There is a historic resonance in the timing of the reunion tour of Béla Fleck and the original Flecktones so soon after the death of Earl Scruggs, his original inspiration, in late March. Scruggs was the great modern innovator of the banjo. In the late ’40s his syncopated three-fingered picking style defined bluegrass music. In the ’70s, in a band with his sons, he redefined the music for the rock ’n’ roll generation. Fleck was drawn to the banjo when he heard Scruggs on “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme song. Today Fleck is arguably Scruggs’ heir, the premier banjo player in the world.
Fleck plays on a wide array of projects including traditional, classical and world, notably his trio with bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla master Zakir Hussain, who played the Modlin Center last year. But the Flecktones, a genre-defying, hypervirtuosic, multiracial, unconventional instrument-wielding fusion mash-up, are his signature band. A core trio -- Fleck, bassist Victor Wooten and his brother Roy “Futureman” Wooten -- have played together since the beginning. The return of founding keyboard and harmonica master Howard Levy is what makes this a reunion and an event.
In an email exchange, Fleck says the group’s interactions, in all the biggest ways, have remained very similar to their early days. “We used to really inspire each other,” he writes, “and we still do. The difference is that we have all grown as musicians, so there is more to respond to each other with.”
The current approach is captured on the band’s recent “Rocket Science.” a winningly complex sonic landscape that can evoke Bach, P-Funk, bluegrass and jazz in a single song. Levy’s unique harmonica technique, using overblowing and overdrawing to bend an emotionally flexible but harmonically–limited blues harp into a chromatic instrument, plays a huge role in the sound.
Between the inspired wail of the harmonica, the deep funk snap of the bass, and the furious percussion produced by Futureman’s guitar-shaped drum synthesizer, Fleck's style is restrained. While he can play the complex blizzard of notes associated with the banjo, he often plays slow, letting notes ring and decay. “I do love the sound of the banjo, and my banjo in particular.” Fleck says. “It is a musical goal of mine to not always play fast, so finding ways to use the banjo lyrically interest me a lot.”
Fleck refers to his musical vocabulary, with ingredients from interactions with strong musical partners from around the world as “Béla Soup.” “There is no future plan for the band to tour, so it could be some years before we re-emerge,” Fleck says. “If you saw us before late 1992 when [Levy] left the band, then I don't have to tell you anything.” This tour may be the last, best chance to sample an up-to-date musical concoction based on a classic recipe.
Béla Fleck and the Original Flecktones play two shows at the Modlin Center on April 22, one at 3 p.m., the second at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $36 general admission, $32 for seniors, $18 for children and $10 for UR students. Both shows have sold out but standby tickets will be available at the time of the shows.