He’s played with everyone from Phish to Chick Corea to Asleep at the Wheel to a handful of orchestras. No other artist in the history of music has been nominated for more Grammys in as many different categories as he has been. He is without much question, the single most recognizable and innovative banjo player in the universe right now, and it’s not really all that close.
Now, along with his wife, Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck will take the Weinberg Center for the Arts stage on Saturday night as part of a tour supporting the duo’s most recent set, “Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn.” We caught up with the legendary banjo player via email recently, and he talked about what it’s like to be on the road with his wife, how much he loves coming to Frederick, and what’s next for the 56-year-old banjo icon.
Will this be your first time in Frederick? If so, are there any things you are looking forward to visiting/seeing? If not, are there things you are looking forward to revisiting?
I’ve had the pleasure of playing in Frederick many times over the years. From the crafts fair to the Maryland banjo gathering, to the Flecktones and Africa — “Throw Down Your Heart” — I’ve always loved playing Frederick. And coming with my wife Abigail will be very sweet.
You’re easily one of the world’s most recognizable banjo players in the modern day — to what might you attribute that success? Your willingness to expand the parameters of genres you dabble in? Your consistency in artistic output? Both? Neither? And why?
I’m a hard worker. That and a love of many types of music, and a curiosity about how it all works, plus some things from childhood to overcome that have given me a lot of motivation probably add up to whatever makes me go.
More specifically, there are two genres that I think you’ve almost revolutionized in your own way: folk and jazz music. Did you ever set out to be only a jazz musician or only a folk musician? At what point did you start to blur those lines and what do you think influenced you to do so?
I was just into the banjo. Types of music weren’t as big a deal to me as being good and learning all I could. I was ambitious and wanted to be the best I could be, but idioms were more like opportunities than restrictions. The more you learn, the more you have to bring to bear when you play.
Can you talk a little about the differences and similarities between playing with someone like Doc Watson, who was a legend in the folk/bluegrass/gospel world and someone like Chick Corea, who is a legend in the jazz/fusion world? Do you prefer one over the other and why or why not?
Well, you certainly need to get over yourself when playing with icons like these. That’s one time when I fork over some creative control and go, “If you want that or like that thing I can do, I will do it!” It’s great to have pockets in your life where you are outranked and happy to please the senior officer!
In the 2008 documentary “Throw Down Your Heart,” you visited some countries that have been affected by the current Ebola outbreak. Having been to those places and performed in those places, what’s your response to the way the world as an entity has handled global health in recent times? You saw firsthand how class and wealth and race and poverty can impact entire nations — what can be done to positively change those discrepancies on a grand scale? And what role do you think music can have in it?
These are incredibly difficult issues, and if you expect the folks in charge to be perfect, you will most certainly be disappointed. Folks in power have to figure out how to be effective, just like the rest of us. As far as the power of music, it won’t fix Ebola, but as an example of the ways we can communicate without politics, it’s a darn powerful entity.
What’s it like being out on the road with your wife and performing together each night? Are there things she brings out in you on stage that you might not experience otherwise? If so, what are they?
It’s so sweet to be on tour with my family after so many years in bands that I almost can’t express it. Hey, it’s sweet. That’s the best I can do! And as far as the music, yes, she brings me the opportunity to play in a more traditional yet unique setting, where I can bring out different sides of myself than I have anywhere else.
What can we expect from your show here in Frederick? Will you lean heavily on the recent “Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn” record, or will you reserve some time to visit other aspects of your catalog?
Yes, the recording is new, and we’re excited about it. We’ll hit that material hard. But also hit some of Abby’s “City of Refuge” material, and some of my older stuff, too.
I’ve read that you think “the best way to stay together more would be to play together more” when it comes to playing with your wife. Can you expand on that a little? What type of role does music play in the relationship you guys share?
It’s been a fun part of our relationship that up until now, we’ve kept to ourselves. We are music people and we are banjo people. We are always thinking about banjos and music, and it’s fun to at last focus that energy into some duo music.
Where are some of your favorite places to play and why?
I like to make it about the people that I am playing for, but I must admit that places that sound good are more inspiring for me to play in. So beautiful concert halls always bring out something in me. Maybe I’m proud to get to play in places that are so classy. Ironically, when I play with classical players, they get really excited about playing clubs, because it is unusual to them. Because I have done my time in those venues, I’m a little happier playing a classier joint.
What are some of your proudest moments as an artist and why?
Any time I have some new music that I know is truly unique to work on, I am a happy guy. I look for those settings, where the concept is actually the star and now I just be myself within it.
And finally, what’s next for you artistically? Will you return to the Flecktones or are there other projects on your plate for the immediate future?
The Flecktones are working on planning a next time to convene, and I look forward to that. Meanwhile, our duo is front and center. I have plans to tour with a chamber orchestra, and to write a second banjo concerto. Also there is a live Chick Corea duo album in the works that should be pretty incredible.