bela, brooklyn and the banjo

bela fleck

bela fleck. photo by shervin lainez.

Look back at the projects Bela Fleck has been involved over the past decade and you will discover a checklist of progressive musical settings that would have previously been considered alien territory for the string instrument he has helped pioneer – the banjo.Where do we begin? How about the West meets very Eastern music designed with bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla player Zakir Hussain? There is also the unlikely piano-meets-banjo music with the iconic instrumentalist Chick Corea. The list goes on – a yearlong reunion with the original lineup of the banjoist’s fusion group The Flecktones, a touring summit with some of Africa’s most acclaimed musical heroes, combo jazz with pianist Marcus Roberts and duo concerts alongside perhaps Fleck’s most favored fellow banjo artist – wife Abigail Washburn.

Which of these configurations brings the multi-Grammy winning Fleck back to Central Kentucky tonight? None of them. For his performance at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, Fleck will perform music with the industrious New York string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

“The truth is I usually try to do things that are pretty different from each other,” Fleck said last week prior to the tour’s opening. “For instance, playing with African musicians doesn’t necessarily set up me for playing with classical musicians, except that I’m ready for it. I’m ready for a change. I must have the typical American short attention span. After awhile, I’m just really ready to step into something brand new.”

Anchoring tonight’s performance is the quintet piece Night Flight Over Water which Fleck recorded with Brooklyn Rider for his current album, The Imposter. The work is paired on the Deutsche Grammophon release with The Imposter Concerto, an original work recorded with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

“The Banjo Concerto was about 35 minutes long, so there was some discussion about what the rest of the CD would be like,” Fleck said. “I floated a bunch of ideas by Deutsche Grammophon that I was excited about. One of them was writing a piece for banjo and string quartet. So the next thing was to find a string quartet – the right string quartet.”

Enter Brooklyn Rider – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen – an ensemble that aptly describes itself on the back sleeve of its newest recording, A Walking Fire, as “intrepid.” The quartet members played Danville and Richmond last spring alongside Yo-Yo Ma as members of the Silk Road Ensemble.

“I got signed with an agency that handles classical artists, especially people like Yo-Yo Ma. They are the ones that brought up the idea of Brooklyn Rider. Then I did my due diligence and studied their music and asked around. Everyone said, ‘Perfect choice,’ because they have a great sensibility for collaboration, but they are also at the very highest rank of classical players.

“The great thing about these guys is that they are classical musicians but have listened to so much music outside of that. For instance, if I show up with something that has a little bit of a bluegrass pocket, they know what it’s supposed to sound like and they are really excited to get inside it and learn from it. They’ve listened to a lot of Latin music. They’ve listened to a lot of African music. They are just very musical people of this time. They are not your stereotypical classical musicians who are only interested in the classics.

“The music in the classical world is so spectacular that I can see why people get hung up on it and don’t think of anything else as real music. But it’s all musical expression. That’s what music is supposed to be, and it’s all valid. Luckily, these guys look at it that way. That’s why we’re a good fit.”

Since so many of Fleck’s past projects relied on hefty levels of improvisation, a different sense of collaboration came into play with Brooklyn Rider, especially since Night Flight Over Water was a thoroughly composed piece. But the more Fleck got to know his new bandmates, the more he knew what he wanted the piece to sound like.

 “I started writing a bunch of sketches, not knowing what was going to sound good for a string quartet and banjo and brought those up to Brooklyn. We did a sort of read-through of ideas. That gave me a good sense of who they were and how to write for them. Then I went through a workshopping stage. The next time I got together with them, I had written a piece. We spent a couple of days running though that which helped me sort through what needed to change about the piece when we recorded it, which was a couple of months later. So they had a lot of input in the piece as to what they liked, what they thought worked and what fit them.

“It wasn’t anybody saying, ‘Hey, rewrite this part’ or ‘that doesn’t work.’ But what they did bring was a knowledge about how to make a new piece like that sound great. They got that from doing so many things with so many different people.

“When you get a new piece of music, it’s like a puzzle. You sit down and look at it. You see the notes. Then you have to figure out how to make it into music. And that is what these guys are really excellent at.”

Bela Fleck and Brooklyn Rider perform at 8 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $24-$46. Call (859) 236-4692 or go to

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