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Back to Bluegrass: banjo master Béla Fleck returns to Ithaca

Béla Fleck
Béla Fleck

On Sunday night, Béla Fleck won the 2022 Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album, garnering honors for his latest release, “My Bluegrass Heart.”

This Wednesday, the banjo master returns to the State Theatre of Ithaca for the latest leg of the “My Bluegrass Heart” tour. He’ll be joined by Sierra Hull (mandolin), Mark Schatz (bass), Justin Moses (fiddle, dobro, mandolin), Bryan Sutton (guitar), and Stuart Duncan (fiddle).

The album is Fleck’s third journey into the world of bluegrass, following 1988’s “Drive” and 1999’s “The Bluegrass Sessions.” In a press release, he noted: “This is not a straight bluegrass album, but it’s written for a bluegrass band. I like taking that instrumentation, and seeing what I can do with it – how I can stretch it, what I can take from what I've learned from other kinds of music, and what can apply for this combination of musicians, the very particularly ‘bluegrass’ idea of how music works, and what can be accomplished that might be unexpected, but still has deep connections to the origins.”

Indeed, over the past 20 years, Fleck has been part of a huge variety of projects: duo albums and tours with his wife, Abigail Washburn; recording and touring with the late jazz pianist Chick Corea; a reunion with the Flecktones, the jazz-funk-rock-bluegrass band that earned fans around the world; and a collaboration with longtime friend Edgar Meyer along with Indian masters Zakir Hussain and Rakesh Churasia that came to Cornell University in 2018.

Last week, before he won that 16th Grammy, Fleck sat down for an email interview in which he discussed the new album, getting back to bluegrass, and working with the latest generation of talented musicians.

From left: Béla Fleck, Mark Schatz, Justin Moses, Bryan Sutton, Michael Cleveland (who's on the next leg of the tour), Sierra Hull
From left: Béla Fleck, Mark Schatz, Justin Moses, Bryan Sutton, Michael Cleveland (who's on the next leg of the tour), Sierra Hull

Q:  It’s great that you’re coming back to upstate New York. What are your thoughts on returning to Ithaca?

Bela Fleck: I love Ithaca, always very happy to return. There’s been some awesome shows in that old theater, so I’m looking forward to it very much.

Q: As you’ve noted, the new album and tour are you getting back to your bluegrass roots after various musical detours. What’s different for you musically this third time around?

Fleck: It’s been a good 20-something years since I dipped my toes into that water in a serious way, so I’m different. The musicians have evolved and the cast has grown, and the musical possibilities have expanded for various reasons. It’s still a powerful rush to feel the bluegrass groove and see what today will bring improvisationally and conversationally.

Q: You assembled quite an all-star cast for the album – what’s it like to play with some of your longtime peers such as Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, and Edgar Meyer (his former bandmates, along with Mark O’Connor, in late-1980s newgrass supergroup Strength in Numbers) again?  (Also, what are the odds on a Strength in Numbers reunion?)

Fleck: It’s just like coming home when I play with those cats; we are an old and dear friendship and each of us appreciates the time together in an even more profound way; as we all get older, we are all more thankful. (Strength isn’t looking likely, but we are finding other great ways to play together.)

Q: You recorded with some of the genre's young guns like Sierra Hull, Billy Strings, and Chris Thile on the album, and Sierra also is joining you on tour. What are your thoughts on the latest generation of players who have cited you and your bands as an inspiration? Do they ever make you sweat?

Fleck: Let’s just say I need to be at the top of my game. And I can’t indulge in doubt. Just got to go for it. The cool part about collaborating with different talented folks is they make me play quite differently, because of the different information coming my way. I can’t follow a Sierra Hull solo the same way I follow a Sam Bush solo. So, yes, I sweat, and yes, I am impressed with them, and at this time, I think I can still cut the mustard.

Q: How did the first legs of the “My Bluegrass Heart” tour go? What was it like to bring that new material to the stage? And will having slightly shifting lineups this year make it even more interesting?

Fleck: Just amazing. Each run has had its own personality and offered great opportunities to build on old relationships and grow new ones. People play quite differently from each other and that’s a good thing. The future is in great hands for the instrumental bluegrass-centered world.

Béla Fleck
Béla Fleck

Q: How has your banjo technique evolved over the years? Are there still areas that you’re looking to improve?

Fleck: I’m always attempting to be free within my language. I want to be surprised in every solo, and make new connections on how it all can go together. I would have said that speed is becoming more of a challenge, but once I’ve been out for a few days, that comes back. So it’s fun to see what might occur.

I love the idea of attempting to play what is occurring to me in real-time, and sometimes it doesn’t work out and sometimes it does. Ironically, I have learned that from an audience point of view, seeing how someone extricates himself from a mistake can be much more exciting to watch than someone executing everything flawlessly, so I keep that in mind, and keep on charging, no matter what happens!

Q: In 2016, the Flecktones played a reunion show in Geneva, N.Y., and were scheduled to play Ithaca last year before the pandemic put a damper on touring. Five years on, what are your thoughts on how the reunion went? Any plans to work with them again?

Fleck: I do hope we can come back together in the next year or so. I am so fortunate to have this additional great long-time relationship in my life and I will always want to do it. So it’s a matter of rescheduling it once Covid times are behind us, I believe.

Q: What other cool musical projects do you have coming up? Any “bucket-list” projects left on your list?

Fleck: Top secret. I could tell you, but I’d have to fill your mouth with peanut butter and spray you down with silly string.

Q: You and your wife, Abigail Washburn, have two young sons: Juno and Theo. Have your kids taken up the banjo, or any other instrument, yet?

Fleck: They are very musical, both play all kinds of things, and sing. Nobody is “serious” yet, but that could change very fast. The “nature” part is there.

Q: Over the past few years, you’ve brought a wide variety of projects through upstate New York, working with Chris Thile, Zakir Hussein, NY Banjo, the Flecktones, etc. Looking back, would you have imagined such a diverse musical path for your career? Would you change anything about it?

Fleck: I feel like I’ve won the lottery of life, getting to play with such a rich community of inspiring folks. And don’t forget Abigail, or Chick Corea. It’s been awesome. I don’t plan to stop, either!

If You Go

Who: Béla Fleck

What: “My Bluegrass Heart” tour

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 6

Where: State Theatre of Ithaca

Cost: $28.50-$48.50, available online here.

Event Info

Béla Fleck's website

Bela Fleck just won his 16th Grammy Award for his latest album, "My Bluegrass Heart."
Bela Fleck just won his 16th Grammy Award for his latest album, "My Bluegrass Heart."

Jim Catalano covers the Finger Lakes music scene for WITH (90.1 FM in Ithaca, and its affiliates.