With a ton of skill and a stack of bright ideas, banjo innovator Béla Fleck — an eight-time Grammy winner and 21-time nominee in many different categories — has kept extremely busy maneuvering his way through the jazz-fusion and bluegrass worlds. In the '80s and early '90s, he made his way in and out the more traditional folk and progressive bluegrass scenes of the with New Grass Revival and other groups. He collaborated with some of the finest musicians in contemporary pop and world music, demonstrating the versatility of his instrument in just about any musical setting.
By association, the Flecktones, who formed around 1990, often get lumped in as a high-tech "jam band" along with other touring groups on the club circuit. "For us, our audience is actually wider than that," says Fleck. "I don't want to just be thought of as a 'jam band' group because I think the band is actually something else. I've always thought to not be in a particular clique, but in all of them as the weirdo. I just like to keep all those doors open. On the jazz side, there are a lot of jazz fans who really don't relate to the jam band scene, but they consider us to fit somehow into what they like. But I'm hesitant to even say something like that because we're such a potpourri."
Fleck, 47, last played in town in May 2005 with his more bluegrass-oriented Béla Fleck Acoustic Trio, featuring fiddler Casey Dreissen and guitarist Bryan Sutton. This week at the Performing Arts Center, his regular outfit The Flecktones — featuring bassist Victor Wooten, drummer Roy "Future Man" Wooten, and sax and flute player Jeff Coffin — jam on selections from their 15-year career and the impressive, forthcoming release, The Hidden Land (Columbia), officially due in stores on Feb. 14.
Produced by Fleck at his Nashville home studio, The Hidden Land leaps all over the musical map, opening with a respectful "cover" of the familiar Bach piece, "Fugue from Prelude & Fugue No. 20 in A Minor," and taking a sudden detour with the jazzy "P'lod In The House," a hot workout peppered with flourishes from Future Man. They switch gears with the delicate, banjo-and-flute-led "Rococo," followed by the dramatic but funky "Labyrinth." The dynamic "Kaleidoscope" grooves in 6/4 and 5/4 with ease while "Who's Got Three" sounds like one the best front porch songs of the band's vast catalogue.
"Jumping all over the place ... I think that's what we're supposed to do," assures Fleck. "But it's from pure love of music and the desire to learn from it all and be involved with it all in some way. We're also trying to find the connective tissue between different musical idioms. We're in a unique position because we're not really one thing. We get to interact with the top people in different fields — like really top jazz musicians, rock people ... great bluegrass players, classical musicians, and world music people. We have a unique, bird's-eye view on the whole music scene."