Obliterating genre distinctions by initially bridging the gap between bebop jazz and bluegrass, Bela Fleck and The Flecktones have since become one of the most exciting and innovative bands on the planet. When the group formed in 1989, Fleck had already established himself as a virtuoso instrumentalist, evidenced by his many solo and ensemble recordings, including an eight-year stint with the progressive bluegrass outfit New Grass Revival, a group that consistently charted new territory with their own blend of bluegrass, rock and country music.
With the Flecktones, Fleck surrounded himself with musicians just as innovative as himself, beginning with multi-instrumentalist Howard Levy. Levy's approach to the diatonic blues harmonica was not unlike Coltrane's approach to the saxophone; his technique was nothing short of astounding and he was an obsessive innovator, constantly searching for new sounds and ways to express himself, and redefining the boundaries of his instrument in the process. Next recruited was bass player Victor Wooten, another highly innovative musician comfortable in any genre. A musician capable of high velocity and intense complexity, Wooten often contributed dimensions usually reserved for guitarists, an instrument not pursued by the group. Wooten's hyperkinetic finger-popping and slap techniques have become highly influential and many jazz fans consider him the leading bass virtuoso in music today. Needing a drummer with equally experimental inclinations, Wooten suggested his brother Roy (AKA Future Man), who was in the process of developing a midi-triggered instrument called the Drumitar. A combination of drum machine and synthesizer that could be strapped on like a guitar using fingers to trigger the sounds, Roy Wooten immediately made believers out of everyone who found digital percussion annoying or sterile. In his hands, the digital drum tracks retained an organic human feel that could not be denied.
The collaborative result was a highly original form of fusion music, dubbed "Blu-Bop" that incorporated elements of rock, jazz, funk, classical and anything else that tickled their collective fancy, in addition to the root sounds of bluegrass and bebop jazz. Released in March of 1990, the group's self-titled debut album captivated and astonished nearly everyone who heard it. Attracting bluegrass and jazz fans alike, the album would garner a Grammy nomination and Bela Fleck & The Flecktones would become a world renowned touring band, dazzling audiences everywhere they went.
High quality live recordings of the group during their 1990 tour in support of the debut album are few and far between. Many also consider the original quartet lineup (with Levy on board, who would depart in 1992) to be the band at their most exciting, and this recording is good evidence of that. Presented here is Bela Fleck & The Flecktones tearing it up at Maxx's on Broadway in Baltimore, Maryland right at the tail end of that first album tour. The group would begin sessions for their follow-up album, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo the following month. This performance not only showcases highly improvised versions of first album material, but also features quite a bit of second and third album material yet to be addressed in a studio.
They open with two tracks from the debut album, "Frontiers" and "Flipper." The opener invokes a whimsical Western motif and contains an outstanding harmonica break from Levy, while the latter heads into funkier, more complex territory showcasing the intricate interplay between Fleck's banjo and Levy's piano. These musicians are so melodic, fluent and just plain fun, that the music remains attractive to conventional tastes, even though the instrumentation and improvisational nature of the music is anything but conventional. Both of these numbers are prime examples of what made The Flecktones' music so accessible, despite its complexity.
Up next is a vintage version of the Fleck/Jerry Douglas collaboration, "Lochs Of Dread." Not issued until years later, when they included it on their live album, Live Art, this unusual composition blends Celtic and traditional English folk elements over a reggae-like groove.
Following this, Fleck gets the audience to encourage a solo out of Levy, who obliges with a dazzling display on diatonic harmonica. Totally improvised on the spot, Levy defies the limitations of the instrument, coaxing out notes not even available and doing it so fluently that one is forced to reevaluate the instrument. This is a true innovative master at work.
The same can be said for Roy "Future Man" Wooten's solo which follows. Demonstrating exactly how the drumitar works, he then takes a solo spot. The barrage of sounds and organic rhythms he creates on this unusual instrument is quite incredible and goes a long way to justifying his nickname.
Another composition from the debut album follows, with the banjo dominated "Sea Brazil," prior to Victor Wooten taking an extended solo of his own. Wooten's solo is nothing short of astounding, showcasing his skill at melodic finger-popping bass lines and fast arpeggios. To great dynamic effect, lovely tranquil sequences are interspersed within the solo and in a spontaneous nod to the season, Wooten improvises on "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...") and concludes his solo with a quote from "Jingle Bells."
As engaging as this show is up to this point, it really takes off when these musicians begin sinking their teeth into the new material, which they are quite obviously excited to play. Three songs destined for the second album sessions are explored in a row, each of them a compelling listen. From the oddly funky groove of "Flying Saucer Dudes" followed by the more sensitive jazzy interplay of "Flight of the Cosmic Hippo," to the unconventional time signatures and gradually building speed and complexity of "Jeckyll & Hyde (and Ted & Alice)," these new compositions convey a group with seemingly boundless creativity.
Another display of The Flecktones' collaborative virtuosity is heard next in the form of "The West County," combining soul shaking bass lines and a futuristic percussion barrage as a base in which Bela can soar with his beautifully complex banjo riffing. This number would eventually surface in more developed form on the band's third album, which makes this earlier incarnation a fascinating listen.
The set heads to a close by first returning to the pleasant debut album composition, "Sunset Road" before tackling the final blowout of "Yee-haw Factor," which Fleck explains is a term that Sam Bush coined during their tenure together in New Grass Revival. This set closer would also eventually be recorded for the third Flecktones album but here it is two years earlier. Turbo-charged bluegrass often propelled by Wooten's thunderous and funky bass lines, this is The Flecktones vacillating between high octane improvising interspersed with simpler moments of tranquility, all of it just plain fun. This sense of fun and experimentation is at the heart of The Flecktones' music and provides balance so that the astonishing virtuosity of these musicians never becomes heavy or overbearing. Listeners with a penchant for musical virtuosity will certainly be dazzled, but because the Flecktones avoid any pretense, their music remains accessible to anyone who enjoys melodic improvisation. Few groups have more effectively combined such disparate musical forms as the band does here and "Yee-haw Factor" is another addictive brew of pure musical playfulness.
-Written by Alan Bershaw