Béla Fleck has for decades been the world’s foremost banjo virtuoso, melding a variety of musical styles, performing in vaunted venues around the globe and earning a slew of Grammys in the process. Ahead of his SCP Special Concert concert Oct. 6 with tabla master Zakir Hussain, bassist Edgar Meyer and flautist Rakesh Chaurasia, Fleck took some time via email to answer questions about his life and career.
You’re touring on and off through the fall with the Flecktones to celebrate 30 years together. How have you guys changed personally and musically over the decades, and how does that affect your live performance?
It’s a joy to reunite after so many years of our shared history of making music. Everyone brings along all the experiences that they’ve had doing other things when they return to the group, and it appears that each musician is better each time than the last time we got together. I love these guys and I’m thrilled that we’re making time to be together every year.
What’s the difference artistically when you perform with non-Flecktones, such as solo heavyweights Zakir Hussain, Edgar Meyer and Rakesh Chaurasia?
Everything is context. When I am improvising with Future Man, it is a totally different feel than with Zakir. Victor is a very different player than Edgar. And Howard and Rakesh are wildly different. Because of what I hear around me, I respond differently, with different language. I am extremely fortunate to play with musicians of this caliber on a regular basis.
Your wife, Abigail, is from Evanston, just outside Chicago. What’s your own history with the city and its folk scene, which thrived in the ’60s and ’70s, and remains active?
I first remember coming up to play with New Grass Revival in the 1980s. We would play Holstein’s downtown and stay in Evanston. We’d always go to Uno’s or Due’s, and I’d hang out at Hogeye Music. Jethro Burns and Steve Goodman were our friends, and of course [harmonica player] Howard Levy played a big role in making Chicago exciting to come to.
If the internet is correct, as it nearly always is, you and Abigail are almost 20 years apart. How do your musical tastes converge and diverge?
Do men mature slower? Seems like we were ready for each other when we met. I am as surprised as anyone. But we have forged a beautiful relationship, and we are raising our two boys, 15 months and 6 years old. Musically, she digs stuff that pulls me into a different model, and I like that. She a wonderful singer, and is all about “the song.” Also, she’s an old-time banjo player and is all about the trance groove. I can get into all of that. My music has grown on her, I hope!
You said several years ago, “I’m what you’d call a Type A, psychotic musician. I’ve lived that way up till now, where I could make music the most important thing in the world.” How did having children change your outlook on career, music making and life in general?
It just makes me a little crazy trying to find the time to be ready for each tour, or recording. It’s much harder to find time to prepare. But the upside is way up. The life with Abby and the boys is very sweet.
You make the banjo look easy, but describe the particular challenges not only of mastering the instrument, but then transcending the style of music for which is most associated (bluegrass) in terms of veering into hip-hop, funk, rock, classical and jazz.
I have worked very hard at various points, and I still have to, especially now that I’m in my 60s. What I aspire to is effortless mastery, which Kenny Werner writes about so eloquently. The idea is that you rarely need to play at 100 percent of your ability, and in fact you sound better and can achieve more flow if you develop a way of being very relaxed. My favorite musicians seem to play that way, and it seems quite elegant.
Plenty of people can’t name a famous banjo player beyond Steve Martin — if they can even name him. Though there are a number of virtuosos out there, including you, why hasn’t the instrument enjoyed more mainstream success?
Banjo has been stuck with a stereotype that is only partly true. The hillbilly aspect of banjo music, which is a wonderful piece of it, is only a small piece of the story. The banjo came from Africa and has played a huge role in jazz, blues and really all American music. Yet people got stuck with the image of banjo that was portrayed in the movie “Deliverance,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Hee-Haw.” The truth is so much richer.
You’ve won 15 Grammys. Are they prominently displayed somewhere or did you do the humble-star thing and stick them in your bathrooms?
They are tucked into corners. Sort of half way between the two approaches!
Mike Thomas, a Chicago-based writer, is the author of the books You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman and Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.