Friday, November 15, 2013


E.J. Thomas Hall
November 12

The banjoist, center, was a neat fit with a string quartet.

The good thing about seeing the first show on the new Béla Fleck/Brooklyn Rider tour is that you get to hear the world premiere of...well, the piece actually didn’t have a name when the ensemble debuted it on Tuesday night. The not-so-good thing is that a lot of the songs are still rough, and in need of polishing.

That said, all five of the players are accomplished, innovative musicians, and anytime they get together it’s a special event. Oddly enough, their current collaboration had its genesis in empty space on a CD. After recording his 36-minute concerto The Impostor with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Fleck needed something to fill out the disc. He approached Brooklyn Rider with some sketches for a “banjo quintet,” and the result was a three-movement work titled Night Flight Over Water. That finished the CD and became one of the core pieces on the current tour.

The big question on Tuesday was what four strings and a banjo would sound like together. In his appearance as a soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra last December, Fleck played well, as did the orchestra. But the sounds just didn’t mix. No one has worked harder than Béla Fleck to expand the reach and possibilities of his instrument. In the end, however, there are some places that the limited tonal range of a banjo can’t go.

The string quartet turned out to be a much better fit. Long ago bluegrass and folk married banjo and fiddle, so the combination sounds right. More importantly, the ensemble isn’t a soloist playing with a backup band. They play like a five-man group, changing roles and taking turns on leads and solos. On some songs, Fleck took a back seat as part of a three-man rhythm section with cellist Eric Jacobsen and violist Nicholas Cords.

The full group warmed up with two vintage Flecktones numbers, “Next” and “The Landing.” Fresh arrangements gave both some bite. Then the quartet had the stage to themselves for Culai, a five-movement taste of Romanian gypsy music by Russian composer and violist Lev Zhurbin. With its virtuoso flourishes for each of the instruments, the piece plays to Brooklyn Rider’s strengths. But it was remarkably sedate, with only occasional flashes of the uptempo exuberance that characterizes most gypsy music. If the suite were being played by a Balkan weddings and funerals band, it would be mostly funeral music.

Fleck returned for the unnamed world premiere, which a member of the audience cleverly suggested be titled “Akronism.” That seems appropriate for a piece using a classical framework to explore an expansive contemporary musical terrain, giving each of the players a chance to improvise on the changing themes. They did an impressive job blending very fine string and banjo lines, though a brief detour into dissonance didn’t work. Overall, it was an interesting and ambitious piece that would benefit from some sharpening and shortening.

Fleck opened the second half with a solo set that included his usual nod to the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme, this time combined with “Pop Goes the Weasel.” More interesting was a quiet song he wrote (so as not to disturb a new baby at home), a charming melodic strummer that called to mind Jorma Kaukonen’s “Embryonic Journey.” Fleck also played solo excerpts from his Banjo Concerto, which sounded better without an orchestra.

The quartet joined him for Night Flight Over Water, another wide-ranging excursion that was the most integrated piece of the night, with the players trading tight leads and licks and Fleck providing a driving rhythm. It was surprisingly uneven, virtuosic in parts and seemingly on the verge of falling apart in others. A week or two on the road should remedy that.

A smart arrangement and precision performance of João Gilberto’s “Undiú” drew the most enthusiastic applause of the night, perhaps because it offered a distinct melody after so much improv and abstract fare. The closing piece by violinist Colin Jacobsen featured the fanciest arrangements and tightest playing of the night, though didn’t merit much of a sendoff. The applause quickly died down when the band left the stage, precluding an encore.

Whatever its flaws, this quintet is fearless and imaginative in blending instruments, styles and influences from all over the world. Their live performances will get better. And hopefully their collaboration will continue, blazing new trails in American music.

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