It's just a hair less than a quarter-century since Bela Fleck and the Flecktones began crafting a most unusual sort of jazz fusion, using 5-string banjo, harmonica, electric bass and synthesized drums.
The world has changed immeasurably since 1988, but this quirky little quartet is still one of the coolest things in music. Despite each member's outside collaborations, solo projects and big compositional ideas, they're all still at their very best when they're playing together.
Thursday's sold-out Savannah Music Festival show at the Trustees Theater featured the "original lineup" of the Flecktones. Along with Fleck on banjo, monstrously funky bassist Victor Wooten, and Roy "Futureman" Wooten (Victor's older brother) on his home-made "drumitar," there was Howard Levy, playing harmonica and a big, beautiful Steinway grand piano.
Levy was a Flecktone for the band's first three albums; he left in 1992. The trio was eventually augmented by a saxophone player, but that guy's gone now, too.
The door was open for Levy to return.
He's not just some guy blowing into a mouth-harp. An absolute virtuoso, Levy plays his instrument like a horn - melodic, emotional and unpredictable, rhythmic when it has to be - and alongside Fleck's amplified banjo, it gave many of the songs an almost rural, Americana feel.
But jazz moves to a quick, urban pulse, and the four Flecktones together create a sound that rolls like traffic - some get there fast, some slow, but everybody's moving at the same time. Everybody's got the same destination.
There's no earthly reason why it should work, with these four instruments. But it does, and the Flecktones as a unit are constantly moving, constantly complementing one another. What they do is defy musical gravity.
"Most bands, when they get back together after 20 years, they go out and play their hits," said Victor Wooten at one point. "But since we never had any hits, we figured we'd just make another record."
So they played a handful of numbers from their "reunion" album, 2011's Rocket Science, including "Life in Eleven," featuring more time-signature changes than a jazz band has any business putting into a song, and the moody "Storm Warning."
Fleck played several banjos, including one that looked (and sounded, via effects pedals) like an electric guitar (he even played a bit of wah-wah banjo!) During one extended exchange, he was Pat Metheny, and Levy (playing piano) was Lyle Mays.
Even when he was on the "electric guitar" model, however, Fleck was playing with his thumb- and finger-picks, more Earl Scruggs than Wes Montgomery.
Now that's fusion.
Wooten performed several lengthy, breathtakingly lyrical bass solos (one combined sections of Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia," the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and a half-dozen other melodies). With his extensive use of popping, thumb-plucking, wrist-slapping and the use of all 10 fingers (at once) on the fretboard, he's right up there with the late, great Jaco Pastorius as the bottom end innovator-on-high.
Futureman was, as always, brilliant and mysterious. And yes, he still wears that trademark three-corner hat.
The interchange between the musicians was stunning to watch, and to hear. Sometimes all one of them had to do was grin at the others, and in a semi-tone, the entire quartet turned together like a school of fish.
Violinist Casey Driessen, from the Sparrow Quartet (one of Fleck's many side projects), guested for most of the second set, engaging in fiery duels and duets with both Fleck and Levy.
It was inspirational, for nearly three hours. It was thrilling to witness, and to hear, and an honor to be in the same room with these master musicians.
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