The banjo is an instrument we don”t normally consider ripe for classical crossover. But five-time Grammy winner Bla Fleck, a seasoned pro in bluegrass, jazz and rock, makes a successful leap to classical with his latest recording, “Perpetual Motion.” Tomorrow night, Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer will perform selections from the album, in addition to some of their favorite duets.
Fleck”s upbringing would seem conducive to a career in classical music, but as a teenager, he was drawn to other styles. The allure of Flatt & Scruggs” bluegrass playing attracted Fleck, who picked up the banjo at age 15. He joined the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival in 1982 and subsequently made a series of solo recordings for Rounder Records. Fleck”s career skyrocketed in 1989 when he formed the Flecktones, a group who describe their style as “blu-bop,” a combination of jazz and bluegrass.
“Perpetual Motion” is a return to the classical sounds of his childhood, exemplified by his cello-playing stepfather. “It”s funny I always enjoyed classical, but it was never so galvanizing that I wanted to play it for a living,” said Fleck. “The older you get, the more it makes sense to you. Now I hear that there is more rhythmic, exciting stuff in classical music that I didn”t catch onto until later.”
The initial push behind “Perpetual Motion” came from Meyer, who earlier this year shared a Grammy award for Best Classical Crossover Recording with violinist Mark O”Connor and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. For this album, Meyer helped Fleck make a “wish list” of acclaimed artists to collaborate with. The ultimate product included Meyer on bass, Joshua Bell on violin, Evelyn Glennie on marimba and John Williams on guitar, among other artists.
“I knew I was going to be satisfied I felt we were on a very top level,” said Fleck. “I like the fact that it”s an intimate kind of recording. Between one or two musicians, it gives it a very honest feeling.”
“Perpetual Motion” spans three centuries of classical music, from Bach, to Beethoven, to Chopin to Tchaikovsky. Fleck”s playing fits seamlessly into the classical compositions, but he never tries to replicate the sound of a cello or violin. Each selection puts a modern twist on an old favorite, such as what Fleck does with Bach”s “Prelude from Suite for Unaccompanied Cello No.1.” The long, lyrical cello bowings on this piece are replaced with Fleck”s gentle banjo strumming and the result is a harp-like, almost ethereal sound that is a delight for the ears.
Though The Flecktones have performed with live orchestras, “Perpetual Motion” is entirely new territory for Fleck. The process of selecting music and transcribing it for banjo fingerings was one of his most mentally taxing projects yet. “It was technically challenging,” he said. “It was sort of amazing how much of the stuff actually did work and fit the banjo. It was quite a cool experience.”
On following up “Perpetual Motion” with more classical works, Fleck hopes to write a concerto for The Flecktones and orchestra. Such experimentation with other genres has become part of Fleck”s musical creed. “I think it”s something every musician who wants to be well-rounded should do, it”s part of my ongoing education,” he said. “There”s just so much music out there to learn and it”s just like, “What am I going to do next?””