From composing and recording his first solo banjo concerto, “The Imposter,” to collaborating with musicians ranging from Chick Corea to the Colorado Symphony, Fleck has established his position as one of the premiere banjo players in the world. Here, he ruminates on writing music, performing, friends and family and his continued love affair with the instrument that put him on the map.
Banjo and symphony
SUMMIT DAILY NEWS: Tell me about “The Impostor.” How is symphonic composition different from the music you have traditionally written?
BELA FLECK: For one thing, I had to write every single note, every articulation, every dynamic, for the orchestra. In my past composing, for bluegrass and jazz ensembles, I could write a sketch, with melodies, chord changes and certainly highly composed sections but leave most of the note choices to the other musicians.
The other difference is length. This is a 36-minute piece. Normally, my instrumentals would rarely be more than 8 or 10 minutes long, and usually shorter. Another important dynamic when working with orchestra is understanding the limited rehearsal time, due to the high cost of paying 90 people to rehearse. So I have to rely on the conductor to use that time pragmatically. If we use all the time to make the first movement work, we’ll stink when we play the third movement.
SDN: What was it like composing your first banjo concerto on your own? What was your process? What did you enjoy about it?
BF: It was frightening and exciting. I went on instinct as much as possible, since I didn’t have time to study composition, with a due date looming. I created themes and textures for a while and then started assembling them together and studying what I had, looking to create what was still needed.
SDN: Is this an area of writing and performing you think you’ll explore more in the future?
BF: Yes, and in fact, I just finished my third commission, a piece for banjo and chamber orchestra. The second was a piece for banjo and string quartet. And there are plans coming together for a second banjo concerto. I am loving the opportunity to create music which will allow banjoists to collaborate with classical musicians down the line. “The Impostor” and the string quartet are available on Deutsche Grammaphon Records.
SDN: Tell me about your experience playing with the Colorado Symphony this summer at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. What’s it like to be on stage or in the studio with a symphony, both in Colorado and when you were recording “The Imposter” with the Nashville Symphony?
BF: I love it. It’s a totally unique situation for a banjo player to find themselves in the center of. Colorado Symphony did an amazing job at Telluride, and Scott O’Neil kicked butt conducting. Recording with Nashville was more frightening because it was my first time. Now that I’ve played the piece 20 or so times, I feel more confident and in my element.
SDN: How is it different from performing with Abby or the Flecktones?
BF: There are things that a symphony can and can’t do, and of course, the same is true for every musical situation. There is a warmth and rootedness that I have in duet with Abby that I can find nowhere else. And with the Flecktones, the groove is unbeatable. Playing duos with Chick Corea is all about improvising freedom.
Questions from SDN readers
Q: Do you miss Jeff Coffin? Do you foresee any collaboration with him or the Dave Matthews Band in the future?
A: I do love and miss Jeff. Three weeks ago, I had the chance to come and play with Jeff and DMB for a couple of shows. And it was such a treat. Jeff and I will certainly find ways to play together again.
Q: Does Futureman ever play a standard drum kit?
A: Yes, and in fact, he’s been playing standard kit with Jeff on his Mutet recordings and live dates. He rocks the drums; it’s truly amazing.
Q: As a world-class musician, what training and experiences have you found to be the most paramount to your talent?
A: Studying bluegrass made me a strong core musician. And playing with musicians from many different musical worlds has helped me to understand the common elements between different musics. Mostly, it’s the on-the-job training that makes for quick progress.
Q: How have your musical priorities changed over the years? What gets you the most excited now about your craft?
A: I’m still looking for things to do that are new to me or the banjo. And now, performing with Abby and keeping our family together is a priority. We have a 14-month-old baby boy, and I can no longer head out on three-week-long tours with varieties of musicians.
This next period will be about Abby and I, touring with our family, broken up with short trips to play the concerto with different symphonies.
I also have a collaboration with Brooklyn Rider, an incredible string quartet. I am loathe to let that one fall away because it is so special. So we’ll still be doing some things in the fall, at least.
Q: Do you ever get tired of the banjo? Why or why not?
A: I love the banjo and don’t expect to ever lose my fascination with it. For some reason, it just turns on my muse!