Bla Fleck's latest release, Outbound, earned his group a Grammy for best jazz album. A guest stint on fellow banjo picker Alison Brown's CD won him an additional Grammy for country instrumental, but the awards and recognition do little to give the 17-time nominee a sense of definition. Thankfully.
While most musicians struggle to carve out an identifiable niche for themselves, Fleck's efforts are dedicated to avoiding the threat of classification or easy-to-use labels. A niche is not the point where you're breaking new ground.
"I honestly don't think that the voting reflects that people thought it was a jazz album," Fleck told the Indy, downplaying any stature in the jazz community Outbound's Grammy may suggest. "They saw the name and they saw the other names and they said, 'I like those guys,' and they checked that box instead of Fourplay. I don't think it necessarily says that we're a jazz group. They know what we are."
The prospect of recording a real jazz album at the request of his new record label has him looking for a nine-month window to practice before embarking on a serious jazz exploration, tacking the cutting-edge work that Bill Frisell or Branford Marsalis have helped to define for contemporary musicians.
"The Flecktones' music is based around my strengths and the group," Fleck explained of the distinction. "We'll play a jazzy tune once in a while, but it's different from playing a whole record of that kind of music and trying to find a role for the banjo inside the existing format. We tend to mix it with other things. Suddenly there'll be a reggae part and then there'll be a country section or we'll change time signatures. That's different than doing the current state of the art of jazz. That's just not what the Flecktones do. We do something that's much more of a hybrid. I'm talking about going all the way, finding a place for the banjo in that music where it sounds like it's part of that music."
The model for his approach to an authentic jazz album is the work he's completing now on his first serious classical album.
"It's going great! It is so cool," Fleck said of the project. In his first recording that doesn't rely heavily on his own original compositions, Fleck has turned to the likes of Chopin, Paganini, Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky and Debussy.
"It's great music and it really sounds good on the banjo. It's improving my playing and my improvising and everything." He started practicing for the project last July, and following his Midwest dates last week, Fleck returned to New York for the final two recording sessions on the album, a collection of solos, duets and trios with a roster of musicians including classical guitarist John Williams, violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Gary Hoffman, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and Fleck's classical mentor, bassist Edgar Meyer.
"He's kind of keeping me out of trouble," Fleck said of Meyer's collaborative influence on the album, "making it into a record that people who listen to classical music would listen to and not think it was stupid. With Edgar, I know if he says, 'Bla, trills don't go that way, play a trill like this,' or, 'You're playing everything square, loosen it up here,' I'm not going to fight him. He's going to be right.
"This is kind of what I'm talking about with jazz," Fleck continued. "I would like to align myself with somebody, like a Branford, who would help me figure out how to make the banjo work in that music. With a lot of stuff about voicing, a lot of stuff about listening to each other, a lot of stuff about dynamics, the way that the soloist plays with the rhythm section, I would just like help and I would like to know how to do it better. There's still a lot of mysteries to me about what exactly the heck is going on."
In the meantime, he's starting to think about another Flecktones album -- he promises plenty of new songs when he plays the Paramount on Tuesday. He's considering possible live release from touring with contributors to The Bluegrass Sessions (Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Stuart Duncan and Mark Schatz) and a second classical album, which may move to original Fleck tunes. He has an unrecorded piece for banjo and string quartet familiar to fans from the Flecktones debut performance as a group on The Lonesome Pine Special 12 years ago. Fleck wrote it with Meyer and has performed it with the Blair String Quartet, and he's considering writing a banjo concerto with Meyer as a companion piece for a full second album.
"That would be, again, very different from what I'm doing right now. Showcasing the banjo in a few different classical situations," Fleck said, his voice reflecting the enthusiasm new challenges stir in him. "It's fun. For me it's an unbelievable opportunity."
Fleck is playing two Colorado shows over the next week, indicative of the scope and variety of life as a Flecktone. The first show will be in Crested Butte, with Bla playing solo and sitting in with The Sam Bush Band and The David Grisman Quintet. The second show, in Denver, will be the four-piece Flecktone lineup "doing its thing," as Bla says.
"Everybody is just exploding creatively on their own as well as inside the group," Fleck says of band mates Victor Wooten, Jeff Coffin and FutureMan. "We're actually working less than we used to, and we're creating a lot of space for everybody's personal projects.
"There were times when my wanting to do solo things was a threat to the group," Fleck continued, "so I tried to learn lessons from that. When the band was first getting off the ground, we really needed to focus on the band. I didn't even take solo stuff for the first five years." Now that the band is an established anchor on the musical seascape, an interesting reversal has led Fleck to believe that the Flecktones can benefit from carving out time for each member to pursue other projects.
"I was threatened when, for instance, Victor would make a great record and go out on tour. I'd go, 'Oh no, he's going to leave the band.' But he wasn't. He needed the same freedom that I needed in New Grass to go make my records. If you're always in the group situation, you're always sublimating a certain part of yourself that wants to explore being the leader. We're all finding that being in outside situations makes us appreciate this one a lot."
The Flecktones brought some of those outside influences into the studio with them for Outbound, bringing in the likes of Paul McCandless on horns, Sandip Burman on tabla, Shawn Colvin, Jon Anderson (from Yes) and Rita Sahai on vocals, and John Medeski on keyboards and using them as "orchestrations." Rather than have the band stretch to fit in with the strengths of their guests, as they have enjoyed doing in the past, the group asked their guests to do the stretching, adapting to the self-defining nature of the Flecktones.
"It's pretty damn cush," Fleck said of his professional life, searching in vain for a way to improve on the ideal. "The music community keeps growing. People that you thought were disconnected and would never have anything to do with anything outside of their form are turning out to be very open. It's the most creative period I've ever been involved in. It's been a very collaborative period these last few years, and it just seems to be headed for more. I hate to be one of those people who's happy, but it's really, really nice."