Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain with Rakesh Chaurasia in 2018. Sachyn Mital photo

When the 15-Grammy Award winning banjo player, Béla Fleck puts together a new configuration of musicians magic happens … pure and simple. You see, he defies categorization by playing bluegrass, country, pop, classical crossover, folk, world music, jazz and funk with equal passion and precision (which explains all the Grammys he’s accrued over the three-plus decades of his career). This time around, he’s got Edgar Meyer (double bassist), Zakir Hussain (tabla player) and Rakesh Chaurasia (bansuri — Indian bamboo flute player) and this quartet will be releasing their latest album “As We Speak” on May 12. But before that, they will be gracing the stage at the Waterville Opera House on Sunday, May 7. I have had the pleasure and honor of chatting with Mr. Fleck many times over the years, and when I learned of this, his latest trip to our fair state, I immediately requested a telephone interview. He called me from the road in Charleston, South Carolina, where the quartet would be performing that evening. I began this way …

Q: I was reflecting on the first time I interviewed you. It was back in 1988 when you brought the Flecktones to Unity College.
Fleck: (Chuckle) Yeah, a lot of good memories of that one.

Q: And what you are doing now reminds me so much of what you were doing then: four disparate musicians, masters of their respective instruments, coming together to create something new and exciting. … It’s amazing hearing it happen again.
Fleck: Hey, fantastic, thanks, Lucky. Yeah, it’s kind of what I do; it’s what all of these guys do. We all interact with a lot of different musicians and every once in a while you strike and hold on to something that really works. I feel like this is one of those things.

Q: I agree with you 100%.
Fleck: We all worked really hard on this project back before the pandemic. We worked on the music; we recorded it; put it away. Then during the pandemic I edited and mixed it, and when it was done everyone went, “Wow, this is really good!” Then this tour came, and we got together and started playing it and went, “Wow, this is really hard. We’ll have to learn how to do this!”

Q: (Laughter)
Fleck: Then we learned it, and now we’re playing it better than the record. It’s starting to take on a new life, which is what happens when you work hard on a project. So now we’re in it, everyone’s landed in it again, and everybody’s just playing so great. And we’re all so very thankful that this moment exists and we’re together and it works!

Q: Now, do you find that the music changes? Is there growth still happening now to these songs?
Fleck: Oh, of course, because there’s a lot of improvisation in this music, and when you’re playing live, you’re going, “Now what can I do off of that?” It’s also just about getting comfortable with who everyone is and who you’re supporting. I’m realizing there’s a lot more liberty in the music than when we were creating it. Now that we’re actually in the process of living the music, I’m finding out where the edges are and what I can do myself, and I think everyone is finding that.


Q: Just a side note here, I think Edgar Meyer is amazing, he can make that bass talk!
Fleck: (Laughter) Yeah, he’s a real unusual character; I can’t think of anybody like him. All the up-right bass players talk about him in hushed tones like, “That cat, man, he’s a different kind of guy, nobody plays like him!” He’s soulful and incredibly smart. He’s very intellectual; he’s got a connection to the roots and a connection to modern classical music and jazz. Zakir is one of the great collaborators of all time, but in this little scene it’s like it’s bringing out new sides of him, the way he sounds in this. And Rakesh is kind of a surprise. Folks have known about Edgar and Zakir for a long time, and have been paying attention, but with Rakesh you really have to be an Indian aficionado to understand his factor in that world. He’s kind of the heir apparent to Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, his uncle, actually, the incredible bamboo flute player from India whose kind of the king of that world. Rakesh came up watching him and learned a lot of that language and then added his own, he’s a stunner, and live he brings something we never had when we were a trio. It wasn’t a complete picture, and he’s the icing on the cake. We can really be a rhythm section underneath Rakesh, and he can really do a lot of things that serve the music.

Q: I’m going to make an assumption here, and we all know what happens when one assumes…
Fleck: (Laughter)

Q: … but I bet you’re not bored ever.
Fleck: Umm, no, I’m never bored. What I am is, at times, anxious, because I set up a lot of things for myself that take a lot of work to prepare for. I underestimate how much time it’ll take. So when I’m looking at an empty calendar a year from now and someone says, “Hey, how do you feel about doing a week of a classical music (at a) festival in May?” and I’m like, “Oh, that sounds great, that means I can play my concerto and my string quartet!” Then the Zakir/Edgar tour comes and fills my time right up until then, and I realize, “Oh, when I get done with that I’ve got to have this concerto back down that I haven’t played in maybe six years!” And then right after that, the Flecktones start literally days later and then I have to have all the Flecktone material back under my fingers. Then I’m preparing for a tour with Shakti, which is Zakir and John McLaughlin’s group, I’m going to be opening for some of those shows so I’m trying to put together a solo repertoire. And then, to make things even more complicated, I’m going to be recording and performing “Rhapsody in Blue,” I’m going to be playing the piano part with orchestras starting in September. So all of this stuff gets jammed up against each other and I get a little anxious. And the one element I haven’t mentioned is that I have a 5-year-old and a 10-year-old.

Q: Oh, my lord!
Fleck: (Chuckle) So, no, I’m never bored, and I’m kind of running from thing to thing and trying to stay on top of it and keep it all up to the standard that I like to set, or attempt to set, but it’s pretty awesome. It’s all the things I really want to do, and I’m not complaining, I’m just saying sometimes I get a little tweaky. So my life is complicated, but very rich.

Q: I’ll say! But to bring this chat to a close, is there anything, Béla that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article?
Fleck: The one thing that I think is really good about it is that if you went to a concert of one thing, there will be times where you might lose interest, but this music we’re doing here has a lot of variety. At one point it’s very meditative and at another point it’s fiery and it’s racing and it’s just wildly enthusiastic, at some point it’s almost classical and at some point it has the bluegrass element and there are some really Indian modes. It’s a unique offering, and I think you won’t be bored, and you might even be moved.

Lucky Clark, a 2018 “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award winner, has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.