Béla Fleck and the Flecktones – Left Of Cool (1998)

Having enjoyed the Fleck albums that I have (all of them acoustic) and been impressed by his guest spots on other people’s albums I decided to give his long running pop/jazz band the Flecktones a try. I must have done some googling but I can’t quite remember how I settled on this particular album. Maybe it was their best seller on iTunes. Maybe it was a good review from Wilson and Alroy.

I’m not sure I’m surprised by the album. It’s not particularly similar to other things I’ve heard from him (and hardly similar at all to the duet album) but it was also clear to me from what I had heard that Fleck is another of these nominally bluegrass (or “newgrass”) musicians with a broad musical vision and the chops to pull it all off. So maybe I was expecting the unexpected. After all, this is a banjo player who has performed Bach pieces (and not as a gimmick) on the same disc as a Miles Davis composition (also rendered in a gimmick free way).

What is very quickly clear is that the players on this disc, and especially Fleck and bass player Victor Wooton, are all very skilled. Bluegrass / acoustic / country fans will know Fleck. Rockers and jazzers will, I suspect, know Wooton (famous in his own right as one of the contemporary giants of bass guitar). So if you know Wooton then Fleck is right up there with him, and if you know Fleck then Wooton is right up there with him. The band is rounded off by Future Man (that’s what it says in the liner notes), who is actually Victor Wooton’s brother, on percussion, vocals and various electronics, and sax player Jeff Coffin.

The first couple of times around this disc I was convinced I had a work of genius. Then round about turn five or so I wasn’t so sure. I started to think that the problem is the compositions. Especially those on which Future Man songs. Not that he’s a rubbish singer – far from it – but the lyrics are on the sappy side and the songs seem more generic. I’d thought that maybe it was the Wootons doing the writing, but Fleck is at least co-writer on every track here bar one and generally writes the lyrics, so it’s all his fault.

And whilst the compositions do vary in quality, the musicianship is of a very high standard throughout, some of Fleck’s solos are jaw dropping and even the not so good numbers are not so bad. Fleck reveals the breadth of influence (or interest) that I’d expected, but the other players hardly seem thrown by this at all – coping with elements of bluegrass (“Showdown at the Hoedown”, “Trouble and Strife”), celtic folk (“Big Country”), Indian music (“Shanti”) or Middle Eastern music (“Oddity”). Wooton in particular repeatedly comes up with parts that are engaging and inventive.

I’m not always sure whether or not to take them seriously – whilst recognising that there is more room for musical humour in jazz than there is in rock. In particular I don’t know whether to regard “Sojourn of Arjuna” with it’s hippy-ish spoken vocal that expresses ideas from the Baghavad Gita as a hilarious piss take or deadly serious. Maybe the ambiguity is part of the point, and the underlying musical motif is infectious and the playing – from which we are often distracted by the vocal – is full of fine detail. I also suspect there’s a joke somewhere in the instrumental “Trane to Connemara” but it escapes me. Jazz fundis may catch the joke, or it may not actually be there.

At it’s best – usually instrumental tracks with Fleck painting from his broad palette of roots music styles – the album offers memorable melodies and clever hooks. Always there is very fine playing. Fleck, and this too little, too late, too obvious and damning him with faint praise, is clearly a musician with boith the inclination and ability to operate in a wide range of styles and who always brings something interesting and enjoyable to whatever party he’s playing at.

It’s almost beyond the point that he’s a banjo player. It’s more the case that he’s an exceptional musician – composer and player – who just happens to use the banjo.

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