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Béla Fleck and the Flecktones: Music making & humanity at its finest

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There's nothing like what happens when families coming as two and three generations to a concert and, in a crowd of a thousand plus, feeling intimately connected with the performers on stage. Clowes Hall was alive with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, a combination of Jam Band, Jazz fusion, straight-up Jazz, progressive Bluegrass, straight up Bluegrass, Bossa Nova, Classical licks. Nov. 24, 2019, the full-house audience at Clowes Memorial Hall at Butler was alive with music and a sense of being in the presence of what a caring community can bring forth. Starting at 6 p.m., wrapping up 3 1/2 hours later, nothing they played was what I recalled hearing on their previous award-winning albums, but the charisma and style live were quintessentially theirs. 

The Flecktones formed in 1988, with the accolade "groundbreaking quartet," when banjoist Béla Fleck was invited to perform on the PBS TV series The Lonesome Pine Specials, featuring an eclectic mix of virtuosic performances and filmed live at the Kentucky Center For The Arts, In Louisville, Kentucky, for airing on Kentucky Educational Television and PBS. You can find this premiere on YouTube and at www.ket.org/series/KLNSP/, with a youthful photo version of the original, and continuing lineup: banjoist Bela Fleck, Howard Levy on piano and harmonica, bassist Victor Wooten, and percussionist/Drumitarist Roy "Future Man" Wooten, also adept on the Zendrum and SynthAxe, and with Vocals.

Fleck was invited to form his "dream band" for what was supposed to be a one-off performance billed as "Bela Fleck and the Jazz Ensemble." Levy and the Wootens soon became Flecktones, with the original lineup lasting until Levy's departure in 1992. Saxophonist Jeff Coffin was a Flecktone between 1998 and 2010, at which point Levy rejoined the group.

On their 1996 Warner Bros. Records Inc. album, "Bela Fleck & the Flecktones Live Art," Fleck wrote: "The experience of playing improvised music in front of an audience is very special. We find ourselves able to do things live that we could never do in any other setting. The audience is the catalyst that creates energy and often causes magic to happen. The night's concert is theirs only—these notes will never be played again just this way…And that's what live music is about—one moment in time, shared by the artists on stage and the people in the room." 

Throughout 2019, the band has been touring North America to celebrate their 30th anniversary. The news release for the Butler concert offered this summary by Fleck: 

"The band is a creative idealistic project, one that somehow connects with people in a profound way. Nothing about that has changed in 30 years. We've balanced our lives out with families and other musical partnerships, though nothing has changed about our camaraderie or our meaning to each other. It is one of the great musical and personal relationships of our lives."

Fleck then responded to an email Q-A.

Kohn: I'm remembering a previous Bela Fleck concert at Clowes and the impact of the program…

FLECK: Gosh - there have been several! From early Flecktones shows to the African musicians of Throw Down Your Heart, to the string Quartet Brooklyn Rider collaboration, and others. Bulter has been very supportive of my odd music!

Kohn: What is special about returning to Clowes Hall at this time?

FLECK: Hey we're still grooving on this Flecktones thing after over 30 years. Who would have thunk it? We're all happy that we're getting back together to share our history and check in on the present.

Kohn: Maintaining a 30-year following speaks to the durability and humanity of your work. What, from your point of view, is the generational link over time?

FLECK: I would say that the music still sounds pretty fresh, and there have not been a lot of imitation out there. We're a pretty hard band to copy, honestly. I think the fact that we like each other is a big driver in our continued relationship. We enjoy exploring this crazy music we created together. It's still got lots of life and opportunity to be creative with.

Kohn: Story is what touches us on different levels. What in your story becomes transformational for us and grows us into a more caring person for the good of our planet, our humanity?

FLECK: For some folks, we can be inspiring in terms of sticking with one's dreams, whether others believe they are possible or not. Staying focused on a goal can bring it to life. But it takes a strong will. Just like the strong will, we are going to need to turn the environment around and make the world safe for future generations. We've got our work cut out for us in terms of these bigger goals. In the microcosm, we can be sure we are treating each other, our audience, and all the people we cross paths with - with respect.

Thanks for the support over the years. I'm proud to be coming back with Howard Levy, Victor Wooten, and Future Man. I predict sparks!

Indeed, there were sparks.

Independently, you can find members of the Flecktones, and other players associated with Bela Fleck, appearing at The Jazz Kitchen. Watch for announcements at: thejazzkitchen.com

learn more at:

belafleck.com

belafleck.com/event/bela-fleck-the-flecktones-54/

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(1) comment

JILL DITMIRE

Many of the musicians I interview for WFYI's Small Studio Sessions comment on the positive influences and inspiration they have gained from Fleck and his music.

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