Great Barrington — If Béla Fleck weren’t the world’s premier banjo virtuoso, he would still be the world’s premier banjo adventurer. No banjoist of any caliber rivals Fleck as an innovator on the instrument. That is why, having been nominated for GRAMMY awards in more categories than any other musician, Fleck is obliged to name the genre of each concert tour so fans will know whether to expect jazz, classical, bluegrass, or something else. And the tour that takes him to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Friday, August 4 is all about his first love, bluegrass, and the GRAMMY-winning 2021 album that celebrates it, “My Bluegrass Heart.”
The bluegrass music Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe pioneered has been well known since the 1940s. The way Béla Fleck defines it, though, is a little different. Only Fleck can describe his “admittedly angular and sometimes complex form” of bluegrass.
The multiplicity of Fleck’s musical influences makes it difficult to say at any given instant what style of music he is playing. He loves fast tempos, complex harmonies, and impossibly intricate improvisations of the kind you would expect to hear from a jazz master like Charlie Parker. “Bluegrass though—it’s central to everything I do.”
Yes, bluegrass does seems to be central to everything Fleck does—until he pulls out something like “Vertigo,” a cut from “My Bluegrass Heart” that might remind you of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” with chord changes flying by at breakneck speeds that only a few virtuosos can hope to keep up with. (Fleck admits, “I have a bit of a jazz aesthetic.”)
But, in fact, what is actually most central to everything Fleck plays, whatever the genre, is his love of fast-moving harmonies and insanely speedy solo passages, both of which he employs in all the music he creates. (He loves each chord, but only for a micro-instant, and then he wants a new one.)
So, for Fleck, it seems that bluegrass is simply whatever piece of music he sets in front of a group of bluegrass musicians. “I don’t play that differently from genre to genre,” he explains. “It’s about who I surround myself with.”
Describing “My Bluegrass Heart,” Fleck says, “It’s not a straight bluegrass album, but it’s written for a bluegrass band … I like taking that instrumentation, and seeing what I can do with it—how I can stretch it, what I can take from what I’ve learned from other kinds of music, and what can apply for this combination of musicians.”
Songs with titles like “Slippery Eel” and “Vertigo” let you know that you’re not in Appalachia anymore.
Whether he’s recording or touring, Béla Fleck attracts the very finest musicians (pickers) in the world. Here is the current lineup of multi-instrumentalists:
See Béla Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart Band at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Friday, August 4 at 8 p.m. Tickets are available here.