The family that picks together sticks together

by Ryan Snyder

It’s closing in on two years since Bela Fleck & the Flecktones stowed their genre-smashing fusion of jazz, funk and bluegrass and went their separate ways, but the units’ individual members are nonetheless remaining productive in their time apart. Howard Levy gave a mesmerizing stream-of-consciousness piano and harmonica recital at the Triad Acoustic Stage one year ago, and Victor and Roy Wooten went deep into their funk and soul origins alongside their brothers Joseph and Regi in Winston-Salem two months ago. This weekend, the Flecktones’ namesake banjo master will complete the spinoff triumvirate with a pair of performances at SECCA alongside his current virtuosic collaborator, and also his wife, banjoist Abigail Washburn. The couple has new company on tour, however, as their infant son Juno quickly began to influence how they perform and write new music (though a guest vocalist cameo. e.g. baby Ruby with mom Sarah Siskind and pop Travis Book at Hanesbrands Theatre, is unlikely). Fleck swapped emails with YES! Weekly while on the road to talk about adjusting to life with his brand new family band, along with some of his other, less vocal influences.

Y!W: These Winston-Salem performances might be the first time many have heard you perform with Abigail, but they could also be an introduction to Chinese folk music in general. Is the goal to give as authentic of a recital as possible with the tools at hand, or to present a convenient point of entry to unfamiliar modes for Western listeners via a Western instrument?

BF: We do a couple or three Chinese tunes in our set, and we approach each one differently. But we do take liberties with them all, and bring our own musical personalities to the songs. The set we’ll be playing is pretty diverse, with Abby’s beautiful songs, some traditional material and some of my tunes. I also do some solo pieces where I can show off.

Y!W: Each individual member of the Flecktones will have played this area during the past year in their solo incarnations after this weekend. Is this sort of an exploratory period before the next Flecktones recording? Are there any concrete plans, or is everyone content to keep stretching out?

BF: This is our longest hiatus ever, and it is likely to go another couple of years. The plan is to regroup at that point and do something focused. I miss the guys, but I must say the time apart has been a very creative growth period for all of us. When we are together again, everyone will have new abilities and experiences to share. We have something together that no other band in the world has, and I look forward to celebrating it — and expanding it — again and again.

Y!W: When the Wooten Brothers played here a couple of months ago, Victor mentioned that a Flecktones song, “Sex In A Pan,” found its origin in a dessert the band had somewhere in North Carolina. Can you shed some more light on this fabled dish?

BF: Ah yes. I’m sure it was at Green Acres. We learned a lot about the world at Green Acres.

Graham cracker crust, dark chocolate pudding and cool whip. Take a nap afterward.

Y!W: Has touring with Juno changed how you and Abigail select your songs, or just tour in general? More lullabies finding their way into your sets?

BF: Touring together is so sweet with Abby and Juno. As far as the songs we perform together, most of these arrangements come from before he was born. Since he’s been around, it’s way harder to compose — although we do have one new one! There are some more in the pipeline now, though.

I do have a couple of Juno-inspired tunes these days. One was written while I trying not to wake him up. It’s called “The Quiet Song.” The other was on my way to meet him, as he was three-weeks premature and I was performing on the West Coast with no way to get home when he was born. I caught the red-eye home and wrote a song for him on my layover in Dallas airport.

Y!W: When you and Abigail played the Shakori Hills Festival about four years ago, you welcomed a rather unexpected guest in John Paul Jones. It had been a few years at that point since JPJ produced her Uncle Earl work, so how did his appearance go down?

BF: We are both very fond of JPJ and his peeps. That was so much fun having him sit in, and he invited us to the Led Zeppelin reunion, which was just awesome to see. JPJ loves the acoustic music community, and playing the mandolin.

Y!W: Though The Imposter seemed to be your most fully realized work in the classical vein since Perpetual Motion, your classical work nonetheless seem to be becoming more common. Is this a rabbit hole you want to explore deeper into your next chapter?

BF: Typically I’d think of a rabbit hole as having a negative element, but hopefully this rabbit hole has some buried treasure in it. I am enjoying the experience of attempting to create something that might have a different meaning down the line than my work to this point. The idea of creating pieces which would allow banjoists to interact with classical musicians seems worthwhile, and is a good stretch for me as a writer. So I’d like to keep at it and see where it goes. It won’t be all I do ever, but it could be a piece of my musical pie that is different sizes in different years.

Y!W: Is the idea of writing or interpreting concertos and performing symphonic works versus touring more simpatico with the ability to be present for Juno in his childhood?

BF: The idea of it works better than the math. I can make as much in two or three days of touring as I do when I’m commissioned to compose, and the composing takes probably six weeks of dedicated time per piece. Plus, I thought I’d have lots of time when I’m home to write, but I find it hard to go write when he’s awake.

Y!W: Given the fact that you have family connections to the film industry, it seems like a logical and eventual step for you. Is that something you’re going to pursue?

BF: [My brother Sascha Paladino] directed “Throw Down Your Heart,” but he is really in children’s television, and mostly as a writer and show creator. I have enjoyed the few things that I’ve done so far in films, but they don’t seem to pop up very often. Maybe down the line they will. I think I have the best job in the world though as the artist. When you write for a film, someone else tells you if they like it or not.

Y!W: On that note, the minimalist and avant garde classical scenes have maybe never been healthier thanks to a burgeoning interest in film music and the willingness of promoters to support it (Big Ears, for example). Your influence has mainly come from the more melodic composers, but where do you fall with the Glasses and the Reichs? Banjo is not exactly an instrument that lends itself to the “less is more” mindset, but is there untapped potential there?

BF: Actually, I would like to do a study of their music and see what the banjo could offer to it, and what these great composers might inspire in me. My initial impression is that banjo would work very well in that music.

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn will give two performances at SECCA on Saturday, March 8. !