After a career that’s taken him from abject grassicana with the New Grass Revival to jazz, fusion, funk, classical, and world music alike, Béla Fleck returns to his first love with his first fully realized bluegrass album in some 20 years, My Bluegrass Heart. All instrumental and boasting an outstanding array of guest artists — Sam Bush, Michael Cleveland, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, David Grisman, Sierra Hull, Edgar Meyer, Tony Trischka, Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings, Mark Schatz and members of the Punch Brothers — it boasts the same deft instrumental interplay that all his albums are known for, whether with his band The Flecktones, his wife and musical collaborator Abigail Washburn, or his legendary recordings with the late jazz great Chick Corea.
In that regard, this sprawling two disc set is more than merely a series of retreads of traditional tunes. Although many of its selections give the impression of having been recorded live and in the moment, the precision found in the overall performances make it clear that this is a highly astute group of pickers and players, all of whom represent the best musicians heard today, regardless of genre. So too, songs such as Baptist Pumpkin Farm, Vertigo, Boulderdash,Us Chickens, and Sour Grapes — among the many — convey not only the clarity but the absolute exhilaration shared by this all-star ensemble at literally every turn. So too, the contrast between the more playful passages found in the fiddle medley Hunky Dory and the reverential Psalm 136 make that versatility absolutely clear.
In the extensive liner notes that accompany the album, Fleck refers to the album as the third part of a trilogy that began with 1988’s Drive, and continued eleven years later with 1999’s Bluegrass Sessions. Granted, it’s been a a long time between outings, but the fact that it utilizes members of the house band that performs every year at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival gave him a core group that he could count on to deliver the material with the dexterity that each offering called for. Consequently, Fleck approaches this project with the same energy and ambition that’s spurred every outing he’s ever been a part of. The underlying dynamic shared in songs such as Charm School, Hug Point, and the extended Strider, make that particular point especially clear. The music often conveys changes in tone and tempo, but the inherent energy and emotion remain intact.
Naturally, Fleck himself shines at the fore, with his deft banjo playing being the defining element in each entry. Still, it’s the remarkable cohesion between all the musicians that make this music sound both studied and spontaneous all at the same time.
This is, in fact, one of the most daring and exploratory efforts of Fleck’s famously ambitious career. It’s both remarkable and resolute, stretching boundaries but staying faithful to the rootsy regimen that people like John Hartford, John McEuen, Bill Keith, and David Grisman established early on. Clearly then, My Bluegrass Heart emanates from an origin suggested by the title. For anyone even remotely interested in bluegrass style or its sources, its nothing less than absolutely essential.