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Jazzing the Grass Banjo

Bela Fleck leads his band in directions most pickers never dream of

Virtually guaranteed a high standing in the "Instrument, Miscellaneous" category of Down Beat's annual polls, jazz banjo player Bela Fleck brings an eclectic mixture of folk, bluegrass, funk, country and rock influences to his music. His Nashville-based band, the Flecktones, performs over 200 dates a year (leading to the recent withdrawal of harmonica/keyboard player and family man Howard Levy) in settings as varied as late-night talk shows, "Lonesome Pine" specials, the Yosemite Strawberry Folk Festival and, last winter, the "Bozo the Clown" show in Chicago, where the Flecktones worked up a hip-hop version of "Pop Goes the Weasel."

But behind the facade of a novelty act, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones possess an instrumental prowess and group dynamic that have commanded respect from audiences, critics and peers alike since the group formed four years ago. Not prone to exaggeration, Fleck claims that his band comprises "the only person or the best persons on their instruments." As an eight-year veteran of the rock-inflected New Grass (as in bluegrass) Revival, Fleck leads the banjo-playing art into dimensions never dreamt of by Earl Scruggs (an early influence, whose "Theme from the Beverly Hillbillies" Fleck reprised, in homage, for last summer's forgettable movie).

Inspired by the improvisational techniques of fusion and bebop, Fleck, a native New Yorker, is probably the first jazz banjoist of note since the Dixieland style peaked one hundred years ago. On a single track he might vary time signatures, take hard percussive twists and rolls, or use a slide or other guitar-like effect -- such as a sustain pedal to pump up the duration of notes while he plays on top of them -- as well as alternate between acoustic and electric banjos, the latter hooked up to a synthesizer that also triggers vibes and organ sounds.

Fleck is flanked by the increasingly distinctive rhythm section of brothers Victor and Roy "Future Man" (or "Futch," for short) Wooten, on bass and synth-ax drumitar, a hybrid electronic drum kit worn like a guitar and combining the fingertip control of a string instrument with the acoustics of a drum kit and the sampling of a synthesizer. Future Man, who looks like an exile from one of Prince's early bands and occasionally assumes an interplanetary Sun Ra persona, uses 48 synth-triggering pads, each with left- and right-hand capability, on his "2050 model" drum-ax. The more earthy Victor Wooten recently nosed out Flea of the overexposed Red Hot Chili Peppers as Bass Player magazine's 1993 Bassist of the Year. (Though one can only guess at the basis of comparison -- no pun intended -- for a poll that included Sting in its top ten.) With an aggressive, thumping, slapping style and a trademark thumb-plucking solo technique, his bass playing propels and sometimes carries the melodies on the Flecktones' latest release, Three Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Wooten uses a tenor model and other electronic innovations that allow him to range widely across the sonic field.

Despite the band's reliance on synthesizers and electronic devices, made more obvious by the loss of Levy's "wild west" chromatic harmonica, Fleck insists on recording "live" in the studio without overdubbing. That spontaneity carries over into the band's live performances, where they often "stretch out," not just instrumentally but spatially: by roaming the aisles, reaching the mezzanine and climbing into the balcony, they give new meaning to the phrase "audience involvement."

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 9 at Bayou City Theatre, 977-5495. $16.

 
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