A few questions with banjoist extraordinaire Béla Fleck
The music industry is in the midst of a banjo renaissance. With the financial and critical success of bands like Mumford and Sons, the Avett Brothers and other pop/folk/country hybrids, the banjo is enjoying its moment in the spotlight and showing its diversity in the music scene.
But for legendary banjo player Béla Fleck, this is nothing new. The 15-time Grammy winner has made a career out of innovative, genre-hopping compositions and collaborations, ranging from pop instrumentals, jazz, country and world music. Now, he's coming to Marcus Center for the Performing Arts on April 2 with renowned pianist and one of Fleck's biggest musical idols, Chick Corea.
We caught up with Fleck via email to ask about performing with one of his biggest inspirations and his recent travels to Africa.
OnMilwaukee.com: When did you and Chick first meet and realize that you wanted to make music together? What drew you to his music?
Béla Fleck: I've been listening to him since 1974, when I heard his song "Spain" in a jazz appreciation class. Then in 1975, I heard him play with Return to Forever at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. My mind was blown and still is by this guy. I am amazed to be performing with him and in such an intimate setting.
OMC: Why did you and Chick decide to team up again to tour together now?
BF: This run came out of nowhere. It started with one-offer to play a single show in St. Louis. We both responded with interest. It kind of brought up the question, "Hey, why aren't we playing together once in a while?"
Once we agreed to that show, other offers flooded in, and we had filled up the window we both had open. So nine shows are being played, and more are now being put together for next year. It would be lovely to get together a few times a year and play a week or two, or even make a new album together at some point.
OMC: How long did you practice and work together on these new duets? Or, since you do a lot of improvisation, how do you practice and make sure these duets will be at performance level?
BF: We had a rehearsal day in Florida before the first show where we touched base on the basic arrangements and rebuilt the framework for improvisations. Basically, we hit all the written sections hard and let our unconscious realize what it needs to do on the improvs. We also worked up a couple of new pieces because we couldn't help it.
OMC: Is it strange or intimidating to perform or work with someone who you also often cite as an influence?
BF: It is surreal and intimidating, but very gratifying. I can't quite believe it every time we take the stage.
OMC: As a banjo player yourself, how do you feel about the new rise in popularity for the banjo in pop/folk music, like the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons?
BF: I think banjo sounds great in lots of the pop variants, so I am happy. I always love playing on pop stuff. It's a great challenge to find the perfect thing for a short format like a song.
OMC: You have been nominated in more Grammy categories than anyone else in history, ranging from jazz, bluegrass, country, pop and even more. What inspires you to take on so many different genres of music?
BF: I guess I'm naturally curious, musically. I don't court Grammy genres or dream up plans to attempt to get into them. After a record is completed, my manager, the record label and I muse about where it might go. It's not a part of the music making process, which is important to me.
OMC: Take me through the creation of your last album, "Throw Down Your Heart." What was the inspiration behind going to Africa and collaborating with performers across multiple African countries?
BF: I knew that the banjo came from Africa, but I wanted to experience what I could in person. And I've become such a fan of the beautiful acoustic music from Africa and imagined how awesome it might be to attempt to fit into it. So my brother Sascha and I put together this trip, and we filmed and recorded the whole thing. It yielded the documentary "Throw Down Your Heart," and two CDs by the same name. The film can be seen on Netflix, or picked up at the show, or there's an extended version that can found on Amazon, put out by New Video.
The other exciting project that I'd like to mention is my concerto and string quintet recording, which will be released in August. These two pieces are my first solo foray into composing for orchestra and string quintet – both with the banjo of course.
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