When Béla Fleck came to the WQXR Café, curious staff members began asking about his repertoire. Would he be playing Scarlatti or Scruggs? A Bach invention or a bluegrass breakdown?
Fleck can do all of those things and more. Almost single-handedly, he established the banjo's capacity to move easily across genres stretching from the blues and bluegrass to contemporary jazz and world music.
But being at a classical music station, Fleck, 55, wasn't about to miss an opportunity to show off his classical chops, so he focused on excerpts from The Imposter, a new banjo concerto he composed for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. "You’ll just have to imagine the orchestra – we couldn’t afford them today," he joked, before launching into the repeated arpeggiated riffs of its second movement.
The Imposter is dedicated to Earl Scruggs, the bluegrass pioneer who brought the banjo back to national prominence during the 1950s and 60s. Scruggs attended Fleck's premiere of the concerto in September 2011, six months before he passed away at age 88.
"Earl Scruggs did so many things, from bringing the banjo out of the hills and back into the mainstream—because the banjo was a very popular instrument in the late 1800s and early 1900s," Fleck told host Jeff Spurgeon. "And then it pretty much was dying out in terms of the mainstream."
Just as Scruggs covered rock tunes in the 1960s like Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" and played in rock and pop venues, Fleck has sought to push the limits of the instrument. In the 1980s Fleck played with the cutting-edge group New Grass Revival, known for its wild, virtuosic style, and by the '90s he was fronting his own band the Flecktones, which remains active today.
Fleck edged his way into classical concert halls starting with "Perpetual Motion," a 2001 album of classical pieces for which he won a pair of Grammy awards. A few years later he collaborated with bassist Edgar Meyer and the Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain on a Triple Concerto, premiered with the Detroit Symphony and conductor Leonard Slatkin.
Along with the concerto, Fleck's new recording features Night Flight Over Water, an original piece he plays with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider (a joint national tour is planned for the fall and winter). He said that while an orchestra can feel overwhelming in size, "with a string quartet, we’re all sitting very close to each other just as we would be in a bluegrass band."
Does Fleck encounter much resistance to the idea of a banjo in classical settings, with requests to play something more "down home?"
"That’s a stereotype about the banjo, that it can only be happy,” he said. "I've done some very sad banjo playing. And I’ve heard people play soulful, simple melodies on the banjo that make you want to cry. So it’s really about the musician."
Video: Kim Nowacki; Audio: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise; Interview: Jeff Spurgeon