Fellowship of the Five-String: Béla Fleck NY Banjo Summit at the Mahaiwe
By Robert Burke Warren
The ongoing saga of the banjo is uniquely American: enslaved Africans bring a deceptively humble instrument from their homeland, whites appropriate and Victorianize it, the burgeoning multi-ethnic folk culture seizes it, mid-20th-century protestors wield it, and, finally, an urban kid – Béla Fleck –hears it on the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies, and catapults it into unforeseen realms of sophisticated jazz and modern classical music. All these elements of the banjo story are part of the Béla Fleck NY Banjo Summit, the wildly successful touring show featuring Fleck alongside banjo masters of many stripes, appearing at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Sunday, October 6th at 7 p.m.
Clearly, Fleck—native New Yorker, tireless innovator, and multi-Grammy winner—is the de facto star of this event, although a humbler star you’ll never meet; he may claim Grammy nominations in more categories than any artist in history (pop, classical, country, bluegrass, jazz, world music, and spoken word), but his cardinal trait is selfless enthusiasm for his instrument. He brims with contagious eagerness for the fellowship appearing with him at the Mahaiwe, which includes his mentor, Tony Trishka, plus banjo innovators Bill Keith, Eric Weissberg (of “Dueling Banjos” fame), Noam Pikelny, Richie Stearns, and Fleck’s wife Abigail Washburn (below), who gave a much-viewed (and breathtaking) 2012 TED talk about using the banjo to improve U.S./China relations. All will appear in various configurations, with and without accompaniment from a core band.
Fleck, a road dog in various ensembles since the 70s (Newgrass Revival, Béla Fleck & the Flecktones) gets a big charge from the Banjo Summit group. “I love to respond to what I hear around me,” he says, noting that he’ll be taking the banjo further afield, while bluegrass stalwarts like Keith and Weissberg offer more familiar selections and styles. “When I hear any of these great players play,” Fleck says, “I partly channel their energy, and partly try to provide a contrasting viewpoint. It’s all of our jobs to be ourselves to the utmost, and everyone is distinctly different from each other.”
Prior to the tour, Fleck said he was looking forward to musical “combustion” onstage. Has that come about? “No one has gotten hurt so far!” he says. “But a lot of great music has been played, and the banjo has been well-represented, in many diverse styles..I’ll tell you one thing,” he adds conspiratorially, “when a banjo player is surrounded by his peers and heroes, he will perform at his absolute best.”
Interestingly, while Fleck executes jaw-dropping performances in the classical, jazz, and world music veins, Abigail Washburn (along with Richie Stearns) offers the more old-time, pre-bluegrass aspects of the banjo, i.e. the clawhammer style, which she mixes with a decidedly modern sensibility and award-winning songwriting. “Everyone does what they feel represents them the best,” Fleck says. “We all reference bluegrass, but Eric (Weissberg) and Bill (Keith) are closest to it.”
If Fleck is the king of postmodern banjo, upstart Noam Pikelny (right) is the heir apparent. After establishing himself in jam band-embraced “polyethnic cajun slamgrass” combo Leftover Salmon, Pikelny moved to Brooklyn and joined mandolin whiz Chris Thile’s progressive bluegrass band Punch Brothers, further bringing the banjo to many who either hadn’t heard it or misunderstood and/or underestimated it. “I think the banjo is in a great place right now,” says Fleck. “It’s not judged so much by its past, and it’s appreciated more than ever before. Folks like Noam show me it’s moving along very nicely.”
Fleck, however, is only getting started, and he continues to bring the banjo into uncharted territory. His most recent release, The Imposter, features original banjo pieces with symphony orchestra and string quartet accompaniment. “I wrote two very challenging pieces, the title track and ‘Night Flight Over Water.’ Both are high jumps for me.” Fleck, always looking out for his five-stringed friend, says, “I was fortunate to release The Imposter on the great classical label Deutsch Gramophone. It feels like a further emancipation of the banjo to be on a ‘serious’ label.”
The Béla Fleck NY Banjo Summit offers a chance to experience this versatile yet humble instrument in every which way possible: old timey, melancholy, jubilant, aspiring, intense, foot-stompin’, and sweet. Despite the many styles, at its core, the banjo story resonates in some way for everyone.
Béla Fleck NY Banjo Summit
The Mahaiwe, Sunday, October 6 at 7 p.m.
$30 Upper Balcony/$55 Members/$60/ $70 Preferred Seating