Bela Fleck really gets around.Rummage through the bins at your local CD store, and Fleck turns up everywhere. In addition to albums with his own jazz band, the Flecktones, the banjo virtuoso also can be found all over the place. He's in the bluegrass section (on albums by dobro player Jerry Douglas and mandolinist Sam Bush), in the world music section (on an album by Chinese erhu player Jie Bing Chen), even in the rock section (that's him on the latest Dave Matthews Band album, "Before These Crowded Streets").
All that playing around isn't just fun for Fleck; he sees it as part of his continuing musical education. By sitting in with musicians from other styles of music, Fleck believes he can broaden the range of his own playing.
"When you play with different people, it should change the way you play," he says, over the phone from his home in Tennessee. "I want to be surprised. Like, 'I don't normally play that.' Those are the situations that I love."
Take, for example, his cameo with the Matthews Band. "I play totally different with those guys than I play with the Flecktones, even though you could say it was a similar context," says Fleck.
"For one thing, the drumming is really different. It's really extremely powerful, solid. In the Flecktones, we share the rhythmic responsibility; in [the Matthews Band] situation, there almost was no rhythmic responsibility, because the band was so tight and the songs weren't built around me. So I could be a free agent. . . . I could take any role I wanted, and it worked."
It isn't just a matter of musical responsibility, either. For Fleck, part of what makes each situation different is the groove that different musicians generate. So when Fleck improvises with the Flecktones rhythm section, Victor Wooten and Future Man, the phrasing and rhythmic ideas he develops are totally different from what he'd play in a bluegrass setting.
"It's the most natural thing in the world," he says. "In fact, it's unnatural for me to force it to be like the way I play when I'm playing [bluegrass] with Sam Bush and Tony Rice and guys like that."
Still, Fleck sees his non-bluegrass influences as having played an important part in the making of his pending pure bluegrass album.
"In bluegrass, the music gets pushed forward sometimes by people who spend time outside of the form and then come back with fresh ideas," he says. "Like Earl Scruggs working up a version of a pop song, with neat chord changes in it. . . . Or sometimes there might be a little calypso riff, and then Flatt & Scruggs or Monroe would make a song out of it, and there'd be a little calypso bluegrass groove."
Bringing a fresh perspective to the bluegrass tradition is important to Fleck. "I've been thinking real hard about it for a long time, about revisiting bluegrass," he says, "listening to a lot of the old stuff, and trying to figure out what I could contribute. It sounds like an ego thing to say, but if there wasn't something new I could bring to it, I didn't want to do it."
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
Tickets: $15, $23.50, $27.50
Pub Date: 02/04/99