It was time to scale back and get down to the essence of what made it all work in the first place.
On their latest album, The Hidden Land, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones decided to concentrate on the musical synergy of the quartet.
"The last few records we've done have been community events with friends," Fleck says. "It was time to go back to the four of us. What's different for us can turn out to be the same after a while. We want to always keep things fresh and challenging."
Which has been the group's mandate for nearly 20 years. Headlining Pier Six Concert Pavilion on Monday, the quartet is one of the most wildly eclectic bands working these days. Led by Fleck's virtuosic playing on the banjo, the unit (Victor Wooten on bass; his brother Roy "Future Man" Wooten on drumitar, an electric drum shaped like a guitar; and Jeff Coffin on sax and keyboards) mostly braid elements of bluegrass and progressive jazz. But at the drop of a backbeat, the quartet has been known to throw in just about anything: from classical to hip-hop, from funk to Middle Eastern music.
The Flecktones' last studio album, 2003's Little Worlds, was an incredibly self-indulgent three-disc set that mismatched seemingly every musical idea known to man. Guests included Bobby McFerrin, Nickel Creek and the Chieftains. However, on The Hidden Land, Fleck invited no other musicians into the studio while he and the guys refocused their approach a bit.
"It was fun because it was the four of us, and every note would be big," says Fleck, who's calling from his Nashville home. "We wanted it to be listenable but also challenging. The hard thing was coming up with the music. But once we did that, everything just flowed."
With one disc this time, The Hidden Land isn't as overwhelming as its predecessor, but it's no less ambitious. Abstract musical and lyrical ideas abound, which is to be expected on a Flecktones album. Elements of folk, classical, jazz and funk converge and unravel. The multiple textures often require more than one listen to fully absorb. But that's the way the native New Yorker prefers it. The gnarly, multilayered approach is suggested by the new album's title. Sort of.
"It's one of those ambiguous titles that could mean anything, which I like," says Fleck, 48. "Band like us that don't get access to a mainstream audience, but we still have an audience - that's like a hidden land. ... The hidden land could be the you underneath, the depth. The hidden land could be the Flecktones because we were under so many other musicians on the last records."
Past collaborators include jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, adult pop artist Bruce Hornsby and harmonica player Howard Levy. Next year, Fleck plans to join musical forces with celebrated jazzman Chick Corea for a series of duet concerts.
"I'm looking forward to it, and I'm frightened," he says with a chuckle.
But until then, he and the Flecktones will tour well into the fall in support of The Hidden Land.
"In the studio, we refined some things that are way better than what we could do live," Fleck says. "Now that we're inside these songs, we can do more spontaneously on stage."
See Bela Fleck and the Flecktones at Pier Six Concert Pavilion, 731 Eastern Ave., Monday night at 7:30. Tickets are $25-$49 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com