The banjo was tragically ignored for decades. Outside of bluegrass, Steve Martin and “Deliverance,” it was not allowed into the cool-instrument club, with guitars, drums and other rock star trappings. It took people like virtuoso banjo player Bela Fleck to get folks to see what a versatile, fascinating instrument it truly is — and as an ambassador for the banjo, Fleck has gone far above and beyond the call of duty.
Not only has he performed with luminaries such as jazz legends Chick Corea and Jean-Luc Ponty, classical musician Joshua Bell, Malian kora player Toumani Diabate, the Dave Matthews Band and Phish, but he also has pushed boundaries with every new project he embarks upon. His early years in bluegrass led to the founding of his band Bela Fleck and the Flecktones with bass great Victor Wooten. He has been nominated for a Grammy in more categories than any other musician — ever.
In 2006, Fleck teamed up with bass player Edgar Meyer, a longtime friend, and Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain, and the three were commissioned by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra for a trio concerto. An album, “The Melody of Rhythm,” later was released, and now the trio is on tour, sans orchestra. Fleck, Meyer and Hussain will appear at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 10, at The Grand in Ellsworth. Fleck was interviewed by the Bangor Daily News via e-mail in late July.
BDN: How did you originally meet both Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain?
Fleck: I met Edgar in front of the Haagen Dazs in Aspen in 1983. He was playing there in the evening for fun and I sat in with him for a few songs. We have stayed in touch ever since and we are deep friends. Zakir was someone we both were very intrigued by and when we had the opportunity to invite him to be a part of a creative endeavor, we jumped on it. We had both met him briefly earlier.
At any rate, he agreed to collaborate with us on a triple concerto commission for the Nashville Symphony. When we completed the project we all said “What’s next? This is fun!” That led to us recording the concerto and creating trio music together to record and tour.
BDN: What are some of the challenges in working in with and writing for an orchestra? Was this a new experience for you?
Fleck: One challenge is imagining what it will really sound like when they play it, since most of the composing happens speculatively. You have to imagine what it will sound like ‘til the first rehearsal, when you find out what you actually have! One challenge is how to showcase three soloists in one 30-minute piece and still have a powerful role for the orchestra as well. One challenge is the short rehearsal time for an orchestra piece, especially a complex one like the one we have written.
BDN: What’s a particular style of music that you haven’t yet explored, that you’d like to? Anyone in particular you’re itching to collaborate with?
Fleck: I am writing my first banjo concerto next year, also a commission from the Nashville Symphony. I’d like to do projects with Celtic musicians, flamenco musicians, more with classical musicians and jazz musicians and Indian musicians, Middle Eastern musicians. Heck there’s a lot still left to do!
BDN: You’ve worked with bluegrass musicians, jazz musicians, African musicians and now Indian musicians, among many other genres. What are the common threads you see connecting all of them?
Fleck: These are all different dialects of the same language, according to Edgar. I buy that! The other day he said it would be more difficult to have a conversation between English and Japanese speakers than for English and Japanese musicians to play together. [It’s] worthy of some thought.
BDN: What is your earliest memory of the banjo, and what do you remember of your very first time picking one up?
Fleck: My first memory was hearing the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme, which was Earl Scruggs in his amazing prime. It had a lot of impact. Maybe seven years later my grandfather gave me a banjo coincidentally. I flipped for it.
BDN: Any musician you know of in particular who is new and exciting that most people haven’t heard of?
Fleck: I like Chris Thile. He is getting quite well known at this point. Julian Lage shows incredible promise, and there are many bright lights emerging these days.