The groundbreaking banjoist reflects on a career of defying labels and demonstrates his talent with a performance of a track featured on his CD, “The Imposter.”
Musician-composer Béla Fleck
Tavis: Béla Fleck has pushed the limits of the banjo, working in just about every form of music, playing jazz and blues and bluegrass and even classical, working with musicians as varied as Bonnie Raitt, Joshua Bell, the Grateful Dead, and of course his hero, banjo legend Earl Scruggs.
Along the way he’s collected 30 Grammy nominations – you heard me right, 30. He’s won 15 times. His latest CD is called “The Imposter” and marks his first foray into classical composing.
Béla Fleck will play an excerpt from his concerto at the conclusion of this conversation. Béla, good to have you back on this program.
Béla Fleck: Good to be here. Thank you.
Tavis: You been good?
Tavis: A lot’s changed since I last saw you. I heard there’s a little baby in the house?
Fleck: There sure is, yeah, there sure is, yeah. My wife is a banjo player, so this little guy is getting a lot of banjo music, and he listens. It’s pretty amazing.
Tavis: So what instrument is he going to play, banjo?
Fleck: Well, right now he’s concentrating on the piano.
Tavis: At eight months.
Tavis: Okay. (Laughter) Is he composing already?
Fleck: Yes he is. I’m stealing right and left. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’m laughing, and I know you’re serious.
Fleck: I’m dead serious.
Tavis: You probably are recording what he’s doing.
Fleck: Yeah, I’m videoing what he’s doing and every once in a while he does something that’s just so perfect, that I never would think of. He plays with a lot of space. He’ll hit a chord and just let it ring, which I’m not so good – the banjo doesn’t last very long.
So he’s good at hitting long chords and letting them hang, and he always seems to find the most dissonant, interesting interval possible. So I’m getting a lot of inspiration from him.
Tavis: This is amazing, because Béla is as serious as they come. (Laughter) He’s very, very serious about this. How is having that eight-month-old, other than the music that you just talked about that he’s playing on piano, how has that changed your life?
Fleck: Well I’m trying to figure out how to be home more, and actually, composing is a good way to be home, because if somebody commissions me to write a piece, then I can spend time at home.
Now it doesn’t actually work – if I go out and play dates, I’ll make a lot more money. But it just makes me feel really good that somebody is willing to pay me to write music, and I just love being home now.
But I’m still touring a lot. I have an incredible time doing it. Writing these pieces for the banjo in a classical setting is kind of like emancipating the banjo somehow, finding a way to make it a more legitimate instrument overall, which I guess is sort of my mission.
Tavis: How would you define and describe a banjo concerto?
Fleck: A banjo concerto? Well in this case I’m looking for a role for the banjo, the way I play it, in an orchestra setting. So a concerto is where there’s a soloist and an orchestra playing.
It’s a tricky composing job because you have to figure out how to come out and offer what the other instruments don’t have. In this case it’s actually kind of simple, because none of the instruments in the orchestra can do what the banjo does.
So I won’t go into depth about the – it’s like you have to figure out do you have them all play at the same time while you play, or do you get them all to stop so you can be heard, or what kind of textures will work.
But for me, one of the most fun things about writing for the orchestra is again, my notes are so short on the banjo, so I can write an orchestra, I can have a violin hold a note for two minutes and then have other notes come in on top and hold for long periods of time and create tension.
Which is a lot of fun, because it’s very hard for me to do with this, but as a composer, I can find ways to make dense chords that I can make, they simply can’t be played on the banjo, and have them held in the air, which is very exciting for me.
Tavis: So you just answered the question I wanted to ask, which is how the sound of the banjo blends with those strings.
Fleck: Well it’s harder for – like I have this great friend, Edgar Meyer, who’s an incredible virtuoso on the upright bass. It’s harder for him to come through an orchestra than it is for the banjo, because he’s more like the cellos and the basses and the violins and everything, violas, and so he has to, like, get everybody to stop so he can really come through, or really thin it out.
But the banjo actually is so different and the timbre is so clear that it works pretty well in terms of just the physical setup of it. But then it comes down to are you going to write anything worth listening to, and that’s up to the listener, really.
Tavis: Yeah. Why call this “The Imposter?”
Fleck: Well, “The Imposter,” there’s a lot of reasons for that, and one of them is that because I’m often doing music that banjo is not normally in, I’m always afraid somebody’s going to tell me, “Hey, you, with the banjo, get out of here. You don’t belong here.” (Laughter)
Going to Africa, playing with African musicians, playing with classical musicians, jazz musicians, Indian musicians, these different things that I’m so fortunate to do. I always feel like I’m the other, I’m the outsider.
So this is a classic case of that, where I’m walking down, I’m the composer, and I’m the banjo player, I’m walking in front of an orchestra like, “Hi, here I am,” and it’s a pretty good time for somebody to say, “What the heck do you think you’re doing here? Get out of here immediately.” So I guess I feel a little bit like an imposter. I don’t really have the classical training.
Well, there is no classical training for banjo, so I’ve had to figure it all out for myself.
Tavis: Yeah, there’s no banjo in the orchestra, so.
Fleck: Right. But there was.
Tavis: Yeah, there was, but when?
Fleck: Well, early 1900s.
Tavis: Yeah, and what happened?
Fleck: Especially the jazz orchestras, like when you think about “Rhapsody in Blue,” there was a banjo part in “Rhapsody in Blue.” I’m not saying banjo was commonplace in orchestras, but there were banjo orchestras which were masses of banjos, only banjos; banjo orchestras.
Tavis: What happened?
Fleck: Well, it just kind of – I guess the day, they had their day. Or mandolin orchestras, banjo orchestras. Both of those instruments were much more popular before the guitar came on the scene.
The banjo, one thing about it is when you strum a banjo, it’s loud. So in early jazz, when they were looking for an instrument to play next to a trumpet, a banjo was a perfect instrument for that.
I play a lot more delicately. It’s not loud the way I play, but in early jazz, when the banjo was part of that music, yeah.
Tavis: You and – and I’ve been fortunate to have both of you as guests any number of times – but you and Herbie Hancock always remind me of each other, although you play different instruments.
Herbie has this drive, as you do, to try everything with everybody. Where does that drive come from for you?
Fleck: Probably insecurity. (Laughter)
Tavis: You have to explain that one.
Fleck: Well, if you’re feeling awesome about yourself, you don’t have anything to prove. If you – to be blunt. (Laughter) So I think I have that kind of make-up, where I’m always trying to make sure that I’m doing something that impresses me, or that I feel I’m worth it.
If some people I’m going to say I’m good, then I’m like, well, I’d better be that good or I’d better try to be that good and really be the person that I’ve always been trying to be.
Tavis: But a great philosopher named Béla Fleck once told me there’s always something to screw up, always something to get wrong.
Fleck: Yeah, that’s true too. Music is very humbling. The musician that walks around and thinks he’s perfect, he’s about to hit the wall. (Laughter)
Tavis: The new project from Béla Fleck is called “The Imposter,” and coming up, he’s going to play an excerpt from his concerto for banjo, so stay with us. Before that, I now get a chance to thank Béla for coming back on the program again.
Fleck: Oh, thank you.
Tavis: Looking forward to hearing what he’s about to do, and thank you for watching tonight. As always, keep the faith.
[Live musical performance by Béla Fleck]
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