Banjo virtuoso Fleck's appealing collaboration with piano trio

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 August, 2012, 8:21am


Few musicians are as versatile as banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck: he has been nominated for Grammy awards in more categories than any other instrumentalist.

Quite a lot of his work files comfortably in the jazz racks, particularly his latest release on Rounder Records,
Across the Imaginary Divide. This is a collaboration with the Marcus Roberts Trio, and will appeal to those who enjoyed his 2007 collaboration with Chick Corea,
The Enchantment.

Fleck is a long-time fan of pianist Roberts, and although this is their first collaborative recording the rapport between them is impressive. In most people's minds, the banjo's role in jazz is confined to history and revivalist Dixieland or "traditional jazz" groups. Fleck has worked hard to establish a niche for it in modern jazz as well, although it has to be said with limited success.

Most musicians playing jazz whose formative influences start with the bebop era, or later, might be willing to take a chance on Fleck sitting in with them, but probably wouldn't extend an invitation to jam to any other exponent of the same instrument. A jam session as it happens was just the circumstance that gave rise to this collaboration. Fleck says he first heard Roberts playing with Wynton Marsalis' band in the mid-1980s, and when they were both performing at the Savannah Music Festival a couple of years ago he asked the promoter to introduce him to the pianist.

An invitation to join Roberts and his trio for an after-hours jam session was duly forthcoming, and the players involved all liked the music that resulted.

The following year they played together on the Savannah Festival stage, and decided that they ought to record. Fleck felt strongly that the music should be new, and he and Roberts jointly and independently came up with 12 compositions.

The line-up for
Across the Imaginary Divide comprises Fleck on banjo, Roberts on piano, Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums. Roberts says that the musical conception for this trio was developed during the 1990s.

"I began working on developing a new approach to playing in a jazz trio. This approach does not revolve around the piano in the typical style of many jazz trios in the past. In our trio the bass and drums often reverse their traditional roles, and in many instances control and drive the direction of the music," he says.

The trio has only begun to work with guest artists over the past couple of years, but Roberts was keen to extend the collaboration with Fleck. "When I met and worked with Bela," he says, "it was clear to me that this would be a true collaboration between two diverse, serious artists grounded in the same soil of American blues."

Many of the tracks have a bluesy quality, but there are classical, bebop, New Orleans and Latin influences in evidence as well. There are even traces of the African music Fleck has been experimenting with recently, taking the banjo right back to its ancestral roots.

Much of the musical dialogue takes place between the piano and the banjo, although that is not to underestimate the contribution Jordan and Marsalis make.

The album is not the end of the story. Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio are now touring North America playing the music from
Across the Imaginary Divide, and there may be future collaborations.

"This has been a very exciting and fresh project to be part of," says Roberts. "I believe that those who know us well and those who are new to either of our musical styles will find it to be upbeat, honest, soulful and rich with artistic ideas and creativity."

Take Three

Three of the albums for which Bela Fleck has won his haul to date of 14 Grammy awards.

  • Outbound
  • (Columbia, 2000): Bela Fleck and the Flecktones won the award for best contemporary jazz album at the 43rd Grammy awards for this eclectic collection of mostly original tunes, which also features a supporting cast of guest stars as varied as Jon Anderson, Shawn Colvin and Edgar Meyer.

  • Perpetual Motion (Sony Classical, 2001): remarkably few classical compositions call for a banjo, so Fleck borrowed 20 originally intended for other instruments from Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and Paganini among others, enlisting the help of John Williams, Joshua Bell and other respected figures from the classical music world. Two Grammy awards resulted, one for best classical crossover album and another for Fleck and Meyer's arrangement of Debussy's
    Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum.

  • The Hidden Land (Sony, 2006): another winner of the Grammy award for best contemporary jazz album, this one from 2007, this time with the band members handling all the instruments, and including an arrangement of a Bach fugue.