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Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
Left of Cool
(Warner Bros.)

Outside the bluegrass world and the few bluegrass-inspired, traditional country recording sessions that must still be booked occasionally somewhere, banjo players are pretty rare birds. Consequently, even if he were only a mediocre instrumentalist, Bela Fleck would stand out in the primarily non-bluegrass, non-country contemporary music world in which he operates. But Fleck is simply an amazing musician. His decision as a teen to pick up that most countryfied of string instruments -- when, after seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, nearly everyone else his age ran to the music store to score an electric guitar -- has never held him back, either creatively or professionally.

In his youth Fleck of course started by emulating Flatt and Scruggs, but in the decades since he has helped to take both bluegrass and banjo in new directions. As a member of the seminal outfit New Grass Revival (for years the bane of many a bluegrass traditionalist's existence), he helped moved that genre off the hay wagon and closer to Mainstream, U.S.A. When New Grass disbanded in the late Eighties, Fleck put together the Flecktones (initially at the insistence of PBS television, which wanted to film a Fleck-fronted group for its Lonesome Pine Special). From its beginnings in 1990 and over the course of five studio albums and one live set, the band's music has embraced hints of jazz fusion, bebop, world beat, and even rock, while retaining only the slightest trace of any bluegrass influence.

Left of Cool, the Flecktones' first new album in five years, continues the evolution. Brothers Victor (bass) and Roy "Future Man" Wooten (percussion and vocals) handily complement Fleck's impeccable musicianship and exploratory nature. Together the trio samples funky, light-hearted jazz; reggae and Caribbean styles; straight pop; and Celtic and Appalachian phrasings. And underneath nearly all of these varied but well-executed meanderings lies a surprisingly nonstereotypical, sometimes ferociously played banjo. While at times the fifteen-track disc suffers from a touch of that pesky virus known as G-ification (most strains of which can be traced to one Kenny G), especially in the overbearing horn work of guest writer and performer Jeff Coffin, Left of Cool is more often than not invigorating, enjoyable, and thought-provoking.

-- Adam St. James

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 16, on the Main Stage at the American Music Festival in Bubier Park, Las Olas Boulevard and Andrews Avenue, Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-761-5813 for information; see also "Concerts," page 104, for a complete lineup. Passes are $10, one day; $15, two days; $25, three days.

Kevin Mahogany
My Romance
(Warner Bros.)

Run into Kevin Mahogany on the street and you're more likely to take him for a Miami Dolphins defensive lineman than a jazz balladeer. But My Romance, the new release from this 39-year-old Kansas City native, is less an all-out blitz than an elegant figure-skating routine. Mahogany can belt one with the best of them -- check out his role as Big Joe Turner in the Robert Altman film Kansas City -- but My Romance is a homage to a more courtly and cultivated style. On this collection of covers, he pays tribute to a few of the usual suspects and also offers some surprising choices. On the more traditional end, "Teach Me Tonight" and "Lush Life" recall Nat King Cole, who probably contributed more to male jazz vocals than everyone who came after him put together. And "Stairway to the Stars" was a favorite of Johnny Hartman, whose career peaked in the Sixties thanks to a brief collaboration with John Coltrane. Mahogany's voice is big and his range extensive, but here he maintains a gentle approach that matches the album's ardent, heartfelt lyrics ("Sorry that I ran out and lost my mind with someone new/Carelessly I left my heart behind with you").

Few, if any, male vocalists on the scene today can elicit favorable comparisons with the crooners of yore like Cole, Billy Eckstine, and Frank Sinatra, but Mahogany's versions of the songs that those men made famous clearly put him at the top of the heap. His forays outside the traditional jazz repertoire are equally rewarding. His take on James Taylor's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" isn't particularly memorable, but Van Morrison's little-known pastoral "Wild Honey" is one of the most spirited tracks on the album, replete with Morrisonesque sax solo and string section. Mahogany also tips his hat to another genre-bending Nineties artist with his cover of Lyle Lovett's "I Know You Know," a song so clever and well-written that it's almost impossible not to do it justice.

Mahogany doesn't completely transform the songs on My Romance the way a Cassandra Wilson might on her jazz interpretations; instead he chooses to sustain a classically elegant mood. A wonderfully sparse and restrained backing trio helps accomplish this, but the focus of the album is on a voice whose authenticity and ability are simply without peer in the jazz community.

-- Chris Duffy

(See "Night & Day," page 46, for concert information.)

Whale
All Disco Dance Must End in Broken Bones
(Virgin)

Sweden's Whale is best remembered in the United States for their 1994 "Hobo Humpin' Slobo Babe" video, in which a coy nymph with corkscrew curls, braces, and boots seductively licks a huge lollipop while two caveman-types scream maniacally in the background. The raw, flirty images were as visually arresting as the song was ear-catching, with a seductive, brutal style MTV couldn't resist. The video's success led to the band's 1995 album We Care, but the enduring popularity the group enjoys in Europe and Scandinavia has translated only to one-hit-wonder status stateside. After bassist Gordon Cyrus left the group in 1996, vocalist Cia Soro and guitarist Henrik Schyffert regrouped, hiring Jon Jefferson Klingberg (guitar), Jorgen Wall (drums), and Heikki Schiavo (bass) for the band's second U.S. record, All Disco Dance Must End in Broken Bones. Recorded in Chicago with Brad Wood (Veruca Salt) and in London with Chris Potter (the Verve), the dual-producer model proved to be the perfect mechanism to refine Whale's rock, funk, and Abba influences into a more sophisticated sound.

An original hybrid of alternative pop, electronica, and primal-scream therapy, the band's latest creation is sweet and graceful one minute, crude and explosive the next. Techno noise, sly samples, and guitar shrapnel are scattered through the tracks like land mines, blowing holes in the songs and abruptly turning serenity into pandemonium. This unpredictability is especially keen on cuts such as "Smoke," on which the traveling electronic groove cycles endlessly as Soro coos "Share my last cigarette, share my dream to forget." But just as you fall deep into the trance, the song takes a sudden, jarring detour into distorted guitars and Schyffert's raw-throated screaming. The lonely guitar and vocal of "Into the Strobe" slowly becomes a hypnotic cacophony; noises and pulses escalate until the dreamy atmosphere is punctured. Even the minimalist ballad "Roadkill" swerves from warm to frozen, as Soro moans "Won't you help me hot-wire my heart," only to have Klingberg coldly reply "You only care about yourself."

The band also shifts genres with ease. Their affinity for urban music is heard in "Crying at Airports" and "Four Big Speakers," two excellent tracks featuring rapper Cream from the Swedish bands Bus75 and Addis Black Widow. From deep blues and Fender Rhodes soul to righteous beats and techno chaos, they get it right. And on "Deliver the Juice" and "Losing CTRL" the band rocks in loose alternative splendor, with fat, geometric guitar figures and brooding undertones worthy of their most petulant American slacker contemporaries.

When Soro sings "I might be naive as hell, but I think that we can change the world" on the album's closer, "2 Chord Song," she's right on both counts. The band's disregard for the boundaries of genre is both innocent and prophetic -- a wide-eyed philosophy in career terms, and a look at the shape-shifting future of rock and roll. Whale resurrects the idea that music is what you hear, not what you label it, and on All Disco Dance Must End in Broken Bones their wisdom yields a glorious racket.

-- Robin Myrick

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