Béla Fleck and the Flecktones
Jingle All the Way
Scrooges beware. You won't be able to resist smiling at the holiday spirit that banjo great Béla Fleck and his Flecktones uncork on Jingle All the Way. In fact, you will be ear-to-ear grinning. And it will start with the album-opening Jingle Bells, no less. Seriously. Jingle Bells, for crying out loud. How can anyone put a distinctive spin on Jingle Bells?
Let's start with the Alash Ensemble, an extraordinary quartet of Tuvan throat singers who turn the lyrics into Asian munchkin chants. Then comes a groove that Fleck designs with bassist Victor Lemonte Wooten that swims upstream against the melody with a boogie sensibility. After that, banjo jumps the fence and creates warm, almost tropical simpatico with flutist/sax man Jeff Coffin. No sooner does that fade than the Tuvan chants pick back up. The resulting verse variations, which transform “jingle bells” into something along the lines of “shong alash,” are so infectious that you will be singing along in Tuvan before it's over. You speak Tuvan? Neither do I, but I was joining in the first time I listened to Jingle All the Way.
Such is the winter wonderland that Fleck, the Flecktones and some all-star compadres summon on the album. True to form, Fleck remains an artist who has never allowed his natural instrumental virtuosity to smother a playful musical mood. That, along with a sense of imagination as bountiful as its sense of fun, sells Jingle All the Way. After all, isn't holiday time supposed to be fun? Well, it sure is here.
On Sleigh Ride, Fleck goes into Earl Scruggs mode and rips the tune up with warp-speed bluegrass. On Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, brittle notes seem to fall from the banjo neck like icicle chips. And for Silent Night, Fleck traces a path in the snow behind Wooten's modest funk lead. Coffin follows with a warm, wintry melody on soprano sax.
Fleck avoids original material on Jingle All the Way. But with a holiday album, creating a mood, a spirit and respect for tradition that balances familiarity with innovation is far trickier than penning new tunes. Take a two-song medley of Vince Guaraldi music from A Charlie Brown Christmas. The schoolyard swing of Christmas Time Is Here is present, only now it's propelled by chilled banjo and a percussive Future Man shuffle. That leads into Linus and Lucy, in which Guaraldi's signature boogie-woogie piano lines are given to Wooten to bounce around with on bass. It's all ultra-respectful to music that is, in its own way, pretty sacred stuff. But the spin is pure Flecktones.
Even Joni Mitchell's River, which has become a somewhat over-familiar holiday favorite among pop artists in recent years, is worked up as an unsentimental but still emotive solo piece by Fleck, who underscores his banjo lead with simultaneous chords on piano.
The rest of the guests get some fine licks in, too. O Come All Ye Faithful becomes a chamber-like duet between Fleck and longtime double bass pal Edgar Meyer. Too bad it's barely two minutes long. Also, mandolin pioneer Andy Statman teams with Coffin on clarinet for the hearty klezmer merriment of The Hanukkah Waltz.
Topping it all off is a jam-packed The 12 Days of Christmas, in which styles shift from klezmer to funk to bluegrass to swing to classical in each verse. The Alash Ensemble even offers a chant variation on “five golden rings.”
Like all of Jingle All the Way, the resulting mood is reverential, original and, above all, massive fun.
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones with the Alash Ensemble perform at 8 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Brown Theatre, 315 W. Broadway in Louisville. Tickets are $28 and $38. 1-800-775-7777. www.kentuckycenter.org.