To read Béla’s descriptions of each album, click on the CD title. To purchase an album click on the album cover.
I moved to Boston late in 1976 to play in my first full time professional band. This was a touring band, and gave me my first experience of existing in a band situation. I liked it a lot. We toured all over New England, and sometimes even went south to DC, Kentucky and Tennessee. The first album was pretty progressive, and it was my first time making a record.
Making my first solo album was a dream come true for me. I had quite a lot that I wanted to say, but didn’t really know how to work the medium that well yet. The band I was able to assemble included some heroes who later became virtually family to me – Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush.Mark Schatz and Pat Enright already were (see Anchored To The Shore). Russ was also a big hero for his tone and melodic depth, and his involvement in some of my favorite music with Country Cooking, Tony Trischka, and Russ’s own albums, and I greatly admired Bob Applebaum’s jazz mandolin work. I wanted to show my commitment to bluegrass, and my interest in jazz on this recording, and also that I loved to write tunes.
Tasty Licks had undergone a major face lift, with Pat and Mark now in the band. Pat being such a strong traditional singer and guitar player, we embraced the opportunity to go in that direction. He taught me so much…At the point when the band was ready to disband, we decided to go and record every tune we had, before hanging it all up. It took us 5 hours to record this album.
When Tasty Licks disbanded in 1981, Mark Schatz and I spent a summer playing in the street in Harvard Square. Then an opportunity presented itself for us to move to Kentucky and play with Jimmy and Glenn, a couple of excellent musicians who had played in one of JD Crowe’s great bands. Jimmy was also in the Country Gentlemen, and the Second Generation among other groups. I was particularly keen to avoid being pegged as simply a wild northern banjoist, and wanted the experience of being part of JD’s world. JD is still one of the most powerful traditional banjo players, although his bands have certainly had progressive elements. Being in this band gave me the opportunity to live in his town and get to know and study him, and connect with the bluegrass community in Lexington and Louisville, generally focusing in on the traditional side. Ironically, Spectrum was not really a trad band at all, although we maintained some of JD’s template. We did lots of originals, swing, offbeat instrumentals, and pop covers, as well as some bluegrass standards.
Fiddle Tunes For Banjo - with Tony Trischka and Bill Keith, an album celebrating the long tradition of playing fiddle tunes on the 5-string banjo. Featured Russ Barenberg, Andy Statman, Sam Bush, and others - Rounder.
While I was living in Lexington, Ky. the idea of this record came into being. I recorded my tracks at Lemco, with the legendary Cecil Taylor, and took the chance to play some lead guitar as well, something I never did again in a bluegrass context. My elbow never liked it when I flat picked so I gradually had to let it go. I was proud to be on a record with these two banjo icons, who were both massive influences on me. Tony and Bill and I recorded a track together at my folks house, which I’m really glad about. I wish we had done more together, now.
Natural Bridge - featuring Mark O'Connor, David Grisman, Mike Marshall and Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and others. - Rounder.
This album started out with a different plan altogether, which was to reunite David Grisman and Tony Rice from DGQ for some tracks with me. Mark O’Connor was excited to be back on fiddle, since he was playing guitar full time with David at the time. But it was just too soon to get David and Tony back together, and the session self combusted on the night before Schatz and I were to fly out west to record. We went back to the drawing board, Darol Anger came on fiddle, O’Connor went over to guitar and also did some spectacular double fiddling with Darol. Grisman played and Mike Marshall guested. It turned out the way it was supposed to, and I still love the tracks we recorded.
Having become pretty good friends at this point with Jerry Douglas, he floated the idea that we make our records with similar bands, at the same time, in a studio in Ashland City, Tn. He recorded his album Tennessee Fluxedo, while I recorded the remaining tracks for Natural Bridge with Jerry, Sam Bush, Jimmy Gaudreau, Mark Schatz and David Parmely.
It's Too Hot For Words - Spectrum with Jimmy Mattingly, Mark Schatz, Glenn Lawson, and Jimmy Gaudreau. - Rounder.
This was our second studio record. A cool young fiddle player had turned up, named Jimmy Mattingly, so we made him drive our turtle topped van late at night at high speeds through Kentucky, in order to toughen him up. Later he got his revenge by scoring an amazing gig as Garth Brooks’ fiddle player for many years.
The Dreadful Snakes - Jerry Douglas, Pat Enright, Blaine Sprouse, Mark Hembree, Roland White - Traditional Bluegrass Music - Rounder.
Having moved to Nashville to join New Grass Revival, after Jerry promoted me as a possible new band member to Sam Bush, I was also excited about the idea of playing some trad grass with Jerry and my old friend Pat Enright. We had a jam at the Station Inn with these personnel. I sent a cassette of the show to Rounder on a lark, and they got excited about this all star bluegrass mash-up. We barely ever played live, but it sure was a cool album.
This was recorded on tour in Japan, and released after we had split up. I love the album cover – us guys surrounded by Japanese school kids, all of them wearing the same black outfits. We covered a hit Japanese song on this album, and played our stuff with Jimmy Mattingly still on board. He didn’t get to drive here.
Double Time - duets with David Grisman, Mark O'Connor, Tony Rice , Mark Schatz, Sam Bush, Pat Flynn, John Hartford, Ricky Skaggs, Edgar Meyer, and Mike Marshall - Rounder.
Around the end of 1983, New Grass was taking a break, while Sam Bush recovered from a medical situation. I drove from Nashville to San Francisco, and got to record and hang out with Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, David Grisman and Tony Rice. My dream of playing with Dawg and Tony came true at the Great American Music Hall, where we did a benefit for Sam. When I got home, I made recordings with all the Nashville folks, which included Edgar Meyer’s recording debut.
Live - New Grass Revival - Sam Bush, Pat Flynn and John Cowan - Live concert from Toulouse, France. - Sugar Hill.
We had the opportunity to play an amazing festival in Toulouse – several times actually. This festival was well promoted and it was a huge success. One year when we came, they put my likeness on billboards all over town. My head swelled up almost as big as the billboards. I remember our friends in Hot Rize were always there, and one year the Seldom Scene came. John Duffy and Mike Auldridge insisted on going to MacDonalds every day – in Toulouse France where they have the greatest food in the world! Anyhow – we recorded this record there at the festival and mixed it at the Honky Tonk Chateau.
Inroads - solo album featuring Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Pat Flynn, Kirby Shelstad, Mark O'Connor, John Cowan, Timothy Britton, Edgar Meyer - Rounder.
At this point, I was eager to play some of the music I was writing that wasn’t really appropriate for the bluegrass lineup of instruments. I put together a band called ‘Banjo Jazz’ that played occasionally in Nashville when I was off the road. We went on one or two very short tours, but it was just too tough to make touring happen, and the band parted. Many of the tunes on Inroads feature ‘Banjo Jazz’. Vibes was an unusual instrument to combine with banjo. I also had New Grass Revival together for track called Four Wheel Drive, and some other great cameos.
This was our major label debut. Capitol Records signing a band like us in Nashville was a pretty much unheard of development. Now were walking the line, trying to figure out how to completely be ourselves and still crack the top 40 country music charts. It was a tough line to walk. But we made a lot of headway and a lot of new friends during the course of the next 4 years.
Our second album on Capitol, we were continuing to thread the needle – and burn up the roads.
Drive - Béla Fleck Bluegrass project featuring Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Mark O'Connor, Tony Rice and Mark Schatz - Rounder.
Following Deviation and Inroads, both fairly modern and forward leaning albums, it seemed like a good time to reconnect to my roots. After guesting on Tony Rice’s Cold on the Shoulder album, I was convinced that an instrumental band that included Tony, Sam and Jerry would be able to take my tunes – and the music in general – to an amazing new place. And I wasn’t wrong. Mark Schatz was the perfect choice for bass, Stuart Duncan and Mark O’Connor alternated on the fiddle duties and played together on a couple of tunes as well. Stuart was a brand new face in Nashville, and I loved his deep connection to an older rootsy way of playing – yet his playing is packed with startling invention. Mark continued to be what Alan O’Bryant once called the ‘Mount St Helens’ of the fiddle, with an unrelenting flood of mind boggling ideas. Having both of them was just awesome. We cut this album over a three day weekend. I remember starting on Friday and finishing on Sunday, but I could be wrong. Everything seemed to happen by itself. Ironically this album didn’t sell much at the time, although it did get a grammy nomination, it didn’t seem to be highly recognized in the Bluegrass world. However as time has gone on, this album has become one of the special ones that people still talk about. If anyone asks me what bluegrass oriented project of mine they should check out out first – it’s always Drive.
This was our final album as a band. I’m really proud of what we were able to achieve together. We may not have rung the bell at the top of the charts, but we made music that was strong and true, and so many people loved it.
The Telluride Sessions - Strength In Numbers - with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor - MCA.
After Edgar Meyer moved to town, he invited Mark 0′Connor, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and myself to play on his first solo recording (which I co-produced), called Unfolding. We did a set at a downtown street festival called Summer Lights with this band that really surprised all of us. It wasn’t only the music, which was different than anything any of us had done or heard before, but the audience reaction was stunning. I mentioned the combo to the folks at Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where most of us already had considerable profile. We took over the slot that was typically the festival jam set and played all of our tunes together to another amazing reception. This led to us recording ‘The Telluride Sessions’, which occurred in Nashville. Edgar Meyer, using his prodigious mathematical skills – or maybe it was Mark – figured out that if we each cowrote a tune with each other member of the group, it would come out to 10 tunes and be an equal compositional collaboration. So that’s what we did. We recorded for 7 days, if I remember correctly. And we recorded the tunes in the order that they appear on the record.
Béla Fleck And The Flecktones - the first Flecktones album. Howard Levy, Victor Wooten and Future Man - Warner Brothers.
While Strength and New Grass Revival were both active and thriving, I was up to my own solo mischief. I had met Howard Levy in Chicago when he sat in with Jethro Burns – who was opening up shows for New Grass at Holstein’s. Howard was a shockingly good harmonica player, who I later found out was equally incredible on piano. We really connected at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, where we stayed up all night jamming. When Victor Wooten called me up one day and played the bass over the phone for me, it was equally impressive. He came by and we had a thrilling first jam. Into the equation arrived an offer from Dick Van Kleek, who ran the Lonesome Pine Specials TV series up in Louisville. Having already had New Grass, and Strength in Numbers up to perform, he offered me a chance to head my own show, and let me put together a ‘dream band’ for it. I immediately thought of Howard and Victor. Victor told me about his unique brother, soon to be known as Future Man, and FM rounded out the ensemble with his forward thinking drum invention, sensitive musicianship and unusual concepts. After a surprisingly strong first gig – on TV, we decided to record; I self financed the recording. I thought it was time to make a break from Rounder, and attempt to get into the majors, as several of my friends already had. After making the recording, and hearing it back – I realized that I had come to a turning point in the road, and this this was a unique chance to play my new music, and step completely outside of the bluegrass world. The right musicians only fall into place once in a blue moon, and I knew this one one of those times. I gave something like 8 months notice to New Grass Revival, and Warner Brothers picked up the album. The die was cast.
The Flecktones hit the road hard in 1990, now that I was no longer in NGR. Everyday at soundcheck, we worked on new ideas – so we had lots of music to record when the time came. We played the new tunes live and developed them in front of an audience, which always helped us to know when we had the arrangement right. These days we don’t do that so much. The first rough version gets so widely distributed, and people assume that it’s the final version and not a rough draft, and might judge the tune on that first run-through. Back then, the internet was newer and the downside of playing brand new music and letting people pass it around it hadn’t occurred to me. You don’t get to reveal a brand new record, when everyone already knows and has recordings of all the tunes. And they might even prefer the live early version, which is frustrating! Would Picasso put his first draft version out, or wait til he finished the painting? Moot point, we’re not Picasso. We also asked the crowd for ideas for titles, and ended up with a shopping bag full of handwritten suggestions after every show. We went through them on the bus. One day the title ‘Flight of the Codeine Hippo’ popped up on a slip of paper, and we all thought that was pretty funny – and actually sounded like the song. But we didn’t want to have drugs in the titles of our songs, not even a drug that was legal in Canada. So we let that one go. Some time later, the idea of the Cosmic Hippo occurred to me, and although at first we worried that it might be too Disney, it stuck. One of our bus driver used to always say – I like the album with the pig on it. What are you gonna do?
I wrote a tune on a bus in Europe, and showed it to the guys. In those days if we had a couple of days off, we’d find a place to set up and practice. So knowing we had a day off coming, I was looking for something challenging to throw into the guy’s greedy creative maws. We were all way into Baby Gramps’ song ‘Palindromes, Palindromes, where do you roam’, which Howard turned us on to. The song had some amazing long palindromes that went way beyond the perennials like ‘Live Evil’, UFO TOFU, or even ‘Eva, can I stab bats in a cave?’. I strongly recommend that you check this song out. After I played Gramps for Chick Corea, he remarked that if he could sing, he’d want to sing like Baby Gramps. Anyway, I wondered what it might be like to take a long complicated musical line and play it forward and backwards – a musical palindrome. The guys were into the idea, and we planted several palindromes in the piece. One was a simple riff, played in both directions. One was the actual form of the piece, where the order of the sections was a palindrome too. And one was a minute long tongue twister of a line that was very challenging to play. We enjoyed that sort of thing.
Tony and I were both cheerleading the idea of a solo banjo album to Rounder. But it seemed silly and competitive to both do one at the same time. So we decided to play solo together. He did a half hour or so, and I did the same. And we met in the middle playing a couple of quick duets to pass off the ball. One was an improv called Killer Bees on Caffeine. I believe it was Pat Flynn’s title. I stole it. No one will ever know.
Three Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - the fourth Flecktones – Trio album with Victor Lemonte Wooten and Future Man plus guests Branford Marsalis and Bruce Hornsby - Warner Brothers.
At the end of 1992 after 3 nonstop years of intense touring, Howard Levy decided to leave the group. It was a tough moment, and we didn’t know if we could survive his departure, at the time. We mulled over a variety of options, and ended up going with the idea of trying the band as a trio. What could we do with less, and how could the three of us be more? We locked ourselves into my back room for a month of serious practicing and reinvention. After that, we went down to ST Thomas and did a residency at Barnacle Bill’s, where we got free pizza and a chance to try out the new material in a secluded area. The trio was a really strong period of growth for the three of us. Instead of handing all the complicated sections of songs to Howard to deal with, we had to find ways to solo through or arrange them on our own, and we got better at it. The fans accepted the change in the band, and it didn’t seem to impact our success. If anything,our audience continued to grow steadily. And though Howard was missed, I don’t remember anyone telling us they were disappointed in the trio; some folks still tell me it was their favorite period. In the studio, we did mostly trio stuff, but used the space to justify adding two of our favorite musicians as guests, Branford Marsalis and Bruce Hornsby, both of whom made wonderful contributions to our music.
Tales From The Acoustic Planet - a solo project featuring Chick Corea, Sam Bush, Bruce Hornsby, Edgar Meyer, Branford Marsalis, Jerry Douglas, Paul McCandless, Tony Rice, Matt Munde, Victor Wooten and Future Man - Warner Brothers.
My deal with Warner Brothers included the option for occasional solo albums, and it felt like it was time to exercise it. I decided to bring the acoustic side of things back to front and center, and I loved the idea of an Acoustic Planet. I wasn’t quite sure what it actually was, but it resonated. Just as we released the album, we received word that guitarist Craig Chaquico was putting out an album with the same name. I wasn’t prepared to change titles at this point and we decided to go with it anyway. I don’t think we impacted each other in any way, looking back – so we made the right decision. One highlight of this recording was the first chance to record with my hero Chick Corea, in LA. In one day we cut a track with Chick and Edgar, a duet with me and Chick, a trio with Branford and Edgar and a track with Chick, Branford, Future Man and Victor, called Backwoods Galaxy (which I guess could have been a good alternate album title actually, but maybe too Flecktone’y for my solo project). We were done recording by 3 pm… I also used this album as a way to sniff out some possible collaborators for the Flecktone’s future. Paul McCandless was a guy I was particularly interested in, and he came and played beautifully. Matt Munde from Aquarium Rescue Unit was brought in to play mandolin on some stuff after Sam Bush broke his arm playing football, I think. Tony Rice played, Bruce Hornsby and Stuart Duncan and Jerry Douglas and Edgar came too. As time went on Paul, Sam, Bruce, Stuart and Edgar all did shows guesting with the Flecktones. Paul and Sam did over a year with us each.
Live Art - Béla Fleck & the Flecktones - the double live album - includes many guests - Warner Brothers.
The band was realizing the strength of our live show at this point. We had had so many amazing guests sit in,and people always told us that they felt the live show was preferable to the records. As hard as we worked on making records we could be proud of, something happened on stage that we could not get to happen in the studio environment. So we decided to go thru our archives and put together an impossible and cosmic live show that was careened from year to year with no regard for linear timelines. We pulled tracks from the Howard days, the trio days, from a show where we did Acoustic Planet music at the Ryman Theatre with Chick Corea, John Cowan singing with us at Telluride, and Bruce Hornsby sitting in in Louisville. We also scheduled and recorded a 5 day tour with Sam and Paul together. I had learned a lot about digital editing in the making of Tales from the Acoustic Planet, and I knew that the cost of completing a live album in the studio from 100 plus shows was cost prohibitive. We could’t afford to do it. That’s when Warner Brothers bought us a Pro Tools rig. The home studio revolution hadn’t happened yet, but it sure was about to. When I realized what kind of control I could have by making records at home, I never looked back. Noone was going to tell me that we were out of time, or that the budget didn’t allow for us to make our record properly ever again. I went through all these shows at home, and picked out the performances, and we edited and mixed them there. One interesting story – I had fallen in love with a track we did in Louisville with Bruce Hornsby sitting in with the band. But we couldn’t find the multi tracks that were recorded at the performance – just a rough board mix. Richard Battaglia, my sound man/road manager since 1982 felt sure that they had been given to him, but he could not for the life of him figure out where they were. He even went to a psychic who told him that they were safe, and in a dark place. They turned out to be under his desk in a lock box he had forgotten about. We got them just in time to mix and still make it onto the record. The song was More Love. Another interesting item – Warners did not want to count this recording as part of our deal, citing the fact that live albums don’t typically sell. We fought that, saying that it should count, because live was what people always said they wanted to hear from us, and what if it was a big success? Not counting it would mean they got an additional album beyond the ones we’d been contracted for, and now we were worth a lot more than we were when the deal was struck. So it was in our interest to get thru the deal and either renegotiate or move to another label. The album went on to be one of our biggest sellers, with well over 200,000 sold.
Tabula Rasa - with V.M. Bhatt, Jie-Bing Chen, Ronu Majumdar, Poovalur Srinivasan and Sangeeta Shankar - Water Lily Acoustics.
I was aware of a beautiful recording called Meeting By The River, which featured the meeting of Indian slide guitarist V.M. Bhatt with Ry Cooder. A while later V. M. Bhatt made another lovely recording with Edgar Meyer and Jerry Douglas. These recordings were done in a church in Santa Barbara, and recorded with amazing fidelity to analog tape on one stereo mike. The musicians were arranged around that mike until the correct balance was achieved and all the reverb came from the amazing room that the recording was done in. Th genius behind this was a burmese cat named Kavi Alexander. When he invited me to join the illustrious list of musicians who had recorded there, I suggested that we bring in some other elements along with V. M. Bhatt. We brought in a brilliant chinese er-hu player named Jeibing Chen, and we utilized some of the other musicians traveling with Bhatt on tour, Ronu and Sangeeta. Also on board was a great mridungum player named Srinivas. I love this project, perhaps it’s the sleeper – a favorite unsung album in my discography.
My pal Edgar Meyer was making recordings for Sony Classical at this time. He had done the marvelous Yo Yo Ma and Mark O’Connor collaboration, Appalacian Waltz, and was now looking for a new setting to explore. We had talked about working together again, and loved the idea of playing with our friend Mike Marshall in a trio format. Edgar was the first to say that this would function as a band, as well as a solo project for him, and Mike and I were both happy with the plan. We all wrote music for the project, and Edgar steered the ship. This is where my composition Big Country first saw the light of day. We did some significant touring with this group, and it developed into a very special recording and live experience. It’s a very acoustically satisfying recording and has elements of classical composition blended in with whatever the heck it is that you call the stuff me and Mike and Edgar like to do.
Flecktone time once again! Now that we had connected with Jeff Coffin, a fantastic multi instrumentalist who excelled on saxophones, flutes, and bass clarinet, we stuck his shaved head on the cover of the album and we stood on it. He grew to like that over the new 14 years, or at least he said he did! This was our first album with Jeff, and he brought a hard edged funkiness to the band. We were back with a fresh sound, and it was the beginning of new glory days for us. At this point our friendship had kindled with Dave Mathews Band. We were opening piles of shows for them, and we sat in with DMB on all of them. I had found myself writing some songs with lyrics, and this was a new development that I didn’t know quite what to make of. But Future Man has a great voice and was into trying some of these out. Of course there was a significant backlash, from folks that thought we were selling out. Well, we wouldn’t have minded some widespread pop acclaim, but if we really wanted it badly enough, we probably shouldn’t have had Dave Mathews sit in on such an odd song, in such a strange meter. At any rate, along with the sometimes maligned vocal songs, we had some classic Flecktone instrumentals, such as Sojourn of Arjuna, Big Country and shanti, and the new sounds of Jeff Coffin loud in the mix.
Tales from the Acoustic Planet Vol 2, the Bluegrass Sessions - Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements, John Hartford, Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Mark Schatz, Stuart Duncan - Warner Brothers.
It had been over 10 years since the making of the Drive album, and by now it was a very highly regarded album. Every time I saw Tony Rice he’d say in that scratchy voice of his – “Hey man, when are we making ‘Drive Two’?” I wasn’t into calling it Drive Two, but I was sure into playing that kind of music again with those guys. Warners was dubious about a bluegrass recording, but I convinced them it would be something awesome, and they let me have my head. I pointed out that bluegrass was really coming on strong these days. And in fact it was proving to be a very vital form, with a place in the modern world. And this was not going to be your grampa’s bluegrass. I wanted to write some new music that would bring some different ideas to bluegrass, and take advantage of my experiences outside of the music over the last decade, to inform a new perspective. I was very aware that the movers and shakers in jazz were all influenced by music outside of it, and whenever there was a big shift, it was because outside influences had enriched the form. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane are two great examples of people bringing ideas from outside that changed the flow of the mainstream. I liked the idea that I should not be afraid or ashamed of all my time away from Bluegrass, but should find a way to use the time away to grow fresh ideas. So I wrote with all of this in mind. When we recorded this album, in my home in Belview,Tn, we were lucky enough to have Earl Scruggs, John Hartford and Vassar Clements join the core band of Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Mark Schatz and Stuart Duncan. There is a great Austin City Limits TV special which features everyone but Tony, who wasn’t available for the tour. We substituted the very capable Bryan Sutton and did a ton of wonderful live shows, in which we played everyone’s music, but with a focus on the album.
Record Labels like selling the same music over and over if they can, so they put reissue options into the contracts. The artist tries to put it off as long as possible, and then try to make sure that when it does happen, he likes the way it’s done. Warners allowed us to choose the tracks for the best of. I liked the title “Greatest Hits of the 20th Century’, because we never have had a single actual hit. So it was supposed to be a joke title, but nobody ever got it. We did take a pair of unfinished tracks and complete them so there could be some fresh material on here as well, for anyone who didn’t realize they were buying previously released tracks. Mostly the album contained the essential tunes that everyone wanted to hear from us, except for the two new tracks, which really had no place on a ‘best of album’. Jim McGuire’s album cover shot is great.
What a difference a year makes. We had moved to Sony Records, after a bidding war between three major labels. Sony had the bonus aspect of being a place where I could record on the classical side for Peter Gelb, who worked with Edgar. At this time Branford Marsalis was heading up the Jazz side, and we also had the commitment for some pop marketing for the Flecktones, so it seemed like a pretty good fit all the way around. We decided that more is more, and we added a pile of special guests to the line up for this album. They included Paul McCandless, Paul Hansen, Dave Mathews, John Anderson from Yes, throat singer Kongar-ol Ondar, Sandip Burman on tablas and Andy Narel on Steel Pans. Future Man sang a couple of vocals on this album, and we were getting better at that, I believe. But vocals were just a piece of the puzzle, not the center of what we were about.
Perpetual Motion - Classical music with Joshua Bell, Evelyn Glennie, John Williams, Edgar Meyer, Gary Hoffman and Chris Thile, - Sony Classical.
This CD was my chance to learn and perform true classical pieces on the banjo. Pieces by Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Debussy, Scarlatti and Paganini were included. Edgar helped me with the production and the arrangements. And I was able to play with some of the top classical musicians on the scene, partly due to Edgar’s involvement. This was one of those projects that did not come easy for me. I had to fight for it. These pieces can all be played on the banjo, but they use every bit of the banjo’s range, and I had to come up with specific new techniques to deal with trills, and other ornaments. In the end it was well worth the time spent, and this album made a lot of noise, even winning a couple of grammies in the classical field.
Live at the Quick - Béla Fleck & the Flecktones - Victor Lemonte Wooten, Future Man and Jeff Coffin, with Paul McCandless, Paul Hansen, Sandip Burman, Andy Narell, and Kongar-ol Ondar - Columbia.
The idea that we should make a live DVD came about through the support of an old friend of mine from New Grass days, Joanne Gardner. She was now the head of video for Sony Records. Without Joanne, this project would never happened, and certainly not on the level that it did. DVDs were starting to move more than CDs now, which were stalling. Honestly the Outbound CD sales had been kind of disappointing after all the hoopla about signing to Sony. This project appealed to me because it was a way for us to bring more attention to that music, which really hadn’t been that widely heard. So we did the Live at The Quick DVD at the Quick Center in Fairfield, Ct with our instrumental guests and Kongar-ol Ondar from the Outbound CD. We called it the Flecktone Big Band, and had 9 people on stage. Marc Smerling directed, and he did a great job. The DVD did very well internationally, and a live album culled from this performances did nearly as well as Outbound. So in the end, that music got it’s due and made it out into the world quite well.
Little Worlds - Béla Fleck & the Flecktones with the Chieftains, Bobby McFerrin and many other guests - Sony.
We started recorded stuff for this and before we knew it we had way more than we needed for an album. Sony folks came down from New York to give it a listen and said – ‘hey why don’t you put it all out?’ I wasn’t expecting this response from a label, especially with what was starting to happen to record sales, so I said yes before they could change their mind! But if it was going to be triple album, maybe we should invite some friends in, to make it more diverse. That led to a lot of new and old friends taking part in what became more of a community release. Bobby McFerrin, The Chieftians and Derek Trucks, are a few of our new friends. We did put out the triple CD, but just to play it safe, also put out the single 10 from Little Worlds, which was the only one that lots of stores ordered. I imagine the triple CD is a bit of a collector’s item at this point. One other fun item was the manufactured comedy conversation that we assembled between Yankee’s center fielder Bernie Williams, and David St Hubbins (actually Micheal McKean) from Spinal Tap. They are driving around flipping the stations, and hear all this different crappy music before they find the opening track of the recording. All the bands you hear as they flip around the stations are us,and we’re playing altered and dumb versions of the songs on the record – as a heavy metal band, a country band, a madrigal vocal group, etc. We thought we were being really cagy and smart by making an introduction that could only be found by starting the first track and then holding the rewind tab on the CD player til it got to the beginning of the intro. It was called a hidden track; these were popular at the time. Now I think it was really stupid because nobody every heard the darn thing and it was a lot of fun to make. I have only a few regrets about the records I have made, and this is one of them. We should have started the record with this, loud and proud.
Edgar and I decided it was time to play together some more, and this time as a duo. My little brother Sascha got tapped to road manager the tour, and he agreed only on the condition that he be allowed to film a documentary about us, and not a puff piece, either. In fact he promised to make us look bad. We needed him so bad as road manager that we accepted his terms. For anyone who picked this CD up, hidden under the CD was Sascha’s film Obstinato, which is absolutely great and delivers on his promise to make us look bad. The first time I saw it, I was scowling watching it until I realized everyone else watching was laughing uproariously. Oh – it’s a comedy!
The Sparrow Quartet (EP) - Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet (with Casey Driessen and Ben Sollee) - Nettwerk Records.
This project came out of a trip to China I took with my girlfriend at the time (now we are married) Abigail Washburn. She invited three musicians to China to play with her, Ben Sollee, Casey Driessen and myself. We knew it would be a weird line-up for a band, but since we were in China perhaps noone would notice! And really we were there to experience China, and have fun together, not to start a band. But when we got there and started playing, we realized that the bizarre string quartet combo of cello, violin and two banjos was actually a viable offering. We recorded this EP just for the heck of it, to show what it sounded like, and to see what people thought about it.
I was standing around backstage at the Newport Jazz Festival, where I was playing with Stanley Clarke and Jean Luc Ponty, when Ted Kurland walked up to chat. He mentioned that next year, my hero Chick Corea was looking to tour in a duo format, and I was on the list of possible collaborators. That was an exciting conversation, and I was thrilled at the idea of spending that kind of time making music with Chick. We started sending music to each other on line, and finally met to record in LA at Mad Hatter. We ran through a few things on the night before the session at the hotel, and that was the whole rehearsal. The album was recorded in just a few days, and immediately mixed. This was the first time since Drive that I had made an album so fast and with so little rehearsal. And it turned out great. Then we went out on tour, and did a lot of live dates where we got deeper into the music – and the spontaneity that is possible in an intimate setting like this. We’ll be doing some select dates in 2014. And we intend to release a live album in the not too distant future. This album won a Latin Grammy.
Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet - Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet (with Casey Driessen and Ben Sollee) - Nettwerk Records.
The jury was in, and our unholy combo of instruments was actually endearing; the Sparrow Quartet EP had been well loved, and we all loved playing and hanging out together. We decided to go for it, to make a real record and go out on tour with it. This was no longer a side project but now a full on band, and we took our time to make the record we wanted to make (in my basement). A lot of creativity and invention went into the creation of this one. I love it.
Jingle All The Way - Béla Fleck & the Flecktones - Victor Lemonte Wooten, Future Man, Jeff Coffin, Edgar Meyer, Andy Statman and The Alash Group - Rounder.
This album was on the bucket list for the Flecktones. We’d started doing Xmas medleys way back in 1989, on our first real tour, before New Grass Revival even disbanded. We thought that making a holiday recording could be a very creative endeavor, and didn’t have to be smarmy, tacky or cheap. It was pretty weird practicing these songs at sound checks in the heat of July. Our road crew nearly mutinied while we attempted to learn to play our Christmas medley, in which we experimented with the idea of playing multiple tunes simultaneously as counterpoint. It took a lot of time and repetition to figure out how to make them all work together – which just sounded to the crew like we were just playing these tunes over and over and over and over. In the end we figured out how to lay 5 or 6 of these tunes on top of each other, which we were excited about. The crew was excited when we stopped. I found a lovely Bach Christmas Cantata, which gave us the excuse to invite Edgar to play one of the lines with us, and play on another couple of tunes as well. Around this time we were contacted by a band of Tuvan ThroatSingers, The Alash Group. They were all highly influenced by our friend Kongar-ol Ondar, who appeared on Live at the Quick and Outbound. They were coming through Nashville and wanted to meet the Flecktones, as they were big fans of Live at the Quick DVD. After listening to their recording, and knowing how much the guys were into throat singing (Jeff, Futch and Vic had all learned the rudiments and could even do it, somewhat) I suggested that we add them in, as an unusual element for our holiday album. The other odd duck guest was Andy Statman, one of the giants of klezmer music and modern bluegrass. I knew him from when he played a lot with my teacher Tony Trischka, and I was looking for ways to play with this musical iconoclast. So he played mandolin and clarinet on a couple of tunes as well. A piece on the album that we worked very hard on was The 12 days of Christmas. We came up with the idea of playing in all 12 keys and 12 time signatures. This was fairly tough to figure out how to do, but eventually the piece surrendered to us and it really came together well. We’ve been told that this is a christmas album for people that hate christmas albums.
Throw Down Your Heart, Tales From The Acoustic Planet vol 3 - Africa Sessions Oumou Sangare, Toumani Diabate, Vusi Mahlesela, Anania Ngoliga, Bassekou Kouate, D'Gary, and many more - Rounder Records.
In 2005 the Flecktones had decided to take a year off, for the first time since we had started full time touring in 1990. I was thinking about projects that I’d want to do that I didn’t have time to do properly in a typical Flecktone year. I had long dreamed about the idea of going to Africa, where the banjo originally came from, and connecting with the acoustic musicians that I knew were there. It wasn’t til I heard Oumou Sangare’s music wafting from the back of the Flecktones bus one night after a show that the idea took hold in a serious way. I went to the back to investigate the remarkable sounds that Jeff Coffin was playing on his computer, and I fell in love. Not with Jeff, with Oumou! Now I had heard African acoustic music that I could relate to, and imagine myself within, I started thinking seriously about making a trip there on our off year. Folks at Sony got excited about the idea, and insisted that I film it. So I asked my brother Sascha if he’d want to direct a film over there, and he was way into it. We locked in a couple of great engineers (doc sound, and music recording) a great cinematographer and found field producers in each country. The trip was on! Two months before the trip, Sony backed out. Tickets were already bought, everyone was holding the time – it was too late to turn back now. I had to fund the very expensive trip myself. Another side story – a friend of mine had taken on the IRS in a massive battle. I had been subpoenaed as a material witness for the prosecution! And the court date had now been set up for when I was supposed to be in Africa! Lawyers advised me to cancel my trip, as I would become a law breaker if I didn’t show up – and they might lock me up when I came back into the country. I decided to roll the dice and go. At the last minute the trial was postponed and I didn’t go to jail. And neither did my friend. So everything worked out great. We went to Mali, The Gambia, Uganda and Tanzania, and had amazing musical adventures – which we caught on film and audio tape. It became Throw Down Your Heart. I decided that if this wasn’t a Tale from the Acoustic Planet, nothing was! So it also became became Tales From The Acoustic Planet, vol 3.
I had decided against making Throw Down Your Heart into a double album, because I didn’t want that to be the impediment that stopped people who were on the fence from buying the CD. Folks really have to be sure if they are going to buy a double album! So what was I going to do with the incredible tracks that didn’t make the cut? I thought I’d better do something with them while people still were thinking about the first album, so I self released a 2nd album with all the stuff that I’d felt so bad about not including. Honestly these tracks are just as good. I had to pick between 2 great tracks from some of the artists, and some people hadn’t even made the first album, and I regretted it. Imagine my surprise when TDYH part 2 won a grammy for best world music album, just like the first one one did!
The Melody of Rhythm - with Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer, with Detroit Symphony Leonard Slatkin conducting - E1 Records (co-produced with Steve Epstein and Edgar and Zakir).
Edgar and I enlisted Zakir to help us write a triple concerto for the Nashville Symphony’s opening of their brand new world class concert hall, the Schermerhorn Center. Zakir was a guy Ed and I both felt we could learn a lot from, and he proved to be all of that, and a wonderful person as well. We composed The Melody of Rhythm Concerto, and also created 6 trio pieces to go with it, to complete the recording, and give us an excuse to play together – whether we got any symphony gigs or not. We ended up doing tons of trio shows, and a few Symphony dates – the last ones in Mubai and Oman.
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones - Rocket Science, with Victor Lemonte Wooten, Future Man and Howard Levy - E1 Records.
Victor, Future Man and I were getting the urge to Flecktone once again, after a couple of years where we had only played together over the holidays, for the Jingle All The Way tours. But Jeff Coffin had taken a full time job playing with Dave Mathews Band, which we fully supported. We just weren’t working enough to keep him from a great opportunity like that. So how would we do the Flecktones now? We asked Howard Levy if he’d consider coming back, and he was eager to do so. We didn’t want to be an oldies band, so we made a new album and spent nearly a year back together doing full-time touring, playing the music from our first 3 albums with Howard, and this new one. What a great year it was!
The Impostor - Béla Fleck with Nashville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero, and Brooklyn Rider String Quartet - Deutche Grammophon.
After writing two concertos with Edgar Meyer (one in tandem with Zakir Hussain) I was starting to want some room to try out some of my own ideas, and also wondering if I had the stuff to create something like this on my own. I mentioned the idea of writing a stand alone banjo concerto to Alan and Giancarlo from Nashville Symphony, and got a terrifying response. They actually wanted me to do it! This is the most musically ambitious project I’ve ever taken on, writing and orchestrating for full orchestra and banjo. I dedicated myself to the task, and wrote the 36 minute long Impostor Concerto over a 6 month period. Now I needed to complete the album with something else. I decided to write a piece for string quartet and banjo for the great quartet Brooklyn Rider, called Night Flight Over Water; these two extended pieces make up the Impostor CD. The Impostor Concerto was commissioned by the Nashville Symphony, and Night Flight was commissioned by Butler University. I am thrilled that the premiere classical label Deutche Grammophon wanted to release this. There is a documentary about the writing and premiering of the concerto coming out soon.