Those familiar with the jaw-dropping virtuosity and imaginative vision of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones would probably not be surprised to discover that this multi-Grammy-winning band has recently released a unique Christmas album that's so dazzlingly creative and brimming with fun, it's worthy of year-round enjoyment.
Delivering a unique twist on seasonal favorites like "Sleigh Ride," "Silent Night" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas" the Flecktones launch this novel record with a head-spinning version of "Jingle Bells," accompanied by a throat-singing group from the Russian republic of Tuva. Singing multiple pitches at the same time, this quartet helps shape a marvelously exotic version of the classic chestnut.
One usually doesn't associate throat singing with Christmas tunes, but then this is not your typical band.
"The Tuvan guys got in touch with us and said they were coming to the United States, 'Is there anything you could use us on?' because they loved the collaboration we did with another Tuvan throat singer Kongar Ondar in the movie 'Genghis Blues,' " Fleck explains. "They knew we were Tuvan friendly. 'Jingle Bells' was something they were familiar with, but had never thought about doing. I have had this 'Jingle Bells' arrangement that I've been playing with for a while like a Jimi Hendrix 'Hey Joe' version on electric banjo with distortion. Then when we talked to them and we played it in a whole different way, but we're doing it that (Hendrix) way live now."
Most artists at some point in their career tackle a Christmas project. Fleck and his band mates wanted to create something both familiar and unusual.
"I understand it's a potentially cringe-worthy concept, but we did everything we could do to figure out how to make it not be that," he continues. "What could we do to be different and challenge ourselves and our audience, but also keep that fun, quirky quality that people have always liked about the band."
This extraordinary group of virtuosos include some Bach ("Christmas Oratorio"), Tchaikovsky ("Danse of the Sugar Plum Fairies") and Vince Guaraldi ("Linus and Lucy") in the eclectic mix that also feature bassist extraordinaire Victor Wootan's sublime solo interpretation of "The Christmas Song."
Fleck closes "Jingle All The Way" with an homage to Joni Mitchell, playing both piano and banjo at the same time on an evocative version of "River" from "Blue."
"I've loved her 'Blue' record since I was given it as a 13-year-old as a gift for my birthday, and it has imprinted itself on my brain as one of the greatest records I've ever heard," Fleck explains. "I was looking for a solo piece to do because Victor had the beautiful version of the 'Christmas Song,' and I felt I should balance that with a banjo solo, but eventually I got the idea to do it playing the piano at the same time as the banjo. It's something I had never done before."
Probably the greatest banjo player on the planet, Fleck has completely redefined how we view a humble instrument usually associated with bluegrass hoedowns.
A 10-time Grammy winner (with 25 nominations), Fleck holds the record for most nominations in more genres than anyone in Grammy history, including pop, jazz, bluegrass, classical, country and spoken word categories.
Performing with the Flecktones since 1989, featuring bassist Victor Wootan, percussionist Roy "Future Man" Wootan, and saxophonist Jeff Coffin, this banjo master has built a reputation upon seamlessly uniting musical genres while expanding the banjo far beyond its familiar boundaries.
"When I was a kid growing up in New York City in the '60s, music was an adventure, Hendrix was coming up and every Beatles album was a revelation. Then into the '70s, fusion music took over and there was Return to Forever and Mahavishnu and I thought that was what you were supposed to do, great musicians constantly changed and pushed, that was the job description," he explains his adventurous spirit. "So playing the banjo there was an opportunity because I didn't hear anyone playing it the way I envisioned it. After 35 years, I feel that's my path. And it's important to me that music resonates on an emotional level as well as being different. I walk a line between the idea of doing stuff that hasn't been done and is cool, and music that makes you feel something and that you love."
The Flecktones' groundbreaking approach was hailed in Jazziz magazine "as the most significant milestone in contemporary jazz since Pat Metheny met Lyle Mays." The profile continued, "witness the Flecktones in concert and you'll find telepathically linked musicians who can zigzag from ferocious funk to graceful balladry."
After a couple of decades together, the musicians now enjoy extended breaks. "This year we're only playing November and December with the Christmas release, and next year will probably be similar," he notes. "When we were doing it all the time, it started to become a little bit relentless and we were looking for ways to spice it up and do other things. But we want to keep the band going and I'm very thankful when we get together. The level everyone plays on is phenomenal. I feel we're now on the top edge of the best we've ever played, and everyone's charging each other up."
During the band's extended periods apart, Fleck has pursued some amazing collaborations. In 2005 he toured with the acoustic fusion supergroup the Trio! with bass legend Stanley Clarke and acclaimed violinist Jean Luc Ponty.
"I was such a fan of Return to Forever, the band Stanley had with Chick Corea in the '70s," he reports. "I used to go see them and that changed my life. He and Jean Luc, who I love a lot, were doing a trio with Al Di Meola and one year they were not going to play together so the guys asked me to do it instead of Al. It was a lot of fun. The next thing after that, I actually got to play with my top jazz musician of all time, Chick Corea, and that was one of the best experiences I've ever had."
Fleck and the jazz icon recorded the critically acclaimed duet album, "The Enchantment," last year, and then hit the road together.
Also in 2007, Fleck traveled to Tibet performing with young banjo player Abigail Washburn in the group the Sparrow Quartet.
"We were brought over by the Chinese government and the American government," he says. "There were guards around making sure no one tried to defect to us or give us letters. We decided it was an opportunity to be in the middle of all that and hopefully contribute something positive, that anyone who saw us play would see people with free will. It seemed like a huge hit, people loved it."
During this period, Fleck also found time to travel to Africa with his brother to create the remarkable documentary "Throw Down Your Heart," which screened at the Maui Film Festival in June. On a cross-cultural odyssey to discover the African roots of his instrument, Fleck journeyed to Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia and Mali.
"It's only been at film festivals and so far it's won five awards," he says. "A record will come out in February, and then there will be a tour bringing over musicians from the film. There's a lot of great music on the CD that didn't make the movie."
* Bela Fleck and the Flecktones play a Christmas concert in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater at 5 p.m. Sunday. There will also be an "after party" in Yokouchi Founders' Court following the show with the Hand Jive Trio featuring Gene Argel, Michael Buono and Bob Harrison. Tickets are $55, $35 and $12, plus applicable fees. For tickets, visit the MACC box office, call 242-7469 or visit www.mauiarts.org.
To celebrate Hali'imaile General Store's 20th anniversary, a First Art & Soul Benefit for the Hui No'eau Visual Arts Center and the Maui Food Bank from 6 to 9 Saturday evening will include a solo performance by acclaimed musician Kenny Rankin.
"The man whom tenor sax great Stan Getz called the 'horn with a heart,' has the power to put a crowd in a transcendent state," noted an Albany Times Union review. "He does this with six nylon strings and a voice. It's a high tenor, a rich baritone, a muted trumpet, a glass of wine, a lost love."
And The New York Times praised: "For more than 35 years Mr. Rankin has been playing his brand of immaculate folk-pop minimalism and conjuring a mirage of permanent romantic escape on a pink cloud somewhere in the tropics."
"I think God was very good to me when I was born and music was not only very good to me, it saved my life," says Rankin, who will return to Maui Feb. 13 for a concert in the MACC's Castle Theater. "I'm leading a blessed life."
Signed to Columbia Records in 1965, Rankin was invited to play guitar on Bob Dylan's landmark album "Bringing It All Back Home." In 1967, he released his first album, "Mind Dusters," which featured the hit "Peaceful." Over the course of the early '70s, he built a following with a steady stream of records and performances that balanced originals and cover songs.
Rankin's 1975 album "Silver Morning" featured a popular reworking of the Beatles' "Blackbird" that so impressed Paul McCartney that he asked Rankin to represent him and John Lennon when they were inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. A gifted interpreter, Rankin's other unique Beatles' covers include "Penny Lane" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
In the mid-'90s, he started emphasizing standards in his performances and using jazz accompaniment.
Preferring to perform as a solo artist he says, "I find a closer connection with the audience. My singing and stories don't get lost. There are not too many people around that do what I do getting up and singing and telling stories. I get to fly free."
n The benefit also features a dance floor with music by Fulton Tashombe and Kelly Covington. A DJ will close the show. Tickets are $125. For reservations, call 572-2666.
Brazilian musician Carioca returns to our island to play The Studio Maui at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. A virtuoso guitarist and accomplished multi-instrumentalist, Carioca has spent decades exploring the many facets of Brazilian music.
Performing internationally for more than 25 years, his playing blends rhythmic vitality with an elegant lyricism and a resonant soulfulness. A mesmerizing musician, his wonderful CDs include the solo "Futeball," where he plays 6-, 8- and 12-string guitars, bass, sitar, harp, synthesizer, kalimba, djembe and tambora. Fusing jazz and classical music his CD "Dancas Brasileiras" featured the guitarist playing in a chamber setting with cello and acoustic bass.
"I have experimented with all kinds of music, Indian mantra, African and Brazilian percussion, meditation music, silence and sounds and effects for years," he says.
* Admission is $18 at the door.