How rare it is for a seasoned band to revisit its past and re-generate the chemistry of days gone by, while simultaneously progressing into contemporary realms? Yet that’s exactly what Bela Fleck and The Original Flecktones have done since Howard Levy rejoined the band in 2009.
Having left the group in 1992, and taking his acoustic piano and diatonic harmonica(s) with him, Levy has proven himself to be the missing link in the idiosyncratic collective of The Flecktones. The sound of his instruments is one thing, conjuring musical eras from the past such as classical, ragtime and seminal jazz that somehow meshes with the futuristic sounds of Fleck’s prototype banjos and Roy “Futureman” Wooten’s drumitar percussion device.
The prodigal son’s ability to improvise in unpredictable manner, often playing his instruments at once, prods the rest of the group to play equally imaginatively, which, from all accounts, is what happened on the short tour of Europe where the quartet tested themselves: Bela & co relished this man’s ability to inspire them to play outside their comfort zone.
It was, as Levy notes laughingly in his conversation with Doug Collette, only a three-week respite from the panoply of activities (performing, teaching recording and writing) he engaged in upon departure from the Flecktones close to two decades prior. At the time of this interview, in the early stages of a prolonged summer tour in support of the recently-released studio album Rocket Science, Levy was cautiously optimistic about the group’s long-term prospects: this is a man who, as a musician and a unique individual, staunchly lives in the moment.
I saw you at your show at The Flynn (Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington Vermont) in June and it was stunning. You had the audience within minutes of beginning to play. Are you getting that kind of response everywhere you play on your recent tours?
Well, pretty much. If we play well, we get a good response.
I’d be interested to know how you put together your set lists and how much they vary from night to night, if at all?
Oh, they vary; First off it depends on how long the show is. If we play a festival set which is 75 minutes long and when we are headlining, it’s much longer. And we won’t always start with the same tunes, things like that, to try to mix it up some. We tend to play mostly the same material most of the time.
Do you have specific songs within that repertoire that are intended for more extended improvisation than other?
Some of the things that we do are intended for back and forth with some of the band members, some of the solos are open, like on “Sweet Pomegranates, the one I wrote: depending on how I feel, I will play piano solos of various lengths, on different nights; like if I feel like I have it within me to tell a real story, I’ll make it longer.
I know you told a real story that night at The Flynn: I remember the tune going on for quite a while and when Bela introduced you as the composer there was a smile of great pride on your face.
It changes every night with that kind of thing.
It’s interesting you mentioned that particular song because it’s one of my favorites off the album. I wanted to ask you a couple of things about the album Rocket Science. Did you have arrangements set for those tunes when you went it or did they evolve as you worked in the studio?
We had never performed any of the stuff live, so Bela had come up to my house and we bounced a whole bunch of ideas off each other. He played a bunch of things he’d been working on with Roy and Vic and I played things that that I thought might work well with the band and then I came down for some rehearsals and we narrowed the material down further. It was a sort of back and forth process. Then when I came down to do the actual recording, that’s when you really figure out what you have.
We changed a lot of things around as we recorded. Like, for this tune maybe we need to write a different section or on this one, we need to take out a section. Things like that happen as you are actually recording something you’ve never performed when you realize the tune might need a little change here and there.
Were you trying to capture a definitive version on record of the song or just get fundamental outline in place so that it would evolve more onstage?
No, you always try to get the best possible thing on a recording. Then, of course, when it’s on stage, then the adrenaline kicks in and the interaction with the audience happens and then all sorts of other things happen. But the basic nature of that tune was exactly what it was on the recording; it’s the length of solos that can change. We haven’t really changed anything about that one: some of the others we actually have changed a lot live; we’ve changed arrangements so they might work better.
Did any of the members have any reservations about getting back together after not being in the same band for almost twenty years?
Well, yeah, of course. I mean I’d been doing so many different things and for me this is a major commitment of my time and energy to do something like this so I really wasn’t sure. I really had to toss it around a lot. Of course, the reason it happened is that I agreed to do a three-week tour at the end of 2009 and the reason I agreed to do what is that it was three weeks! (laughs) Whatever and however it was, it was going to be short. And I really enjoyed it. And one of the reasons was-it wasn’t my full time life! So then, what it was suggested we record a cd and then do some serious touring, I had to think it over. I’m very glad I decided to do it.
There seems to be a very very unique chemistry between you four. Was it apparent right away when you began to play together again after all those years?
Yes. As soon as we rehearsed for the tour in 2009, I got very excited about it.
As I watched you guys during the Vermont show, it occurred to me, I hadn’t seen a band smile at each other so much over the course of their performance You really seemed to be having a ball together and rediscovering, from tune to tune, what that chemistry actually was.
Yeah, that’s right. You got it! (laughs).
I’m curious about the process by which you actually recorded Rocket Science.
Bela has a studio in his basement and he’s done a lot of recordings down there.We would rehearse things together in one room and then he likes to record everyone very isolated, so we did many takes evaluate them and pick the best ones and the best parts of the best ones. We’d put together the best parts of the best ones for the best possible version.
When you say you had to record a lot of takes of given songs, did it get up in the fifteens and twenties or did you nail them and get good parts early?
If I know a piece of music, I generally play better on the first few takes. But since none of us really knew this stuff, it required many takes. Sometimes it was frustrating, but you hammer it out and you come out with the best result—which I believe we did.
I agree! Were you all involved in the production side in terms of choosing tunes and putting tracks together and getting it all mixed?
Bela mostly took charge of that, but we would listen afterwards and say “You know I think there was something on an earlier take that I played better,” and we’d go back and find that. So everyone was involved: we’ve all recorded a lot of things on our own—I’ve produced a lot of albums myself—so we were all involved. If one thing sticks out that’s particularly bad, where the sound isn’t right, EQ’s and mike placements stuff like that, we ‘d all just bring it up and we’d deal with it.
Do you have your sound men record the shows at all when you’re on tour for the sake of posterity or for the sake of hearing how one show sounds compared to another?
Yes. I personally never listen to any of those. I know Bela listens to some of them and perhaps some of the other guys do, but I prefer not to myself.
That’s interesting to hear: why is that?
Because this is live music and I have a good memory, so I can remember if I did something that was good one night or bad one night. I don’t listen to live shows as an instructional thing myself. I just try to be fresh every night and not anticipate what I’ve done. On the other hand, if I do remember that something really worked well, I’ll try to apply it to the next show.
Have you had any thoughts about putting together a live album to document your time back together and your time on stage?
I honestly don’t know. I think in this day and age…maybe in the past you might’ve done something like that, but maybe now it’s hard to sell CDs. I don’t know if there are any plans like that. I know we’ve done some recordings of some of the shows for various radio networks and things like that, so things are going to be out there, one way or another.But I don’t know if there are plans to release a live recording of the tour itself.
All the more incentive for people to catch you at a concert!