When Earl Scruggs died last month, the bluegrass pioneer was rightly hailed as perhaps the most innovative and influential banjoist in history. But for Béla Fleck, the New York-born fusion artist who arguably now stands in Scrugg's place as the instrument's top player, the loss was also personal.
"Earl had a huge influence on me. I wouldn't even play the banjo if it weren't for hearing him play 'The Beverly Hillbillies' when I was little," Fleck said recently by e-mail, referring to "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," the theme song to the popular '60s TV comedy by Scruggs and longtime musical partner Lester Flatt.
"He was a great musician, and I was very fortunate to get to know him more in the last few years," he added. "His playing had such an impact on me, but he as a person had impeccable manners. I remember that in a jam session he was totally encouraging and treated everyone equally. Personally, he had a way of making people feel valued that was very special."
Though Scruggs himself was something of a visionary -- a member of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys band that virtually invented bluegrass -- it's doubtful even he could have foreseen the places Fleck would take the banjo. Over a three-decade career, Fleck -- whose first name, tellingly, is a tribute to the classical composer Béla Bartók (his middle names Anton and Leo also are derived from composers) -- has revealed the instrument, once relegated to the musical back roads of country and folk music, as a versatile and expressive instrument capable of playing funk, jazz, world music and even modern classical.
The chief vehicle for Fleck's reinvention of the banjo has been the Flecktones, the jazz-fusion group he formed 23 years ago. The band is currently touring behind its 14th album, the Grammy-winning 2011 release Rocket Science, with a stop scheduled Friday at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre.
In 1989, Fleck already was a well-known member of the progressive bluegrass scene, having joined the movement's leading lights, New Grass Revival, earlier in the decade, just a few years out of high school. In that band, Fleck had helped expand the scope of bluegrass by introducing different genres, more ambitious song structures and even electric instrumentation to the traditional sound.
But with his new group, Fleck looked to take things to a different level. He teamed with harmonica player/keyboardist Howard Levy, funk-based bassist Victor Wooten, and Wooten's brother Roy, better known to fans as Future Man, who plays a guitar-shaped electronic percussion instrument of his own invention called the Drumitar. With this unique lineup, the group, which has won five Grammys over the years, formed an original sound that drew on all their backgrounds and then some.
For fans, the current album and tour are a special treat, featuring a reunion of the original lineup of the band after 18 years. Levy left the group after 1992's UFO Tofu, and saxophonist Jeff Coffin eventually replaced him. In 2008, however, Coffin was pegged to replace deceased saxophonist LeRoi Moore in the Dave Matthews Band. Rather than forge ahead as a trio, the Flecktones decided to reach out to Levy to see if they could recapture the sound of the earlier band and push it to new places.
"Howard is very idealistic, and wants to be challenged, but he is also very musical and not afraid to play something pretty or simple," Fleck said of the difference in the group with Levy. "It's partly the instruments, harmonica and piano being quite different from saxes, flute and clarinet. And it's partly the very different energy that he brings. I love he and Jeff both as musicians, but Howard is part of what I was looking for when the band started, so there is that original feeling of what the Flecktones always intended to be, with him."
Flecktones fans shouldn't get too used to seeing the original band back together, however. After their current tour ends this month, Fleck says the band plans to take a hiatus that could last "several years."
But that doesn't mean the famously prolific Fleck will be silent. Having previously worked on classical-style pieces with frequent bass collaborator Edgar Meyer and Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain, Fleck recently debuted a new banjo concerto with the Nashville Symphony. He's planning more performances of the piece, with a documentary and album also in the works. And in addition to several solo, bluegrass, and string quartet shows he has planned, he is also joining the Marcus Roberts Trio jazz combo later this year for an album and tour.
"This is some earthy and warm music," he said of the latter. "It has the sound of an older kind of jazz, mixed with the rootsy banjo sound and a modern sensibility. I love it."
Béla Fleck & the Flecktones
8 p.m. Friday at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, 1801 Exeter. Tickets: $25, $35, $45; available at the box office and online at gpacweb.com. For more information, call (901) 751-7500.