MERRY FLECKMAS: When we last we caught wizardly banjo man Béla Fleck in Santa Barbara, in 2007, he was in supportive mode, a star in semi-hiding on SOhO’s stage. He was playing second-fiddle banjoist to ace banjo picker Abigail Washburn and her Sparrow Quartet. Now, Washburn, the fascinating prog-Appalachian musician with a Chinese accent, is married to Fleck, who returns to town for his Flecktones Xmas show, which takes place tomorrow, Friday, December 17, at Campbell Hall.
If the Flecktones, Fleck’s beloved twenty-something fusion band, have been mostly off the radar in the last couple of years, the ever-active (hyperactive?) Fleck has been anything but idle. He has worked on ambitious soul-searching and roots-rediscovery recording and documentary projects in Africa (the banjo’s birthplace) and with a prime hero/influence, Chick Corea. Now it is Flecktones time again, as the band makes its third yuletide tour rooted in their stunning high-wire–act 2008 album, Jingle All the Way. A new Flecktones album is also coming in for a landing.
That Jingle All the Way is not your father’s or son’s Christmas album becomes immediately apparent on track one, a dizzyingly progressive take on “Jingle Bells.” Throughout the album, intricate lines and arrangements and brain-seizing-and-teasing sudden changes abound, including some wicked modulation meanderings on “Sleigh Ride” and clever metric puzzle work on “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” plus a pinch of J.S. Bach in the mix. Messing further with stereotypes about what Christmas music should sound like, Tuvan group Alash supplies some disarmingly effective throat-singing melodies (Alash will be along for the sleigh ride at Campbell Hall). Campbell Hall’s Flecktones Xmas hoo-ha promises to be the headiest of yuletide concerts this year, as well as the second major, must-see banjo event in town, after Steve Martin’s surprisingly commanding show at the Granada this fall.