Jon Patrizio & Kate Koenig, Contributing Writer & Arts Editor
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Jon Patrizio: Do you consider yourself to be a bluegrass player that plays jazz, or a jazz player that plays bluegrass, or how would you really identify your style?
Béla Fleck: I don’t know! (laughs) I don’t concern myself with it too much, you know what I mean? I just sort of play music, but my grounding is in bluegrass. But I like to play all kinds of music and I like to challenge myself. I don’t think of myself as one or the other, but home would be bluegrass.
JP: What are the challenges encountered being “outside the box” musically?
BF: Well it’s interesting because I realize that all of the music that I do is music that’s hard to play on the banjo, that the roles are not established? So sometimes when I go play bluegrass, I realize, oh, I know exactly what the banjo’s supposed to do in this music, and that’s when I realize that most of the music that I do, there is no role for the banjo. I have to figure it out, and there’s actually some pressure to that. I’m always thinking: “Does this work? Does this work? What can I do to make this work better?” As opposed to like I said, bluegrass, I know exactly how everybody has ever played bluegrass. I know all the banjo players, how they would approach the same songs, what different techniques they would use, the dynamics, the tone possibilities, how to back up a mandolin, how to back up a fiddle, how to back up a vocalist, what to do on the choruses, all that kind of stuff. I just know it, from my ears doing that. But I like the creative challenge of trying to figure all the stuff out for myself.
JP: Who would you say your biggest musical influence is?
BF: My biggest influences, well, I guess Earl Scruggs. He was the first person I heard play banjo on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” so he’s a big influence, and then there was a banjo player named Tony Trischka, who’s an upstate New York guy, who was a modern banjo player and he really influenced me in a big way on the modern side. And then aside from that, people like Chick Corea; I’m a big fan of his and his music made a big impact on me when I was a teenager. Charlie Parker, also, Pat Metheny, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell—there’s all kinds of cool stuff that turned me on.
JP: Outside of The Flecktones and the New Grass Revival that was obviously your first project, what was your favorite collaboration?
BF: Yeah, I don’t think I have to have a favorite? Because I think what’s so rich about having a career in music is the way you get to play with lots of great people, and as soon as you play with one for a long time and you get a chance to play with somebody new, all of a sudden that’s very exciting – the new one! – so it’s not always a favorite, it’s more about the cycles that the things go through. So when Edgar [Meyer] and I were first playing together, it was so much, we were learning so much, it was really really exciting, but after a while, we became, like, we knew each other so well, that we needed to get new excitement, so we started playing with Zakir [Hussein], and that brought the new excitement into Edgar’s and my relationship that we kinda needed, to go to the next level. Flecktones—it’s like, when Howard [Levy] left, we were looking for someone to take his place and so finally we found Jeff Coffin, and he brought a lot of good energy. But now years later, Howard coming back is bringing a whole new energy and sort of stoking us all up in a different way. But, that being said, playing with New Grass Revival—no, New Grass Revival was incredible, first really great band I was in, I was in a lot of bands before that too; Strength in Numbers with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Edgar and Mark O’Connor was a big one… And finally when I got to do this duet album with Chick Corea, that was a huge one for me ‘cause I’m such a big fan of his and it was just the two of us going around the world for a year and a half…and then playing with the African musicians was really incredible…and you know, great things keep on happening, so…onward!
JP: What do you hold dear to yourself, the 14 Grammy wins, or being nominated in so many different categories?
BF: I mean it’s nice to get nominated for things and win, but it’s not really why I do it? It’s just sort of something that keeps happening and I’m surprised, people make almost more out of it than I want. Because I’m not—music’s not a contest, you know? It’s about trying to become the best musician I can be, and I think what I’m really about is trying to continue to improve. Not everybody does. Some people as they get older they start to lose their edge, and I made a real concerted effort to not have that happen and to continue to find things that I’ve never done before as long as possible, so that to me is more important than winning Grammys, it’s like about, really honest musical interactions with great musicians that inspire me, and that hopefully I can bring something to as well.
Kate Koenig: Who do you think stands at your level today?
BF: A lot of people…yeah!
KK: Who would you consider to be your peers in musical skill?
BF: Well these guys, I mean people like Chick Corea are heroes to me… When you get in the jazz world there’s so many amazing musicians you just can’t run out of sort of people that know stuff I don’t know, that I wish I could know, and when you get into the Indian musicians and the world musicians, holy cow, there’s so much information that I just don’t know, and whole traditions that have produced these incredible musicians that… our culture produces a certain kind of musician, theirs produces a different kind, so playing with people like that is real inspiring too. I’ll never run out. Music’s one of those things: the deeper you go, the more you find out…and they’re not even alive anymore, some of the greatest ones, so luckily there are recordings.
JP: The chair of the music department of my old school used to say, “You turn over any rock in New York City and there’s a great alto sax player, a great guitarist…”
BF: Yeah, but I like the ones who have had the time to develop and grow their thing, like older musicians are starting to become…it used to always be about the new young cat, you know? But think about what people have managed to develop over the course of their musical career, so I’m just kind of interested in some people late in their careers too.
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