Banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck says he loves performing and collaborating with different musicians, a trait obvious in his recent activities. Little Worlds, Fleck's new three-CD opus with his band, the Flecktones, features an array of musically diverse guests that includes (to name a few) singer Bobby McFerrin; the Irish group the Chieftains; the bluegrass band Nickel Creek; and Derek Trucks, guitarist with the Allman Brothers and frontman of his own group.
"The truth is that we really love playing with different people and it invigorates us as a band," Fleck said of the Flecktones' collaborations.
In between Flecktones tours, Fleck has been hooking up with another frequent musical partner -- acclaimed bassist Edgar Meyer -- for a series of duo shows that will sample music from several previous projects and introduce new material from Music For Two, a CD the duo released this past spring on Sony Music.
At the moment, though, Fleck is concentrating on the Flecktones and touring to support the group's ambitious Little Worlds CD. Clocking in at over two hours, with 27 tracks spread out over three CDs (a single disc version, Ten From Little Worlds, has also been released), this excellent new studio project could well be a landmark in a career that has already produced its share of groundbreaking music.
Fleck first came to prominence in the early 1980s as a member of the innovative bluegrass group, New Grass Revival. He formed the Flecktones in 1989 after meeting bassist Victor Wooten; his brother, percussionist Roy Wooten; and harmonica/keyboard player Howard Levy.
Their first CD immediately established the Flecktones as a distinctive entity. The group's lively and instrumentally accomplished music was coined "blu-bop," a nod to the unique blend of bluegrass and jazz that defined the Flecktones' sound.
A half dozen acclaimed CDs have since followed. The group has also survived a major personnel change, with Levy departing in 1992 and the addition of saxophone player Jeff Coffin.
Ironically, Little Worlds was not originally intended to become such an epic work. In fact, Fleck said the group started the project in October 2001 thinking it would be a single-disc project featuring just the four band members.
But songs kept emerging, and Fleck and the Flecktones and their label, Sony Records, decided Little Worlds should be a multi-disc set. That's when the scope of Little Worlds expanded to start including the many guest musicians.
"At that point it seemed like if it was going to be a double album, maybe we want[ed] more guests," Fleck said. "We needed to sort of back it up and keep it very interesting, keep it unusual and keep it changing and changing.
The pairing of bluegrass trio Nickel Creek with the Flecktones on the back-to-back tracks "Off The Top (The Gravity Wheel)" and "Off The Top (Line Dance)" produces plenty of stringed instrument fireworks as the tracks build from a gentle beginning into a high-flying finish. On "The Leaning Tower," the Chieftains help the Flecktones give their jazzy bluegrass sound a strong traditional Irish twist. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis and theremin player Pamelia Kurstin join the group on "Sherpa" to create a moody and sweetly melodic jazz track that has a south-of-the-equator feel.
Still, the guests don't dominate the proceedings. Little Worlds sounds very much like the work of the Flecktones.
-- Alan Sculley
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
Fillmore Auditorium, 1510 Clarkson St. (northeast corner of Colfax and Clarkson), Denver
Friday, Nov. 12, 8 p.m.
$24.75 general admission; 16 and up with photo ID