Friday, December 13, 2002

Banjoist Béla Fleck, center, and the Flecktones, from left, Victor Wooten, Jeff Coffin and Future Man.

Fleck ready
for island swing

Gary C.W. Chun

If Béla Fleck had waited, say, about 20 years, his fame as the nation's best bluegrass banjoist would've been more widespread, thanks to the success of the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack album that brought the indigenous country music to the nation's attention.

Instead, his music and a career took a more worldly turn, and now, as frontman of the popular and eclectic Flecktones, there's no turning back.

The New York native moved to the Music City, Nashville, Tenn., in 1981 as a member of the New Grass Revival and was a staple in studio sessions throughout the decade.

The Flecktones' sonic palette is a lot broader than the sophisticated neo-bluegrass of the Revival. In a phone interview from his record label's offices in Nashville, Fleck said, "Our group plays more progressive jazz with some bluegrass elements. And we're just as comfortable playing in a rock or jazz festival as we are the occasional bluegrass one."

The Flecktones have shared bills with the likes of the Dave Matthews Band and Phish.

Fleck has surrounded himself with some truly virtuosic musicians -- bassist Victor Wooten is considered one of the top players in his field, percussionist Future Man is a whiz of the self-designed "synth-axe drumitar" and Jeff Coffin is a great all-round reed player on the clarinet and soprano, alto and tenor saxophones.

"We were lucky that, since the very beginnings of this band, we were embraced by an audience that didn't know what to expect us to sound like, and that audience has grown with us. Other similar groups have always struggled with success by playing such idiosyncratic music, so it's constantly a challenge to keep both our musical integrity and our audience."

The group made its name as a performing band. "We're fun to watch because we have a lot of personality," said Fleck, who plays two kinds of banjos, one a standard acoustic and the other an electric hybrid with a sound he can manipulate with pedals. (Local musician Jake Shimabukuro, a fan of Fleck's, uses a similar approach to his instrument, the ukulele. Shimabukuro will be opening Fleck's concert, and Fleck said he looks forward to Shimabukuro sitting in with the band on a number or two.)

Fleck and the band have won several awards and accolades; Fleck won a Grammy last year on a classical solo project called "Perpetual Motion." Working from special violin and piano transcriptions with the support of stellar guest musicians such as violinist Joshua Bell, percussionist Evelyn Glennie and guitarist John Williams, Fleck said the project turned out "pretty cool."

FLECK LEARNED to play the banjo as a teenager in New York City. There and in Nashville, he's played and been associated with fellow virtuosos like Tony Trischka, J.D. Crowe, the late John Hartford and the legendary Earl Scruggs. Not bad for a guy who was named after the composer Béla Bartok by his father.

Fleck's eclecticism was also fostered by far-ranging State Department-funded international tours.

"I've found that there have been banjos of some kind wherever I've been, whether it's China, Mongolia, Thailand, India or Africa. It's something I can readily pick up, where I usually let the native musicians play and I play along with them."

That worldly blend of music is also part of the Flecktone sound, where "Victor could play a South African bassline to a bluegrass sound.

"I just want to reiterate that the band is not just about me -- we've had a good, long haul these past 14 years," Fleck said.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones

Interisland tour:

>> 8 p.m. today at the Kahilu Theatre in Kamuela on the Big Island. Tickets are $30, $40 and $45. Call 885-6868.

>> 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Kauai Community College Performing Arts Center in Lihue. Tickets are sold out.

>> 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Castle Theatre of the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Tickets are $10, $22 and $30, half-price for children 12 and under. Call 242-7469.

>> 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Hawaii Ballroom of the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. Tickets are $35; $40 at the door. Call 922-4422. Fleck fan Jake Shimabukuro will open.

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