In The Mag: Take 5 with Béla Fleck

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If you want to collect everything Béla Anton Leos Fleck has ever recorded, you’ll have to scour the entire music store. That’s because, over the course of almost 40 years, the man named after three classical composers has plucked his way into nearly every genre, leading with his versatile banjo.

The New York City native has released rustic bluegrass albums as a solo artist; experimented with rock and jazz fusion with his band, the Flecktones; performed with world-music congueros and violinists on triple concertos; and recorded African jazz during a whirlwind tour of the continent, which was captured in the 2009 documentary “Throw Down Your Heart.” Sometimes, on an album like 2011’s masterful “Rocket Science,” he’ll combine all of his influences in a fascinating cauldron of progressive bluegrass, jazz, rock, classical, world music and funk. He has been nominated for Grammies in more categories than any other musician.

His latest project, which he’ll bring to Festival of the Arts Boca next month (March 6–15), is his most personal yet: a collaboration with his wife, Abigail Washburn, a fellow-banjoist and vocalist with her own generous discography. Fleck was introduced to Washburn in a setting worthy of a Hollywood romance: at a square dance, where she was dancing and he was playing. They’ve since released a phenomenal self-titled album of Appalachian blues, chamber folk and Americana that sounds like it could be 60 years old or recorded yesterday. No less than seven banjos were employed during its production, and Fleck is thrilled to share the results with the Festival audience, with his partner—in life and onstage—by his side.

Q1 When/how did you discover that the banjo was the instrument for you?

I first heard banjo on “The Beverly Hillbillies.” It was Earl Scruggs, and the playing was profound. Like so many other banjoists to be, my interest was ignited by Earl’s amazing musical soul. Luckily my grandfather brought home a banjo from a garage sale when I was 15, and I jumped on it.

Q2 You’ve gone in more directions with the banjo than any other artist I can think of. Do you think many artists underestimate the utility of this instrument?

Probably, although banjo is much better received than it was a decade ago. I could be said to be on a bit of a musical crusade for the honor of this much maligned and magnificent instrument. Although the Southern white music that most people associate banjo with is fabulous, there is a lot more to the story. The African roots of the banjo, its place in the formation of jazz, blues, the banjo orchestras and the heyday—when Eddie Peabody filled up major concert halls for months—are largely forgotten.

For more from this story, pick up the February issue of Boca Raton. You can also subscribe here.