Bela Fleck portrait Bela Fleck


Tasty Licks "Tasty Licks" (Rounder, 1978)
The early works of banjoist Bela Fleck find him listed as "the third lead instrument" in this zippy ensemble, backing mandolinist/vocalist Jack Tottle in an ambitious set of innovative progressive 'grass... The band's name isn't just a coy pun, it's also a declaration of bragging rights: the aggressive jazz-pop-grass fusion that would make Fleck famous is hinted at here in the complexified harmonies and rhythmic twists, piled atop a relatively traditional set of truegrass tunes. Tottle's voice doesn't do much for me, but the approach is definitely creative and new...After a while, it starts sounding a little too clever, but you have to give them credit for their groundbreaking approach. Also, this is relatively restrained, a midway point between the folk-tinged work of earlier bands such as the Country Gentlemen, et al, and the more panoramic explorations of David Grisman and his jazzed-up "spacegrass" crew. Fans of Fleck will want to check out these formative recordings, while regular old 'grass fans will be able to groove on it as well... And, yeah, there's some sweet picking on here, too!

Tasty Licks "Anchored To The Shore" (Rounder, 1979)
The second album by this much-vaunted band... After this, Fleck formed Spectrum with Jimmy Gaudreau, and then moved into a gig with the New Grass Revival...

Bela Fleck "Crossing The Tracks" (Rounder, 1979)
On his first solo release Fleck is still rooted in the bluegrass world, and not too fusion-y -- the album opens with a dazzling, ripsnortin', traditional-sounding version of "Dear Old Dixie," and while the rest of the record sticks to a relatively bare-bones acoustic sound, there is a cerebral feel to some of the tunes that can seem a bit stiff. The second half gets more space-grassy, but it's all fine picking: fans of Bill Keith, Tony Trischka and Mike Auldridge will find plenty to cheer about here!

Spectrum "Opening Roll" (Rounder, 1980) (LP)
Despite the pretentious name and futuristic band logo (I'll scan the cover some day...) these guys were actually a pretty straightforward, zip-bang-zoom truegrass band. Bela Fleck's banjo work rips through these tunes, while mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau adds a sweetness and authority to the proceedings. The other guys aren't slouches, either -- bassist Mark Schatz came over with Fleck from the ashes of Tasty Licks, while guitarist Glenn Lawson was one of Gaudreau's cohorts in J.D. Crowe's New South. The repertoire includes country and pop -- oldies from Paul Anka, The Everly Brothers, Merle Haggard, Paul Simon and Bob Wills -- but all played with pure twang and sizzle. Worth checking out, if you can track it down!

Bela Fleck/Bill Keith/Tony Trischka "Fiddle Tunes For Banjo" (Rounder, 1981)

Bela Fleck "Natural Bridge" (Rounder, 1982)

Spectrum "Too Hot For Words" (Rounder, 1982)

Spectrum "Live In Japan" (Rounder, 1983)

Bela Fleck "Double Time: Acoustic Duets Featuring The Five-String Banjo" (Rounder, 1984)
A very pretty album, with some of the best, most soulful work Fleck has ever recorded. Features a series of restrained, inventive duets with folks such as John Hartford, Darol Anger, David Grisman, Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, etc. His two-banjo duet with John Hartford is particularly nice. I'm no big fan of Fleck's work (see below) but this is, for the most part, a very nice record. Recommended.

Bela Fleck "Inroads" (Rounder, 1986)

Bela Fleck "Daybreak" (Rounder, 1987)

Bela Fleck "Drive" (Rounder, 1988)

Bela Fleck "Places" (Rounder, 1988)

Strength In Numbers "Telluride Sessions" (MCA Nashville, 1998)
A bunch of newgrass usual suspects -- Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor -- get together for a mellow set of mildly twangy instrumental tunes. For Fleck, this is a positive return to roots (I guess), but traditional 'grass fans will still find their attention wandering, and wonder what happened to the other guys in the band. It's okay, not great, just more noodly new acoustic easy listening. At least they stick to the acoustic side of things and don't indulge much in the way of wild stylistic mood swings.

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "Bela Fleck & The Flecktones" (Warner Brothers, 1990)
A rather dreary set of soft pop/smooth jazz/twang takes. I mean, I "get" that this is made for a different listenership than the typical, traditional truegrass audience, but even taken on its own terms as a jazz album, it's rather unadventurous and unengaging. Gets a big yawn from me, at least.

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "Flight Of The Cosmic Hippo" (Warner Brothers, 1991)

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "UFO Tofu" (Warner, 1992)
Sigh. Well, I suppose as these things go, this is one of the better Flecktones albums. At least Bela's banjo is pretty prominent. But this stuff sure sounds dorky to me!

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "Three Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" (Warner, 1993)
Bland and blander still. This opens with a glossy fusion tune straight out of the Pat Metheny school of doodly-doo-doo jazz, and only reluctantly slides into "folk" territory later on. But if you want muzak with a little twang...

Bela Fleck & The New Grass Revival "Deviation" (Rounder, 1995)
Fleck jams with a few of his old pals -- Sam Bush, John Cowan, Mark O'Connor, Jerry Douglas and others -- and gives them a chance to get loose, funky, and jazzy. This disc starts off with a little more sizzle than many of the Flecktone albums, then settles into a more demure, geriatric groove. A lot of this stuff just never seems to go anywhere, really. Snoozy, but with a few tracks that are kind of intriguing.

Bela Fleck "Tales From the Acoustic Planet" (Warner Brothers, 1995)
This super-talented young'un came up through the ranks of the '70s "newgrass" scene, plunking the banjo for The Newgrass Revival and on a zillion records with various high-powered pickers. He eventually became famous for taking the jazz-fusion innovations of "space grass" to previously-unimagined heights (or depths, depending on your temprament...) Fleck's commercial success as a pop crossover artist has been phenomenal, but I personally count among the ranks of bluegrass traditionalists who find his music trite and ephemeral. I don't begrudge any fans their preferences, or Fleck his explorations, but this muzak-y fusion definitely ain't my cup of tea. This is one of his better albums, with a more pronounced acoustic bent.

Bela Fleck "Live Art" (Warner Brothers, 1996)

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "Left Of Cool" (Warner Brothers, 1998)
Horrible! A shotgun wedding between Earl Scruggs and Tom Scott, featuring the dreaded soprano saxophone, and equally cloying doses of "funky" electric bass, flute, even lame spoken word and soul vocals. Even if you like soft jazz and/or soul, this music is still pretty tepid and unengaging.

Bela Fleck "The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales From The Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2" (Warner Brothers, 1999)

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "Greatest Hits Of The 20th Century" (Warner Brothers, 1999)

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "Outbound" (Columbia Records, 2000)

Bela Fleck "Perpetual Motion" (Sony Classical, 2001)

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "Live At The Quick" (Columbia Records, 2002)

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "Live At The Quick" (DVD) (Columbia Records, 2002)

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "Little Worlds" (Columbia, 2003)
Mega-ugh. More boring soft-jazz meanderings, with an album "highlight" being a collaboration with Bobby McFerrin on a lackluster soul-rap version of "The Ballad Of Jed Clampett." And that actually is one of the better tracks on here. If your tastes are twangy, avoid this one.

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "The Hidden Land" (Columbia Records, 2006)

Bela Fleck & Chick Corea "The Enchantment" (Concord, 2007)

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones "Jingle All the Way" (Rounder Records, 2008)

Bela Fleck "Throw Down Your Heart, Tales From The Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3: Africa Sessions" (Rounder Records, 2009)

Bela Fleck "The Imposter" (Decca, 2013)
Banjo jazz bandleader Bela Fleck tries his hand at classical composition, with backing by the Nashville Symphony and, of course, some twangy, grassy crossover touches. Not my cup of tea, but I'm sure there are plenty of Fleck-heads out there who will dig it.

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