Faced with musical overload, we delimit our choices. It's simpler that way. With so many artists, so many genres, we stick with familiar tunes. It's our comfort music.
But Bela Fleck and the Flecktones are out to explode your complacency.
Fleck has been nominated in a greater variety of Grammy categories than anyone in history: bluegrass, jazz, spoken word, country, instrumental, world music, classical crossover. He has collaborated on his banjo with Phish and Sting, with jazz keyboardist Chick Corea and violinist Joshua Bell, with country singer Vince Gill and sitar master V.M. Bhatt.
His group's 2003 album, Little Worlds, featured the Flecktones -- in their typical configuration, Vic Wooten on bass, Futureman on drumitar and Jeff Coffin on woodwinds -- backed by guest musicians on ukulele, theremin and uillean pipes. On other recordings, bassoons, tablas, oboes and Tuvlan throat singers show up.
And now the Flecktones are out to combine their jazz improvisations with that unlikeliest of musical genres, the obligatory holiday music album. In support of their September release, a Christmas album entitled Jingle All the Way, the Flecktones -- fresh off a Latin American tour -- will go on the road some more, wrapping it up with four nights in December at the Blue Note in New York City.
But the tour begins here in Spokane. And on Saturday night, Fleck says, in addition to several songs from Jingle, "we'll premiere a new orchestra chart that was written by the great jazz arranger Gil Goldstein for one of my songs." The Flecktones tour a lot: half a million fans listen to them at more than 100 concerts a year. Like the Dead and Phish and Dave Matthews, they connect with their most avid fans in jam band-style, with long sets, plenty of improv, varied set lists and permission to tape freely.
All that jammin' has made some of the Jingle tunes complicated: "Twelve Days of Christmas" has 12 different keys and 12 different time signatures, while in "Medley," five or six Christmas tunes are being played simultaneously.
But then the Flecktones, in their eclectic and genre-bashing style, typify that kind of complexity. Turning out yet another Christmas album may seem like a nod to popular taste, but merging traditional tunes with jazz can have the effect of universalizing the experience, with each genre casting a distinctive light on the other.
Jeff Coffin -- who plays sax, flute, clarinet and more for the Flecktones -- likes the counter-intuitive path of discovering simplicity by first exploring complexity: "Cracking the tunes open through improvisation is something that can show a greater understanding of the melodic, rhythmic and harmonic motion of the music," he says. "It's sometimes through the complexity of harmony and rhythm that we end up finding the simplicity of the melody ... sort of like Picasso in his Cubist period -- you can still see what he's painting, but it's a unique perspective on how he's presenting the subject. I think I'm looking for that different perspective as well."
The jazz illuminates "Jingle Bells," then, and vice versa. Some different musical perspectives are also involved in Fleck's future tour plans. His upcoming late-February release, Throw Down Your Heart, is based on what he learned during a recent trip to Africa -- where he ventured to learn about the banjo from the descendants of those who invented it. In March, he'll tour with some of those African musicians; in the meantime, here in Spokane, he may offer a solo based "on some of my African stuff. Playing with musicians in Africa," he says, "was a musical highlight of my life."
This Saturday, Bela Fleck, always searching for new musical forms, will create a regular jazz/classical/holiday mashup. Ho ho ho.
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones jam with the Spokane Symphony on Saturday, Nov. 15, at 8 pm at the INB Center. Tickets: $23-$53. Visit www.spokanesymphony.org or call 624-1200 or 325-SEAT.