Béla Fleck Reinvents the Banjo - Again

Béla Fleck has made a career proving that the banjo has no limits

By Josh Klemons

When people speak about modern banjo players, the first name that they mention is typically Béla Fleck. And for good reason. Béla has been pushing the musical boundaries on his quirky five-string instrument for decades. While most see the banjo as a bluegrass instrument, Béla has never been willing to be contained by genre or rules.

After quickly making a name for himself as a progressive bluegrass musician, in 1981 he was asked to join New Grass Revival. He was a driving force behind their revolutionary sound. With Béla’s help, New Grass Revival showed the world that bluegrass instruments need not be limited to bluegrass licks, progressions and song structures. Incorporating elements of Rock and Roll, soul, R&B, blues and anything else that worked, New Grass Revival opened the doors for scores of young bands out there today who are using banjos, mandolins, upright basses, acoustic guitars and fiddles to play music, the likes of which Bill Monroe could never have imagined. It is hard to imagine a world with bands like Leftover Salmon, The String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band and Trampled by Turtles, had New Grass Revival not been around to pave the way.

Béla then went on to form Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, a band that made even  New Grass Revival seem traditional. The Flecktones followed no rules and accepted no boundaries. Anyone still on the fence as the limitations of the banjo simply watched in amazement as the Flecktones tore down the fence altogether.

Béla has released albums and toured with classical bassist Edgar Meyer and Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain. He has recorded jazz albums and toured with the Marcus Roberts Trio as well as Chick Corea. He has shared the stage with Malian musicians Toumani Diabaté and Cheick Hamala Diabate.

So it should come as no surprise that Béla has once again thrown tradition by the wayside and done the unexpected. While he has performed with orchestras in the past in limited capacities, Béla’s most recent album features him accompanied by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra performing a concerto that he wrote and arranged. The album is called The Impostor. And now it has been announced that Béla will headline the first night of the four day Telluride Bluegrass Festival accompanied by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.

As always, it would be silly to be surprised by anything that this master musician does. It is far better to sit back, relax and enjoy a masterful show, however Béla chooses to perform it.

Published December 8th, 2013

Josh Klemons is a musician, a music lover and a music journalist. He has been to hundreds of live concerts and loves to write about what he hears. Follow him on twitter @jlemonsk