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REVIEW: Bela Fleck and the Flecktones astonished audience at Tanglewood with banjo jazz

To the chagrin of nearly two Earl Scruggs fans, the Flecktones' set included nothing that Earl would have recognized as bluegrass.

Lenox — It’s not easy to keep a low public profile once you’ve amassed a dozen or so Grammy Awards. But Béla Fleck won his 16 Grammys playing the banjo, which means he can still do his own grocery shopping without the aid of bodyguards or dark glasses. (Banjoists today enjoy less public adulation than guitarists, perhaps, but their status continues to rise.) Fleck may travel the world incognito outside of Nashville, but his fans recognize him easily enough when he appears in concert. And when he does, he receives frenzied ovations of the kind he and his band, the Flecktones, enjoyed when they took the stage in Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood on the evening of Friday, June 29. (Much of the applause came from a seemingly record-breaking crowd on the lawn behind Ozawa Hall.)

What happened next may be described in accordance with two types of dropped jaws (i.e., open-mouthed expressions of astonishment). First, you had folks with mouths agape because they had never considered the possibility of anyone playing jazz on a banjo. Then you had the serious jazz aficionados. These people were slack-jawed because they had never considered the possibility that anyone could play jazz on any instrument at the level of these musicians. Now they know.

Audience members watch Béla Fleck and the Flecktones June 29 from the lawn outside of Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall. Photo: David Noel Edwards

At Tanglewood on June 29, everything on the Flecktones’ setlist was some variety of jazz. And there are many varieties. In fact, there are as many kinds of jazz as there are jazz musicians. Who could doubt this after hearing these musicians perform together?

To the chagrin of nearly two Earl Scruggs fans, the Flecktones’ set included nothing that Earl would have recognized as bluegrass.

Like mandolinist Chris Thile (host of NPR’s “Live From Here”), Béla Fleck mastered bluegrass early in his career before tackling various other genres of music that tickled his fancy, including jazz. Especially jazz: Just two days after their Tanglewood appearance, Fleck and his band of 30 years, the Flecktones, received the Miles Davis Award at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

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