The banjo is associated with many things: bluegrass, insufferable indie bands, Deliverance. But for Béla Fleck the traditional folk instrument is just as appropriate on rickety Appalachian porches as it is in a concerto with strings and woodwinds.
Widely recognized as one of the best and most innovative banjo players in the world, Fleck has plucked alongside popular musicians, in jazz fusion groups and in the first chair of an orchestra. Along the way, he has amassed a strong and faithful following of fans who appreciate his virtuosic range.
Fleck has performed with The Dave Matthews Band, Dolly Parton and Garth Brooks, and played on records by Sting, Phish and The Grateful Dead. He is also responsible for “The Imposter,” a concerto for banjo and orchestra, which he recorded with the Nashville Symphony.
But of the many talented musicians he’s shared the stage with, Fleck says no collaboration has been more satisfying than playing alongside his wife, Abigail Washburn. Her sophisticated, old-timey vocals and banjo chops beautifully compliment Fleck’s playing.
Fleck says working with his wife is much like collaborating with any musician in the sense that it takes time to find the groove. However, aside from the obvious chemistry they share, Fleck says working with Washburn is great because it keeps the family together on tour.
“When we finish something and we both really like it, then get to share it on stage and recordings—that’s an awesome feeling,” Fleck says.
Fleck’s interest in the banjo was initially kindled by the twangy compositions of Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, which he encountered while watching the iconic CBS sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. “I never had the nerve to think I could actually play a banjo, but my grandfather got one for me and I fell headlong into its embrace,” Fleck says.
Fleck and Washburn are currently finishing up their second album together, which is slated for a fall release, and fans should expect to hear music from the forthcoming release when the pair play in Palo Alto on Thursday.
In addition to the as-yet-untitled album, Fleck recently began writing his third concerto, a project that will be commissioned by Louisiana Philharmonic to coincide with the tricentennial of New Orleans. He expects to write for banjo and quartet to go with it and possibly incorporate solo partitas, percussion ensemble and a wind ensemble.
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn
Mar 23, 8pm, $60+
Oshman Family JCC, Palo Alto