Pomegranate Center

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A Conversation with Béla Fleck

February 11, 2014

Béla Fleck is a virtuoso musician. His instrument is banjo, and he’s a master of many genres, including jazz, bluegrass, fusion, and classical. He’s received 15 Grammy Awards and has been nominated in more categories than any musician.

Milenko Matanovic and Béla Fleck  became friends because they like the same kind of humor (their shared favorite joke is so obscure, most people don’t laugh which, of course, makes it extra funny to them) and are intrigued by each other’s work. Also, they both LOVE music.

Milenko and Béla sat down to have a conversation about what Béla has learned through the course of a lifetime spent in collaboration with musicians and artists from all around the world.

On Jazz & Collaboration – A Conversation with Béla Fleck

The bottom line is that you must be willing to let others shine.When my attitude is simply that I want to play great, this is not as good as when I want EVERYONE to be great.         ~Béla Fleck

M:  You’ve mentioned that you experience two types of collaboration in your work:  staged performances (like you might see at the grammy’s where performers from different genres play together but each sticks with their own style) and impromptu jam sessions (where musicians adapt to each other to create something new). Can you elaborate on that?

Béla:  “Yes, I had to develop building blocks so I was able to interact with jazz musicians. It was a gradual process for me, but eventually I got to work with some of the best: Chick Corea, Branford Marsalis, Marcus Roberts and his trio to name a few. What makes me interesting to them is not the jazz that I’ve learned, but the bluegrass and the banjo itself, that they are not used to hearing. They find themselves playing differently in order to play with me and I find myself playing differently in order to play with them. In this type of collaboration, everybody has to reach out of their comfort zones to create something truly new and original.”

M:  Would you say there are joys and pitfalls to intense collaboration?

Béla:  “We have to agree on at least some common elements, like rhythm and tuning, for instance — otherwise it can be tough. When I went to Africa where I couldn’t expect the musicians to change for me, I had to change for them. I was fine with that because I was going there to learn, and that meant doing a bunch of homework and studying their music so I understood their language enough to have something to say. But when I went to Mali, some of the musicians were able to change for me. Oumou Sangare had a song that I re-harmonized and it was quite hard for her at first, but she stuck with it and eventually we found this great place between us. This took a while — it doesn’t always happen fast. If there is a time limit, like what Pomegranate Center does, there needs to be a simpler common language. With more time you can handle more abstract concepts, and more complex concepts.”

M:  How do you prepare for new collaborations?

Béla:  “I do a lot of listening and practicing and then I hope for the unconscious to take over; you do want for some of the leaps to happen in the unconscious because this is not science, it is art. You throw it together and sometimes wait for the unexpected. It is both conscious and unconscious work that is needed. You need to be prepared and then be ready for lightning to strike. Recent work with Marcus Roberts Trio was wonderful. All members of the trio are great teachers and they talked to me about things I haven’t had a chance to experience before. I had to drop into a jazz group as one of the team members. Marcus talked a lot about the unconscious – that we all practice a lot to learn all the scales and ideas so that anytime you want to play you can do so; but Marcus strives for that freedom that comes from more than practice, if you want to be a real jazz artist you need to go beyond that and be willing to dive into the deep end without a plan, and that is what these great improvising musicians can do.”

M:  Have you experienced occasions when collaboration doesn’t work?

Béla:  “Yes, I’ve played with phenomenal musicians when it didn’t click. Sometimes what was missing was the rhythmic aspect. Music is all kinds of things, harmony and melody and rhythm. And for me, banjo is essentially a rhythm instrument, almost like percussion – like a marimba or xylophone or celeste or drums. For me, collaborations that go the best are ones where we agree to what the rhythm should be like. It needs to be precise and once we all feel it the same way and only then, we can afford to be loose with it. Once we trust the rhythm we can bend it and stretch it. The fact is that in this work you are not going to click with everybody. And you need to be OK with that. If you click with anybody it’s great. “

M:  Many musicians use their talents and stature to become part of the social dialogue. Are you ever tempted to address politics, crime, the environment and the economy?

Béla:  “I do not understand what politicians are doing so I do not presume that I have anything to offer. But once they explain it, I can usually form an opinion. But I also recognize that issues are complex and that it takes experts to understand what is going on and recommend solutions. They need to be experts on issues the way I am an expert on banjo. I vote and learn something about the big issues that politicians promote, but it’s hard. I would be frustrated in that field. “

M:  I’ve been making the case that we need to develop “polyphonic minds” where different ideas not only coexist simultaneously, but also contribute to the greater whole in the way different musical lines do. What appeals to you about polyphonic music?

Béla:  “I love your analogy of Bach’s 4-part inventions where voices are all independent and they all speak to each other at the same time. In jazz, New Orleans’ Second Line style – you have horns, a trumpet, a trombone, saxophone, percussion, and they all play melody at the same time. You have a very conversational kind of music where they all leave spaces for each other and play like mad and it works as a counterpoint and it grooves like crazy. When it all comes together it makes great music.”

M:  In jazz, conversation is a big deal. So, is there an onstage conversation between musicians where words aren’t spoken?

Béla:  “Absolutely. It is not just about the soloist, it’s about everyone else as well, and you must pay attention to what the bass player is doing; everyone aspires to a Bach-like counterpoint where they can fill the spaces that each other offers. This is not done with words, but everyone pays attention and when one is leading, the others back off, and so forth. The question always is – how can we help each other? All this is done in front of the audience – and they are the galvanizing element.”

M:  So what does collaboration in music have to do with our work at the Pomegranate Center? When we work with groups of people who are trying to figure out something, there is a similar intuitive trust that guides the proceedings. I know how important it is to create a space into which people can deposit their ideas. Not all ideas are great, of course, but they may lead to new great ideas. I also see occasions where there is no trust and people don’t leave any space for others. They try to fill it all with their positions, convinced they have the only good idea. It would be like someone in your band hogging all the solo time. How does this phenomenon exist in music?

Béla:  “Yes, in ‘Bad Jazz’ someone wants to go in a new direction, but someone else doesn’t want to go there — pretty much what we see in Congress. It’s like, ‘I am a Democrat and you are a Republican and no matter how hard you are trying to get me to go in your direction, I will not go there.’ Bad Jazz. When people are not willing to make the adjustments, and respond to each other, music doesn’t work. Jazz is interactive and I think this is missing from our society: We state arguments, but we do not always work together to solve problems. We seem ready to use any tool for our side to win the argument. Bad Jazz.”

M:  So, what’s your overall takeaway in regards to collaboration?

Béla:  “The bottom line is that you must be willing to let others shine. When my attitude is simply that I want to play great, this is not as good as when I want everyone to be great. “

M:  Amen to that!

To learn more about the remarkable Béla Fleck, please visit his website.