When you see or hear the word “banjo,” what sort of images and sounds pop into your head? Dingy overalls and square-dancing? A satisfying, yet disturbing, rendition of a Flatt and Scruggs song from the movie “Deliverance?” Well, banish the banjo’s beleaguered stereotypes from your mind and take note of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. They brought their eclectic sound to Campbell Hall last Tuesday, Oct. 9, mixing equal parts musical virtuosity, classical jazz and down-home soul for a transcendent performance.
In a beautiful cosmic irony, Mr. Fleck is a New York native internationally recognized for his amazing skills on the banjo, the iconic Southern bluegrass instrument. His band, the Flecktones, is comprised of Jeff Coffin, Victor Lemonte Wooten and Future Man – who happens to be Victor’s older brother. Coffin is a well-traveled, well-accomplished saxophonist and a master of other wind instruments like the oboe and pan flute. Wooten plays bass so triumphantly that he is often hailed as the best bassist since the legendary Jaco Pastorius; his brother, Future Man, receives nearly equal acclaim for his innovations in percussion, which will be mentioned later.
Together, this unlikely band traverses a dizzying array of musical styles with great ease and grace. The first few songs of their set started off as smooth as country-style sweet tea, full of heady and soothing melodies.
Then Wooten and Fleck showcased a bit of their characteristic humor by dueling a bit in the second song as they squawked strange chords and atonalities at one another to the delight of the audience. Coffin edged in a couple of impressive, swirling flute solos, while Future Man accompanied on an old-school flat top box to complete the folksy tone. Deadpan humor and a peaceful, easy feeling seemed to characterize every member of the band, evidenced especially in the humble charisma of Mr. Fleck himself.
The second set, comprised of many songs from their Grammy Award-winning album “The Hidden Land,” displayed each man’s transitional and technical skill with his instrument. They played an ominous, mystically Eastern song akin to “Bitches Brew” to finish the first part of the performance. Coffin’s use of a strange cymbal, similar in shape to a mortar and pestle, characterized this song and Fleck’s lightning-fast solo finished it off.
Future Man got a chance to prove his namesake in the second set. He utilized a contraption of his own invention – dubbed the “Drumitar” – to play all of the percussion of an extensive drum kit at the touch of his fingers. It looked much like a “Guitar Hero” controller that had been modified by a very creative/intoxicated roommate. Despite the looks of his contraption, Future Man created amazing and thunderous solos, each one prompting a din of applause and leaving many people in the crowd yelling, “Wow.”
To everyone in attendance last Tuesday, it was clear that Bela Fleck and his band redefine not only the conventions of the banjo, but also the conventions of jazz itself in far more ways than one.