Now is the winter of our discontent—with sappy holiday music. Just when you think you can’t take even one more bah-rump, never mind the inevitable bumpa-bum-bum, in comes banjo star Béla Fleck to stand Santa on his head and make the elves breakdance—or at least throat-sing like Tuvans. Released in 2008, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ Jingle All the Way is a Christmas album for people who have had it with Christmas music, and although it’s filled with standards, laughing all the way from “Jingle Bells” to “Sleigh Ride,” it’s also filled with the wonderful weirdness we’ve come to expect from this most expansive and eclectic of musicians. The record, which also won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album in 2009, is a delight from start to finish, and the upcoming concert promises to be an even more thrilling occasion, so put tickets in your stocking—but don’t forget to take them out by Friday, December 17. I spoke with Fleck by telephone just last week about the album, the holiday shows, and some of his many other activities.
Jingle All the Way is a great album, and I’m guessing that these concerts are exciting, too. What can we expect from the Flecktones’ Santa Barbara show? It’s pretty fun. Alash, the Tuvan throat-singing group, are coming too, and we really like Campbell Hall at UCSB.
The opening track features Tuvan throat singers doing “Jingle Bells.” What were you aiming for when you arranged these traditional holiday songs in such a way? There are a couple of ways to answer that. With the Flecktones, “expect the unexpected” is always a part of it. And then there’s the fact that a lot of people, including me, have negative feelings about the commercialization of the holidays. It can seem like everything after Thanksgiving is created by money-driven creepoids. And then, also, we have always done some Christmas stuff in our shows around the holidays. [Bass player] Victor [Wooten] has always liked to play “Sugar Plum Fairies” and “The Christmas Song” as bass solos, so we came up with a medley that they could fit into. And the next year, when we arranged another Christmas medley, people at the shows started to ask about a Christmas record. Since there’s a way to play this music that’s not stock, I could see it as a valid possibility. Finally, after we had been together as a group for a while, I became resistant to booking the same old short tours. I just didn’t want us to be out there playing the same old stuff. So we made a Christmas record, which then became an excuse to do annual short holiday tours that we know will be over in three weeks. This is the third year we’ve done it. It seemed like people were excited by it. Once you hear the Tuvan throat singers doing “Jingle Bells,” there’s no going back.
The music also seems good for setting off the skills of the players. Do you feel these shows give the band a chance to stretch out? Yes, because with our usual stuff, it’s hard for the listeners to tell the arrangement apart from the song. With this material, where everyone knows the DNA of the songs, they can really hear the way that we play separate from the material that we’re playing. It’s a way to educate the audience about our style.
What else have you got going? The Flecktones are just now finishing a new record that we’ve made with returning original band member Howard Levy, so that’s cool. I’m also writing a banjo concerto for the Nashville Symphony. The premiere is in September, and the piece is due on March 1, so I’ll be writing on the bus.
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones will be joined by Alash for a holiday concert at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Friday, December 17, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.