Aretha Franklin singing opera? Billy Joel composing classical piano works?
Sure. Why not?
Rock and pop performers have been flirting with classical styles and orchestral pyrotechnics for decades, from the Beatles to Metallica. The purpose, it would seem, would be to explore not only the style but also to summon the perceived austerity of the genre and latch on to the sense of artistic legitimacy it has the capability to evoke.
However, in these terms Béla Fleck should have little to prove. As a five-time Grammy winner (his most recent for “Best Contemporary Jazz Album” with his 2000 release Outbound), Fleck has proven himself as a versatile performer time and time again, from his numerous funk/jam albums with the Flecktones to his tremendous prowess in traditional bluegrass.
Perpetual Motion is Fleck’s latest project, a daring foray into Baroque, Classical and Romantic art music. Plucking the disc’s title from the early 19th-century violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini’s repertoire, it is a collection of adventurous technical showpieces from Bach, Debussy, Chopin, Scarlatti, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and, of course, Paganini himself. Known for his impossibly demanding arrangements and performance of popular works and original compositions, Paganini was a star and an idol in his own time. Fleck’s astute correlation between Paganini’s notoriety and his own capabilities as a musician is certainly appropriate.
While the standard tricks of that virtuosic Italian violinist are easily abandoned, including his propensity for purposely breaking strings until only one remained upon which he would finish the piece, his legendary displays of dexterity cannot be ignored. Fleck easily obliges this tradition by showcasing his nimble talent on the majority of the tracks, most notably in the Presto of the Brahms arrangement of Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major as well within the last few variations of Beethoven’s 7 Variations on “God Save the Queen”.
While Fleck’s technique is stunning, unfortunately his approach to interpretation is severely limited. Too often the tracks sound tentative and conservative, relegating the majority of the Bach inventions to mere academic exercises and leaving the Beethoven pieces devoid of much personality. Further limitations are imposed by the nature of Fleck’s instrument itself. While the percussive timbre of the Fleck’s banjo helps to define technical passages with remarkable clarity, it lacks a great deal of warmth due to its inability to sustain in the slower sections.
The arrangements of the works in question on the disc all belong to Fleck and his colleagues, including acclaimed classical guitarist John Williams, violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Gary Hoffman, percussionist Evelyn Glennie and pianist Edgar Meyer. Some are more successful than others in distilling the essence of the original work. In particular, the use of marimba adds a gorgeous sonic texture to Bach’s 3 Part Invention #15 and is used with equal effectiveness in the 1st movement of Bach’s Partita No. 3.
Yet other arrangements fall completely flat, bordering on dreadful. A case in point is Fleck’s treatment of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”. Little needs to be said except that Fleck’s contribution to the track is minimal, which begs the question of why it was even included on the album in the first place. While the centerpieces of the album are the two arrangements of Paganini’s Moto Perpetuo (the second of which is a spirited attempt at a bluegrass treatment), they boast a lot of flash and little else.
However, out of all the composers featured on the disc, Fleck seems to be right at home with Chopin. Fleck’s treatment and performance of both mazurkas (Op. 59/3, No. 38 and Op. 6, No.1) as well as the Etude in C# Minor, Op. 10, No. 4, reveals a depth of understanding and sensitivity to the music in question and is a perfect fit for his instrument. The folk-like qualities of the works perfectly combine with the folk associations conjured by the sound of the banjo and Fleck’s ability to capture both the style and feel of the pieces. The result is a fascinating trip and an interesting twist on Chopin, who by taking these folk styles into the classical genre allows Fleck the freedom to bring even more folk sensibilities into play. And everyone involved, it would seem, is a little wiser for the journey.
Perpetual Motion is a curious addition to a spotless body of work from Béla Fleck. Having proven himself time and time again as a formidable presence in jazz, rock, pop and bluegrass, this album would seem to be the next logical step. While most longtime fans of Fleck will be amazed and astounded once again by his versatility and technical ability — as anyone should be — many classical connoisseurs will probably prefer to keep the banjos away from their Bach.