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ARTICLE: Bela Fleck, a dizzyingly gifted banjo master, got vertigo making new album. ‘It was not fun,’ he acknowledges

San Diego Union-Tribune

George Varga
December 21, 2021

A 15-time Grammy Award winner, banjo master Béla Fleck excels in such a dizzying array of styles — from bluegrass, folk and jazz to classical, country and World Music — that it was fitting when he named “Vertigo” the opening number on his captivating new album, “My Bluegrass Heart.” Then, reality threw him an unexpected curve ball.

“I actually got vertigo after writing the song, which was not fun,” Fleck said. “I thought it was a funny song name, but it’s not funny anymore.”

He chuckled wryly at the memory of his thankfully short-lived vertigo experience.

“I only had it once, for about a week, and got over it just in time to hit the road and do a solo concert,” said Fleck, who brings his all-star band to the Balboa Theatre for a Thursday concert.

“I had vertigo all the way up to when I went on stage and started to play. By the end of the concert, I didn’t have it anymore. Music really does have healing powers!”

As knotty in melodic and rhythmic construction as its title suggests, “Vertigo” kicks off Fleck’s first bluegrass album in 20 years.

Hearing him enthusiastically describe “Vertigo’s” serpentine framework underscores a few key components of Fleck’s exceptionally far-ranging career. His collaborators have included jazz piano greats Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner, funk bass king Bootsy Collins, Grateful Dead co-founder Jerry Garcia and classical violin mainstay Joshua Bell. Other artists he has worked with range from Dolly Parton, the Nashville Symphony and the Dave Matthews Band to Malian kora innovator Toumani Diabaté and Indian percussion master Zakir Hussain.

“The rhythmic approach in ‘Vertigo’ is one of the first things you learn if you hang with Indian musicians,” Fleck explained. “It’s got three phrases that all land on the down beat. I thought to myself: ‘I’ve never heard that in bluegrass.’

“Then I wrote it in 4/4, but it sounded like two bars of five and one bar of six. It could have been called ‘Whiplash!’ But if you tap your foot through it, it is in 4/4. So, the title seems fun for people who don’t know where the time signature is.”

By coincidence, Fleck’s most recent San Diego performance was at the Balboa Theatre in 2019, with a genre-leaping trio that featured Hussain and contrabassist Edgar Meyer, who Fleck first played with in 1982.

“I recall thinking I’d found a kindred spirit, somebody who was interested in making music 24/7,” Meyer said in a 2019 San Diego Union-Tribune interview about the first time he and Fleck made music together.

“Sometimes, when we’d be working with other people, after a while they’d need to go get some coffee and take a break,” Meyer continued. “And Béla and I just weren’t that way. We wanted to keep it going, and every aspect was interesting to us.”

First bluegrass tour in 24 years

Meyer is back on board for Fleck’s “My Bluegrass Heart” concert trek. The current leg of the tour also features four other instrumental wizards: mandolinist Sam Bush; dobro player Jerry Douglas; guitarist Bryan Sutton; and former San Diego violinist Stuart Duncan.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still surging, they are taking no chances on what — remarkably — is Fleck’s first bluegrass tour in 24 years.

“So far, it’s been masks and vaccinated audiences,” the banjo icon said, speaking from a recent tour stop in Minneapolis.

“We each have our own pods on the tour bus, and we’re all testing regularly, doing our best to keep everybody safe and neither get or spread the virus. We’re feeling incredibly fortunate to be out here — a bunch of musical friends who haven’t all hit the road together in 20 years. It’s a group of old friends who happen to be some of the greatest musicians around, not myself, but the others. It really is a dream team.”

Fleck’s musical dream began when he was a kid and heard the theme song for the TV comedy series “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Titled “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” it featured spiraling lines by banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs, accompanied by guitarist Lester Flatt.

Flatt & Scruggs was one of the top duos in bluegrass music and New York City native Fleck was instantly hooked. But his love of music soon extended to jazz, classical and beyond, as befits a banjo prodigy whose parents named him after famed Hungarian composer Béla Bartok.

Fleck was 15 when he got his first banjo. He credits three specific artists for providing him with early epiphanies in the 1970s that served as vital signposts for his own creative journey.

One was fellow New York banjo phenom Tony Trischka, whose 1973 solo debut album, “Bluegrass Light,” explored bluegrass, jazz and cutting-edge music. Fleck was only in his late teens when he began studying with Trischka.

The second was the 1974 edition of the Chick Corea-led fusion-jazz band Return To Forever, which featured bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Lenny White and teen guitar virtuoso Al DiMeola.

The third was the self-tilted 1977 debut album by the David Grisman Quintet, featuring guitarist Tony Rice. The mandolin-playing Grisman and his band combined jazz and bluegrass with such deft aplomb in a vocal-free setting that they laid the foundation for what soon became known as “new grass.” Fleck’s first band of note, in fact, was named New Grass Revival.

“Tony Trischka’s ‘Bluegrass Light’ is one of the most creative and wonderful albums ever made. It was a bright light for me, and still is,” Fleck said.

“David Grisman had a band with bluegrass instrumentation that didn’t have any singers and made albums that went to No. 1 on the jazz charts. That made me go: ‘Wow! That’s what I want to do.’ I wanted to do a combination of what Tony Trischka and David Grisman were doing.

“Then, when I was 17, I saw a 1974 concert by Chick and Return To Forever at the Beacon Theater in New York and it shook me up. I couldn’t believe anyone could play that good! And having that much control, facility and humor was a template for me for what later turned into my band, The Flecktones.

“I’m very indebted to Chick, David and Tony Trischka. And my song ‘Vertigo’ is my attempt to write my version of ‘EM.D.,’ the great e-minor tune that opens the first David Grisman Quintet album.”

Multigenerational musical lineup

The two-disc “My Bluegrass Heart” is dedicated to Corea and Tony Rice, both of whom passed away last year. He collaborated with each, in concert and on record, and still pinches himself that he did.

“I couldn’t have wanted anything more, or thought it more unlikely,” said Fleck, who expects his next duo album with Corea to be released next year. “And to get to play as much and to become the kind of friends we became and get to play as much as we did is one of the great joys of my life.”

Fleck’s 1979 debut solo album, “Crossing the Tracks,” included his banjo version of Corea’s classic “Spain,” which served as a prelude to their subsequent collaborations. In 1984, Fleck recorded on Rice’s album, “Cold on the Shoulder.”

Fleck’s “My Bluegrass Heart” features an array of his longtime musical partners, including Trischka, Grisman, Meyer and Jerry Douglas. The 19-song outing also boasts appearances by two former San Diegans, violinist Duncan and mandolin superstar Chris Thile, both of whom have previously collaborated with Fleck.

What makes “My Bluegrass Heart” doubly notable is that it also showcases such rising young instrumental stars as guitarists Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, mandolinist Sierra Hull and violinist Michael Cleveland. The multigenerational lineup provides a vital musical continuum on an album that celebrates the skill and imagination of its participants.

“I had a lot of the tunes for a long time and was trying to figure out who should play on this and who should play on that,” Fleck said.

“Then I started earmarking specific things. So, when I knew Billy and Sierra were coming to record, I thought: ‘I have to give them something for their personalities to shine through on.’ So, I added more to those tunes, I needed to make sure it was challenging for those guys in the right way.”

Had all gone according to plan, Rice would also have performed on “My Bluegrass Heart.” The recording of the album was completed just prior to the coronavirus pandemic shutdown.

But Rice was a no-show, largely because of his failing health. Fleck, who had envisioned Rice as a key contributor to the album, was understandably dismayed. His spirits lifted after he pivoted to Bryan Sutton, a nine-time International Bluegrass Music Association Guitar Player of the Year honoree who has performed on albums by Taylor Swift, Eric Church and more.

“At some point, my son, Theodore, got very sick with a liver disease and we were in great danger of losing him. Everything worked out fine, thank God, and it’s not that his recovery was a catalyst for me wanting to do this project,” Fleck said of the long-incubating “My Bluegrass Heart.”

“But I felt it was suddenly really important to reconnect with this world, the bluegrass world, which I’d been putting off. There was a sense of life being unpredictable, a feeling that we were all getting older, and that if I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t happen. After a bruising emotional experience, it feels good to be with your musical family.”

Fleck’s artistic scope long ago transcended bluegrass. But it is still one of his early musical foundations, even if he has turned away from it for extended periods to pursue other stylistic approaches.

The music on “My Bluegrass Heart” is crafted to celebrate the genre’s traditions at the same time it twists and extends them.

That combination of reverence and daring, of pushing forward while saluting the past, has long been one of Fleck’s trademarks. In the 1980s he so thoroughly redefined the possibilities of his instrument — thanks in part to the Crossfire electric banjo he played that was specially made for him by San Diego’s Deering Banjos — that he was hailed as a twang-free combination of Jimi Hendrix and Niccolò Paganini.

“My goal to take the bluegrass out of banjo and the banjo out of bluegrass has gone pretty well,” said Fleck, who is married to fellow banjo ace Abigail Washburn. “And I’ve been able to make a living and keep my idealistic view about the music I make, which I consider to be a pretty resounding success.

“I feel very, very fortunate and still love what I get to do. But with bluegrass, we all come back to it. You have it in your blood and you want to come back to it.”

But returning to bluegrass banjo-playing can be physically demanding, as the now-63-year-old Fleck can attest. And doing so after not touring for after nearly 17 months because of the pandemic has made matters even more demanding.

“With bluegrass, I had to get used to playing standing up again,” Fleck noted. “For many years, I was playing sitting down, whether it was with Chick Corea, orchestras or Zakir Hussain. All of a sudden you stand up, with a very heavy instrument and your back is in rivets!

“So, it’s best if you do that in increments and work back to what it will take to stand up for two-and-a-half-hours on stage. Plus, your hands work differently standing up. But practicing has been good and I’ve been able to get most of it back.

“Certain types of speed and dexterity are harder to get back. You have to do it all the time or you can’t play like that. So, how much time do you want to spend when you’re home for months with your family? In a perfect world if I practiced 45 minutes a day, I’d keep my chops up. For me, its feast or famine. I lost my callouses during the pandemic. Now, they’re back.”

Did you know?

In 1994, Fleck and his genre-blurring band, The Flecktones, were scheduled to open for Bob Dylan at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Things did not go the way Fleck envisioned.

“We were so excited to open for him,” Fleck recalled. “We were like: ‘Awesome. This is the biggest gig of our career!’ We got there at the venue and Bob hand done his soundcheck first. We got ready to do our soundcheck and here were these big ‘muscle guys’ in Bob’s road crew. They told us: ‘No one is coming on this stage.’

“We said: ‘But we’re the opening act. It’s been approved.’ And they replied: ‘Sorry, no one is coming on Mr. Dylan’s stage until after he performs. So, Bob went on first. When he finished, they took all his gear down. We then put our gear up, did our soundcheck and played to 40 people. Thank you, Bob! It was nothing personal; his crew was protecting him and his gear.”

Béla Fleck’s “My Bluegrass Heart,” featuring Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Bryan Sutton

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Where: Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter

Tickets: $33-$68

Phone: (858) 459-3724

Online: ljms.org