Most musicians would consider playing in an 11/16 time signature to be the musical equivalent of rocket science. Of course, Béla Fleck and the Original Flecktones make it sound effortless in their composition "Live in Eleven," from their new album, Rocket Science.
"We had run a bunch of poetic titles for the recording up the flagpole, and none were saluting," explains world-renowned banjo player Fleck. "I sent the 'Rocket Science' idea off to the team as a joke, and to my surprise, everyone said, 'Hey, I like that!' Then I thought, 'Wait, it sounds like we think we are so complicated that no one but scientists would understand us.' I had to be reassured that our music really is like rocket science to a lot of people, and folks would understand that we have a sense of humor about it."
Their 14th release as a band, Rocket Science also marks the return of original member Howard Levy. The pianist and harmonica player left in 1992 after five years with the group. When saxophonist Jeff Coffin began touring with the Dave Matthews Band in 2008, Levy rejoined for select tours and shows. His presence reignited the band, with much of Rocket Science stemming from collaborative writing sessions between Fleck and Levy.
"I used to worry about the piano wiping out the banjo sonically in the old days when we first played together," recalls Fleck. "But this time, many years later, I just love it, and if it overwhelms the banjo from time to time, I enjoy that too. With multiple chording instruments, you do have to be very sensitive so as not to clash. Howard and I have a good instinct about staying out of each other's way."
Levy's harmonica work fits the style of the Flecktones, but his piano work brings an entirely new element. Akin to the playing of the Bad Plus' Ethan Iverson, Levy's interludes stretch the band's jazz elements to new heights.
"He's a mind-boggling musician who has redefined the possibilities of the diatonic blues harp, and he also happens to be an amazing individual on the piano," says Fleck. The quartet is rounded out by original members Victor Wooten, a legendary bassist in his own right, and brother Roy "Future Man" Wooten on his percussion creation, the Drumitar.
So far, they're sticking to tunes from their first three albums with Levy (their self-titled debut, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, UFO Tofu) and new material for live shows. Another change long-time fans will notice is the incorporation of Future Man's overhauled, brand new MIDI-based Drumitar.
"It's set up in a way that allows repairs to be more practical, and allows him access to even more sounds," explains Fleck. "It's also much lighter than the old one, and is made out of wood. Everyone seems to feel that the sounds he's getting now are a step up."
The time between Coffin's departure and Levy's return provided the Flecktones time to grow, from the new Drumitar to Fleck's Throw Down Your Heart project, tracing and recording the roots of the banjo throughout Africa. In March, Fleck traveled to Scotland with fellow bluegrass greats Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush to film for the television program TransAtlantic Sessions, swapping Celtic and Appalachian licks among the best players of both traditions.
Fleck's recent sources of inspiration are heard most prominently on the track "Falani" from Rocket Science. He learned the grooving, rhythmic tune from African music legends Bassekou Kouyate and N'goni Ba, later adding an Irish fiddle tune interlude.
"When I wrote my version, I envisioned the press rolls on drums, and Future Man brought them to life on his new Drumitar," says Fleck. "It seemed like the best way to lead people to its original origin was to go ahead and name it 'Falani.'"
Twelve-time Grammy award winner Fleck arrives in Charleston with a new honor freshly bestowed upon him. On May 28, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of music from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, further securing his status as a master of the banjo.
"I guess as I get older and feebler, I should grab all the honors I can, while the getting is good," jokes Fleck, also expressing gratitude for his inclusion at Spoleto. "It is exactly the kind of festival I love, with varied and high-quality musical offerings. We are proud to be a part of it."
When Levy left the Flecktones in 1992, Fleck says that the band was creatively peaking. In the band's press material, Future Man compares their re-emergence with Levy to Star Trek: The Next Generation fans who never got to meet Captain Kirk, now getting the chance to watch the original crew of the Enterprise come together on a new mission.
That mission varies without musical definition, as four sonic geniuses enjoy a renewed vigor in their collaboration. From Celtic jigs to African grooves to Appalachian pickin', it's difficult to imagine a band that better suits the spirit of Spoleto.