Béla Fleck’s banjo tackles George Gershwin

Photo of Béla Fleck © Jeremy Cowart

Banjo maestro Béla Fleck has used his banjo to illuminate music from across the stylistic spectrum, starting with bluegrass, moving on to New Grass, before encompassing jazz and funk, classical, and world music. After his hugely successful return to a grassy sound with his previous project, My Bluegrass Heart, his many fans and admirers wondered what he might tackle next.

One doubts that many thought George Gershwin, among the most celebrated composers of the 20th century. But that is precisely where Fleck has turned his attention, with a new album in 2024, Rhapsody In Blue, which contains six tracks based on Gershwin’s classic piece, two other short pieces, and two arrangements of Rhapsody for a bluegrass and a blues ensemble.

Along with the announcement of this next recording, Béla has released a fascinating piece as a single, a previously unrecorded Gerswhin composition, one that was actually written for banjo!

Fleck says that he sort of stumbled into this project, noodling on his banjo and playing the opening melody of Rhapsody In Blue, which Gerswhin wrote in 1924 for piano and jazz band.

“There was a day when I started messing around with a few of the melodies from the Rhapsody. Soon I was thinking, ‘Gosh, what if I could really play this thing?’ So I started investigating the piano part. At that point my goal was strictly to play the notes as written and see what was actually doable on the banjo. Pretty quickly I realized that this wasn’t possible, partly because I can hit only three notes at a time.

I was also shackled by the limits of speed. A piano player can play this piece a lot faster than I can. But the truth is, they sometimes rush through it. I’d listen and think, ‘There are lots of great notes in there, but they’re going by so quickly that we’re not getting them all.’ That gave me a way to interpret those parts on banjo. It would be a new experience for listeners rather than hearing it banged out on piano for the twenty-fifth time. It could even be revelatory.”

Upon actually working out an arrangement, some edits to the piano score had to be made, he says.

“I had written all these impossible banjo manuscripts. At a certain point I had to start changing notes here and there to make it playable.”

In the end, he arranged and recorded Rhapsody three ways, once with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra very much like the original version with Paul Whiteman’s band, and the banjo taking the piano score; Rhapsody in Blue(grass), with the banjo playing the piece as in a piano reduction, with support from Michael Cleveland, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses, Mark Schatz, and Bryan Sutton, giving the piece a grassy twist; and Rhapsody in Blues, with Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, and Victor Wooten, giving it a bluesy edge.

We’ll have to wait for February to hear all of that, but we get a taste of “Béla on Gershwin” with this first single, Unidentified Piece for Banjo, which was discovered in the Library of Congress by musicologist, professor, and recognized Gershwin authority, Dr. Ryan Banagale. It had never been recorded or released before, and Béla says that he was plenty excited to get his hands on it.

“It’s very much like a ragtime tune through a Gershwin lens, with a very catchy melody and some surprising harmonic moves at the ends of phrases. He didn’t write out the harmony, but the possibilities are quite clear for I Got Rhythm types of chords, though a little quirky. To keep the authenticity of the piece, I played it on an old gut-string, five-string banjo.”

He cut it as it was written, as a solo banjo piece. Have a listen…

Unidentified Piece For Banjo is available now from popular download and streaming services online.

Pre-orders can be placed for the full Rhapsody In Blue album, set for release on February 12, 2024, the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue in Manhattan.

This is an adventurous new effort by Béla Fleck, which is sure to reach way beyond the typical audience for banjo music.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.