The year was 1991. I happened to be at Virginia Beach visiting some friends and accidently came across a group of musicians performing a fusion of bluegrass, jazz on the beach. Wow, I said to myself, what a treat. These guys were just incredible, and the musical arrangements were fresh and innovative. I went closer to the small stage and found out who they were.
The front man was Bela Fleck and he was an outstanding virtuoso on the Banjo, flanked by stellar bassist Victor Wooten, and his brother Future Man on a hybrid drum-guitar instrument (his invention), that I had never seen before. And man, this harmonica / keyboard player Howard Levy was just off the hook.
As years have passed by, this outfit changed personnel but the music has always evolved. Paul McCandless on oboe who have always been a favorite of mine with Oregon shared the stage for a few years when Howard Levy left the band to pursue other opportunities. And now the outstanding Jeff Coffin on sax has been a part of the core group for a quite a number of years.
Check out Bela on Soulgrass with Bill Evans, Vinnie Colaiuta, Bruce Hornsby, Jerry Douglas, John Scofield among others.
AL: You took a year off from Flecktones, performing in various incarnations. Musically what were your highlights?
BF: It’s been a great year creatively for me, probably the most intense I’ve had. Going to Africa was the most startling and exciting, playing with Jean-Luc and Stanley was amazing, playing with Bryan Sutton and Casey Dreissen in my acoustic trio was like coming home, playing and writing with Edgar and Zakir was like a new door opening, and finishing the Flecktones next CD was very satisfying- this is an album we will be very proud of.
AL: Flecktones is back next year , do you think you guys are musically going somewhere that you have not been yet or is it a continuation from where you left off?
BF: We finished up by pushing ourselves to the next point as hard as we could till the time ran out. So we’ll be picking up right there when we start in a few months. We have the album as a guideline to remember where we were.
AL: Rumors are that you and Edgar Meyer could be writing a triple concerto and performing with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, can you give us some insight?
BF: Yes, we are.
AL: This record with Bill Evans, Vinnie sounds great. How did that develop?
BF: Bill got in touch and told me what he was up too. I liked the project and him, and got pretty deep into it. It was a blast.
AL: You have been involved with with bluegrass, jazz, and in lack of a better word , Fusion music for a while. How do you think an instrument like banjo which has no real sustain sound fits in with the various musical idioms?
BF: I think the banjo has it’s special qualities. Plus when you play a bunch of notes in a row, the illusion of sustain can be achieved. The more different each instrument is, the more complete the music becomes.
AL: Have you ever thought about collaborating with mandolin U.Shrinivas who has been performing with Remember Shakti / John McLaughlin?
BF: I enjoy his playing very much.
AL: Stanley Clarke mentioned that you have been studying John McLaughlin’s “This is the Way I do it” instruction DVD. What musical concepts from that has helped you in your musical journey and banjo playing in particular.
BF: It was interesting trying to play his musical examples on the banjo. They led me to rethink how I play fast groupings. Plus I have listened to John for a long time and it was nice to have him break down his concept in person. It all made a lot of sense to me.
AL: Thanks Bela and good luck to the Flecktones for 2006.
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On the eve of the release of his new album Larger Than Life, we sat down with bassist, improvisor, and composer Gary Willis to discuss his collaborators on the project, his process, and the results.
Q: Given the vast geographic disparity, how did this record come together — were you all in the same room or did you take a more modular approach? What were the advantages of your chosen approach and how did it elevate and enrich the material?
Gary Willis: It did make it difficult…since it turned out to be a five-year thing. I took the opportunity to go to Los Angeles in 2010 because Gergo was going to be there, so he and I and Kinsey got things started. Then in 2011, when Gergo moved into Barcelona, I immediately booked studio time and we spent a day just jamming.
Afterwards for a lot of the songs I’d write things and send them to Kinsey in L.A. and he’d record with [saxophonist] Steve Tavaglione. Then he’d send me things he and Tav did. So there were files going back and forth all the time. So parts of it were like a collaborative improvisation in a way.
As late as last year, I had this tune “Beast Mode,” and I knew the three of us couldn’t get together. But Gergo was going to be in L.A., so I sent a version he and Kinsey could improvise over. As a duo they nailed it in one take and I added my part later…
Before Gergo and I went into the studio to record duo, we booked a rehearsal studio with the intention to prepare some things in advance. Immediately we came up with what became “Vendetta.” After that, we said, “We’re wasting our time here: Let’s do what we do here in the studio – just let it happen live.”
Q: With improvisation being central to this music, how do you see your role as composer and bandleader?
GW: Two of the 4 of the songs that were composed before we recorded them are mine, so those two are “traditional” with melodies and solo sections, etc. The other 8 songs got their start with improvisation so my first role is to determine what should be preserved from what turned out to be several hours of raw, improvised material. One thing I’ve learned from composing this way is that an inspired drum performance is the heart of the whole process. Without question, Gergo’s playing is inspiring throughout. So the main challenge is to make sure that if there’s a part of the music that needs composition, that it lives up to the level of inspiration that Gergo or the group has reached at that moment.
Q: Will you try to re-learn this sort of hybrid material and play it live?
GW: We’re gonna try. It’s cool to go back and check out – to visit what had just happened in the moment and recreate…
Q: I’d be curious to know more about how you see the bass’s role in this music — you aren’t strictly in a supporting capacity, but neither are you out front as a lead instrument the whole time…
GW: To me, music that communicates well is everyone playing with their imagination… you imagine different roles for yourself, sometimes you belong out front, other times it’s a supporting role. That’s the other thing about jamming with Gergo and Kinsey is they have this ability to jam compositionally — it’s not just about soloing…
We haven’t played together that much, but it’s just something that happens when you get the right musicians together. You don’t have to talk about it — actually, the more you discuss, the less in the moment you are when it happens.
The title track started out as a trio jam with me and Gergo and Kinsey where I brought in an initial bass part. It was originally a seventeen-minute thing. Kinsey managed to whittle it down to eight minutes. I found some things he played and turned those into melodies, wrote some myself, and it developed over time into its own thing.
Q: Was the bass the last thing that went down?
GW: On six of them, Gergo and I started out jamming…I’d play melodies there, and some of those became the songs. Other times I’d do kind of a placeholder — knowing it wouldn’t be the final melody, but it would be taking up the space where I knew I wanted to write something like that…
Q: Does being in Barcelona make it easier or harder to make a recording like this? Is it easier to have a global presence being based in Europe?
GW: If this was a traditional studio-based recording with everyone in the same room, playing at the same time then yes it would be a problem. But everyone involved contributed in a way that doesn’t make you think there was any distances or time zones involved.
I stopped thinking geographical a long time ago so I really have no idea if I have a global presence. Living in Europe, I’m sure there are some opportunities that have come my way that wouldn’t have been there if I had stayed in the US.
Q: Tell us about your use of Claudia Bardagí’s wordless vocals throughout the album.
GW: One of the things that defines a melody is its sing-ability. But for me lyrics really confine how well you can identify with a piece of music. Claudia’s singing added a real human quality to the melodies and she was able to keep their abstract nature by not using lyrics.
Q: And the last track was recorded live…
GW: Yeah, we’ve added it as a bonus. It’s a good example of us improvising together. We were invited to play at the 80th birthday celebration of Joe Zawinul in Budapest, so we worked “Corner Pocket” into Kinsey’s “This Is That”.
Q: The artwork by Rafael Sarmento seems to be a big part of this new project. Did the collaboration with him come before or after the music was cut? What drew you to him?
GW: It happened afterwards. Once all the titles were settled they started to give me a kind of a vague idea about the artwork. At the same time I got introduced to him from a friend of a friend. When I saw his work, there was an immediate connection and we started emailing about it. I explained some of the visuals I was imagining for some of the songs, and he came up with some on his own. As we started working more closely, he gave the whole thing a concrete identity.
Q: Does that mean this is programmatic music? The music definitely has a cinematic quality to it.
GW: I guess it could be… depends on your imagination. I mean the music came first…but that’s how I like listen to music: With my imagination. I want to lead people in that direction, if I get a chance to.
Q: So, what would you say is the common thread connecting these performances, these songs?
GW: The obvious thread is me and Gergo and Kinsey playing but also I’m hopeful that a sense of imagination, a sense of humor and like you said, a cinematic quality can be found throughout.
Gary Willis, Llibert Fortuny and Kirk Covington Fiercely uncompromising with equal allegiance to jazzy improvisation, funky backbeats and sonic experimentation,