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Prog-jazz maestro Béla Fleck and his Flecktones never really left. After all, their 2008 Christmas-themed Jingle All the Way won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album. But they haven't seemed quite this loose or vibrant in years.
Béla and crew's spring 2011 album, Rocket Science, is a seductive hybrid of bluegrass, funk, and jazz. Ripe with rubbery melodicism, the new tracks unfold like an extended jam session, building to a slow, psychedelic burn. Much of the record's success can be attributed to Howard Levy, who returned to co-writing duties in 2009 after a 16-year hiatus.
Checking in from his home in Nashville, Béla spoke with New Times about the Flecktones' aesthetic evolution.
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New Times:Rocket Science was released to pretty sterling reviews in May. Would it be fair to call it a comeback?
Béla Fleck: Sort of. The band never split up, though, and our last two albums with Jeff Coffin won Grammys and sold well. So we weren't actually tanking. But having Howard back is bringing out a lot of old friends that are very happy to see the original lineup. Turnouts have been up, and the vibe is very strong.
Much has been made of Howard Levy's return to the Flecktones. Was there an element of discord initially? Did it take time to reignite that old chemistry?
No, we never really had any serious discord. That being said, it took a little while to relax into being back together. But it really sounded great pretty much immediately.
Levy left the group because of the rigor of your touring schedule, among other things. Have you had to make any adjustments to ensure he doesn't get burned-out again?
We are taking it a lot easier. We have busy periods buffered by months off. We will play for about seven months over the course of a year. That should keep everyone's lives more intact!
The Flecktones' work often gets pigeonholed as jazz fusion. But you've always thrived on blending a lot of different genres. Is a term like jazz fusion oversimplified?
Jazz fusion does seem wrong. It leaves out a lot. Jazz fusion was happening when I started playing banjo, and [it] didn't have a lot of the roots and ethnic elements that the Flecktones have. But I do love a lot of the fusion musicians. I care more about whether it is good music than what kind of music it is.
You've self-produced every album. Does that allow you to get closer to the records?
That may be where I get the control I need as the leader. It's almost like a movie, in that everyone works together to get the best stuff on tape possible and I do the director's cut of what gets used — or at least where we start. Then everyone kicks in opinions again and makes the most out of my cut.