Béla Fleck and his merry band of Flecktones have never been lacking for ambition. Over the course of a recording and performing career that has seen them begin as a four-piece that featured banjo, bass, percussion, and piano, eventually losing the piano and continuing as a trio only to eventually add saxophone to the mix, The Flecktones have produced some of the more adventurous and interesting music that gets filed under “jazz” in the record store today.
Their last release was a sprawling, three disc opus called Little Worlds, an album on which the anything-goes attitude belies its diminutive title, and before that was Outbound, an album that expanded on the experiments of The Flecktones’ commercial breakthrough Left of Cool by incorporating lots of vocals from Future Man (aka percussionist Roy Wooten) and even featuring such big name guest stars as Shawn Colvin and Adrian Belew.
Now, only the most hardened purists would begrudge an artist the chance to try and expand his own artistic limits. But it was getting to the point where the experiments were becoming the focus, where the guest stars and the new instrumentalists were becoming as important as the actual music being played. It’s an approach that, of late, has begun to wear on those longtime fans who came into their appreciation of The Flecktones via early albums like the self-titled debut and UFO Tofu. The Hidden Land, while it lacks the whimsy of those early efforts, is still a back-to-basics sort of disc for the band, removing the distractions and putting together an album whose sole focus is good music played by a core of incredible musicians. It is the antidote for those experimental blues.
Of course, that’s not to say that Fleck and company aren’t continuing to push the boundaries of the Flecktone sound — there are plenty of little touches on the album that are bound to inspire double takes. For one, the first track, which is an intentionally poorly produced (likely so that it sounds more spontaneous) intro track that appropriates Beethoven’s “Fugue From Prelude & Fugue No. 20 In A Minor” for saxophone, banjo, drums and bass, the logical extension of the banjo-as-applied-to-classical experiments of Fleck’s solo disc Perpetual Motion. There are some vocal bits on the album, though there’s no actual singing, really — humming and beatboxing show up on “Labyrinth” and “Misunderstood”, two of the longer pieces on the album, and there’s even a near 11-minute song here — at least, it used to be an 11-plus-minute song when it was played live. Here, it’s split into two back-to-back tracks: the longer and more interesting “Weed Whacker” and the slightly more sedate “Couch Potato”.
Amongst the less experimental tracks, there is still plenty of virtuosity to ogle and grasp onto, even when the songs themselves don’t necessarily live up to the high standards the Flecktones have set for themselves. Victor Wooten gets to show off his incredible skills with the electric bass as he duels with Jeff Coffin’s flute in “Rococo”, and “Weed Whacker” features some of the best (and fastest) banjo picking that Fleck has displayed to date. “Chennai” is a feat of composition, evidenced by incredibly long stretches where Coffin and Fleck simultaneously play long runs up and down the flute and banjo, respectively (this on a song that also features some throat singing, also courtesy of Coffin). The unsung hero of the whole bunch may well be Future Man, whose percussion keeps up with the time changes and frantic paces of the rest of the band while mostly staying out of the way as far as the listeners are concerned.
While these may be the highlights, it’s the stuff in between that turns The Hidden Land into an album that may not dazzle upon first listen, but grow over time into a much-loved masterwork. The happy modulations of “P’Lod in the House” are incredibly pleasant, and Coffin’s saxophone work is sublime. “Who’s Got Three?” is a slow-burn that features some nice syncopations amidst the feel of a lazy afternoon, and final track “The Whistle Tune” sees Fleck’s bluegrass tendencies overtake his jazz ones, closing the album with an air of pleasantry that should leave a contented smile on the face of anyone who hears it.
The Hidden Land is neither the Flecktones’ most accomplished album, nor their most accessible, nor their most enjoyable. Even so, this return to the way in which they arguably function best is both refreshing and well-put-together. Journey to The Hidden Land — you’ll enjoy the ride.