Bela Fleck took the banjo out of its box and into the world.
The banjo is a mainstay in bluegrass bands, along with the fiddle, guitar, mandolin and stand-up bass. And even though Fleck made a name for himself in the bluegrass and jam scenes, he was not content to remain confined. The way he saw it, the banjo was an instrument of limitless flexibility, with one of its great assets being its ability to contribute to any musical style.
Fleck has been nominated for Grammys in more categories than any other musician. With 30 nominations and 15 wins to his credit, he’s quite possibly the most famous banjo player in the world. But he’s constantly challenging himself to play in new contexts, to learn new songs and to keep creating.
“The banjo is an instrument with incredible potential,” Fleck says, “and incredible history. The very stereotypes that have kept the banjo down are what now allow it to soar.”
He references some of the common associations people have with the banjo, like the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies or the soundtrack of Deliverance. He contrasts this with the true history of the instrument.
“The banjo has been a founding instrument of jazz,” he says, “and now it’s all over indy rock, and I get to pop it into jazz, classical, and world music, which is fun.”
This summer, Fleck’s tour book is loaded, and he’s playing with bluegrass greats Del McCoury and David Grisman, his wife and fellow musician Abigail Washburn, and symphony orchestras all over the country. When he comes to Westhampton Beach on June 29, he’ll be performing with Brooklyn Rider, a classical string quartet for whom he composed a new banjo concerto, Night Flight Over Water. It is one of two concertos on his most recent album, The Impostor.
“I wrote my first banjo concerto several years ago,” Fleck says. “It clocked in at 36 minutes, which wasn’t long enough to fill a whole CD.”
Fleck had to think about what would complement the earlier piece, which was written for full orchestra and banjo and was recorded with the Nashville Symphony.
“I loved the idea of writing a string quartet and banjo piece,” Fleck says, “and I was fortunate enough to be commissioned to do it by Butler University.”
He was matched up with Brooklyn Rider, an adventurous string quartet that loves to play new music and try new things.
“When we started touring, it quickly became clear that this was a very sweet combination,” Fleck says. “We got along great, and the music just flows.”
Together, they’ve worked on some of Brooklyn Rider’s older pieces as well as Fleck’s, and Fleck has written more for them to perform on tour. They’ve created a set that they’re really enjoying.
Because Fleck continues to take the banjo out of its usual contexts, he is able to find a voice that’s surprising and fresh.
“Context has a huge impact on how the banjo is perceived,” says Fleck, “and I certainly do enjoy the chance to play differently in each situation. That’s actually the fun part for me—finding ways to play differently and see what comes out. In this setting, the banjo is the stranger and has rhythmic options that the other instruments do not. And they have lyric options that I don’t have. So, we complete each other!”
The Impostor album was a new kind of undertaking for Fleck, and he found it to be quite challenging. It’s comprised of two extended pieces, The Impostor Concerto and Night Flight Over Water.
“It was an intense and extended effort,” says Fleck. “It was certainly the hardest and longest I have worked on any project, with many months of work done before ever playing a note.”
But the payoff was great, because Fleck loves to take the banjo into new settings. Through these concertos, he is able to collaborate with great classical musicians and watch the banjo shine in a whole new light.
“I love the chance to create music that bridges these worlds,” he says.
Bela Fleck and Brooklyn Rider performing at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach, on Sunday, June 29, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $60, $70 or $80. Visit whbpac.org or call 631-288-1500.