Bela Fleck et al at Butternut on Sunday
by Seth Rogovoy
GREAT BARRINGTON – Bela Fleck and the Flecktones brought their unusual style of genre-defying music to Butternut Basin on Sunday. Fleck plays banjo and came up through the ranks playing bluegrass and other traditional styles of string-band music. But with the Flecktones he plays an open-ended, exploratory style of music that touches on jazz, world-beat, funk and rock and winds up being none of them – it’s truly in a category of its own.
Fleck’s quartet approaches its material like a jazz ensemble, playing themes and then taking off on elaborations, tangents and commentaries. Typically, as on the group’s first number, bassist Victor Wooten lays down a funk rhythm – in this case one recalling the riff that powered the ‘70s hit “For the Love of Money” – while Fleck plays a figure on banjo. Saxophonist Jeff Coffin answered Fleck’s figure before going off on his own, at one point even playing two saxophones at once. Eventually, after some extended noodling by the musicians, including Futureman -- who plays a hybrid invention called the “synth-axe drumitar” that serves simultaneously as keyboard, percussion and sampler -- the tune found a light, world-jazz melody that one might hear from Pat Metheny or Paul Winter.
Another tune started out with Coffin playing a modal riff suggestive of Indian raga music on soprano saxophone, before it morphed into the same, watered-down territory of lite-jazz. For those who tired of the sound of Fleck’s banjo – a banjo, after all, is still a banjo, even when it’s not playing bluegrass or country music – the bandleader strapped on an electronic version of the instrument, which took advantage of so-called MIDI technology, basically meaning that Fleck could and did make it sound like anything but a banjo – a keyboard, a guitar, you name it. The group played an original composition called “Lover’s Leap,” which featured a Gypsy-like tango melody over a light reggae beat.
“More Love” was a showcase for Futureman that began with a nursery rhyme-like melody atop more light reggae before he played a drum solo, such as it was, on his drumitar. The song then became a rallying cry of sorts, morphing into Bob Marley’s festival classic, “No Woman, No Cry.” R&B singer Keb’ Mo’, who performed earlier, joined the Flecktones on this number, duetting vocally with Futureman, whose incantation of Marley lyrics from other songs was annoyingly gratuitous. And Coffin played a flute solo behind all this which seemed entirely out of place.
Where Fleck was in all of this was a bit of a mystery, and this was the main problem with the Flecktones’ set. The bandleader gave up too much stage time to his individual band members, and there was surprisingly little music played by the ensemble as a whole. Wooten took a long bass solo, including a crowd-pleasing, two-handed tapping section that resembled nothing more than a public display of what a man should only do in the privacy of his bedroom.
There were a few moments of musical togetherness, most notably “Almost Twelve,” an intriguing experiment in an 11/16 time signature that recalled some of Dave Brubeck’s similar experiments. But it was over almost as soon as it began, and then Futureman took his long turn in the spotlight, and I had heard enough.
Earlier in the afternoon, Keb’ Mo’ played a slick, workmanlike set of classic-style r&b and electric blues. Backed by a talented five-piece band, Mo’ was a gentle presence. Bela Fleck joined him for one number to no apparent purpose, and ultimately Mo’s music lacked the grit and tension that made the original Stax soul that Mo’ was building upon into music that mattered – into real soul music.
Singer-guitarist Martin Sexton preceded Keb’ Mo’ in a solo turn. Sexton is a marvelous technician with a bluesy, gospel-drenched voice that sails into a natural falsetto and rivals Ray Charles at its best. He is also an effective guitarist, using the instrument as much for its rhythmic and percussive possibilities as for the harmonic bed it provided for his folk-soul originals. Unfortunately, none of those songs are compelling on their own.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]