How to Write a Banjo Concerto. How to play Bach on the banjo. Paganini, Debussy, and Chopin too. How to come up with the tunes on Drive. How to serve up UFO Tofu, Sweet Pomegranates and Cheeseballs in Cowtown. How to dream up Bigfoot, Metric Lips and Deviation. How to bring the banjo home to Africa and invent something so other-worldly cool as Throw Down Your Heart. How to create classical brilliance from a banjo, Indian tablas and a bass. How to burst the borders off a song as familiar as I’ve Been Working on the Railroad. How to mesmerize ten thousand people by playing Abbey Road’s B-side with just a banjo. How to write Big Country, Sunset Road and The Over Grown Waltz. How to be a musical genius. These are all questions that spun through my mind as I prepared to sit down with Béla Fleck at the 2015 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival.
One of Béla Fleck’s newest projects is The Impostor, a banjo concerto. Yes, banjo. Yes, concerto. Its development and execution is wonderfully portrayed in his documentary, How to Write a Banjo Concerto. It is a fascinating film which shows the arduous process of creating captivating and elegant music for an entire 80-piece symphony and a banjo. The Impostor is an opus with exquisite descants, an intriguing storyline and a downright exciting denouement. Catch a showing of How to Write a Banjo Concerto soon. It truly is an intricate look at the necessary ingredients for ingenious composition and endearingly shows a humble creator making his way from start to finish.
Don’t stop with the film, though. See a live performance of the concerto which Béla has been performing with various symphonies across the globe. It is impossible not to be amazed, entertained, and fully drawn in by each experience, all the while having some of the most beautiful and striking music wash over you.
As the story goes, Béla Fleck, indisputable banjo virtuoso, Grammy-nominated in more categories than any other musician in Grammy history, was struck by the sound of Mr. Earl Scruggs’ banjo when hearing the Beverly Hillbillies theme song as a boy. Béla’s grandfather bought him a banjo when he was 15 and he has not put it down since. Thank goodness. Had Béla not pursued the path that his name (Béla Anton Leos) pre-ordained, we would be living in a definitively drabber and much more rigid world. I shudder to think of a world without Béla’s playing.
Instead, Béla harnessed his seeming perfectionism and nurtured his nature of jaw-dropping talent and has provided us all with impeccable musical treasures: from his early solo albums to his days with the scorching hot New Grass Revival to his boundary-shattering Flecktones, to his double and triple concertos, to his banjo concerto and his now current project with Abigail Washburn. These along with his epic collaborations with Edgar Meyer, Chick Corea, Marcus Roberts Trio, Bruce Hornsby, the Dave Matthews Band, the Telluride House Band, and the African musical elite, among many others, have generated a vast repertoire of magnificent work. He has a knack for adding the precise banjo accompaniment to any song in any genre to launch it into a completely new realm of melodic grandeur.
The man just oozes music. Even the way he talks is pleasant to the ear: measured, lilting at times and crescendo-ing to emphasize the import of his points. Béla graciously made time at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival to talk about his current projects and what’s next while reminiscing a bit down memory lane. One mission of this interview was to try to comprehend even a little bit about what makes this phenom tick.
I am starting to think a metronome plays a large role in it. Time is very important to him. Obviously, it is in the musical sense: just listen to any of his works (ex. The Twelve Days of Christmas on Jingle All the Way where each of the days is played in a different time signature and key). But, it is also important in the metaphysical sense: there is only so much of it and just not enough in a day to accomplish all that he wants to do. Yet, Ecclesiastes-like, Fleck seems to have an overarching sense that there is a time for everything: each of his projects has a right time to form, to exist, to play out, to regroup. He is acutely mindful, however, of any time not spent with his cute-as-a-button just over two-year-old son as that time never returns.
It is for this reason that we have another awesome Béla project at this very juncture: the Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn duo. This powerful collaboration provides Béla and Abigail a chance not only to explore the contours of a Scruggs-style/clawhammer combination, but also to spend quality time together and with tiny Juno.
Just before Béla was carted off for another rousing showcase of the Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn album – and before he co-led a fabulous tribute to banjo great, Bill Keith – he generously gave his precious time and let me pepper him with about 10,000 questions.
BT: How many times have you played at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival?
Béla: I have been coming to Grey Fox since it was Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass Festival and it was Winterhawk. It is something I have done periodically. It was one of the festivals I came to when I was pretty young and had only been playing for a little while. I do not think I got here before I moved to Boston and joined Tasty Licks, but at that point I came when I was not performing and just camped and jammed. It was great.
I am pretty sure Tasty Licks played there when it was still Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass. I know I played it with Spectrum. I know New Grass Revival had a big presence there for years until we split up. And, Flecktones even came once that I remember and did a largely acoustic set. In the new location, I was here and it was either with the Sparrow Quartet or with Bryan Sutton and Casey Driessen when we did our Trio.
BT: Do you have any favorite memories of the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival?
Béla: So many great experiences. It is hard to reduce it to any particular ones. I guess the first time I came here is always going to stay in my mind. The jams in the campgrounds, hearing people play, and hearing New Grass Revival at midnight as a teenager (years before I joined) were wonderful times.
BT: You have a lot of friends that come to Grey Fox… do you get quality time with them nowadays to jam and pick just for fun?
Béla: I do, but not usually here. What is nice this time is that we are doing a tribute to Bill Keith where we are going to play a bunch of his material, so that has gotten a nice level of banjo energy going. So, I will be practicing with some of my friends for that. I just had a nice practice with Ryan Cavanaugh, who is a monstrous powerhouse banjo player; we are working on some stuff of Bill’s. I am going to do something with Noam. We are going to practice too, so that will give us some time together.
BT: I think some of us bluegrass music-lovers envision you guys hanging around Nashville together all the time just playing together for fun: like the scene at the end of How to Write a Banjo Concerto. Does that actually happen?
Béla: Not all the time. It used to happen more. It would happen 2-3 times a year when we would have 40-50 people at the house eating, drinking and playing, from the Flecktones guys to bluegrass guys to the old-timey folks. There would be some dancing. That has not happened as much lately since the baby came. But, we still have it. On his birthday, we had people over and they played for Juno, and it was really fun.
BT: Your show with Abigail Washburn is a combination of her style, old-timey and traditional, and the bluegrass-y boundary-busting stuff that you’re doing. Can you talk about what a working session was like to arrange the songs for your album? Do you talk to each other in words or just notes?
Béla: Both. When we were working on that music, Juno was very, very young. But, since we had the studio in our house, we could take a week to work on a song — an hour here, an hour there — until we had the arrangement we wanted, and then we just needed a couple of hours to go downstairs and record it. Then, Abby would sing on it. We had to do it that way because a lot of time we did not have lyrics yet for some of these songs. So, it was a process. We were both deeply involved in the creative creation of it.
BT: Are you writing songs together now?
Béla: We are planning to! It is really hard to find time. You think, “Oh, we are together all the time, we will get lots of stuff done.” It just does not happen. And, you regret the time that you miss with Juno when you are busy working and not with him. At this point, it is just such a joy to be around him.
BT: You have seven banjos on stage during the Béla & Abigail performance. Is there any one in particular you enjoy playing other than your usual banjo we are used to seeing you with?
Béla: I love my main banjo, but the main reason that we have so many banjos, from my perspective, is that when I play my main banjo and Abby plays her main banjo, they are pretty much in the same range. It can be like we are duplicating each other. So, I really enjoy playing the lower banjos with her and the higher banjos. I actually had the Gold Tone baritone banjo designed for this show. We call it “The Missing Link.” It is a lot of fun to get under there and pump underneath and let her be higher. Then, we have a nice deep sound, more than you would expect from two banjos.
Then, we have the cello banjos. Abby plays one sometimes. And, I play one on a tune and that is even lower and bass-ier. Also, I play the ukulele banjo on one song. It is a beautiful sounding instrument, and Abby plays the cello banjo on that song so that we have a high and a low. It ends up that people are surprised at how much range the music has from high to low rather than it all being in the middle which is what you worry about with seeing a banjo show that is just two guys in the mid-range all the time. We found that with her singing, the kinds of songs we have been able to come up with and the space we have been able to put into it, [the show] has some pretty good variety. We still have some stuff where we get our two main banjos out and just bash on them, and that is fun too.
BT: How did the idea behind writing a banjo concerto come about? I got some of this from the film, but was it long in forming? Something you wanted to do after you worked with Edgar Meyer a lot, who has a classical background?
Béla: I was interested in it because in Edgar, I have such a good friend who is great at that music. I was so inspired, watching what he did. And, also other friends of mine did great stuff — like Mark O’Connor was doing his first classical stuff and I saw Chris Thile do his. I was like “Wow, I just better go ahead and do this.” So, luckily I found someone who was willing to pay me to do what I wanted to do: the Nashville Symphony. And, I got to go after it.
Because I had been listening to people do these things since the late 1980s, I had a lot of ideas that I didn’t even know I had. When I started writing, all of a sudden it just came fast. I had no trouble coming up with ideas and stuff to work on. Just like now, I am working on a second banjo concerto. I have a flood of ideas, it is just that they are not all good. I have to take each idea that I think is worthy and flesh it out and listen to it back and study it and see what it offers. I do that with a bunch of ideas and then step away from it. Then I come back and choose the themes I am going to develop.