Among the inviting aspects of the numerous musical duos that Bela Fleck has engaged in over the years has been the balance of play and challenge. He could be duking it out on banjo with jazz piano giant Chick Corea, longtime bassist pal Edgar Meyer, banjo mentor Tony Trischka or, in his most favored setting of recent years, his wife, banjoist Abigail Washburn. The resulting music, although stylistically different in each configuration, always lead to music as rich in its sense of play as it is in stylistic innovation.
For onetime Lexingtonian Fleck, though, there is something else he looks for, an attribute he found in his newest duo with mandolin maverick, Punch Brothers founder and soon-to-be “Prairie Home Companion” host Chris Thile.
“It was so long from when I became a professional before anyone younger than me could kick my ass,” Fleck, 58, said. “Chris was the first one to show up that was young, that I saw from a beginning musician who turned into a phenomenon, that was stronger than me in many areas. That is what makes me want to work with somebody, by the way. They have to be better than me at stuff.
“Chick has seen that with me. I was a big fan of his since I was a kid. I sent him a recording of my first album, which had ‘Spain’ on it, one of his tunes. I let him know I was a big fan, that he had helped shape me as a musician. At a certain point, we got together when I was in my 30s and did ‘Tales from the Acoustic Planet’ (Fleck’s 1995 return to acoustic music after a string of progressive-minded albums with his fusion band The Flecktones). He found a collaborator who knew his music inside out so much that it came out in my playing. That made it very easy us to play together, but it also inspired some new, fresh ideas. That is what Chris is doing for me.”
As a musician, you are what you eat, and I ate a whole lot of Bela Fleck music.
For Thile, one of the most heralded acoustic musicians of his generation, Fleck provides the same source of elder inspiration that Fleck received from Corea.
“As a musician, you are what you eat, and I ate a whole lot of Bela Feck music,” said Thile, 35. “So that manifested itself as a component of my overall musical picture. Obviously that component is incredibly familiar to Bela, so as we play together, I think we can cut straight to the chase in a way that maybe two musicians are seldom able to.
“Bela has been one of my biggest heroes. Just his ‘Tales from the Acoustic Planet’ record alone, … I mean, he was a hero even before that. I was seven or eight years old when ‘Drive’ (Fleck’s acclaimed 1988 solo album) came out. That record was so big for me and so big for so many acoustic musicians. But when ‘Tales from the Acoustic Planet’ came out, I wore it out. I learned every note. It had a profound impact on me as a musician, as has just about everything Bela has ever done. So this duo project is a true thrill.”
The duo performances that Fleck and Thile have undertaken represent a new project for both players, but their alliance is well established. Thile played on Fleck’s classical-inclined 2001 album, “Perpetual Motion,” and guested on the 2003 Flecktones’ multi-disc opus “Little Worlds.” But the collaboration essentially began when the banjoist and several of his string-music contemporaries (Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan, among others) performed on Thile’s “Not All Who Wander Are Lost,” a 2001 record that embraced the jazz-like innovations on bluegrass instrumentation that Fleck had helped pioneer decades earlier.
The idea that I could be part of a great American music like bluegrass that was growing, expanding and finding a way into the modern world is a wonderful thing.
“It used to be I would see folks, like a bunch of people that loved Punch Brothers, that didn’t know where some of the roots of that music came from,” Fleck said. “That would bother me a little bit. But now I’m kind of thrilled. The idea that I could be part of a great American music like bluegrass that was growing, expanding and finding a way into the modern world is a wonderful thing.
“There have been times, especially times connected to when I lived in Lexington (during the late ’70s) where I wasn’t sure what I was doing was such a great thing. There were things about the traditional side of bluegrass that were being lost, and I felt some shame about that. I was one of those people on the edge of the music pushing it out into other areas, although that was my natural bent. I was just being truthful to myself. But then seeing people like Punch Brothers and all the wonderful new musicians coming around nowadays makes me feel like they’re still getting the essence of what the thing is about and how the music needs to move forward and thrive.”
Said Thile: “We speak a very similar dialect because Bela had such a strong impact on me. There is a lot of understanding. It’s like, ‘I hear you. I got you. I know exactly what you mean. Here, let me comment on that. Allow me to interject.’ It can be one of those easy, free- flowing conversations like when you meet someone with whom you have a lot in common. The conversation just goes to a deep place really quickly because small talk isn’t necessary. It’s already understood.
“I think musicians work the same way. Oftentimes, there is a lot of musical small talk you’ve got to get through before you can get deep with someone. Because of the music Bela has made and its position in my life, we can dispense with the small talk. We get right into the big talk.”