As intimate venues go, the Blue Note in New York City’s Greenwich Village certainly qualifies. Reaching up and high-fiving the lead guitarist after a solo is doable, if not downright tempting. And it’s dinner theatre-style seating instantly makes a set a communal experience. (The mirror and leather-padded striped walls suggest a more wanton environment though.)
So when Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, traversing the crowd in order to take the stage, mingled through, their larger than life abilities seemed quite ordinary—if only for a moment.
The occasion, a holiday tour in support of their latest release, the festive Jingle All the Way, found the band even more relaxed and in their element than usual. It also makes one wonder how long the above album really took to record. With such incredible pitch, listening abilities and virtuosic skill, the album seems like a jocular seasonal exercise evolving into a record ex-post. Without abandoning the melodies that have made them seasonal standards the record is more or less deconstructed Christmas carols.
They lead off with “Medley”, a densely packed six minutes including “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas”, “My Favorite Things”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “The Little Drummer Boy”.
Only getting started, “Silent Night” and “Sleigh Ride” quickly followed. At one point saxophonist Jeff Coffin played both alto and tenor saxophone, simultaneously harmonizing and performing on the two instruments—an awesome party trick.
Percussionist and inventor Future Man (Roy Wooten) dressed like a pirate, as is his custom. He regularly ignites the crowd with his singularly unique synthaxe drumitar instrument, tapping and fingering intricately delicate rhythms. With his younger brother, Victor Wooten, on bass, they continually created a coolly swinging rhythm section, particularly on “Sleigh Ride” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. They possess an intangible rhythmic connection, manifesting itself in an effortlessly perpetual swing. It plants the quartet’s sound into a jazzy context whenever they need such a feel.
Béla Fleck jokingly told the crowd, “Hey guys, keep it down. Vic’s playing”. The crowd ceased murmuring even though Fleck said it teasingly and it was inconceivable for such an appreciative audience to ignore Wooten’s solo, but quiet, playing. And from his extended solo he segued into the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, only to trip over a transition and start over with the crowd’s encouragement. He obviously should have practiced more. Redeeming himself, he then played a solo version of “The Christmas Song” with everyone in the room looking on in a mix of admiration, astonishment, and apathy (the latter referring to the wait staff).
In a season replete with circus albums, the Flecktones’ contribution came by way of a juggling act: Performing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” using a different key and time signature for each day. It was dizzying to listen to, let alone keep track of.
And with the melodies so familiar, the group so relaxed and the playing mostly effortless, it was easy to forget how masterful the Flecktones really are.