Editors' pick

Bela Fleck & the Flecktones

Folk/Bluegrass
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Editorial Review

Bela Fleck's Holiday Surprise

By Geoffrey Himes
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bela Fleck had no objections to making a Christmas album. But if he were going to do a holiday recording with his instrumental jazz quartet, the Flecktones, he didn't want to take the expected approach.

"I didn't want to go the route of getting super-famous guests because that could lead to cheese," he explains. "That suggestion came up: 'Why don't you make a Christmas record with Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson and Sting with you guys as the backing band?' We're not a backing band. We'd rather go down in obscurity than to be famous for something we're not."

Instead, the only vocals on the Flecktones' new holiday project, "Jingle All the Way," come from the Alash Ensemble, a quartet of Tuvan throat singers from the high plains of central Asia. Each throat singer splits his voice into two or three parts: a low, guttural drone, a nasal baritone and/or a high, whistling overtone. When these men apply the technique in their own language to "Jingle Bells" and "What Child Is This," the results are unlike any versions of those songs you've ever heard.

Of course, the rest of the album is pretty unusual as well -- let's start with the fact that a legendary bluegrass banjoist, a funk bassist, a jazz saxophonist and a drum-machine whiz are playing Christmas songs together. And they are playing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" sequentially in a dozen different time signatures and dozen different keys.

"Sleigh Ride" is taken at a dizzying tempo, as if jet-propulsion engines had been strapped to the sleigh's runners. Fleck's banjo, Victor Wooten's bass, Jeff Coffin's soprano sax and Roy "Futureman" Wooten's drumitar (a drum machine shaped and worn like a guitar) send notes flying like gale-blown snow. They slow down for "Silent Night" and prove they are just as capable of coaxing the feeling out of a simple melody as they are at quadrupling the number of notes per measure.

"There were certain songs, when we listened to takes, I said, 'Guys, I think we need to play more melody.' Sometimes when you go too far from the melody, you're not playing the song anymore, and on this record, I wanted to play the songs," Fleck says.

That's because people know Christmas songs. It was time for the band to take advantage of the fact that listeners might, for once, recognize what they were playing.

"When we perform these Christmas songs in front of people, they're so happy to hear us playing tunes that they actually know. Christmas music is inside everyone's DNA," Fleck says. "Our other music can be very complex and difficult for some people to figure out, but if we play a tune they're familiar with, they can tell what we're doing with it. And from that they can get an idea about what we're doing with our own music. It's a doorway."

The Flecktones are in the midst of a tour after spending most of 2008 apart. Each of the four members has been off pursuing other projects.

Victor Wooten released an album with two fellow bassists, his jazz-funk fusion heroes Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller, and then toured with them this past summer. The three virtuosos take turns playing in higher and lower registers on the CD, "Thunder," carving out real tunes atop the thudding, syncopated bottom.

Wooten holds his own so well in the heady company that an impressed Clarke even titled one of his compositions "Lil' Victa."

Futureman is the primary percussionist on the new solo album from Jeff Coffin, "Mutopia," which also features keyboardist Kofi Burbridge and bassist Felix Pastorius (son of the legendary Jaco) and one guest appearance by Fleck.

Performing nine original tunes, Coffin serves up a different kind of fusion music, a cross between straight-ahead jazz and jam-band boogie. That hybrid approach has enabled him to take over, at least for the time being, the Dave Matthews Band's^ saxophone chair, which was left empty by the August death of LeRoi Moore after complications from an all-terrain-vehicle crash.

Fleck himself has spent most of 2008 performing as a member of the Sparrow Quartet, an unusual blend of a classical string quartet and an old-time string band. The foursome is led by Fleck's fellow banjoist, Abigail Washburn, of Uncle Earl; Casey Driessen plays violin and Ben Sollee plays cello.

The group's second album, "Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet," is an acoustic instrumental combo like no other.

"It was appealing to me to have an acoustic group again without having it be a bluegrass band, where we could develop the arrangements like a chamber-music group," Fleck says. "It was just going to be a side project, but once we got into it, we really got into it and everyone wanted to make each piece perfect like a gem."

"By doing other projects," Coffin says, "we bring new influences into the Flecktones and also attract new audiences to the group. By getting to play with these other musicians, you conceptualize things in another way. You hear someone weight an accent in a different way or shape a line in a different way, and that might inspire you write a tune in that style or to play a solo differently. But first and foremost we love playing with each other. That's what's most important for us."

And so for now, that playing together is focused on holly leaves, twinkling lights, snowflakes and Santa.

"In a weird way, it makes you feel like a little kid again; certain buttons get pushed, and there's a sense of wonder again," Fleck says. "For me as an instrumentalist, it's always gratifying to find ways to have my music become parts of people's lives. People who don't normally listen to instrumental music will listen to this because it's Christmas music."