Pioneering banjo player Bela Fleck describes his new album, Outbound, as “a party with people from different cultures all hanging out.” In a nutshell, that could be the mantra for Fleck’s entire career. Over the last 20 years Fleck has taken sounds and styles from around the globe and given them his own left of center spin through his extraterrestrial banjo playing. At this point, Fleck doesn’t have to prove to anyone that he’s a virtuoso player and a master innovator. He’s simply trying to find new ways to challenge/surprise himself and his band. Outbound is Fleck’s attempt to musically one up himself, and as usual, he’s succeeded.
Outbound features guest appearances by the wonderful Shawn Colvin, the high-voiced Yes-man Jon Anderson, pioneering guitarist Adrian Below and jazz keyboardist John Medeski. Also appearing are Tuvan throat singer Ondar (check out the film Ghengis Blues if you’re unfamiliar with Tuvan throat singing), plus Indian classical vocalist Rita Sahai.
After the aptly titled “Intro,” the disc kicks off with a Emerson Lake and Palmer-esque version of Aaron Copland’s “Hoe Down,” that lets Fleck and the Flecktones flex their musical chops. “A Moment So Close” begins with Tuvan throat singing, morphs into a funky groove, then suddenly kicks in a pop chorus with vocals by Colvin and Anderson. The eerie “Hall of Mirrors” finds Fleck riffing on a melody that sounds eerily like the Police’s “Driven to Tears,” before it heads off into its own direction with Colvin adding beautiful and ethereal scat vocals to the song. Adrian Below plays simple yet evocative lines that compliment Colvin’s vocals on the breezy ” Something She Said.”
In the liner notes Fleck name checks ‘70s jazz fusion acts Weather Report and Keith Jarrett and at times he’s right on in that description of his own music. Fleck’s critics say he trivializes the various styles of music he roams through like a over-eager tourist. I think Fleck sums up his vision succinctly with the title of the cut and paste amalgam of styles tune “Shuba Yatra,” which means to “take a journey with a safe return.” In a nutshell, that’s what Outbound does.