The Core: Bela Fleck
On reuniting with original Flecktones keyboardist/harmonica player Howard Levy for the new album Rocket Science
The Flecktones had started taking more time off each year, so we made the Christmas album Jingle All the Way [in 2008] so we would have a way to get together once a year to play. We didn’t want to let the [band] go but we had also been playing together for 20 years. We’ve never had any lessening of friendships but when you’re doing something for so long, people become more interested in their projects outside the group. We all felt it was better to do those things fully than to do the Flecktones halfway.
During that time off, [Dave Matthews band saxophonist] LeRoi Moore died and they offered [Flecktones saxophonist] Jeff Coffin a place in the band. I encouraged him to take the job because I thought it would be great for him—and because I thought it was time for a change in the Flecktones. [Jeff] had been with us for 14 years and it was hard to think of new things to do. He took that job and, a year later when we decided to do some playing, we started thinking of what to do since Jeff was busy. That freed up some creative thinking and both Victor Wooten and Futureman immediately said, “Howard [Levy].”
Separated at Birth
When Howard left [in 1992], it was a major upset. These three guys were the reason I wanted to be in a band in the first place. But Howard is ADD in a positive way—he thrives on change. It was like losing the brains of the outfit. He was the one with all the jazz knowledge while we were more instinctive players. It forced us to grow up and step up our game. When people heard us as a trio, they said it sounded like we were pumping iron.
For a while, we had guests but we had to keep it simple—we didn’t do the stretchy stuff until Jeff came in. It wasn’t like we were choosing him to be a member of the band forever—he was the guy who was too good for us to let him leave.
We had a test period to make sure it would be OK—both for Howard and me. The [original] splitting up process was painful. We had him come out for a couple of weeks to play the old material last year and we had a blast. Howard has a way of channeling new material constantly and it pushes us all into a heightened sense of awareness. We never fell into a rut with Howard because—for good or for bad—he always kept us on the edge of our seats. He is such an aggressive player.
[After our tour], Howard and I had a few fruitful writing sessions which yielded some of the material on Rocket Science. I also got together with Victor and Futureman, compiled everyone’s ideas and passed them around. Then we started rehearsing and recording, which is a different process for us. We used to always play the stuff on the road and then bring it into the studio.
During the early years with Howard, there was this feeling that his songs weren’t getting their due—that it was all about my songs. I had very strong opinions about what songs did or didn’t work for the group—maybe too strong—and that was a factor for him wanting to do this own thing. But I thought they sounded more conventional, and I was looking for something different. I think that was something I had to grow up a little bit about. Also, he wouldn’t co-write with me back then; he would only write with a piano and we didn’t have one on the bus. But this time, we wrote together and found that it was very easy.
We are committing to this band from May through April of next year and that whole period will be with Howard. After that, it is all open for discussion. We are not getting married for life. We may decide to do more with Howard or play as a trio or play with Jeff or bring in somebody else. Or we maybe this will be a fitting end to the Flecktones project—I hope that is not true and I don’t see any reason why it has to be, but it is all very open. Everybody’s lives are full now but coming back to the Flecktones in a full-time way feels right. It’s always been a “feel it out thing,” but the nature of business is that you have to make plans. So this was an opportunity to do the Flecktones 100 percent but for a limited period.
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