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Interview: Béla Fleck on the Reunited Flecktones

By Alexander Hough in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 18, 2011 6:10PM

Photo Credit: Jeremy Cowart; L-R Futureman, Howard Levy, Bela Fleck, Victor Wooten

This Thursday, the original lineup of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones will perform at the Vic in support of Rocket Science, the first album the band has made with locally-based pianist and harmonica wizard Howard Levy since 1992.

Levy's replacement, woodwind player Jeff Coffin, left the group in 2008 to join the Dave Matthews Band following the death of saxophonist LeRoi Moore, and the quartet that tore up stages from the Flecktones' birth in 1988 through 1992 with their genre-ambiguity and musical virtuosity reassembled for a 2009 tour, leading to 2011's refreshing Rocket Science.

Fleck recently took time to exchange e-mails with Chicagoist about the re-addition of Levy, Future Man's new Drumitar, and whether or not you should dance at a Flecktones concert.

Chicagoist: How has the tour with the new/old group been going so far? Familiar, like an old pair of jeans? A little uncomfortable and taking time to used to, like a scratchy, too-tight new pair of jeans? Somewhere in between?

Béla Fleck: It's been very comfortable, actually. The band dynamic is very happy and familiar, the music is getting better and better, and the crowds have been quite good. No complaints!

C: Will you all be playing any music from your first three albums (Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, and UFO Tofu, the albums made during Levy's initial tenure)? Will you play anything from the Coffin era?

BF: So far we have been playing music from the first three albums and the new album. The point of the reunion was not to play the music of the Jeff Coffin period. Everyone is bringing new energy to the old music, and the new tunes are really challenging and fun.

C: How did the reintroduction of Howard Levy affect your playing and the band's playing? Is playing with him different now than it was back at the Flecktones' beginning?

BF: I remember now how he used to push us all, and provoke us into finding new ground every night. He is an instigator and that has not changed. He has grown as a musician and a person, as I believe we all have in the 17 years since we played together. His playing is altogether remarkable, and what he brings out of the group is even better.

C: Was the composition process for Rocket Science markedly different than it was for previous Flecktones' albums? Was it different from the first three albums? Were the differences the result of personnel changes, age and experience, or something else?

BF: The main difference was our encouraging Howard to have a stronger role in the composing process. In the past, his tunes weren't played enough by the group, and this was a great time to rectify that. He wrote two pieces and co-wrote one with me. (Bassist) Victor (Wooten) and I wrote one together and Future Man wrote one.

This band has mostly played my compositions since the beginning, and this is still true. More than half of the pieces on the new recording are my pieces, that I composed the way I always compose, but hopefully with some positive evolution.

C: You and Levy began work on the album last year in Evanston. This isn't a question; I just assume you bought stuff while you were here, so on behalf of Cook County, thank you for your tax dollars. Seriously, we're over $100 billion in debt, we need all the help we can get.

BF: What a crazy world! The debt thing is totally out of control. I did come up to Evanston to write with Howard and throw ideas around twice. We made a lot of progress, and he had some great tunes to draw from. He also got to hear what I had and let me know which pieces appealed to him.

C: Future Man's new Drumitar [the guitar-shaped electronic percussion instrument he created] sounds more organic, blending much better with his acoustic percussion set-up. How has the new version affected you and the band sonically and musically? Have you noticed it having any effect on Future Man's playing? Also, do you call him "Future Man"?

BF: Future Man has always been into trying new things, and although I was nervous that we might get in the studio and have the new Drumitar go down or not work properly, I surrendered my desire for control and watched with interest. The new Drumitar performed beautifully and everyone seems to think that it plays and sounds better than ever. I know that it is much lighter than the old one, so that has to be easier on his back, although he has never complained. We call him Futch, and Roy.

C: The Flecktones have performed in a variety of settings. My favorite instance, crowd-wise - because it encapsulated the Flecktones' cross-genre appeal - was a small college show where there was an audience culture clash between seated, quiet folks clearly there from a jazz angle and Generation Y hippies who kept trying to dance in the aisles. Do you have a preference for whom you play for? How much control do you have in venue selection and how does your audience preference inform that choice?

BF: We do have some choice about where we play, and we try to make good ones. For a while we did have that issue between the seated listeners and the folks that wanted to dance. It really hasn't been a problem for quite a while, I don't know how it resolved, but it did.

We always wanted both audiences but we do encourage people to do what is appropriate to the room and the situation, and to please be considerate of each other. For instance, an outdoor venue or festival is different from Symphony Hall. Personally, I don't dance and I can understand a person coming to the show to take in the music and want to sit. We play for a long time, and two and a half hours is a long time to stand up for folks that are past their 30s! Also if someone decides to spring top dollar for great seats down front, and then someone comes and dances in front of them all night, they have a right to be irritated.

But our music has lot of groove in it, and we are also glad that it makes many people want to dance. The aspect of dance becoming foreign in jazz is unfortunate in my opinion, and we love to see people dancing to our music. We just hope that they don't hurt themselves dancing on the odd meters!

C: Are there plans for this or any other incarnation of the Flecktones beyond this tour?

BF: There are no plans for what comes next. That doesn't mean that there won't be a next, just that we haven't talked about it yet. There is something about not knowing if or when we will play again next that makes this experience very precious to us and our audience. We have all committed 11 months to this and that is all we know for sure.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones play Thursday, July 21, at the Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield Ave., $34, 18+