Béla Fleck: Things That Sound Right
Since becoming a professional musician as a teenager in the late 1970s, Béla Fleck has redefined jazz and newgrass (a harmonically and rhythmically progressive off-shoot from bluegrass), collaborated with traditional musicians from India, China, and multiple nations in Africa, and has composed significant repertoire for chamber music ensembles and symphony orchestras. The only common ingredient in all these endeavors is the banjo.
Nowadays American musical creators can aesthetically do pretty much anything they want to do, but there have been few musicians who have embraced as wide a range of musical idioms as Béla Fleck. While he first made a name for himself as a teenager playing newgrass (a harmonically and rhythmically progressive off-shoot from bluegrass), he quickly began exploring jazz and soon reached a huge audience with his band The Flecktones, which merged jazz, bluegrass, funk, and lots of other musical ingredients into something that no one could quite define. In the past 20 years, he has collaborated with traditional musicians from India and China, as well as multiple nations in Africa. He has also begun composing works to perform with classical chamber music ensembles and symphony orchestras. In March, Rounder Records released a recording of his second banjo concerto, Juno Concerto.
“I’ve realized that I only make my life poorer by deciding there’s something I’m not interested in,” Fleck opined when we met up with him in between another interview and a soundcheck for a concert in New Jersey later that evening. “Your life gets richer the more things you decide you like.”
Yet despite the extraordinary variety of the musical projects he has been participating in since the late 1970s, everything he’s done revolves around the banjo, an instrument he has been obsessed with since he heard it on TV while watching The Beverly Hillbillies as a young boy growing up in New York City. His grandfather bought him a banjo right before he entered 10th grade at the High School of Music and Art, but there were few opportunities for him to explore playing the banjo there. He recalled getting nowhere with the French horn before they decided to put him in the chorus where he “screeched.” Nevertheless, he “became a non-stop, type-A, freakazoid, play-all-the-time, addicted dude,” took private lessons with “monster genius” Tony Trischka, and within just three years he “could play exactly like him.” In his senior year he navigated his way through the tricky banjo part in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at a school concert. But he didn’t apply to any colleges and as soon as he graduated from high school, he embarked on a professional music career.
“I wanted to go play the banjo, not go to college where nobody could teach me about the banjo,” he remembered. On Trischka’s recommendation, he was hired by the Boston-based band Tasty Licks and recorded his first album with them while still a teenager. But he quickly realized that he needed to do more than imitate his teacher.
“That wasn’t going to get me anywhere,” he realized. “So I started having to dice out these parts of myself that I loved so much and that I learned from [Trischka].” At this point he also started to compose his own music. That first album he appeared on, Tasty Licks eponymous 1978 LP, features Fleck’s first recorded original composition “Reading in the Dark.”
“At the time, I was trying to write things that were complex and hard intentionally,” he admitted. “I haven’t heard that in a long time, and I’m a little scared of what it would sound like if I listened to it now. If you listen to some of Tony’s music from that time, you would hear where maybe I was just cracking out from what he did a little bit, but it could have been something he did, too. But I was starting to use some of my new techniques, a few licks that were idiomatic to me.”
Wanting to get closer to the roots of bluegrass music led Fleck to move down South—first to Lexington, Kentucky, and then to Nashville, where he still makes his home. Yet ironically, instead of playing with more traditionally oriented musicians, he went from performing with the progressive Spectrum to the even more radical New Grass Revival to his own uncategorizable Flecktones. Yet despite all the innovations, he has always been extremely mindful of his antecedents.
“Time makes something traditional,” Fleck said. “I’m trying to come up with something that has some reason to exist, not just do new stuff to do new stuff. … I feel good that the things that I’ve contributed feel, to me at least, like they’re supposed to be that way. They’re not just, ‘How hard can I play? How difficult can I make things?’ but there’s some integrity to why I wanted to do them and why they’re on the banjo rather than some other instrument.”
Béla Fleck has found ways to make his instrument “sound right” whether he’s improvising duets with jazz great Chick Corea, fusing Indian, Chinese, and Appalachian idioms with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Jie-Bing Chen, accompanying the legendary Malian singer Oumou Sangare, or playing with a symphony orchestra. According to him, “If the banjo was going to have any place in this world, there needed to be a banjo concerto.”
But nowadays he spends most of his time making music with his wife, Abigail Washburn, an innovative singer-songwriter who, of course, is also a banjo virtuoso.
“She plays in a different style from me, what we call clawhammer; I play three-finger,” Fleck explained. “They’ve almost never historically played together. So what we’ve got within our household is an opportunity to create something that’s never been before.”
Frank J. Oteri: You were named Béla Anton Leoš Fleck, after Bartók, Webern, and Janáček—three very important 20th-century composers. That’s a lot of weight.
Béla Fleck: It is. It gets even more complicated since, soon after I got that name, my mother and my father split up. I never saw him again until my 40s, when I went and searched him out. So it was complex. In fact, I wasn’t even interested in that music for a while because of that. It took me a while to go back and start to listen to Bartók with more of an open ear. I finally did that when I was starting to write my first banjo concerto. So I got all these names, but no influence. Nobody was showing me why I was named those things. Ironically, my mother remarried a cellist. Those weren’t necessarily his guys, but there was some classical music in my world at that point because he liked to play string quartets and quintets, and go and play with orchestras and stuff like that. So I would hear him do that. But I didn’t really think it had a lot to do with me and my musical identity because I had secretly fallen in love with the banjo. I’d learned some guitar and I was playing some folk songs, Beatles songs, Simon & Garfunkel songs, and a few blues scales. I actually loved the banjo, but I hadn’t told anybody because it wasn’t a very popular thing. But the banjo sounded so amazing and fast and complex. I didn’t imagine that I could ever play it. It was just a secret love.
FJO: It’s funny to hear you say that you only came to Bartók recently, since I think of Bartók as someone who took folk music traditions and completely transformed them in a way that’s not completely unlike what you have done. And also, his music was chock-full of unusual scales and odd meters, which are also things I hear in your music going all the way back to your earliest recordings.
BF: People have said that to me, “You and Bartók have so much in common; it’s cool that your name is Béla.” And I’d be like, “Cool.” I only heard little bits of it. It’s an acquired taste, like coffee. The first time you drink it, it’s like, “I don’t know why anybody likes this.” A little later you’re like, “It’s pretty good.” Then pretty soon it’s like, “I gotta have it; it’s so good.” Bartók for me was kind of like that. When I finally got into it, the harshness [I heard] at first stopped being harsh completely and it became so badass and cool, so interesting and deep and rich. So I’m a big fan of him all the way around, and I’m proud to be named after him.
FJO: How about Janáček and Webern?
BF: I don’t know much about their music. I’ve listened to a little bit of it. It didn’t hit me. I need to give it more time. I haven’t put in the time. I’ve had a lot of other things that really did hit me squarely in the chest and changed me so that I couldn’t not do that. I was just so in love with the sound of the banjo and bluegrass, and then I was in love with certain jazz and certain classical music that hit me that way. Others didn’t. But eventually time rolls on and you’re ready for some things that you weren’t ready for at another point in your life. That’s how it was for me with Bartók.
FJO: Now in terms of the banjo hitting you, you grew up in New York City. That’s not an instrument you would have found here very much, at least not then.
BF: Well, there was the folk boom—or the folk scare, as some people like to call it—which was happening, so it wasn’t totally alien. There were actually a lot of New Yorkers playing the banjo. But in my world, where I was going to school and just among normal kids, nobody was into that kind of music. I had just happened to hear it on a television show; The Beverly Hillbillies came on and it was Earl Scruggs.
Scruggs had taken a technique that was starting to become used in his region and exploded it into this comprehensive way of playing the banjo that changed the history of the instrument and brought a lot of people to that instrument. It was kind of dying out. The banjo has a long history, coming from Africa with the slaves originally and working its way into becoming the instrument of America in the late 1800s, the instrument everybody had around. People were playing classical music on it. There were banjo orchestras. It was in the early days of jazz. It was in Louis Armstrong’s early groups and Jelly Roll Morton’s, before the guitar took over. It was also this Appalachian instrument in old time music. Then it morphed into this bluegrass music offshoot, which was kind of a performance art. It wasn’t really a folk music; it was music that was designed to be played on microphones in front of people, but built out of folk music.
But I had nothing to do with any of that until I was 15. I think because he knew I’d been playing guitar and because “Dueling Banjos” became so huge because of that movie Deliverance, my grandfather, who lived in Peekskill, got me a banjo. It was just a garage sale banjo, a cheap little nothing, but when I went up to visit him, which was the day before I started high school at Music and Art up on 135th Street, I was so shocked and amazed and excited to see this instrument in front of me that I never would have had the nerve to go get. So the fuse was lit. Someone showed me how to tune it on the train on the way home and I just became a non-stop, type-A, freakazoid, play-all-the-time, addicted dude. Before that, when I played guitar, it wasn’t like that for me. I was a kid who was interested in something, but I wasn’t on fire. The banjo was different. When I finally got the banjo, everything else went away.
FJO: You went to the High School of Music and Art. I went there, too, so I know that there are no banjo classes there.
BF: Right. Yeah. But ironically, Eric Weissberg, the guy who played “Dueling Banjos,” went to Music and Art as well.
FJO: I didn’t know that. Wow.
BF: Yeah, he was there quite a while before I was there.
FJO: I came in as a pianist-composer, so they threw me in the vocal department because they didn’t know what else to do with me. They could always use more voices in the chorus.
BF: That’s what they did with me. I got in on guitar, playing “Here Comes the Sun”—I had a nice fingerpicking version. And they said, “Okay, you have some musical aptitude.” I remember there was a rating system of one to four, and I think I was a two. I was definitely not in the ones, but I could tap back when they would give me rhythms. Then, I think I had to sing back some pitches. I could do all of that pretty well. So they said, “Okay, we’ll teach you to be a musician.” They gave me a French horn and a mouthpiece and said, “Go in that room and come out when you can play an F.” I just sat in the room and I never could get anything out of the instrument. Finally they said, “There really aren’t enough boys in the choir. Maybe we can put you in the choir.” I was disappointed, but I went and I sang. I screeched all the way through high school. I think I would have been a baritone. I was not a tenor. I couldn’t hit the pitches, and I didn’t know how to sing. I didn’t know how to read, but I could sort of sing along with the guy next to me and watch. I knew if it was higher I had to go up, but I didn’t know what a fourth was or a third or how to do it. So I was around classical music, even though I wasn’t playing it on my banjo. And then I took banjo lessons.
One cool thing that happened was that partway through senior year, they said, “Béla, come see the conductor.” He said, “You can get out of chorus if you want, if you will play in Rhapsody in Blue in the semi-annual recital. We found a banjo part. If you want to play this banjo part, you can get out of chorus for the rest of senior year.” I didn’t really want to get out of chorus with all my friends, learning this German music and this French music. I was social and it was music. So I said, “I’ll do both.” So I did. The part was somewhere in the middle of the piece. There were a couple of things I never could figure out, but I got to sit next to a girl I had a crush on who played the oboe. And that was good enough for me.
FJO: But instead of going off to conservatory after you graduated from Music and Art, you wandered off to Boston and started playing in professional bands. You were already recording with them as a teenager.
BF: Yeah, I came right out of high school into professional life. I guess to toot my own horn, I started playing the day before high school and three years later, I came out and I was on a pretty high level. My third banjo teacher was Tony Trischka. Tony is one of the monster geniuses of the banjo of this century. I would argue he’s changed banjo technique and ideas as much as Earl Scruggs did. He was the guy of that time, and I had had a few lessons with him. But by the end of high school, we’d be at a party and jam together, and someone would say, “If I close my eyes, I can’t tell which one is which.” And it was true. I was imitating him so well, I could play exactly like him by the time I was out of high school after playing for three years. So I was moving fast. I was also working on my own ideas and trying to think of what I could do that he hadn’t done. I realized there already was a Tony Trischka. The guy who said, “I can’t tell which one is which”—maybe that’s not so good. For a long time, that was my goal, to be playing just like him, but that wasn’t going to get me anywhere. So I started having to dice out these parts of myself that I loved so much and that I learned from him. He goes by feel. He finds these incredible, complex ideas, but it’s not like he’s going to sit around and play all the modes and scales up and down the banjo and do this sort of scholarly thing. So I thought, “Well, there’s something.” I started working on these ways of playing the scales methodically that gave me a bunch of tools that Tony didn’t have—and really nobody had at that point. It gave me the ability to play virtually anything because I wasn’t stuck in these keys with certain centers that were rich and had a lot of things I could do but that had holes in the middle. I was basically filling in all the holes that people weren’t using on the banjo and just making it more of a workable instrument that could fit into different kinds of music. That became my thing that I could do.
FJO: Because of the way the banjo is played and the way it’s tuned, it’s optimized for playing diatonic music in common time. But what you’ve done is created super chromatic music for it with loads of complex meters. You’ve done all these counter-intuitive things, yet they sound completely idiomatic.
BF: Actually that’s the part I’m most proud of. You’ve just hit the things that I’m trying to do—things that sound right. I’m trying to come up with something that has some reason to exist, not just do new stuff to do new stuff. Again, if I was going to toot my own horn, I would say I feel good that the things that I’ve contributed feel, to me at least, like they’re supposed to be that way. They’re not just, “How hard can I play? How difficult can I make things?” but there’s some integrity to why I wanted to do them and why they’re on the banjo rather than some other instrument. It’s something that the banjo told me to do, that was obvious and that should be that way.
FJO: You’ve really been describing all of this stuff from a performer’s point of view, being a player on an instrument. But when you say that it was important to you to do more than imitate someone else’s sound and do your own thing, that’s starting to sound like a composer.
FJO: It’s interesting that for the very first professional group you were with, Tasty Licks, on the first album you recorded together, there’s an original composition of yours called “Reading in the Dark.” I can already hear your compositional voice in that—the constantly shifting keys, the metrical complexity. It feels like it’s about to crash, but it always holds together somehow. You already had had those ideas.
BF: At the time, I was trying to write things that were complex and hard intentionally. I haven’t heard that in a long time, and I’m a little scared of what it would sound like if I listened to it now. [Since then] I have learned a lot about playing the banjo with a good tone and with good timing; having a tight rhythmic focus hadn’t become my focus yet, but the creativity was there. I was also very Tony influenced. If you listen to some of Tony’s music from that time, you would hear where maybe I was just cracking out from what he did a little bit, but it could have been something he did, too. But I was starting to use some of my new techniques, a few licks that were idiomatic to me.
FJO: One thing I’m curious about in all of this is that what got you interested in the music in the very beginning was hearing Earl Scruggs, who was the embodiment of traditional bluegrass. It’s funny to call it traditional because, in a way, how Scruggs helped develop bluegrass out of Old Time music parallels how Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie developed bebop from swing. It was a similar seismic moment where it was somehow avant-garde and traditional at the same time. By the time you came on the scene, it was definitely traditional. But even though it was what you first heard, and what got you hooked, you gravitated toward the more avant-garde end of the spectrum—the progressive bluegrass scene in Boston instead of going to Kentucky or Tennessee or somewhere deep in Appalachia.
BF: Right. Well, I want to address one thing which is that Earl Scruggs was radical. There’d never been anything like what he did before. We call it traditional now because it was so right that it became imprinted on everybody. Nobody had a problem with it. Nobody was saying, like they have with Tony or even with me a little bit, but Tony a lot more, “That’s not how it’s supposed to go; that ain’t traditional.” Nobody said that when Earl Scruggs came around. They went, “Holy crap. What just happened?” It changed everybody’s perception about what a banjo was; it was incredible. The thing about him is he’s so rooted in tradition. Even a lot of the songs he worked on were from before he came along, although he added a lot of new stuff to the repertoire. Time makes something traditional. Now he’s traditional, but usually traditions are more than a hundred years old. We’re not even close to a hundred years from when he got well known in the ‘40s. That’ll be in another 30 years.
FJO: O.K. This begs the question even more, considering how deeply you revere Scruggs. If he was your hero, why didn’t you go to where he was instead of going to Boston?
BF: Well, Earl was really not around very much. He wasn’t out and seeable for a lot of the years when I was coming up. He was out with his sons, but I wasn’t as interested in that music. And I had become a Tony Trischka freak and a modern banjo freak, so I was interested in the people who had taken it to the next step. I wasn’t that interested in Earl after the initial thing. I got all into this new information that guys like Tony, Bill Keith, Bobby Thompson, and so many other wonderful banjo players brought new to the game—Eddie Adcock, Allen Munde, Ben Eldridge, so many people. It was such a rich field, full of people who, when you heard them start to play, you knew it was them. J.D. Crowe. Sonny Osborne. It goes on and on. At any rate, at this point, I was into modern. I wanted to do new things. I discovered in high school that if I played a Led Zeppelin song, people would go, “Yeah!” But if I played bluegrass, they’d start flapping their arms. And I didn’t like that. So I already had realized that there was something to this “new thing on the banjo” idea.
Anyway, Tony got an offer to join a band in Boston right after I got out of high school, and he couldn’t do it because he had roots in New York and wanted to stay. But he said, “I’ve got this student that’s really hot; you should hire him.” I had graduated in the spring and this was in December. What happened to me was actually so fortunate. My mother and my step-father had a child kind of unexpectedly as I became a senior in high school. The world had changed so suddenly and now this was their new focus and nobody paid any attention to me. So I didn’t apply to any colleges and nobody noticed. Now, if you can understand that my mother was a school teacher and my father was the chairman of guidance counselors of the Brooklyn school system, and then imagine that their son never applied to colleges, you see how bizarre this is. But I snuck under the wire and got to the end of school and then I was a free agent, which is exactly what I wanted to be. I wanted to go play the banjo, not go to college where nobody could teach me about the banjo. I didn’t want to go study theory. I wanted to play the banjo.
When they realized I hadn’t applied to schools, they were kind of dismayed and we found out that you could take courses at Juilliard if you just paid for them. It’s called the Juilliard Extension School. So they put me in a class that I went to starting in the fall, while I played little gigs around the city and tried to figure out how I was going to do this thing. That’s when the call came to go to Boston and join a band up there. There was a professional band that went around New England, and one of the guys in the band was a guy named Stacy Phillips who used to play with Tony Trischka in a band called Breakfast Special. They were my heroes. So I was going to get to play with one of my favorite musicians if I moved to Boston and joined this band. Also, Berklee was up there. There was a huge jazz scene up there. I was excited about being part of that. It was a great college town. There was a music store called the Music Emporium. There were jam sessions. There were people playing traditional music of various kinds. There was square dance music up there. That scene was fun. So anyway, I moved to Boston, and I was there for three years or so. That was my first touring experience in a band that occasionally made it down south. I did a lot of New England touring, and I worked on my banjo playing in that band.
FJO: And you had already gotten the attention of Rounder Records, which was founded maybe just only a few years before that. And they put out a solo record of you already. That was crazy.
BF: Right, so that was part of the whole thing because the leader of the band was a guy named Jack Tottle. His girlfriend, Marian Leighton, was one of the three Rounder people. I ended up living right across the hall from Marian and Jack and being part of that Rounder scene. They were waiting for me to ripen. They wanted to do a record with me when I was ready. I think that was wise on their part, but I wasn’t smart enough to understand that. It was rankling that they hadn’t asked me. At a certain point, I went and made a demo and let them know I was going to be presenting it to all the labels. Then they immediately signed me before I could get away. I think it was a much better record than it would have been if I had done it right out of high school when I moved out there.
FJO: Talk about having a long history, and we have a long way to go before we talk about the new recording of your second banjo concerto with the Colorado Symphony, but that album is also on Rounder.
BF: I went back to them in the last decade. I’ve been through all the majors. I was on Capitol with New Grass Revival, and I wanted to get away from Rounder when I started the Flecktones. I had made eight solo records on Rounder. Some of them did well and some of them didn’t, but I wanted to be on a jazz label. With the Flecktones, I didn’t want it to be a Rounder Record. I needed to break from that scene. So I went out. We had Flecktones records on Warner Brothers, and then we went to Sony. Then I was on MCA with Strength in Numbers. I started to have all those experiences. And then the music industry changed a lot.
Basically what would happen is I would get signed and then I’d have these advocates, and we would have a great year or two. Then they would be fired, or things would change, and I’d be stuck with several more albums that I owed and nobody at the label that gave a crap about what I did. That happened over and over again. Then, I was getting ready to do an album—I can’t remember which one it was, it might have been the Christmas record with the Flecktones—and I wanted to take a meeting with Rounder because I had seen something they had done well. I took a meeting and everybody was still there that had been there when I’d left twenty years ago. That struck me. And they were eager to have me back. They’d been proud of everything I’d been doing and they started doing stuff with me. They had much better results with some of those projects than I was having with the majors, so I’ve kept doing things with them. I do a record at a time. The first concerto record I did with Deutsche Grammophon—foolishly—because I wanted to get the banjo onto the major classical label of the world. But they didn’t do a good job. They didn’t do anything. So when I got the chance to make the second banjo concerto and I wanted to record it, I asked Rounder if they would do it, and they said they would. They’ve already done way better than Deutsche Grammophon did because they know how to reach my audience. There is no classical audience. Nobody’s buying classical records. This needs to be marketed to people that like my music and want to hear what I am doing with an orchestra. We’re not going to sell a lot to folks who are hardcore classical listeners. I wish we could, but I don’t know that that’s being realistic.
FJO: A discussion of how music is marketed could eat up the rest of the day, but it actually makes me curious about how marketing and musical genre—which I believe is largely related to marketing—played out in another early band you were part of called Spectrum, whose records I’ve had for many years and still treasure.
BF: You’re kidding.
FJO: Especially Live in Japan. I love your performance of “Driving Nails in My Coffin.”
BF: That’s cool to hear. I never hear anybody talking about Spectrum. It’s kind of the forgotten band.
FJO: Which is a shame because those records are great. But what’s particularly fascinating is that while on the one hand it sounds very much like traditional bluegrass, a lot of the material wasn’t. You performed songs by Paul Simon and Paul Anka, as well as stuff by Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, so it was really open-ended.
BF: Yeah, it was freedom in the cage. The cage had gotten bigger and we were filling a hole in the bluegrass festival scene. That was the only place we could work. We didn’t seem to be druggy. We were clean cut, nice gentlemen, but we played progressive—considered progressive—music. We weren’t far out like New Grass Revival. Glenn Lawson and Jimmy Gaudreau had been playing in J.D. Crowe’s band, after his great band—The New South—with Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, and Jerry Douglas, that was so popular. Wisely, J.D. didn’t try to follow that incredible band. I’d say it’s on a level of Flatt and Scruggs in impact, but he didn’t try to copy it and do that band again. He got a whole different sound. And he got these guys and they went in a whole different direction. Anyway, I moved to Kentucky, because I had the opportunity to work with some guys that worked with J.D., and I really wanted to get some of that true bluegrass feel. Ironically, what I was trying to get from moving to Lexington was not what these guys wanted to do, but I still was going to get it.
What I moved to Kentucky for was to get around and to be part of the real traditional stuff. I knew I was a Yankee banjo player. I knew there was a stigma to that, and that there are some areas that Yankee banjo players don’t tend to be respected for the way the southern banjo players are. What we’re usually talking about here is tone, time, and taste. The three Ts. It all comes from J.D. Crowe, but originally from Earl Scruggs—certain periods where his right hand and his tone were just so glorious, creamy, and solid, metronomic but with soul, and everybody was aspiring to play like that. The northern players tended to have a lot of imagination. A lot of great innovations were coming from there, but not only from there—Bobby Thompson wasn’t from there. There were some great people like Bill Keith and Tony, but Tony was widely frowned upon by the bluegrass community as a whole. And I was very aware of that. I said, I don’t want to be like that. I want to be able to do everything. J.D. Crowe had these great bands in which the people were playing pretty progressive music, but he was playing just like Earl. Or in J.D. Crowe language, he was playing very traditional, and I thought there ought to be somebody who can play with those guys. I think there’s a hole in that scene for a banjo player who does a little bit more, but I wanted to be able to do it with the authority that J.D. did it with.
So after those three years with Tasty Licks, we broke up and I played on the street for a summer, in Harvard Square, which was a lot of fun. Then I got this chance to go to Kentucky. So I moved down there and just spent all my time watching J.D. Crowe when I wasn’t on tour. There was this Holiday Inn—Holiday Inn North it was called—on Newtown Pike, and they would put on a bluegrass band for three weeks, then they’d bring in another one from a different part of the country. The top people would come in and play this place. When they didn’t have Ralph Stanley or the Country Gentlemen or whoever, they would have J.D. Crowe because he was their in-town guy. So when I was there, anytime I wasn’t out of town playing, I was at the Holiday Inn sitting, listening, and watching him, trying to understand how he got that sound and how he had that feel which I did not have. I couldn’t do what he did, and he was a god to me. I never got to sit with him and he never explained it to me, but I was very focused on him.
At that time, I also made a lot of friends in the bluegrass community who talked to me about banjo set up, about how to get a great sound out of a banjo. There was a guy named Steve Cooley who was a great young banjo player and who, like me, was a big fan of Crowe. Then I started studying all these old Flatt and Scruggs live shows, which is the next inner circle. You get past the recordings everyone knows about and you start to get into these broadcasts and you get to hear how much greater he was than on the recordings. It’s so badass. All of a sudden that became really important to me, being able to play the banjo in a strong, traditional, powerful way, which I would say is a lot of southern influence. The things that are great about southern banjo playing sort of crept into my style at that point. And that’s the point when I got a call from Sam Bush and New Grass Revival to move to Nashville. Well, the band was originally in Kentucky, but we ended up moving to Nashville, and that was the next big change in my life after that.
FJO: So although you wanted to get immersed in the tradition, you wound up playing in super progressive groups. That first record you made with New Grass Revival, On the Boulevard, is full of chromatic stuff, and there’s even a Bob Marley tune on it. I’m not sure a bluegrass purist would even acknowledge this as bluegrass.
BF: No. They called it newgrass, and lot of bluegrass purists didn’t think newgrass was bluegrass. But the thing about New Grass Revival is that they were at a whole other level. They had been a fixture and a prime mover in the modernization of bluegrass. Sam Bush was beloved by everyone across the board, whether you liked traditional or modern. He was often called to play on traditional records, because he was simply the best mandolin player on the scene, especially in the south. A lot of people also loved David Grisman, but he was in California and he was doing his own music. But Sam—as a mandolin player and a fiddle player and a force—was one of the greats of the generation.
It was even clear to Bill Monroe, who showed his regard for Sam by treating him with incredible disrespect. He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t think Sam was a force to be reckoned with. He did the same thing to Earl Scruggs. You know what I’m saying? So Sam was the anointed one.
If Bill Monroe or Doc Watson wanted me to play with them, I wanted to make sure that I could play and they’d go, “Hey, he’s good at this stuff” and not judge me for being a modernist. I wanted to have that, but you can’t change your spots. I was gonna be a modernist and a guy from New York City, even if I tried to get rid of my accent around these guys and tried to get an old banjo. I think they respected me for trying, though, and for valuing what they did.
Playing with Sam, I knew, was going to mean playing with one of the best musicians I had ever played with. Also, by joining that band and moving to Nashville, I would get to know a whole world of people I was really interested in—like Norman Blake and John Hartford, whom I was a huge fan of, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and all the people who were doing that. I would learn a lot about music that I didn’t know about yet. Things I hadn’t valued yet. Like blues and rock and gospel, things that those guys were really into—the Allman Brothers, all these things that I was not paying attention to because I was a New York jazzer at heart who loved bluegrass. That was also when I found the local great jazz guitar player, and I took lessons from him. I went to play casual gigs, trying to learn jazz. I was in the closet trying to continue my work on my scales at the same time. I was a busy little boy.
FJO: All these different kinds of music came together for you in a solo record you did with the other members of New Grass Revival as sidemen called Deviation. I think it’s a very apt title because it doesn’t sound like any of the other music you had recorded up to that point. Now things have gotten so blurry, to some extent as a result of what you and many of the musicians you’ve worked with were doing then. But at that time, the barriers between different musical genres were a lot less penetrable. You mentioned that Sam Bush could travel back and forth between bluegrass and newgrass, but what was the difference? What couldn’t you do in bluegrass, and what can’t you do in newgrass? When does newgrass stop being newgrass? I think most fans of newgrass would have thought that Deviation wasn’t newgrass. I’m inclined to call it a jazz record, but I’m sure there would have been jazz purists at the time who would have said it isn’t jazz either. Purism versus non-purism was a big issue back then, no matter what the genre was.
BF: Yeah, it was. I love Flatt and Scruggs. I love early bluegrass. Most of the modernists do. That music really reflects a time and a place and, now, a kind of looking backward. But at the time, it was still reflective of some people’s actual lives. They were singing about their lives, so it wasn’t some history thing. So if somebody loves hearing that kind of music—which I love as well—and that’s what they want to hear, I don’t fault them for it. It’s like somebody saying, “I want to listen to Louis Armstrong. ” Well, I like Louis Armstrong and I really like Charlie Parker. I don’t fault anybody for liking what they like, but your life gets richer the more things you decide you like. I’ve realized this because I’ve also been an elitist. I don’t listen to that, or I don’t listen to this, or whatever. That’s not good. I’ve realized that I only make my life poorer by deciding there’s something I’m not interested in, that I’m above this. But people do that. We all do that. The truth is you have the right to make those choices. You don’t have to listen to everything just because someone tells you to. This isn’t school. This is your life. You should listen to music that turns you on and makes you feel something and makes your life more complete.
So, back to your actual question, I think newgrass expressed the truth for the people of that period. And newgrass is a dated thing, too. Newgrass is actually the music that was done after Flatt and Scruggs, not the music New Grass Revival did. Sam Bush was going to bring back some of the music that the people that followed the originals did, go back to the sound that Jim and Jessie and the Osborne Brothers and the Country Gentlemen had, and work from there. That’s why they called it New Grass Revival, which is interesting. A lot of people say, “Oh, that’s newgrass.” New Grass Revival is newgrass, but it became newgrass in people’s minds after a while because the name of the band was New Grass Revival.
FJO: Looking back at that time now, there definitely was stuff that was even more progressive than newgrass, like perhaps what the Dillards were doing or Frank Wakefield or, as you already mentioned earlier, Tony Trischka.
BF: Right. For a while, you wouldn’t really call what Tony did newgrass, but by current standards, we can go back and go, “All that stuff kind of fits neatly into this box.” That’s where people are stretching: dawg music—the stuff David Grisman was doing; what the Dillards were doing with drums; Herb Pederson; what New Grass Revival was doing; what Bill Keith was doing with Jim Rooney. Call it what you want. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. You either like it or you don’t.
FJO: Now in terms of calling something jazz, did you find acceptance from the jazz community when you began heading in that direction?
BF: Back then I was clawing my way in. I wanted to be in, and I wasn’t really up to the task yet. I tried to put together some groups to try to do that. I don’t think you could really call Deviation a jazz record. I guess you could probably call it a pop instrumental record with jazzy overtones, but pop with bluegrass instruments. I don’t know what to call it, but there’s not a lot of improvising, just a little bit. Everybody had little solos, but it wasn’t open. When I think about jazz, I tend to think that improvisation is the core—conversation from every angle: the bass player talking to the horn player, the drummer playing to the saxophone player. There’s a discussion going on and people are making decisions on the fly. To me, that’s a lot of what makes it jazz. But a lot of music is like that, not just jazz.
FJO: Bluegrass is like that sometimes, especially when groups play instrumental breakdowns.
BF: It can be, but there are more immovable things in bluegrass. The mandolin is generally going to play the offbeat and play certain chord shapes generally. They’re not going to play that different just because of what the banjo player does. The bass player’s not going to walk. He’s not going to have a lot of freedoms. He’s going to play within a certain set role. It’s not like he’s spontaneously deciding what the harmony’s going to be for the soloist from the bass. That’s not going to be going on in bluegrass. At least not so far. It tends to be that when people expand bluegrass, with the exception of dawg music, it’s pretty scripted. There’s a lot of planning. With Strength in Numbers or the Punch Brothers, it’s very scripted. In a way, it’s more like classical composition, mixing with pop and bluegrass. So it’s not often as free as it might feel like it is.
FJO: But with the Flecktones, you did introduce all those elements.
BF: Yeah, I think you could call Flecktones a jazz group, if you were willing to call all the different kinds of music throughout from Louis Armstrong up all jazz. Duke Ellington’s jazz. Charlie Parker’s jazz. Those are very different. Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew is jazz. Return to Forever is jazz. Mahavishnu is jazz. Is Shakti jazz? I don’t know. Maybe not. I don’t know. It’s very highly improvised, but is it jazz? It’s probably more like Indian music. We could be as different from jazz as Shakti was from jazz. But that’s the world we were trying to claw our way into. And we didn’t have such an easy time, especially at first, because it didn’t sound like it was necessarily jazz—a banjo player with a guy playing a drum machine guitar, a guy with a harmonica, and a funky bass player. It was very confusing to people exactly what we were. So for as much as we wanted to be embraced by the jazz world, it was very slow going. The jazz guys would go, “Oh, okay.” They weren’t going to fall all over themselves, but they didn’t hate us at all. The musicians all seemed to like us and think it was pretty cool. But luckily, regular people liked us. And we would get on TV, and a bunch of people would go, “Wow. That’s hip, whatever that is.” We managed to get quite an audience pretty quick—against all odds, honestly. So when people would say, “Béla sold out now.” I’d feel like, “I sold out?” You could not plan the Flecktones, and you could certainly not plan for them to be successful. There was one time people said, “They added vocals. Dave Matthews is on the record just to sell records.” If you heard the track, it’s in 17/8. And it didn’t sell any more than any other Flecktones records. It would have been nice if it did, but it didn’t work out that way.
FJO: One of the greatest things in the world would be to get people on the street humming in 17/8.
BF: That’s what’s always been exciting to the Flecktones—can we get people feeling an odd meter as if it’s not odd at all? Dave Brubeck did it wonderfully on “Take Five.” There’s a pop sensibility, too. We’re all kind of creatures of the pop world. The guys were into James Brown, and I was into the Beatles. Howard was into Bulgarian music. It was a lot of different things coming together in that band.
FJO: Now in terms of making contributions to different musical traditions, you mentioned Shakti, which was really about John McLaughlin immersing himself completely into classical Indian music and performing with some of the greatest Indian musicians, like L. Shankar and Zakir Hussain. So I have to bring up your own Tabula Rasa, which is probably one of my all-time favorite recordings of yours.
BF: Thank you. That’s another hidden one not too many people know about.
FJO: It’s such a fluid synthesis, not just between Indian music and bluegrass, as per the dedication on the album to Ravi Shankar and Earl Scruggs; traditional Chinese music is also at the core of this music. It really is a fluid trio between you, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Jie-Bing Chen.
BF: I didn’t do the dedication; that was from the record company guy named Kavi [Kavichandran] Alexander. He’s a cool guy and he has this wonderful recording technique. He records stereo in a beautiful church in Santa Barbara. He arranges the musicians in front of the mic until it’s in balance. He’s got a good ear for that, so maybe the mridangam player is back here and you’re over here because you’re louder, that whole weird thing that you have to do to record on one mic. But then the room fills up with sound and it all comes into that microphone and he records it to tape, and it sounds awesome. Part of the cement and connectivity has to do with that great recording approach and also the fact that you’ve got to sit there and play the music right in each other’s faces and really listen to each other since you’re super close to each other.
FJO: What’s so wonderful to me about that record is how it references three seemingly very different musical traditions in a way that’s faithful to all of them, yet it’s completely fluid. A word that we haven’t yet used in our conversation with each other today is fusion. In terms of what the word actually means, I think it’s very positive, but critics coined this term and many have used the term quite disparagingly.
BF: Because they got tired of rock drums with jazz and the way that the jazz players couldn’t have a conversation with the drummer. It just became very bombastic. They called it fusion, and they got tired of it. I understand why it happened. The original fusioneers’ music was actually very interactive and responsive and very jazzy. There’s a lot of great music that came out of that. Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever were really special for that time and they hold up really well, as well as a lot of eras of jazz held up. But what came after, when people started to imitate them—it just became a sea of sameness and less freedom and interactivity in the conversations that were happening in the music. And I think that to the people that love jazz, fusion became a bad word because they weren’t seeing the things that they loved in the music anymore.
FJO: Someone who was a key creative force in that music—in fact he was the founder of Return to Forever—is Chick Corea, but he’s also done tons of straight-ahead jazz and was also part of a free improvisational quartet with Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul. He’s even performed standard repertoire classical compositions and also composed his own works for chamber ensembles and orchestras. You’ve played some extraordinary duets with him in recent years, but you’ve been into his music for a very long time. You played his composition “Spain” on your very first solo album back in 1979, and it later became part of the repertoire of the Flecktones. So he seems to have been an important musical hero to you from the beginning.
BF: Oh my God, he still is. He’s a great example of somebody who not only is super talented, but is super good at being himself. He has the strength to be himself over and over again, whether it’s popular or not, because what he does is very wide-ranging and a lot of things he loves to do are not for everybody. When he likes to play his crazy atonal stuff, he can do it like nobody in the world. That’s not the easiest stuff to sell. But he also has put a high premium on communication. He’s learned that—and he knew this all along—there’s nothing wrong with playing beautiful music that people like, like the music he did with Gary Burton, or different periods in his life when he’s tried to do music that’s more consonant. He doesn’t see it as one being better or worse than the other. They are just a lot of different expressions for different times and different feelings. And he’s gone after a lot of different things. So I’ve always listened to everything he does. I’m always curious and I also find it very inspiring because of his tight rhythmic command of the piano. You could either accuse it of being too perfect or too rhythmically tight, or you could say, “Holy cow, nobody in the world plays like that!” You know it’s him from the first second, and it gets you if you’re a rhythmic-based person. It gets you in a way no other piano player can get you. He has always gotten me that way. So the banjo being a sharp-attack instrument, like his acoustic piano or his Fender Rhodes, I thought that’s more of a template for how I’d like to play the banjo. Not that I ever could or ever will. He also does a lot of short, stabby things that don’t use the whole piano. A lot of piano players have a hard time using just part of the piano; they’ve got to the use the whole thing. But you don’t have to use everything. You don’t have to use the whole orchestra. You can use just a violin for a while. Because of the limitations of the tuning, I couldn’t get the banjo to do a lot of the things the piano could do or a lot of instruments can do. He showed me that I didn’t have to do that; a lot of that came from listening to him.
When we finally met, that was incredible. I was a stalker. I would go to his shows and go to sound check and try to sneak in or try to meet him after the show. I gave him some bluegrass records I made. Then I ran into him at the Grammys and introduced myself again, and he had seen the “Sinister Minister” video when the Flecktones finally came up out of the ground. Anyway, one day I was playing at the Newport Jazz Festival and his agent came up to me and said, “Next year, Chick is thinking about doing these duets with three different people and he was wondering if you might consider. You’re on his list of possibilities.” And I said, “Count me in.” I just dropped everything, and we went and made this record and started touring together as a duo. This was a dream come true.
We’ve done a lot. He seemed to like me, and he’s given me a lot of rope to learn how to do the things that I’m not as good at. We do a lot of the same repertoire, so I’ve been able to get better at it, and I’m throwing new things at him now that he’s interested in. On the last tour, I taught him a really cool Bill Monroe tune, and he was really all over that. It’s turned into a really great relationship. We’ve been playing for seven or eight years now. Almost every year we get together and do a month or a couple of weeks. This year it’ll be the same. We’ll be going to Europe as a duo in July, and then in August, we’re going to put the Flecktones and his electric band together and do a couple of weeks of summer touring. So that’ll be a lot of fun.
FJO: It’s surprising how well the piano and banjo blend with each other. They don’t seem like instruments that would complement each other. The same is true for your collaborations with all these extraordinary musicians from Africa, like Oumou Sangare, although—as you pointed out earlier in our conversation—the banjo’s origins are in Africa. But to take it back there and actually work with musicians there is yet another re-contextualization. What is this music? Is it world music? Is it traditional music? To my ears, it sounds like something else entirely.
BF: Well, it’s more of a mash up than I usually like because I didn’t have the opportunity to work with them so that they would change as I was changing. It’s more of me trying to morph into their world. It’s like them doing their thing and then, oh, look there’s Elmo in the middle. I was trying my best to try to do that thing we talked about, where you try to make it feel like it’s supposed to be there, not like a mash up on the Grammys where B.B. King is playing with Metallica and they just do their thing at the same time.
For me, a great collaboration is when both parties are changed by the collaboration and they don’t just do their thing. They actually have to adjust to each other. But because of the speed of that project, where I was in four countries over the course of essentially four weeks and playing with different people every day, there wasn’t time for that breaking in thing. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened with some of those people if I could have played with them for two weeks before we recorded. I was trying to do so much. At a certain point, I realized I didn’t have enough time to learn each musical situation as much as I wanted to, so I could really fit in. Eventually I just had to be myself in the situation—me with my positive and negative attributes in the middle of their music, doing my best. In some cases, I could really study something and really actually learn some deep things about their music and be able to play that on the banjo. In other cases, I would play like a jazz musician and just play what came to me.
FJO: So-called classical music—the Western classical variety at least—is different from all the other kinds of music we’ve been talking about today. In all of these other traditions, whether it’s bluegrass, jazz, karnatic ragas, or the praise songs of Malian djeli, individual musicians come together and find their own musical voices as they navigate various pre-established practices. But with classical music, the blueprint for the actual music already exists in an idealized form on paper and it is then brought to life when musicians play it. In a piece of music for a classical chamber music ensemble or an orchestra, each musician is given a specific written part. These musicians are trained to be the best they can possibly be at interpreting what somebody else has already written and then making all those parts fit together. That’s very different from you coming and playing with them, and then you all grow and do other things in response to each other. That’s not what classical music is about.
BF: The way a classical musician can improvise is with feel and tempo. They can stretch things. They can take things at totally different tempos. They can play with the tone and with the intensity. They can play with dynamics. The dynamics don’t have to be written in stone. In fact, in a lot of Bach’s music, he doesn’t write any dynamics at all, which gives the musician a chance to play with it. But no, I get your point. I’m just being difficult.
FJO: We talked earlier about traditions and how they evolved in bluegrass and in jazz; traditions evolved in classical music, too. Bach’s scores have very minimal dynamic indication and there are no metronomic indications at all because the metronome hadn’t been invented yet. So there are these amorphous tempo indications that musicologists now fight over. What does andante mean? How fast or slow should it be? But once you get to Beethoven, you get the metronome. Then throughout the 19th century, the details grow more and more specific.
BF: Imagine how frustrated these guys were with hearing their music played poorly. Why don’t they know to play this section stronger? It’s obvious, but it’s not obvious. They can’t tell, so I’ve got to write in these marks, just trying desperately to have some control over the situation. A lot of times, the premieres were disasters and got reviewed as such. Then you find out some years later that this is one of the greatest musical pieces ever created. Nobody ever heard what the composer had in mind till a long time later. Yeah, it’s got to have been very hard on those guys.
FJO: Your first foray into classical music, Perpetual Motion, was as an interpreter, performing transcriptions of classical pieces. But before that you did Uncommon Ritual with Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall which, once again, is something else entirely yet it connects to classical music because it was embraced by classical music listeners even though it was an album of original compositions for instruments that aren’t necessarily part of the sound world of classical music. Perpetual Motion, however, consists of your own interpretations of classical music repertoire. But that’s different than writing classical music compositions that other musicians are playing, which is what you’ve been doing for the past five years.
BF: Right. So Edgar Meyer is my entrée into that world. I met Edgar when we were both very young, and he was in Aspen going to school there in the summers, in the string school that’s there. I was playing with New Grass Revival in one of my first years in that band. I heard there was this great bass player who played on the street, and I was like, “Oh, that’s cool. I used to play on the street in Boston.” So I went to see him that night and ended up getting out my banjo. We ended up having this jam and then going to someone’s house and playing late into the night. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Here’s a guy who’s a little younger than me who’s probably the greatest classical bass player who ever lived, but a lot more than that. He also has a great love and ability outside of that world, but has a lot of training as a classical player and is also a composer, although he’s insisted he was never actually trained as a composer. He just started writing. He’s been doing it the way he wants to, and he’s a genius composer.
So now I had a friend. When I got into bluegrass and first started listening to Flatt and Scruggs, it was a long time before I had a friend who was great at traditional music. It was a guy named Pat Enright, who joined Tasty Licks near the end. That’s when I really started being interested in traditional music again, when I heard somebody doing it great right next to me. Part of why I wanted to move down south and really understand that music was because of this Pat Enright character, who was such a great traditional singer that he gave me respect for the idiom. My stepfather is a wonderful guy and a good musician, but he’s not a charismatic young figure on the cello. He just loves to play classical music as a part of his life. But now with Edgar I had a young guy who’s my age, who’s dashing and exciting, and he plays the bass like no one’s ever played it before. And we’re peers, so I am not looking up at him like if he’d been Jascha Heifetz; he’s my pal. So that opened the door. “Hey, you want to learn some Bach?” I was like, “Okay!” And he would sit there and teach it to me one note at a time until I could play it. He had the patience to guide me through it. I would go see him do a recital with the piano and do some Scriabin and some Bach, and I would think, “Four hundred people sitting here listening to somebody play really beautiful, quiet music. I never get to do anything like that. For me to go play a recital with a piano player and learn some pieces like these, that would be neat.”
Then I watched him do his first orchestra piece, and it was brilliant. Then my other friend Mark O’Connor did one and I thought, “People like me are doing things like this. I should be thinking about doing this someday!” Though it wasn’t something I was excited to hurry into because I just didn’t feel very qualified. The door opened because there I was, in that orbit of Edgar. At a certain point we wrote a piece for banjo and string quartet that was commissioned by someone in the Nashville Arts Commission for the Blair String Quartet. That was the first writing I had done like that, and I saw how he did it. I saw how he thought and how he built. I provided ideas and melodies, and he would say, “That’s good; let’s work with that one. I can do a lot with that.” And he would just start doing stuff; he was the mastermind. Most people that are great classical composers are not good collaborators at composing. Edgar’s actually very good at trying to find a way to take a lot from the other person while still having the control of making it the kind of piece it should be to stand up in that world.
FJO: One of the most amazing things you composed together with Edgar and also with Zakir Hussain is a triple concerto that the three of you recorded with the Detroit Symphony. I’m curious to know how the three of you worked together on that.
BF: Edgar was open at the right times and he was closed at the right times. He took control when it was necessary. He let us contribute, but he knew the backbone of the piece needed to come from someone with an overview. So he was looking for the through story. Zakir was like, “I’ve got all these tablas. I can have different ones for different movements or different sections.” And Edgar said, “What if you have just one tabla in B and in the first movement we’ll play in F, and it will be the tritone, then we’ll move. The next one’ll be in A, and the B will be the second or the ninth, and then, when we’ve finally reached the third movement, we’re in B.” I don’t think that’s exactly the piece, but you get the idea. The creative tension and the resolution would be when we got to the last movement and we were really actually in B. That tone would be going through the whole piece. That was a good idea; it gave the piece a storyline. Anyway, first Edgar and I did a double concerto for the Nashville Symphony. Then they asked us to do a triple concerto when they built the new hall, because they wanted a piece to commemorate the opening.
Then it was time for me to finally do my own. I had done a string quartet with Edgar. I had done a double concerto and done the triple, but there was still no banjo concerto. In a weird way, I thought the banjo concerto was the biggest missing piece in the repertoire. If the banjo was going to have any place in this world, there needed to be a banjo concerto. Until I started doing it, it didn’t seem like a hard thing to do because it’s so different from the orchestra. There are so many things you can show off that haven’t been heard in that context. But the trick is: Where’s the backbone? Where’s that brilliant Edgar mind to figure out how the whole thing’s going to go? That was where I struggled: not in coming up with ideas, but coming up with a big picture.
FJO: You wrote very extensive notes for the DG recording of your first banjo concerto, and in them you mentioned that you never felt particularly comfortable reading staff notation. You were really good at reading tablature, and so instead you composed with a banjo in hand then jotted down stuff in tablature. Thankfully, you could enter tablature into Sibelius, and it would convert it into notation.
BF: Sibelius changed my life. When I did Perpetual Motion, it was a much harder time to do a project like that. There were these transcriptions, and I had to get all the notes right. Somebody can play them all into MIDI, and you can have all the pitches and you can manipulate them if you want. Finale was the only program that was working at that time, and they had this goofy little tablature thing that didn’t take itself very seriously. The closest thing I could find was a four-string banjo tablature. I would copy all the notes and paste them onto that. There was no fifth string [in the tablature], so it would just put the notes anywhere on the neck it wanted to. They were the right notes, but I couldn’t manipulate them. Once they were on, they were on; I couldn’t change them. So I would print that out and then add an extra line and start whiting out them and moving them to the right string, to create fingerings that were possible. Before I learned each piece, I would go through this extensive process of getting the notes right and getting the fingerings right, because you don’t want to learn them before the fingerings are right. Banjo playing is all about playing things in the right place, because there are a lot of places to play the same thing. But if you play them in a wrong place, it’s not going to lead to the next phrase and you’re stuck. You can’t get to there from here. Everything has to lead properly, so it was a hell of a project. But then Sibelius came out and their tablature program was so great. If an E was a two on the second string, but I needed it to be at the 14th fret of the fourth string instead of down there, because the next note was going to be way up here, I could just pull it and the number would change, and it would go to the right number all of a sudden. It was a very effective tablature program, and it would have made Perpetual Motion so much easier to do and so much more fun. Now I have a way that I can really manipulate the tablature. If I write something complex, I can take that tablature and paste it onto a music staff and Howard Levy or Chick Corea can read it. I have a way to communicate with those guys, even though I can’t read their notation.
FJO: So when you were working out individual parts in the concerto like, say, a part for clarinet, did you originally write it out in banjo tab and then convert it back using Sibelius?
BF: Not exactly. Writing the banjo concerto, with orchestra staves which have all the instruments, I had a variety of things I could do. One is just throw notes on there and move them around until I heard the pitch I wanted, and then change the value until I got the value I wanted, and then add the next note—do it one at a time like that. Or I could come up with a banjo idea, put it into tablature, and then orchestrate it slowly with that same procedure. Or I could get an idea in my head and try to put it in one note at a time on the clarinet—sing along, like I would if I was producing a record and someone came in to do a clarinet part, and we’re trying to come up with the part. I would just start singing until I found something that was missing from the music. They’d learn it and then they would embroider it. I could do that by myself. I could build the bass part, build the melody, then look for inner voices that were missing and sing them, then try to find them and put them in one note at a time. I did the orchestral writing more that way. Because if you put a note on a staff and pop it up until you find the note you want, it’s kind of like writing in the dark, writing by ear rather than by writing by knowledge. So that’s how both of those concertos were written.
FJO: What’s interesting though is they’re written and they’re fixed on the page. It’s not the same as humming a clarinet part to a studio musician who could learn it that way and then, as you say, embroider it. In classical music, the musicians expect to have the music that you want already worked out—down to tempo markings, dynamics, and articulations—so they can do right by you.
BF: Yeah, you’ve got to give them everything. But you don’t start out with that. You start out with: where’s the heart of this thing? Where’s the beat coming from? Then gradually, as you get closer to the end point when you have to deliver it, you start to fill in all the dynamics. Now you know what they all are because you realize as you’re going along that you actually know everything you want. But you don’t know that when you’re first writing. I do it as a constantly evolving process. I keep on adding to it.
FJO: So how flexible are you then with it?
BF: You mean once I get to the orchestra?
FJO: Since you come to other music with an improvising player’s sensibility, I wonder how open you are to musicians reshaping your original intentions.
BF: When I work with Brooklyn Rider, who are also on the new Juno record, it’s so much more of a flexible situation where we could talk about every measure. Everybody’s going to have an opinion about every single phrase, about how they should bow it, about whether we should pull it back rhythmically. You can’t have that dialogue with 90 people on an orchestra stage. But you have the illusion of that kind of dialogue with the conductor where he says, “Maestro, it’s your music. Just tell me what you want.” And I go, “No, you’re the conductor. If you have a strong feeling, please let me know.” But in the end, it’s really going to come down to us doing it as close to what I envisioned as possible, and he’s going to be a sweetheart about it, and he’s going to try to get it there. I’m going to be flexible if it’s tough and there are things that we can’t quite get. I’m going to be cautious and not overstep my bounds as a visiting artist with the symphony. It’s this dance. It all has to happen very fast. You get one rehearsal and then a dress rehearsal the next day. It’s hard music. So there has to be a structure and free will is not really an option. Sadly.
FJO: You wished you had more time to work with the musicians when you were travelling around Africa, rather than only a week, but with an orchestra you’ve got just two hours.
BF: Right. That’s why everything has to be set. It really is two hours. We’ve got a two-and-half-hour rehearsal. You only get the first hour because they have to practice the Copland for the second. And the next morning, we get to do a run through, a dress rehearsal. We play it down and we fix a few things, and then that’s it. Luckily I’ve got my part down. I know how valuable that rehearsal time is and when I show up in front of an orchestra, I need to convince them this is worth them caring about somehow. So I play every rehearsal as if it’s the final performance. I try to play my parts as convincingly as I do at the concert because I want them to go, “Oh, this is actually pretty good. I’d better sound as good as the soloist.” I want the band to sound as good as the soloist. A lot of times they’ve got 150 services that year. They’ve got to have a reason to care about each one. Everyone wants to do a good job, but it’s just coming at them day after day after day. You’re going to be gone in two days. It’s just like being a session player. You want the session player to care about your song. You want passion.
FJO: You called your first concerto The Imposter, which can mean many different things depending on how you interpret it. It could be about feeling like you’re somehow not a “real” composer because you’d never written such a thing before.
FJO: But now you’ve written two of these things, so you’re definitely not inexperienced at this anymore. The second one had to have been easier to write than the first one.
BF: I wasn’t as frightened while I was writing it.
FJO: And in your description about this second concerto, you described how writing music has become an activity that you can do at all hours, really late at night or early in the morning when your wife and three-year-old son are both asleep. You treasure having this alone time to write this music, but this is completely different than how you’ve been creating music your whole life—making music with other people and getting ideas from being in that zone.
BF: It’s really different. I’ve also had to learn that if you’ve only got a half an hour, or 45 minutes, you can’t go, “Well, that’s not enough time to get something done.” It’s kind of like being healthy. I need to learn these things, too. I’ve only got 15 minutes; that’s not enough time to work out. Well, it is. You can go do some pushups. You can go walk around the block. So I say, “Okay, I’ve got 15 minutes, maybe I can just work on that counterpoint in movement three.” I can work on that because I know I haven’t got that piccolo thing working right with the bassoon, or whatever thing that I’m working on. I’ve learned that you can accomplish a lot of little things. You should never look at a small amount of time as a reason not to work. Just put on the headphones. Go listen and do some work on something you’re not satisfied with. At some point, you’ll have to put in enough work to have something worth working on. Tweaking is just a piece of it. You have to have inspiration. You have to have melodies you love enough and materials that you think are meaningful enough to develop.
The great thing has been that I don’t have to travel away from my family very much. If I go do actual performances, it’s going to be three or four days. It’s not like I’m joining a band and going around the world to promote a new record. Orchestra dates are not constant. They’re occasional, and the writing is a way for me to continue to explore and be the kind of musician that I want to be in the context of this new life where my wife and I are playing a more folk-based kind of music as the center of what I’m doing with my life, so that in this period where my son is young, we can all be together. We travel together as a family. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still need to do complicated music.
FJO: So now that you realize you don’t have to tour around the world and that you can write music from your home, the next step is for you write pieces that you’re not playing in.
BF: I haven’t gotten to that point yet. I’ve thought about it, but I haven’t quite crossed over to that. Edgar finally did his first one, just a few weeks ago. He wrote a piece for the Nashville Symphony, his first symphony, and he’s not playing on it. I have to talk to him about how that felt. I’m not sure that anyone would be that interested in it if I wasn’t playing, but we’ll see what happens. Maybe someone will ask me to do something like that one day.
FJO: I’m totally interested. I want to hear a wind quintet by you, especially after hearing about your attempts with a French horn in high school. You could get some other French horn player to finally play that F!
BF: Yes. You get the F, man. I’m not getting the F. I’ll get the G. The banjo’s tuned to G. But it’s exciting to put the banjo in front of an orchestra. It’s a classy situation. It presents the banjo in a way that has been very rare, and I’ve been able to do it a lot now. And it broadens the reach. My audience, a lot of them might not go to a classical show; some of them would, but a lot of them might not. But because they like what I do, they will come and see an orchestra and have this different experience. They want to see what that’s like. Then there’s the audience that only goes to classical shows, which is a lot of people in our country. They bought the series tickets in this town or that town, and they come to all the shows, ten shows a year, whatever, and that’s their musical life. Now here I am stuck in the middle of that, and then they see that. Between those two audiences, it’s usually a pretty good audience. A lot of times the orchestras tell me that it was a really solid turnout for what they do, or better than normal. So it makes me feel good.
FJO: How would you feel about another banjo player playing one of your concertos and you sitting in the audience?
BF: That’s fine. I’m hopeful that that will happen one day. There are certainly four or five now that could do them probably better than me in terms of ability—like Noam Pikelny or Ryan Cavanaugh. They wouldn’t conceptualize things or write things the way I can, but they can play the things and they have their own music that they’re obviously great at. There was a long time when I was the only person who could play this stuff, but I think that’s changed and I’m excited for that. And that’s part of why I want to create a lot of repertoire for the banjo in the classical world, so that banjo players have something they can do. There was no repertoire. Playing transcriptions is really a losing game because a piece that’s written for the piano, by the time you reduce it to fit on the banjo, it’s just not what it was made for. But if you can write some new music that is made for what the banjo does well, then it can win. It’s not trying to be a violin. You can learn a lot from learning music for other instruments, but in the end you’ve got to be yourself. Classical music for the banjo should be written around what the banjo does great, just like Chopin is written around what the piano does great.
FJO: The banjo has been so central to your life that you’ve even married another banjo player, Abigail Washburn, who is also an extraordinary musician and now—which you’ve already mentioned—you play music together. I’m curious if living with someone else who is also a formidable force on the instrument has changed your musical aesthetics in any way and vice versa. Are you influenced by what she’s done? And she by you? How has that played out?
BF: I think we both helped each other be better musicians, and she’s certainly helped me to be a better person. And the process of having a child has taught me a lot about putting things into perspective. What’s important is not always the same at every given moment. Music doesn’t always win. But sometimes it makes you a better person to realize that, and then it makes you a better musician—the things that you care about writing and the way you approach it. And she’s taught me. She plays in a different style from me, what we call clawhammer; I play three-finger. They’ve almost never historically played together. So what we’ve got within our household is an opportunity to create something that’s never been before, which is a musical form based around these two banjo styles interacting. And luckily she’s a fabulous singer and a very good songwriter. What she does great is she creates bedrock parts to build the songs around, which means I can be free-wheeling on top, being a soloist, or I can be the bass player. Or she can be the bass player and I can do the other parts. There are a lot of different ways to arrange those two banjos. She also gives me a chance to play some beautiful music in a different style than I’ve gotten to do in a long time and to work with a vocalist, which I haven’t gotten to do really since New Grass Revival days in a regular way.
I love working with vocalists. It’s not that I’m anti-vocal. I love the banjo being the center, too, and not having to have a vocal for the music to be complete. I think that instrumental music is great for the brain, but it doesn’t mean I don’t love great vocals. She has a purity and a warmth and a truth-ness to her singing that moves me, and I get excited about working with it and creating musical structures around it and improvising around it, too. So that’s really good. And I teach her, because her style and the way she’s learned it, she was never ambitious to become a hotshot banjo player. In that world of banjo, that’s not really what it’s about anyway. Old time playing is more about groove and rhythm. But I’ve helped her to add things to her toolkit to make the songs better and voicelead a little bit when we’re creating a song. I’ll say, “Well, that part’s great. Just add this note. That’s going to give you the flat sixth, and it’ll be really cool as a passing chord on the way to this.” Then suddenly we have a voiceleading in her part that gives me the opportunity to do something else on top. You know, those kinds of things. But I try to point her towards things that are super natural—not supernatural—for her style. And she seems to enjoy just getting pushed out of a corner. She’s used to doing this. What if you have to restart after five notes? It’s the same pattern you always do, but you’ve got to restart it. That suddenly gives us a new kind of groove to play with. I throw ideas at her, and she throws ideas at me.
FJO: You named your son Juno, but as far as I know there are no significant 20th-century composers named Juno.
BF: Right. Some writers.
FJO: So is Juno going to be playing the banjo?
BF: He plays a little ukulele banjo now, strumming. And he loves to buck dance. He sees momma dance on stage with me and so he copies that. It’s really fun to watch him do that. He loves to play golf. That seems to be his biggest passion so far. Neither of us are golfers. It’s just one of those fluky things. He saw it on TV when he was with his grandfather, because we don’t watch TV with him right now very much at all. We don’t want to get that going. But once he saw that, all of a sudden, he wanted to golf, and so he’s been pretty serious about that for the last couple of years.
FJO: Beware of watching TV because watching the Beverly Hillbillies on TV is what set you on your way.
BF: That’s right. It was a very special thing that they let us watch TV for that hour in my grandparents’ bedroom when I was four or five. It was an unusual thing. We weren’t afraid of TV back then. This would have been like ’62 or ’63. Now we know we should be afraid of it.