In the assured hands of Béla Fleck, the banjo becomes a medium for almost any musical genre imaginable: jazz, bluegrass, rock, pop, classical... The versatile artist's curiosity and eclectic taste make for a rich and often surprising repertoire, punctuated by covers as innovative as Fleck's original compositions. Alongside his band, the Flecktones - a talented and adventurous group of musicians in their own right - the New York-based banjoist further expands his sound, looking to different cultures and musical traditions for inspiration.
Béla Anton Leoš Fleck was named after not one but three composers: Béla Bartók, Antonín Dvork and Leoš Janácek. Music, therefore, seemed to be his destiny from day one. Indeed, Fleck describes his first encounters with the banjo as being "like sparks going off in my head." At age 15, he was given the instrument as a gift from his grandfather. While attending New York City's High School of Music and Art, the young musician started to adapt bebop and jazz songs for the banjo.
He joined the Boston-based group Tasty Licks, which released two albums before disbanding in 1979. That year, the 20-year-old released his first solo album, Crossing the Tracks, on which he collaborated with future musical partners Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas. In 1982, Fleck joined them in the New Grass Revival and stayed with the group until the end of the decade. Creating a progressive blend of rock, country and bluegrass, the band was the ideal showcase for Fleck's genre bending style.
During this period, the banjoist continued to build his solo career with a series of releases. His album Drive was nominated for a Grammy in 1988. That same year, Fleck was asked by PBS television to play on the Lonesome Pine series. He assembled a diverse and gifted group of musicians: Howard Levy on harmonica, Victor Wooten on bass and his brother Roy Wooten (aka "Futureman") on percussion. The quartet's first performance didn't air until 1992, at which point the Flecktones were already well on their way.
In 1990, the band released its self-titled debut, which Fleck financed himself. Described as "blu-bop," a mix of jazz and bluegrass that re-interpreted works by everyone from Chick Corea to Paul McCartney, the album was nominated for a Grammy that year. The 1991 follow-up, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, earned the group its second nomination in the Jazz Album category.
In 1992, the Flecktones arrived in Montreal for the 13th edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. Their performance was such a success - due in part to a memorable cover of The Beatles's Michelle - that they returned the following year. In 1995, the banjoist extraordinaire appeared at the Festival again, this time as the opening artist for the Rite of Strings concert, featuring guitarist Al Di Meola, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and bassist Stanley Clarke. At that point, the Flecktones had become a trio after Levy left in 1992, but it later expanded back to four members with the arrival of saxophonist Jeff Coffin in the late 1990s.
Fleck released Tales from the Acoustic Planet in 1995, the first album in what was to become a series. His 1999 follow-up, The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2, revealed textured sound and nuanced interpretation of the title genre.
While critics were still praising Fleck for his creative and thorough recording, the artist had already moved on, releasing his first classical effort, Perpetual Motion, in 2001. Interpreting Bach and Chopin on the banjo, he freed his instrument, yet again, from any preconceptions. The album won a Grammy for Best Classical Crossover Album the following year.
For the Festival's 25th anniversary in 2004, which also marked Fleck's fifth appearance at the event, the Flecktones invigorated crowds with its colourful spectrum of sound. Fleck returned the next year to reunite with Ponty and Clarke. In 2006, the band released The Hidden Land, a diverse collection of jazz improvisation, classical, funk and bluegrass that won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album in 2007. That year, the Flecktones were back on the Festival's stages.
In 2009, Fleck released the third instalment in his Tales from the Acoustic Planet series, entitled Throw Down Your Heart: The Africa Sessions. This time, he explored the African origins of the banjo through travels in Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Mali, South Africa and Madagascar. The album is testament to Fleck's inexhaustible commitment to pushing the boundaries of the banjo.
In 2010, the musician reunited with the original Flecktones for a world tour. The band also entered the studio to record Rocket Science, which came out in May 2011.