DAILY CAMERA: Banjo great Béla Fleck visits Macky with string quartet
It would be difficult to name somebody who has done more for or with the banjo than Béla Fleck. And it would be nearly impossible to name a musician who crosses more genre boundaries than he does. With 15 Grammy wins under his belt and nominations in more categories than any other instrumentalist, he was already legendary before his symphonic and chamber compositions made him into a serious force in classical music as well.
But what makes Fleck’s live performances truly special is his relationship to his collaborative performers. On Saturday, Jan. 20, at Macky Auditorium in Boulder, the banjoist is joined by some of his favorite partners, the contemporary and crossover string quartet Brooklyn Rider.The concert is part of the CU Presents Artist Series.
This will be their second Boulder appearance together, having previously played at Chautauqua Auditorium in 2014. That was the same year Fleck appeared at Macky with jazz pianist Chick Corea on the Artist Series. Back in 2005, he played there with bassist Edgar Meyer.
Fleck has an especially warm relationship with Colorado. He described his feelings after his first appearance in the state with the band New Grass Revival in 1982. “It was pretty incredible to find a place where our music was so appreciated. It almost seemed like a fantasy, like it couldn’t possibly be real.” Since then, he said, Colorado’s support has been constant and strong. “It’s one of the great homes for bluegrass and progressive music, jazz, classical — absolutely everything I do. I wish the rest of the U.S. were like Colorado.”
In 2016, he premiered the “Juno Concerto,” his second composition for banjo and orchestra, with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. A recording made with the CSO of the work — named for his 4-year-old son — will appear later this year, and he will play his new third banjo concerto with them in April. And a few years back, he played his first concerto (“The Imposter”) with the orchestra at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
As with the recording of “The Imposter,” made with the Nashville Symphony, the new release with the CSO pairs the orchestral work with Fleck’s compositions for banjo and string quartet, played with Brooklyn Rider. For the upcoming Macky performance, the five musicians will play the three-movement work released with “The Imposter” — called “Night Flight over Water” — along with the piece “Griff,” which will be included with the “Juno Concerto” recording.
“‘Night Flight’ was written with Brooklyn Rider’s unique talents in mind,” Fleck said. “I included them in the writing process, which makes the piece fit them beautifully. The idea of banjo and string quartet is a recent one, so it’s exciting to imagine and then realize this collaboration with this incredible group.”
As for “Griff,” Fleck said that it is more bluegrass than “Night Flight,” which fills a hole they wanted to include in the show. They will also play a movement for banjo and string quartet that Fleck wrote with Edgar Meyer back in 1985.
He called Brooklyn Rider “consummate collaborators, which makes them perfect for me.” He noted that they play with jazz musicians, singer-songwriters, and of course classical musicians, including Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.
On the Macky program, the quartet (without Fleck) will play a piece called “Brooklesca,” written by one of their violinists, Colin Jacobsen, and described as a “wild romp through the neighborhoods of Brooklyn.”
“They’ll do some things on their own, and I’ll do a solo bit,” Fleck said, “but the main presentation will be all of us together.” In addition to the three larger pieces, things from New Grass Revival and his band the Flecktones — along with material from his album “Tales from the Acoustic Planet” — will be included.
One aspect of the great banjoist continues to be his utterly disarming humility. Closing the interview, he said “I’m just glad and amazed that I get to do things like this, and that someone wants to hear it.”