30 Years Later: Revisiting Bela Fleck & the Flecktones’ Adventurous ‘Flight of the Cosmic Hippo’ LP

If Bela Fleck And The Flecktones Flight of the Cosmic Hippo (released 6/11/91) proved anything, it was that the eccentric quartet’s eponymous debut was no fluke. No question the sophomore album heightened the band’s eccentric and good-humored persona—one that extends even today in the form of hawking stuffed toy hippos!?!—but it also deepened the impression left the first time around. Hindsight of thirty years reveals the durability of the sophistication in their individual and collective technical expertise. 

With this second album, the quartet truly hit its stride in forging a marriage of bluegrass and jazz as eccentric and unpredictable as their individual and collective personae. Accordingly, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo is as heady and wide-ranging a ten tracks as its title implies. Fleck and the ‘Tones approach playing and recording by means conventional and otherwise, so while on the one hand, there’s the tried-and-true method of call and response between banjoist Fleck and pianist Levy on “Blu-Bop,” it gives way to a slowly spinning bass pattern from Victor Wooten that effectively functions as the bridge of the composition. 

From a different angle, the traditional sound of Bela’s main instrument during “Flying Saucer Dudes”is flanked by the mammoth patter of Roy Wooten Jr. a/k/a/ ‘Futureman’ on congas—or is it his ‘drumitar?’ Meanwhile. on “Turtle Rock,” the harmonica doesn’t sound like itself upon its first entry anymore than the banjo that emulates electric guitar. During all of this action, perhaps especially in his prominence on “Hole in the Wall,” Levy is dazzling on the ivories, his presence injecting and maintaining a distinctly human feel to this music. Likewise, the inclusion of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Beatles’ “Michelle’” adds a familiarity that functions as ballast to what otherwise might be too flashy and flighty.

In the midst of this otherwise all-original material, the public domain piece also “Star of the County Down” serves a similar purpose and, in so doing, reminds how the self-composed material, like “Jekyll and Hyde (and Ted and Alice),” vividly and directly reflects these four musicians in motion. It all comes through loud and clear too, in a state of- the art recording produced by the band itself,  channeling their inimitable, instinctual display of technique sans many high-tech devices (apart from the aforementioned invention of the percussionist’s).

After Howard Levy’s departure in 1992, the remaining three continued as a trio for several years, beginning with Three Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, then recruited Jeff Coffin on saxophones and keyboards in 1997. His tenure as a Flecktone included the albums Outbound & The Hidden Land, but the true standout is Little Worlds (and it’s condensed companion piece Ten From…); in the presence of multiple guests including members of The Chieftains, mandolinist Chris Thile (originally from Nickel Creek and subsequently host of  A Prairie Home Companion, then renamed Live from Here).  and guitarist Derek Trucks (most appropriately on  “The Last Jam”), Fleck, Wooten, Coffin and Futureman effectively dissembled and reassemble their broad grasp of style. In doing so, the foursome reiterated they are as conversant in-studio processes as in musicianly relationships.

In 2010 Levy returned to the fold, at which point the reunited ensemble recorded the splendid LP Rocket Science, a full-fledged rediscovery of their camaraderie. They deserved to publicize its creation and did so, not only on a lengthy and genuinely triumphant tour in 2011 but in road jaunts hence that have consolidated the solvency of their natural chemistry. As a result, the self-renewing bond of the original lineup (re)appears to the world at large on a recurring basis, much like that odd-shaped asteroid to which the title of this three-decade-old LP refers.

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