Good week for jazz banjo

Down Beat magazineOur beloved five string banjo is getting its props this week from the jazz world, with both the venerable Down Beat magazine and giving space to prominent banjo jazzers.

Down Beat has Béla Fleck on the cover of its June issue, on newsstands now, with an article by Geoffrey Himes. The piece looks at Fleck’s busy touring and recording schedule, and how much pleasure he derives from his work.

As soon as he finished the Flecktones’ tour last winter, he recorded his new album with bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla player Zakir Hussain. Then he went back out on the road with the Sparrow Quartet, the chamber-music/old-time string band led by Fleck’s girlfriend, Abigail Washburn.

When that ended at the end of February, he went into rehearsal for his March/April tour with some of the African musicians on his new album, Throw Down Your Heart (Rounder). At the same time he had to prepare the theatrical release of the documentary film of the same name about his 2005 trip to Africa. In June and July, he will tour again with a different set of African musicians. In September and October, he’ll hit the road with Meyer and Hussain to support their album with shows as a trio and with local orchestras.

Having rattled off this schedule, Fleck seemed more tired than before. But when he talked about the prospect of playing with Hussain, Washburn and the South African singer Vusi Mahlasela, his weary grin spread wider. It was as if he couldn’t believe what he had gotten himself into but couldn’t wait to do it.

“There’s such pleasure in learning new music,” he said. “I love busting my ass and feeling like I’ve got it. It’s hard for me to turn down the opportunities that come my way.

Look for the full piece in the print edition.

Canadian banjoist Jayme Stone is also featured in an interview this week at All About Jazz. He talks about how he retained his love for the banjo even as he became interested in performing as a jazz artist.

All About Jazz: What made you interested in jazz?

Jayme Stone: I love the spirit of invention, interaction and improvisation in jazz. Those qualities are something I try to bring to all of the music that I play and what I look for in other musicians.

AAJ: Besides banjo, what other instruments have you tried along the way?

JS: I played guitar initially but let it go as soon as I took up the banjo. The quirky physics of the banjo fascinated me and it seemed like there was so much unexplored territory on the instrument. Though I don’t play anything else, I am always getting new ideas from studying other instruments, all the while trying to expand the palette and possibilities of the banjo.

AAJ: Does banjo offer you creative ways to explore something new in jazz?

JS: Each of the banjo’s unique qualities has the potential to bring something new to a style of music. I love how the timbre of the banjo blends with trumpet for instance. When I played with Kevin Turcotte, we noticed that the trumpet’s range goes well below the banjo, so he would often play under me, which is an unusual sound. Trumpet is so often the instrument in jazz that cuts through and now we hear it differently.

The earthiness of banjo and the use of open strings can bring a folksiness and accessibility to more outside jazz harmony. I enjoy using harmonic ideas from jazz to re-imagine folk melodies or turn bluegrass tunes inside out. Bringing different traditions into dialogue is a fascinating process and reveals both the differences and the related underpinnings of each style.

You can read the full interview online.

Share this:

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.