Banjo in Bluegrass, Jazz and Bach—and the National Anthem

United StatesUnited States Béla Fleck (banjo), SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco. 16.5.2013 (HS)

“Here’s my playlist for the first half,” shrugged Béla Fleck, holding up a sheet of paper scrawled at various angles. “It gives you an idea how my mind works.”

Self-effacing, almost to a fault, the world’s most celebrated banjo player alternated between wowing and frustrating a rapt audience in the new SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco in a solo performance. The wow factor came when the music flowed, whether it was one of his original bluegrass-inflected compositions, deft arrangements of rags and other old-time songs, or a transcription of a Bach violin partita. The frustration came with the rambling nature of his program, which skittered from one piece to another with no continuity. The musical material was golden, but the effect was more like listening in on an early rehearsal rather than a real performance.

At one point he looked up while tuning, and referenced the banjo’s limitations. “I’m glad you all came,” he smiled, “but this is all it’s going to be.” It got a round of cautious applause. And fortunately, there was plenty of musical variety to appreciate along the way. Fleck can get a surprising range of tone and melodic style plucking the instrument’s five strings. He can pick rapid-fire phrases with amazing agility in a style he properly attributed to Earl Scruggs, and create gentle contrasts with soft harmonic fingering. He has a canny sense of phrasing that can elongate the banjo’s often-percussive character into something truly resembling legato.

And he’s unafraid of stretching the harmonic boundaries of his own music beyond folk and bluegrass traditions. At times he can make the instrument sound like a sitar playing an Indian raga, as in the second movement of his own banjo concerto (which the Nashville Symphony debuted in 2011). He used percussive effects in a piece he wrote for his grandfather and tinkling sounds from playing high on the fingerboard, and ended up doing a pretty good impression of a Japanese shamisen.

Fleck usually performs in tandem with other musicians, edging into the classical music world with artists such as bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. The three collaborated on Meyer’s mesmerizing “The Melody of Rhythm,” a concerto for banjo, bass and tablas, debuted by the Nashville Symphony and recorded under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. Fleck is venerated in the bluegrass world as the logical successor to Scruggs as its virtuoso, and he is comfortable in the jazz world, heading his own band, the Flecktones, and recording and performing with the likes of Chick Corea.

From a solo album Fleck recorded in 1992, he opened with a short medley of charming tunes from the 1920s, featuring “Flapperette” by Jack Cornell, and later picked up the “cello” banjo (larger and with a more mellow sound) for several tunes he learned while traveling in Africa. Shortly before intermission, he was rolling along beautifully through the first movement of Bach’s Violin Partita for Unaccompanied Violin No. 3 in E when he suddenly stopped. “I forget what comes next,” he grinned sheepishly. After the break, he picked up the banjo and said, “Let’s get this out of the way,” and played the piece all the way through, and brilliantly.

Bach on a banjo may seem strange, but Fleck’s virtuosity and ability to finesse phrasing makes it a joy. The undulating sixteenth notes in the Bach piece fit the instrument perfectly, and Fleck brought out the separate contrapuntal lines as deftly as any violinist could. Subtle shifts of tempo added warmth.

Near the end of the concert he included a strange and wonderful arrangement of The Star Spangled Banner, changing the harmonies so radically that it was almost unrecognizable as the national anthem. Stravinsky (having written an arrangement that was actually banned in Boston) would have been proud. And to finish off, a medley of Scruggs classics sent everyone home smiling.

Harvey Steiman