Bela Fleck – Perpetual Motion (2001) / Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer – Music For Two (2001)

I’m a song guy (or that’s what I think). I tend to think that if you have a good SONG (must have lyrics) then that’s hard to beat. I enjoy songs with clever or evocative (or both!) lyrics. I love Richard Thompson’s mid 90s output for the quality of his lyrics (sure, the guitar playing helps – but the lyrics on Mirror Blue and You? Me? Us? are very attractive to me).

Last night I saw Russ Barenberg play an hour long solo set of instrumentals. I thought it would be hard work for me, but it wasn’t really. And he talked between songs about looking for things other than lyrics to hang onto.

And this is what I’m increasingly finding – different musics have to be appreciated in different ways. (So you knew this donkeys years ago. So I’m a slow starter. At least I started).

I don’t think it’s a binary thing either. It’s not a case of “words” or “no words”. The “no words” stuff has multiple possible attractions.

Anyway, I’ve been listening to a couple of albums by Bela Fleck – and he’s not famous for his lyrics (or even despite them). What did I find to enjoy?

There are similarities between the two: The hugely talented and very versatile bassist Edgar Meyer has significant involvement on both; and both albums have lots of formal, classical pieces.

Indeed Perpetual Motion is all classical pieces, and Fleck teams up with some big names from the world of classical music – most notably Joshua Bell and John Williams (not the soundtrack guy, the ace classical guitarist). But he has guests from other musical postal codes too. He opens the album with another player with prodigous skills and who emerged from but never confined himself to the world of bluegrass – Chris Thile. They team up , banjo and mandolin, on a piece written for keyboard instruments. The playing is impressive in all the technical ways; Consistency, speed, accuracy., clarity.

If there’s anybody still hanging on to the notion that the banjo is a hick’s instrument (you always get one) then they should listen to Fleck in this sort of mode. Or consider the broad stylistic arc of Fleck’s output.

Meyer joins this dynamic duo for one of Bach’s “Three Part Inventions” and let’s just say that he’s not overshadowed. Indeed throughout this album the playing is of the highest quality.

Chopin’s “Etude in C# Minor” has Fleck playing with great speed and accuracy, but also great verve. Like much of this album the piece sounds like it was written for the banjo even though it quite obviously was not. Indeed, this impression is quite consistent – these are compositions for piano, for violin, for classical pieces written by men who probably never saw or heard a banjo. Yet it all fits and sounds so natural. This is partly due to Fleck’s remarkable instrumental skills, but also, I feel, to the arrangements which are by Fleck and Meyer.

The one exception is the closing track – Paganini’s “Moto Perpetuo” (also the title track) on which is Fleck is joined – as player and as arranger – by Bryan Sutton, one of Bluegrass’s finest flat pick guitar players. Here they make a classical piece sound like it was conceived as a bluegrass show piece, and Sutton’s solo is jaw dropping.

It’s also the one piece that seems to invite us to admire it for something other than superb technical musicianship and skilful arrangements – though this album makes a case that those qualities are not without their attraction.

Perpetual Motion was released on Sony’s classical imprint (and Grammy nominated in various classical categories) and the recording has the hallmarks of a classical recording with a natural sound and good dynamic range. I found it interesting that there’s very little listener fatigue resulting from repeated listens – even on earbuds. (for an insight into the problems with compression on modern recordings click here)

After Perpetual Motion Fleck and Meyer hit the road with a show that mixed their own compositions with classical pieces and also some interesting covers. The shows were recorded and the album that emerged from this is Music For Two.

Like some other Fleck albums I had it sounds like a dubious proposition at first glance (err…). This is a live album by two guys who play banjo and double bass.

The combination of the two instruments works brilliantly, though the skills of the two players help to make that happen. Listen to the two of them on their co-composition “Pile-up”. An intriguing composition erupts into an outrageous Fleck solo. Then Meyer gets going… the power these two acoustic instrumentalists can unleash is considerable.

They also take on a Miles Davis composition – “Solar” – and they are fully up to this jazzy challenge.

There are several classical pieces too – many of them from the pen of Bach – but there’s no overlap with Perpetual Motion .

Their breadth and confidence is striking. They play with great precision and discipline on the classical pieces. They improvise joyously on the originals. They even execute a humorous composition that relies on a recording of a cell phone (NOT on silent, as protocol demands at classical concerts) for the running joke. They make it all work, and, again nothing sounds contrived – it is all made to fit perfectly on the two instruments.

Well, I say “two” but they both double up – Meyer on piano and Fleck on guitar. And wouldn’t you know it – they’re pretty damn good on those instruments too. Fleck the banjo player need not lie awake at night worrying about Fleck the guitarist, but that’s because on Banjo he is untouchable whilst on guitar he’s merely very good.

This album is rich with the sheer joy of doing remarkable things – though it’s not a showy off, vain sort of joy. They exult in the playing and take us along with them.

So there are some of the joys of non-rock instrumental music (indeed rock, especially with a capital R, is a bit too straight faced to try to crack a joke), and they are not inflexible. It’s like swooping swifts in the summer, or a top notch athlete producing something out of the ordinary. But you can carry it around on a smart phone and get your kicks on a train.

Fleck is one of the most remarkable, imaginative musicians on the planet. These two discs are a fine place to start with Fleck, or for getting to grips with acoustic instrumental music. And I would not bet against them being great places to revisit.

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