To electrify his banjo, Béla Fleck uses a Yamaha MIDI pickup connected to a Roland VG-8 and Roland GI-10 MIDI interface. Fleck’s Deering Crossfire banjo has been modified with EMG pickups and a pre-amp. Don’t worry if this jargon makes you feel like you’ve accidentally rented an unfamiliar foreign language film without subtitles. I am not, in fact, about to launch into an examination of musical equipment fit for a stringed-instrument trade magazine. I merely bring up some of Fleck’s chosen equipment because the Flecktones list all of this technical information (and oodles more) on their Web site. Which makes sense. It is fair to say that Béla Fleck and the Flecktones are musicians’ musicians.
As with anything else, there are positives and negatives to being a musicians’ musician. On the upside, the songcraft is rarely predictable. The Flecktones weave jazz, bluegrass, be-bop, hip-hop, funk, reggae and who knows what all else together in a way that most other bands fear to, or simply can’t. The Flecktones don’t simply play a jazz number, then a reggae number, then a bluegrass song. They have their standard modes, but what sets the Flecktones apart is that they very frequently play them all at the same time. Béla Fleck might be playing a bluegrass riff on the banjo while bassist extraordinaire Victor Wooten lays down a funk line on the bass. Meanwhile, Jeff Coffin is communing with the ghosts of jazz legends on sax, and on the drums, Futureman is—well, you’re never quite sure what Futureman is doing. Hence the handle—he’s already way ahead of you.
Besides the genre-bending, another plus to being a musicians’ musician is that you can do things that astound even cynics. Jeff Coffin, the latest addition to the Flecktones, can play two saxophones at once and sound good doing it, then casually pick up a whistle or flute. Anybody who plays bass tends to worship Victor Wooten in much the same way the elderly stand in awe of Matlock—and if you don’t know why, check out his solo bass performance of “Amazing Grace” on the Flecktones’ Live Art album. Fleck himself is so masterful at traditional bluegrass rolls that one almost hates to see him venture out in the wilderness, but he does so with a grace and agility that ought to make the most hardened fan of more traditional bluegrass nod his or her head in approval.
But my favorite Flecktone is Futureman. He’s my favorite because he has taken experimentation to its most logical conclusion. He’s designed his own instrument; there’s only one like it in the world, and he is the rightful owner. While Futureman sometimes plays a traditional drum set, much of his percussiveness is derived from the “synth-axe.” To look at it, you’d think a first grader got bored one day and glued a bunch of Rubik’s cube pieces to a broken Wiffleball bat, tied it to part of a busted vacuum cleaner and then went absolutely nuts with the finger paints. Amazingly, this monstrosity can produce just about any drumbeat you can think of—any sound, actually, from voices to train whistles.
Put these four extraordinary musicians together and there’s no way to go wrong. But remember: There are also drawbacks to being a musicians’ musician. For one thing, the Flecktones can be stingy with the grooves. Because they so often shun the pulse-pounding for more esoteric dimensions, it’s easy to get lost in a Flecktones song. This is challenging music. That can be a great thing when you want to sit down and listen hard. When you just want to dance and flail, it can get downright annoying. The other drawback is that the solos can occasionally become elongated to the point of snapping. But hey, when you’ve got this much talent, who the hell’s going to tell you to take a shorter solo?
I find myself curiously alienated from bands that don’t, or rarely, sing. The Flecktones vocalize only sparingly, but this is an instrumental band that can get by without words. Fleck’s banjo melodies are songs unto themselves, and singing atop them would likely just drown out all the intricacies that these four incredible players deliver on a nightly basis—never quite the same, always pushing you farther, cajoling your ear to follow, stimulating your mind. The long solos and the lack of a consistent groove are surmountable obstacles. If you’re just waiting for the groove to kick back in after the more “out there” stuff, you can always go see Phish. But, if you’re looking for that mythical spot in the desert where Bill Monroe, P-Funk and Miles Davis meet up for a shot of whiskey, just follow the signs that say “Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.”