Friday, June 04, 2010

Interview transcript: Bela Fleck (Part 2)

Part 2 of the interview with banjo master Bela Fleck, who performs with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain June 23 at the Sunset Center in Carmel. For information, visit

I want to take it back to when you started the project. Tell me a little bit about that structure, working with the symphony and the three of you, with your unique and varied styles. What were the initial challenges in working within that structure and utilizing your gifts for improv?
This project, the orchestra piece has no improvisation for Edgar or I. Every single note we played for 30 minutes was scripted. Zakir has set structures he has to work in, but nothing is written out for him. He's going to play it the way he feels, but he has to know every bar change — when I say bar change, a lot of the music is rotating between different time signatures constantly, so he had to be as intimate with the music as Edgar or I, perhaps even more so, because he had to be able to freely improvise between it as a percussionist. And he also had one improvised solo, which he would play and he would cue us out with a pre-arranged musical cue.
Creating the piece was really interesting, because normally when you think of an orchestral piece, you think about one guy sitting in a room composing, and all of the great work has tended to be done that way. So this was a different animal, in that we got three people that have all composed, trying to figure out how to do this together. And the way the structure worked, Edgar was our conduit. He was the one who sort of organized all the thoughts and made it all cohesive, although we all worked together and we all contributed melodies and suggestions and all of it, the same things we do on our own music. But Edgar was the guy who had the skills to translate it into a score that an orchestra could play.
The orchestra had no input until the day we showed up with the piece for them to learn and play for the performance. We wrote every single note for them to play. There was no improvisation for them either.
But creating that work was an immense job. Edgar has done it quite a few times now. He was our resident expert, although Zakir has been involved in writing orchestra pieces too. I had done one with Edgar before, a double concerto we had written together. And we learned that structure, where we come up with melodies together, he'd fish for ideas from me, we incorporate them into the piece, we'd listen back to them together, and make changes together. But he was the guy who put pen to paper and put it all down. And he was really gifted. And for a guy who was such a great composer, to stand back and say ‘Okay, now I'm a composer, but now I'm just making sure that all three of us are equally represented in this music,’ was quite an incredible challenge. Everybody got their licks in and everybody got something to say about every note. And it all happed with a lot of warmth and ease, which is such a great testament to how good Edgar and Zakir are. They're both great guys.

Take it back to your relationship with Edgar and your decision to bring in Zakir. What lead up to that?
I met Edgar , I think it was 82, maybe 83, and he was an amazing young talent. We met in Aspen, Colorado, where he was going to school. We started playing together and from then on, we were in constant contact, always listening to each others music and always playing together when we could.
And as I watched him, he sort of reawakened my interest in classical music. When I was a kid, there was a lot of classical music going on, especially in my teens. My father's a cellist and I was in a music high school, so I was hearing a lot of it. But it wasn't my thing.
So being around Edgar made me realize there was actually a place for the banjo with that music, and there would be an interesting challenge that I could learn from. We made a record together called “Perpetual Motion,” which was, basically, the banjo playing classical works, and Edgar was my co-producer.
He really knew classical music, so he helped me not do dumb stuff that a banjo player would not know was dumb. And helped me to arrange the music for the instrument that we were going to play, and oversee (everything), while letting me do a lot of the work, keep me out of trouble. The album went really well. I learned so much from doing it about playing the banjo. It was a great thing. So I was eager to stay in touch with Edgar musically.
The first orchestra piece was the double concert for banjo and bass and orchestra in Nashville, with the Nashville Symphony. They were building a new concert hall. They were looking for something for Nashville composers to write a piece for the opening of the new hall, which is an incredible classical venue just built in Nashville. They invited us to do it because we had done that piece together, and they suggested we make it a triple concerto, and come up with someone amazing to do it with. We had a very short list and Zakir was at the top of it. And I think the reason he was at the top of it was because he was the guy we thought we could learn the most from in some sort of extended interaction.
Edgar and I, we're equally psycho about music, in that we don't want to give up learning. We don't want to give up the wonder, and we know what happens when we are stimulated, great things come out of us. Or at least greater things happen then when we're not stimulated.
(Zakir) was just a guy we thought was incredible and we'd been hearing about him And we're real curious about Indian music too, and we both have a lot of respect for Indian classical music. It was sort of trying to be well-rounded musicians. If you're a well-rounded musician, you really need to be listening to music from around the world and find out what you can learn from and what skills they use. You need to know about Indian music, African music. You need to know about music from different parts of the world.
So this as a way for us to learn a lot, and we could learn something from Zakir. And luckily he was interested. And we had something to offer Zakir, a major commission for good money, with a good orchestra. with a great conductor
When we first got together, we first started playing as composers, hardly at all actually playing together. It was all three of us sitting together in front of a computer and writing stuff, getting out instruments out and sharing ideas.
But we kind of put off the point when we would actually sit and play and jam and become a trio until later because we needed to write this piece.
So that's what started to happened in October. That is when we started to find out what the trio was, because most of the gigs we have been doing has been as a trio, and just a few with the orchestras. And the trio is really a wonderful thing. It's completely different from anything we have done, and it's very warm and acoustic and earthy, and it's subtle and complicated and simple all at the same time. And it's a lot of fun.
I think we're all pretty high on it and pretty happy that we found a new context for ourselves. Its' like a reinvention when you find new people to play with, and it puts you in a different light, and you can use your gifts in a different way.

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