Some musicians play for the casual listener, their legacy a series of sing-alongs that speak only through hackneyed lyrics and catchy beats. Some musicians play for the knowledgeable, their oeuvre a set of incomprehensible, boundary-pushing works that require decades of dissection. Far rarer are musicians with the skill and clarity to captivate both the layman and the critic. The playful Flecktones and their award-laden leader Béla Fleck are just such musicians.
Last Friday evening, Fleck and the Flecktones—a nominal throwback to 1960s rockers Dick Dale and the Del-Tones—took to Sanders Theatre as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston for two hours of non-stop bluegrass and jazz-fusion. From the onset, it was clear they are talented. Equally clear was that they know they are; the four musicians, and their eccentric guest violinist Casey Driessen, were at home on the stage. They coolly joked in between songs, tossed improvised solos back and forth, and allowed the timing of their songs to flow as they, not their audience, wanted.
Though their musicianship is made evident by their numerous accolades—including over 10 Grammy awards spread among the four of them—it was even clearer from their playful demeanor. Improvising difficult chord progressions, navigating tough transitions and riffs that would be technically impossible for most other musicians, Fleck and the Flecktones performed with an air of familiarity, humor, and humility, almost as if the Sanders stage were their living room.
The concert’s strongest moments were those in which the musicians took this playful spirit to its extreme, most significantly during bassist Victor Wooten and harmonica-player and pianist Howard Levy’s solo pieces. Wooten worked a very soulful and gentle rendition of “Amazing Grace,” in which the melody was played in harmonics while the accompaniment was transformed into a slapped-out funk beat. Levy comically tossed snippets of classical works—including Bach’s Bourrée in E minor and Strauss’s “Blue Danube”—into his solo while pulling continually more impressive, full-sounding lines out of his harmonica.
The evening’s improvised interludes were also not to be overlooked. Particularly noteworthy was Driessen’s solo in the middle of the concert. In a peculiar creative choice for his instrument, Driessen transformed the violin into a percussive instrument, playing a blur of complex beats while simultaneously managing to include subtle chord progression. This innovation was characteristic of the performers; not only is their style an original fusion of a variety of genres, but their entire concert was centered on improvisation. Drummer Roy “Futureman” Wooten even played an electronic percussive instrument of his own invention—the Drumitar—throughout the concert.
Most impressive about Fleck and the Flecktones’ music was their ability to create enjoyable, comprehensible music while refusing to adhere to tonal structures. Chromaticism and dissonance were rampant in their improvisation, but the musicians added balance with repeated basic riffs and tonal sounds. Levy was especially skilled at building tension through dissonance to just a barely tolerable level and releasing it at the perfect moment—often with a descending scale. The excitement he created was mirrored in Fleck’s solos and was especially apparent when the two traded licks.
Occasionally, the band got caught in the trap of live performance, playing the most impressive rather than the most suitable series of notes and leaving out space that would improve the clarity and flow of their solos. This resulted in sporadic flurries of notes that, though challenging, were uninteresting at best. However, these moments were far fewer than those in which the musicians wove together tones, silence, and dissonance with a flair that proved true to their reputation.
Though Fleck and the Flecktones performed with technique of the highest caliber, they did so without an air of formality. Sound glitches and missteps resulted, but more important was that the musicians were not performing to entertain by however shallow means: there were no concessions in their style or their artistry to impress their listeners. Fleck and the Flecktones were simply playing pure and uninhibited music.
—Staff writer Keerthi A. Reedy can be reached at email@example.com.