Bela Fleck

Bela Fleck Interview

worldbeatcanada radio – INTERVIEW


Bela Fleck - Jingle All The Way

Bela Fleck

‘Jingle All The Way’



Roses are reddish
Violets are bluish
If it weren't for Christmas
We'd all be Jewish
Benny Hill (1924 - 1992) English comedian

Celt In A Twist: At Berklee College of Music, excellence in musicianship is king, and one band is venerated above all others. They’re not rockers, poppers or hip hoppers, they are Bela Fleck and The Flecktones; a banjo- based outfit that shatters all preconceptions about bluegrass and takes instrumental innovation to dizzying new heights. For the holiday season, they’ve recorded Jingle All The Way, a singular triumph of improvisation and without question one of the most stunning contemporary Christmas albums I’ve ever heard. Bela Fleck joins us by phone. The best of the season to you Bela.

Bela Fleck: Thank you. Same to you.

CIAT:  First things first, I’m an avid bass player and crazy for all things Rickenbacker. Where on earth did you find a Rickenbacker banjo, or did the factory make one special for you?

BF: I think the Rickenbacker banjo was made in the sixties and there's an instrument dealer here in Nashville who gets in touch whenever anything interesting pops up and he got in touch and said. "Bela, I think I may have something you'll like." I went and looked at it and it was like, Holy Cow! That thing is cool! And, I'm a big Beatles fan so it was like I could be a banjo player and George Harrison.

CIAT:  Definitely one of the coolest things I've seen! Jingle All The Way is a collection of the most standardized of holiday standards we’ve all heard from birth. Was that the challenge for you guys; to take these roasted chestnuts and see how far you could re-imagine them?

BF: That was the challenge. That was why we did it because we knew it would be a lot of fun. Like, alto of times, songs that have been in your consciousness so deep, provide opportunities after they've been in there for  a while. Ya, we were just looking for all the juicy stuff we could do with them.

CIAT: You were obviously destined for musical acclaim, being named after Bela Bartok. The kicker for me is that you fell in love with the banjo, as I and many others of our vintage did, after listening to Earl Scruggs pick out the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies. What was it about that sound that caught you?

BF: You know, he has had that impact on a lot of people. I wouldn't say that anybody since Earl has had that impact, where somebody hears the sound of this guy playing and they either have to stop their car or they have to go find a banjo ... find out that sound is. It's just so compelling. He's a deep and powerful musician. I'm lucky enough to be living about a mile from him here in Nashville and we've gotten to be friends. He's in his late 80s, But, it's just one of those sounds. It's one of those earthy, incredible sounds. It's primitive, it's modern, it's everything.

CIAT: You’ve won what, 13 Grammies, more nominations than you can probably remember, and you’ve surrounded yourself with other extraordinary players. Tell us about Victor Wooten. He’s one of my all time favorite bass players.

BF: a, it's been fun with Victor because really, when he started , he was a baby, a new guy, and I  had already been on the bluegrass scene for ten years and as time has gone by, I think he is more well-known than I am. He's become a super-star bass player on the scene. He's won Bass Player Magazine's Bass Player of the Year more than anybody probably by now. He's just a genius. he plays the bass in such a musical way that  some times it sounds like three basses; sometimes it's the funkiest thing you ever heard, sometimes it's modern but it's always got a lotta heart and a lotta feel.

CIAT: He certainly sets the bar high.

BF: Yes he does, but he's a good guy. you can hear it in his playing. 

CIAT: You’ve got your Celt In A Twist with Bela Fleck. If you’re looking for inspiration this Christmas, be there with bells on when The Flecktones perform Jingle All The Way at The Chan Centre in Vancouver on December 4th. For more tour information, you can always turn to the web of knowledge. The home page is Future Man is handles the percussion duties in the Flecktones. He’s Victor’s brother and he plays a drumitar which sounds like something Flock of Seagulls might have used in the 80s. Can you tell us about this contraption?

BF: Maybe so. He's a mad inventor/genius -type. He came up with this idea, being a drummer, that he would like to have the drums in his hands and walk around the stage. Around the time drum machines came into modern usage, he make that leap; that there could be an instrument design that he could wear where he could play all his sounds on his drum machine. But, the main problem is that the drum machines weren't sensitive. You hear the snare and it's BANG! You couldn't play it subtly like a jazz drummer and shade it with different colours. So he figured out how to do that. And, he built and instrument that was incredibly sensitive where he could play so quiet you could hardly hear it and then take our head off with power, and he figured out how to make the sounds go into each other so as he played it harder , the tones changed and it was just an amazing accomplishment. because when you hear him play it's just the most amazing drumming that you ever heard but the sound is a little different. And, now when you see him play live he plays half acoustic and half electric. So, he's got the electric instrument on and he can put down a stick and walk around the stage with that one, but he also likes to stand next to a half-drum kit and play it with one hand while he plays electric drums with the other hand. He's truly and odd, wonderful musician.

CIAT: Boy, those Wooten's sure dipped deep into the gene pool didn't they?

BF: Ya, they really did. There are actually five brothers and they all are musical geniuses.

CIAT: And, we should also hear about Jeff Coffin on wind instruments.

BF: Jeff is just an incredible wind player and with us he ends up playing flute, clarinet, he plays baritone saxophone, tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, soprano, sax , so we have a saxophone player but we really have a bunch of instrumentalists. The songs can have a different sound. If we want this song to have a flute because it's not a horn sound at all, or if we want a clarinet to get an old fashioned sound ... you know, that sort of thing. When Dave Matthews Band lost their saxophone player when LeRoi Moore  died, they replaced him with Jeff. So, now Jeff is full-time with the Dave Matthews Band and luckily we could get him for this tour.

CIAT:  There are so many outstanding moments on this disc and we’re going to share as man as we can through the holidays. I love your treatment of Linus and Lucy by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, Sleigh Ride and The Christmas Song are amazing, but we’ll round out this interview with the opener, Jingle Bells featuring the Alash Ensemble of Tuvan throat singers. How did this collaboration come about?

BF: This is an interesting story. For folks who don't know what a Tuvan Throat singer is about, he's a person from western Siberia who has learned to sing several tones at one time with his his throat. And, there's four of them we're talking about, a group of four throat singers. It's an unearthly sound; truly mind-boggling what humans can do when they start young. We met them because the first, really famous throat singer, a guy named Kongar-ool Ondar, came to the United States and was signed to Warner Brothers in Nashville around the same time we were in the early 90s. And, because we were both the oddest ducks on the Warner Brothers' country label, we got pushed together a few times, and we really liked him! So, he became a good friend of ours and he ended p in our video, Live At The Quick. Theses guys in Alash are the proteges and nephews of Kongar-ool. They saw the Flecktones on this DVD with Kongar-ool and they just thought it was the greatest thing. they said, "Our dream tis to work with you guys." And, I said, " Well, we're doing some recording in Nashville, so why don't you come by and we'll try something." So, they came to town and that's how we got them on the record.

Bela Fleck was interviewed, November 23rd, 2010