Interview: Bela Fleck


One measure of Bela Fleck’s incredible musical skills on the banjo – and his diverse musical sensibilities – is that he has been nominated for a Grammy Award in more musical categories than anyone else in history. And he has won 15 times, including a Latin Grammy for the 2007 collaboration album The Enchantment with jazz pianist Chick Corea. A true innovator, Fleck continues to expand the possibilities that the banjo can offer.

This interview was for the 9/15/15 concert by Bela Fleck and Chick Corea at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara. It was done by email, with answers received on 8/17/15. (C. Taylor Crothers photo, 2015 copyright Chick Corea Productions)

Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at the upcoming concert at the Lobero Theatre?

Bela Fleck: Boy, I am looking forward to it myself! It’s a very intimate evening of acoustic piano and banjo. We’ll be playing tunes from an album we made some years back called The Enchantment. But by the time this show happens, we will also have out a brand new duo album of all live tracks. There is so much spontaneity in this duo, that every night has its own signature.

JM: What was the impetus for recording The Enchantment with Chick?

BF: I’ve been a long time fan of Chick’s and apparently he also liked what he had heard of my music. Also we both like putting ourselves into unusual settings, and somehow this idea of exploring a duo collaboration found its time. We’ve now done 60 or so shows together. Every one has been a musical career highlight for me, and a ton of fun.

JM: What initially drew you to the banjo, and who were your primary early musical influences?

BF: I fell in love with the sound of the banjo when I first heard Earl Scruggs playing “The Ballad Of Jed Clampett”, the theme for the Beverly Hillbillies TV show. This was a silly show, but the banjo playing was far from silly – quite profound, actually. And it led to thousands of people picking up the banjo. Now I was growing up in New York City, so I wasn’t as interested in the rural part of the banjo – more in love with the tone and excitement of it.

JM: You rightly have a reputation for expanding the possibilities of the banjo. How do you find the right balance between tradition and innovation in your music?

BF: That’s a good question! It’s a feel thing. That’s the simple answer!

As I get older I become more interested in music that is rooted, but has a strong personality. In other words – I’m not interested in museum piece music. I want to know that the musicians are expressing their own individuality. That’s a good combo – new music with traditional elements, but seen through the lens of strong minded conception.

JM: In addition to your solo recordings and recordings with The Flecktones, you’ve recorded and performed with a number of other amazing musicians. Who are the ones that particularly stand out to you, and why?

BF: Well, Chick is at the top of the heap. He’s got the long view and the big personality. You know who he is as soon as he starts to play.

Other folks I love to play with are Abigail Washburn – my wife and musical duo partner, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain, my African friends like Toumani Diabate, Bassekou Kouyate, Anania Ngoliga, and Oumou Sangare, and of course my long time bluegrass pals like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, and so many others.

And the Flecktone family is pretty hard to beat!

I am a very lucky individual, don’t you think?

But wait – I also get to play with wonderful orchestras, and an amazing string quartet called Brooklyn Rider.

Oh yes – and I still get to sit in with the Dave Matthews Band! That’s my occasional rock band!

I’m even luckier than I realized!

All of these people are so completely themselves, and that’s what makes them so special.

JM: You have been nominated for a Grammy in more musical categories than anyone else in history. What are your reflections on that distinction?

BF: Well – I do understand the complexity of any talent contest, but I do find it pretty remarkable that a banjo player could have that distinction. I am proud, but I also try not to get too attached to it.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

BF: Be yourself.

JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future? And does this include anything with Chick Corea? With The Flecktones?

BF: Chick and I have a new album called TWO – that’s exciting. And Abigail and I have a new EP called Banjo Banjo. I’m working hard on composing my second banjo concerto, which will be premiered in March. I have a documentary out called How To Write a Banjo Concerto. And I hope to record a bluegrass project again in the next year or so. Flecktones are on a hiatus, but I hope we will go active again before long.

Thanks, and I look forward to returning to Santa Barbara with the great Chick Corea very soon!


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