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Bela Fleck has the market cornered on jazz banjo


In jazz circles, those who are celebrated as singular talents usually earn the accolade through sheer skill; they are, by any accounting, the absolute best on their instrument. As such, Bela Fleck (who appears as part of Sunday's H.O.R.D.E. Festival at the Merriweather Post Pavilion) doesn't quite adhere to the usual image of jazz virtuosity. Sure, he's an astonishing player, blessed with both a wonderfully inventive mind and an awesome amount of technique.

But in a way, it's easy for him to be the best at what he does. Because frankly, he's the only one who does it.

Bela Fleck plays banjo. And although jazz was full of banjo players in the '20s and '30s, the instrument fell out of favor shortly after Charlie Christian popularized the electric guitar. "It's kind of like the banjo got left behind when the guitar got electrified," Fleck says, over the phone from a Nashville hotel room. "A lot of banjo players became guitar players, and banjo just sort of disappeared from jazz for a long time."

That's not to say the instrument went ignored. In fact, Earl Scruggs electrified bluegrass audiences in the '40s with his revolutionary approach to banjo picking.

"Scruggs was the first guy to use his three fingers and clearly pick each string separately," says Fleck. "Everyone was flipping out. It was a Beatles kind of thing when Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe were together in one group. People had never heard anything like this sound before."

Nor have most people heard anything like the sound Fleck makes with his own group, the Flecktones. Although Fleck's technique is obviously indebted to Scruggs, his music stretches well beyond the limits of bluegrass tradition to include elements of jazz, funk and fusion.

Add in the diverse influences of his fellow Flecktones -- harmonica and keyboard player Howard Levy, synth-ax and drumitar ace Roy Wooten and bassist Victor Lemonte Wooten -- and it's no wonder the band's sound is so astonishingly eclectic.

Fleck, of course, is far too modest to take credit for any sort of breakthrough. "There've been great banjo players all along who have been learning jazz tunes on the instrument," he says. "But I think that there haven't been too many people improvising jazz to this point, so that puts me a little more in the forefront. But I'm just lucky. A lot of work has gone before me to bring it to this point, and I'm the beneficiary. So I get the credit for a lot of people's work."

Maybe so, but it's hard to imagine any other banjo player seeming quite so at home with the material Fleck and his Flecktones rip through on "UFO Tofu," their third album together. From the fusion flash of "Scuttlebutt" to the country-Cuisinart approach of "The Yee-Haw Factor," to the title tune's musical palindrome, the music made by this group is as singular as the talents responsible.

How do they do it?

"Things happen by feel," says Fleck. "We just start working on something and it just takes on its own shape because it seems like it should."

But that simply reflects how at home these four feel with one another.

"I think everybody in this group probably felt like a round peg in a square hole at various times in their lives," Fleck says.

That is, they did until they became Flecktones.

Bela Fleck When: Sunday, 4 p.m.

Where: The Merriweather Post Pavilion

Tickets: $12.50

Call: (410) 730-2424 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets

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