Béla Fleck: Jingling All The Way

By: Dennis Cook

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones
Christmas albums are usually the lowest form of rehashed money scraping there is, but there are exceptions. Once in a while a record comes along that actually adds something to the canon, taking its place on the shelf next to the Vince Guaraldi Trio's A Charlie Brown Christmas and A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector. In 2008, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones released Jingle All The Way, a truly original, highly entertaining and, most of all, musical take on staples and classical antecedents in the holiday oeuvre.

Since then the band has held several Christmas/Holiday tours that showcase this material. 2010 marks the third time the Flecktones will take this show on the road, and this time they're joined by the Alash Ensemble, a Tuvan throat singing group that appears on Jingle, and Casey Driessen. This year's holiday run begins in Calgary, Canada on November 30 and continues through December 19 in Tuscon, AZ. Full dates can be found here.

This will be one of the last chances to see saxophonist Jeff Coffin with the Flecktones due to his time commitments to the Dave Matthews Band. Next year Béla Fleck (banjo), Victor Wooten (bass) and Roy "Future Man" Wooten (synthaxe drumitar, acoustic percussion) will regroup with original Flecktones fourth member Howard Levy (keyboards, harmonica) to release new music and tour more substantially than they have in years. However, before that we managed to snag a few minutes with Béla to discuss the band's approach to Christmas music and more.

JamBase: Christmas records are often the refuge of scoundrels when they have no other options. But, I absolutely don't think Jingle All The Way falls into this category. The way you and the Flecktones tackle this material is genuinely engaging.

Béla Fleck: I think when something gets pigeonholed that way it actually creates a great opportunity. And I've learned that because I play a banjo [laughs]. Everybody just assumes that the banjo is this or the banjo is that, so whenever I do something that's just normal for somebody of this day & age I get all these extra kudos for it. And I think with the Flecktones [holiday album], too, we said, "Let's make our record but we'll draw the subject matter from this subject matter." And I don't think people expected it to be a cool record. They probably thought it would be selling out.

Béla Fleck: When you do a Christmas record it's likely to be enjoyed by a certain sector of the population, and there is an opportunity there and we're not immune to thinking about our careers and what works. But, the real reason we made this record was because it was in our system as people who grew up in this time period and we were already playing "Jingle Bells" or "Danse of the Sugar Plum Fairies" when we were on tour in Decembers. And the audience would get happy, so we'd do it again! Every year around Christmas we'd work up a Christmas Medley, and people would say, "You've got to do a Christmas record." And we thought, "Yeah, we could a really creative Flecktones Christmas record someday."

That day never seemed to come until this period came where we were looking to reduce band commitment for a while to do different things. I think I proposed it because we didn't want to split up – not that anybody wanted to – but I wanted a way to keep the fires lit and get creative juices flowing but only have a three-week touring commitment. I'm a thinker and I'm always talking with management about the best way to do things. But it always has to come from a creative place and what the band wants to do, first and foremost. As a leader, once we make a decision it's kind of my job to do everything I can to make it come off as good as possible, creatively and musically.

JamBase: No matter how you think of this material – religiously, secularly, whatever – it's part of our culture worldwide.

We're not coming at this with ANY religious angle at all, except that people have always said the Flecktones' music can be uplifting. We love the fact that people can feel that way about our music. How many virtuoso players can you talk about where it isn't ego massage or showing off? But if something about our music makes people feel empowered or excited, well, that makes what we do a lot more special. It's not just about us stretching our abilities or showing off.

This music is full of what I call "pleasure buttons" for an audience. The corners of most people's mouth will turn up when they hear "Linus and Lucy" or "Jingle Bells." Then to hear familiar songs taken to fresh places is a lovely surprise and very satisfying. I like when the rug is pulled out, playfully, from underneath me as a listener.

Yeah, I like that, too, and here you have a unique opportunity where everybody knows the music. Normally when we come and do a show it's brand new music and the audience has to get to know it. You hear a brand new record of somewhat complex music and the first time it's, "Well, that was interesting. I guess I'm going to have to listen to it until I understand it." That may take a while, and then live you don't know what is the actual song and what's been done to it when it's a new song. But when you take an old song that's been in their system for a while and they hear what we do with it they understand what is the song and what we've done to it.

The mixture of material is indicative of the level of players involved. You're not just doing Christmas carols, you're tapping into Bach and exposing the long tradition of holiday music that goes way back before the crass commercialization of the holiday in the 20th Century.

There are some things you have to do on any Christmas record, but tt was important to me that we do it differently and choose some less familiar songs, too. Nothing made the list unless we could find a new way of doing it. The reggae number we do is a nice break from the really complicated stuff like "The Twelve Days of Christmas" with twelve time signatures and twelve keys.

That's a ludicrous piece of music you boys created, if you don't mind me saying.

It's pretty heady stuff! We're proud of it like something we wrote because we really found something different. But all the clues were there. There's 12 days in Christmas and 12 tones in a chromatic scale. There's 12 keys, and finding a way to do 12 different time signatures was next. Making it all work together was like a jigsaw puzzle. There's 12 keys but how do you get from key to key to key AND change time signatures in a way that's musical and meant to be. It's kind of fun. That one I'm particularly proud of because it seems like it was meant to be that way and all the clues were in the original song in how it could be done that way.

Do you let out a sight of relief after each performance of that song? I can't see this piece ever NOT being a challenge to pull off.

At this point, we make a big joke about it and tell the audience we've never actually made it through the song and we all act like we're sweating. The first tour it was always frightening. On the second tour we got to the point to where it became intuitive, and I'm imagining this third tour it will feel like falling off a log.

It's nice that this holiday tour is becoming a reoccurring thing. New traditions can be cool.

Probably next year will be the first year we don't do it because we'll have a big year recombining with Howard Levy and presenting new music. We never designed it to do indefinitely, but I'm hoping we'll do it often. Nothing should be every year: "Oh no, here it comes again!" I don't want it to turn into that, but I do want it to be a regular offering if everybody is feeling it.

Are all the guys in the Flecktones holiday music fans?

Well, Victor has had a solo version of "Danse of the Sugar Plum Fairies" since I first knew him, and he had a solo bass version of "The Christmas Song" that's mind-blowing. So, he'd pull those out at Christmas and I said, "Hey, we should do some Christmas stuff, too!" So, we worked up a group version of "We Three Kings" that went into "Little Drummer Boy," which I thought would be really cool with the Synthaxe Drumitar where he could do a drum solo and that would be a neat, Flecktone-y, goofy thing to do. So, we had that medley and we'd do the two tunes simultaneously at the end. That led to the medley we did on the album, but I said, "This is just too regular. We need like five songs to go together at the end. Anybody can do two tunes." So we ended up picking five songs that weren't already on the record to create this big medley and started playing the tunes as counterpoint, including those original two tunes in the mix, but expanded into something more. And then we needed to bring in more people so we could have more than three voices going at once.

I've always loved the use of counterpoint in the Flecktones. There's something very cool in the way you put music up against each other.

I love that, too, and I've learned a lot about that working with Edgar Meyer, one of my pals and also a source of musical inspiration. When we were writing this piece with Zakir Hussain one of the big things was we wanted all these melodies to come together at the end of the first movement and all of the sudden you find out that they're all counterpoint to one another. We present them as separate themes but they end up working as counterpoint. And that's what got me thinking about counterpoint in this Christmas thing, these talks with Edgar about how you can set up a piece to culminate in an unexpected way that seems completely right.

The record immediately lets you know that you're going to be hearing familiar material in a most unfamiliar way by putting Tuvan throat singing on "Jingle Bells."

Flecktones with Alash
That was a stroke of good luck and fortune. I had a version of "Jingle Bells" I was trying to get the guys into that was like "Hey Joe." I was playing this distortion guitar and had this Hendrix influenced idea of playing it as a distorted blues-rock song with this ostinato running through it. I threw that all away when the Tuvans came in. Now when we play it live we go back to the original idea a bit now that everyone is more comfortable with it.

It's really cool that the Tuvans will be with us on this new Christmas tour. They aren't an opening act. They come in and out of the show, and the way we integrate them feels really special. This will be really different than previous holiday runs.

Christmas music is both omnipresent and largely terrible, so it's refreshing to see really gifted musicians taking on the challenge of livening up this material. When musicians really take it seriously AND enjoy it I think it makes a real difference.

I think it's okay to have a time of year you get positive and happy. That's the part of the holidays we can really get behind. We're just really supportive of everyone's choices and traditions, but we're not presenting any religious aspects of anything. This is just the joy of music and having a lot of fun.

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[Published on: 11/24/10]

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