are all fantastic, the top acoustic musicians in the field," Fleck says. "I'm proud of those albums in large part because of them. The first time I played with Sam Bush, David Grisman, the first time I recorded with drums, all of these firsts took place on those albums."
Those projects also prepared Fleck for the creation of his current group.
"Each album was a real adventure," Fleck says. "Many of the experiences I had at the time led to what I'm doing now with the Flecktones."
CROSSING THE TRACKS (1979; ***): Earl Scruggs' "Dear Old Dixie" sits side by side with a devastating performance of Chick Corea's "Spain." These were the sessions that brought Fleck into contact with Sam Bush, leader of the groundbreaking New Grass Revival, an astonishing band Fleck would join in 1981.
FIDDLE TUNES FOR BANJO (1981; ** 1/2) unites Fleck with banjo pioneers Tony Trischka and Bill Keith, each recording several tunes composed primarily as vehicles for fiddle. Stylistically, this is the most traditional of Fleck's recordings.
NATURAL BRIDGE (1982; ****) is the breakthrough, a stunning album of original compositions, arranged by Fleck, and performed by musicians completely in tune with their leader's vision of the unclassifiable.
DOUBLE TIME (1984; ****): Here Fleck tackles the demanding duet form with 11 exceptional partners, and comes up with another masterpiece, with each engaging original composition an exciting vehicle for improvisation.
DEVIATION (1984; ****): Drums appear for the first time, and luckily they are played by Kenny Malone, who adds to the session without cluttering up the open string textures. This album also features Fleck within the setting of the New Grass Revival, creating the instrumental album many New Grass fans had always wanted.
INROADS (1986; ** 1/2): Growing pains, as Fleck tries to avoid repeating himself. Vibes are added, and a straight-ahead jazz approach is visited on several tracks. Hints of what is to come with the Flecktones are heard.
DRIVE (1988; ****): This collection of original tunes in the bluegrass style may be Bela's most lasting recording so far, a masterpiece of composition and execution by an ensemble of like-minded innovators.
Because "Drive" and "Inroads" are the only titles available on CD, it is worth mentioning that two Fleck CD collections, "Daybreak" and "Places," draw from his first six LPs, and provide splendid listening in their own right.
[Photo: Bela Fleck]