[20 December 2010]
Los Angeles Times (MCT)
LOS ANGELES — It’s tempting at this time of year, with worn-out Christmas tunes blaring nonstop through every grocery store, hair salon and shopping mall from here to the Atlantic, to believe that, musically speaking, there’s nothing new under the holiday sun.
But you’ve never really heard “Jingle Bells” until you’ve heard it sung by Tuvan throat singers in an arrangement that sounds like bluegrass from one of the outer rings of Saturn.
That’s one of the sonic surprises that’s likely to greet audiences this weekend when forward-gazing banjo player Bela Fleck brings his band, the Flecktones through Southern California on a brief holiday tour highlighting music from their Grammy Award-winning 2008 album, “Jingle All the Way.”
For that collection, which snagged the pop instrumental album award two years ago, 11-time Grammy winner Fleck and his genre-blind associates did what they’d been doing for nearly two decades: They threw out the rule book, abandoned all sense of musical convention and let their inspiration run wild. That’s resulted in 28 Grammy nominations over time for Fleck, in more categories than any other musician, including pop, world music, jazz, classical, country, arranging and composing.
On the tour, Fleck has recruited the Alash Ensemble of throat singers from Tuva, in southern Siberia, to capture the full effect of familiar seasonal songs recast with the signature sound of these specially trained vocalists, each of whom can produce two and three notes simultaneously.
“It’s a combination of flipping the songs upside down to find new takes on such well-known material,” Fleck, 52, said this week about the tour, “and the Tuvan guys coming out and blowing people’s minds by showing what can be done with the human voice. ... It’s a good feeling when people get that happy.”
As unusual and otherworldly as the Flecktones’ treatments are of yuletide war horses, Fleck said their goal is never mere novelty.
For example, he noted that when the band began experimenting with a fresh approach for “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” it wasn’t lost on the members that the Western chromatic scale encompasses 12 primary notes that yield 12 key signatures. So they decided to use all 12 in their version.
“The fun thing is, because we explain it at the show, everybody gets it,” he said. “That’s the sense of wonder that people are getting.”
It’s also what many people got from his film documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart,” along with two accompanying albums that came out of his journey through Africa to trace the instrument’s roots.
“I had never done a movie, much less going someplace and filming musicians with different cultures,” said Fleck, who collaborated with his filmmaker brother, Sascha Paladino, on “Throw Down Your Heart.”
“That’s the thing about most of these projects: The sense of wonder is really important,” he said. “There’s still a lot in the world to be surprised and inspired by. It’s like when the Tuvans come out and start singing multiple tones — people are not expecting that. In the movie, when they see the guys playing a 20-foot marimba, or the guys playing thumb pianos with sharp tines at lightning speed and incredibly virtuosic playing while they’re singing.”
With the release earlier this year of a second volume of music from his trek through Africa, and a tour with some of the musicians profiled in the film, Fleck realized, “We had to stop sometime and go on to other things.”
That included a 2007 album, “The Enchantment,” and tour with jazz-fusion pioneer Chick Corea that allowed Fleck to delve headlong into his lifelong love for jazz. In addition, he and the Flecktones recently finished recording a new album that’s due next year. They’ll mount their first full-scale tour since they agreed to take a hiatus for each member to explore other musical passions.
During that break from what had been nearly two decades of almost constant touring with the Flecktones, Fleck also married Abigail Washburn, another banjo player. Unlike Fleck, who was born in New York City and fell in love with the instrument as a teenager upon hearing the theme for “The Beverly Hillbillies,” Washburn didn’t take to the instrument until well into adulthood — and then only after she’d spent several years living in China and longed for some musical connection to her homeland.
“She brings another thing into my music just by my being around her,” Fleck said. “There’s a simple warmth that radiates around her. She’s not about virtuosity or shallow things, and that makes me want to make my music more thoughtful and warm. She’s a good inspiration.”
He expects to draw on that inspiration in a banjo concerto he’s now writing on a commission from the Nashville Symphony. The orchestra is scheduled to give the premiere performance in September, and by way of preparation, Fleck is now immersing himself in classically rooted concertos he’s previously known in a more cursory way.
Along with compositions by Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy and Brahms, Fleck has been intently exploring for the first time music written by his namesake, Hungarian composer Bela Bartok.
“I like it — those dissonances of his sound great on the banjo,” Fleck said. A low-key chuckle didn’t mask the impression that he was being every bit as serious and self-effacing when he added, “Listening to this stuff might help me break out of my harmonic rut.”