Béla Fleck Remagines ‘Rhapsody In Blue’


“It’s not like Bach, where you had better play the notes correctly,” Fleck says. “In the case of Rhapsody, it had been done so many ways and with the blessing of [Gershwin].”

(Photo: Hazel Coonagh)

Over the course of his remarkably eclectic, multiple-Grammy-winning career — one that stretches across four decades — banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck has boldly, almost defiantly, taken his five-stringed instrument where no banjo player has gone before. Consider this globe-trotting itinerary: 2023’s Grammy-winning As We Speak (India), 2020’s The Ripple Effect (Africa), 2009’s Grammy-winning Throw Down Your Heart (Africa) and 1996’s Tabula Rasa (India and China).

Add in his contemporary jazz excursions with his Flecktones and love of old-timey Appalachian music, which he performs in duets with wife Abigail Washburn, his various one-on-one encounters with Chick Corea, his deep immersion into the classical canon on 2001’s Perpetual Motion (which won a Grammy for Best Classical Crossover Album) and two banjo concertos that he’s written and performed with symphony orchestras, and you get a sense of the sheer breadth of his musical range.

He’s even collaborated and recorded with such disparate artists as The Chieftains, Bootsy Collins and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Yet, he remains steadfastly committed to his roots, having recently won a Grammy in the bluegrass category for his 2021 album, My Bluegrass Heart.

With Rhapsody In Blue, his interpretation of George Gershwin’s enduringly popular marriage of classical form and jazz improvisation, Fleck dives headlong into untested waters once again. Performed with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Eric Jacobsen, his recording of Rhapsody is set to coincide with the premiere of the original work exactly 100 years ago at Aeolian Hall in New York on Feb. 12, 1924. And because the piece itself relatively short, he fleshes out his latest release with clever variations on that familiar theme, including “Rhapsody In Blue(grass),” a spirited throwdown with players from his all-star My Bluegrass Heart ensemble (flat picking guitarist Bryan Sutton, fiddler Michael Cleveland, mandolinist Sierra Hull, dobro ace Justin Moses and bassist Mark Schatz), and “Rhapsody In Blue(s),” his down-home homage to Gershwin’s hallmark piece, recorded with his former New Grass Revival bandmate Jerry Douglas on dobro and Nashville super picker Sam Bush on mandolin (both of whom had also appeared on Fleck’s first solo album, 1979’s Crossing The Tracks on Rounder) and with longtime Flecktones bandmate Victor Wooten on electric bass.

An added treat on Fleck’s Rhapsody release is the inclusion of two solo pieces: the ragtime novelty number “Rialto Ripples,” written by Gershwin in 1916, and the previously unknown “Unidentified Piece For Banjo,” discovered in the Library of Congress by Dr. Ryan Banagale, musicology professor, author of Arranging Gershwin and college chum of Washburn, the clawhammer banjoist, singer and songwriter.

Born Béla Anton Leoš Fleck (his name is a composite of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, composer Anton Webern and Czech composer Leoš Janáček) on July 10, 1958, on New York’s Upper West Side, he was drawn to banjo at a young age after hearing Earl Scruggs play the theme song for the television show The Beverly Hillbillies and also hearing Eric Weissberg’s “Dueling Banjos,” a hit instrumental song from the movie Deliverance that spent four weeks at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1973.

He received his first banjo from his grandfather Morris at age 15 and later took private lessons from Erik Darling, Marc Horowitz and Tony Trischka, the latter who would become his mentor and an early collaborator. After graduating from the High School of Music & Art in upper Manhattan, Fleck moved to Boston in late 1976 and became a member of the group Tasty Licks while still a teenager.

“It was my first full-time professional band and my first experience touring band situation. We went all over New England and even south to D.C., Kentucky and Tennessee. Our first album (1978’s Tasty Licks on Rounder) was pretty progressive, and it was my first time making a record.” The following year, Fleck released his solo debut, Crossing The Tracks, launching an ongoing investigation into the possibilities of his instrument that continues to this day.

Aside from his recently released Rhapsody In Blue, Fleck also produced another duo project with Chick Corea, which the two recorded remotely during the pandemic. Entitled Remembrance, it is scheduled for a May release and represents some of the legendary pianist’s last recorded work. DownBeat caught up with Fleck just prior to his whirlwind tour of Europe with My Bluegrass Heart and the concurrent release of his Rhapsody In Blue on Thirty Tigers, a subsidiary of Sony Music Nashville.

Bill Milkowski: Because you have continually put your instrument into musical situations where it seemingly doesn’t belong, it’s clear that you love an epic challenge.

Béla Fleck: I do. And it’s almost like a civil rights effort for me with the banjo, because I love it so much and I’m very curious about it. Ever since I first heard the banjo, it was just so special to me. And then when people were laughing at it … boy, that really bugged me. From the time I was 5 or 6, seeing Deliverance and The Beverly Hillbillies and even Bonnie and Clyde and Hee Haw, all of the images of the banjo that I saw were somehow connected to a certain aspect of banjo playing, which is very special as well. But it was just a tiny piece of what the banjo really was, and it had taken over in people’s minds as the whole true picture. It’s so much easier to knock something down to a little stereotype than to look at what it truly is.

And when you look at the banjo, it’s like … it’s the history of the world! I mean, it’s slavery, it’s the birth of the blues, the birth of American music. It’s a continuation of African music, a melting pot, a meeting ground. Plus, it just happens to sound great to some of us. And I think a lot of the people who go, “Oh, I just can’t handle the banjo,” are people who drank the Kool-Aid of the stereotype. They’re associating it with the stereotypical images that were portrayed because they didn’t see images of Black people playing the banjo or even remember that Louis Armstrong had a banjo in his first Hot Five band. That was the instrument that was around from the start of jazz. Not guitar, not even piano; the banjo was there. So for me, it’s always been irritating. Because, I guess at the age that I got into it, and being a New Yorker and growing up in the ’60s with Martin Luther King and the Kennedys and the kind of world that we were hoping to make … I was inspired by all of that. So that’s why I say it’s almost like a civil rights thing for me.

Milkowski: In your liner notes for Rhapsody In Blue you reminisced about your Uncle Steve taking you and your older brother Louie to the Thalia Theater, that great art deco movie house on the Upper West Side in Manhattan that specialized in Hollywood classics and foreign films. And you saw the 1945 Hollywood biopic of George Gershwin starring Robert Alda, Alan Alda’s father.

Fleck: Yeah, it was a cool little theater to go to when I was growing up, and it was just four blocks from my house. It was on 95th and Broadway, and we were on 100th and West End Avenue. And I recently found out that Alan Lomax [the famed ethnomusicologist] lived in that same building, and I never knew it. But I was young enough to be impressed by that movie — his life story and then the sadness of him getting sick [Gershwin died of a brain tumor at age 38, just eight years before the film was released]. It was all so poignant and so powerful for me. But I haven’t had the nerve to go look at it since all this Rhapsody stuff I’ve been doing because I kind of like how it fits in my memory. But recently, somebody sent me a clip of the performance of Rhapsody In Blue from that movie, and sure enough, there’s a banjo right in the center of the orchestra.

Milkowski: In the 1930 movie King of Jazz about bandleader Paul Whiteman, there’s a performance of Rhapsody In Blue midway through the film with Gershwin himself playing piano. He was a technical monster, from what I could tell.

Fleck: Yeah. And having thoroughly studied Rhapsody, from my understanding of the piano, I’d say it’s a very two-handed part. There’s lots of things that go in opposite directions, with both hands working really hard. And I simply couldn’t do them on the banjo. It wasn’t possible. I was either going to have to do it with two banjos or let some of these things go. And then I had to decide whether the piece was still good enough as a banjo feature, doing without all of the things that a piano could do. And finally I decided that it if George was OK with Larry Adler playing it on the harmonica [in 1934, Adler played Rhapsody In Blue for Gershwin, who exclaimed, “The goddamn thing sounds as if I wrote it for you!”], I think he’d probably be OK with my version.

Milkowski: Tackling Rhapsody In Blue is another one of those epic challenges that you seem to enjoy.

Fleck: Absolutely. And it’s really fun to hear those parts coming out of my banjo. It’s fun to be that excited about something that you didn’t write, which maybe sounds egotistical, but there’s a tendency to over-focus on your own music. Sometimes it’s great, but sometimes it can trap you in your own mediocrity. I’m in the situation where there really isn’t music written for the banjo that suits the way I play, so I have to write it myself. But when I do get to go learn something like Rhapsody or classical things by Bach, Chopin, Debussy and Tchaikovsky, like I learned for Perpetual Motion, or play Chick’s music or whoever … it’s really a pleasure to play great music. And if you pick someone else’s music to play, you’ve chosen it out of thousands. So if you’re going to do someone else’s music, it’s best that you’re crazy about it, as I was crazy about Rhapsody In Blue.

Milkowski: What was the initial spark for you wanting to do Rhapsody In Blue on banjo?

Fleck: I suppose it goes back more than 20 years. My wife, Abby, went to Colorado College, where she gave the commencement speech in 1999. And she had an old school pal who is now a professor there named Ryan Banagale. Turns out he wrote a book called Arranging Gershwin, which tells the whole story of Rhapsody In Blue, from its genesis to the writing of it to all the different arrangements of it. Ryan came to hear Abby’s commencement speech and afterwards he gave me a copy of his book. It was almost like a dissertation, but it was so good and it was a fascinating read. And also very inspiring, in that it made me realize that there’s a lot of different ways to skin that particular piece. It’s not like Bach, where you had better play the notes correctly. In the case of Rhapsody, it had been done so many ways and with the blessing of [Gershwin].

Milkowski: How much time did you actually spend woodshedding on Rhapsody?

Fleck: If we’re talking about the piano part, I started fairly early in the pandemic, by May of 2020 or somewhere in there. It was like a fun side project with no expectation, and I just kept on working at it. I spent more time on it than anything I can remember. But it was a process of trying things and discarding them, sometimes spending up to a week figuring out how to finger each measure. Sibelius [music notation software] saved me a lot of time, because with it I can transfer things from standard notation to banjo tablature, then work with the tablature ’til I get the right fingerings.

It’s a big help because I don’t read well. When I first got Rhapsody into Sibelius it took three banjo staves for me to even understand what the piano part was doing. And I worked on each measure over the course of the year. And I resisted as hard as I could putting any bluegrass in there because I was trying not to make a bluegrass version of it. What I wanted to do was really learn the music because I loved it. That was my goal.

At a certain point, I had to give up because there were certain things where I had to say, “OK, this can’t be done, so what can I do now?” You’ll hear some places where I had to changes things ever so slightly or change an order of a note or hit a note early and then glissando to other chords where it’s supposed to be a block chord. I just had to figure it out and use my own sense of what sounded good. And in the end, I had to get more and more brutal about what I couldn’t do, because some passages were impossible to play on the banjo. It was just not going to happen.

Milkowski: Just the idea of trying to transpose 10-fingered chords from the piano onto the banjo seems daunting.

Fleck: Well, if you think about Chick Corea or Herbie Hancock, they leave a lot of space in their voicings, and it’s not as overwhelming as somebody who plays with very dense voicings like Gershwin does on Rhapsody. That’s just not possible on banjo. I just can’t do it. I don’t have the strings, I don’t have the fingers, so you just have to start making decisions. And as you start developing the piece, you kind of forget what you’re used to hearing and you get into what you are hearing. And that’s the great thing about live performances, you take people on a journey. It doesn’t have to be like something else they heard. It’s not supposed to be.

Milkowski: Your “Rhapsody In Blue(grass)” seems reverent yet also very personal.

Fleck: It turned out so much better than I expected, so much so that it justified the pun in the title. Since the orchestra piece is only about 18 or 19 minutes long I had to come up with something else to fill out the record. And I was under a pressing deadline because I really wanted to get the album released right on the 100th anniversary of the Aeolian Hall show. So I started messing around with this idea of a bluegrass version of Rhapsody with Bryan Sutton and I asked him to approach it like the great flat picker Tony Rice would, in that contemporary bluegrass rhythm style.

Then it was a race to the finish line to see if we could find a way to teach the piece to the members of My Bluegrass Heart band, who I was going out on the road with for two one-week periods in the summer. We ended up working on it in hotel rooms after gigs and before sound checks. Then we had one day off on the second week of the tour and just went into Thundering Sky Studio in Maine and recorded it in an afternoon. It’s just a testament to how great those musicians are. They’re all great session players who are really good at making stuff sound good, and they made my somewhat dumb idea sound like it was a great idea.

Milkowski: You also got your longtime collaborators Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Victor Wooten to play on “Rhapsody In Blue(s),” another adaptation of the famous Gershwin piece where you’re bending strings big-time.

Fleck: There’s a fella, a blues guitarist back up in Bowling Green named Kenny Lee Smith. New Grass Revival used to play up there at his club all the time and Kenny would take me aside and say, “Now Béla, you’ve got to pluck the banjo … like this!” And he’d grab the string between his thumb and forefinger and take it back and pull it off the neck, then let it snap back to the neck so it would go … pank! I always thought that was really cool, and I used that technique on a tune called “Flight Of The Cosmic Hippo,” the title cut from the Flecktones’ second album in 1991.

And that became like a signature sound. But you can’t do it very fast because you can’t do fast notes in a row when you have to grab the string for every note. But if a song is slow enough and you can spank every note, then it works great. So that’s what struck me when I was thinking of doing a blues version of Rhapsody. Initially, I got in touch with Keb’ Mo’, who’s a friend of mine. He was too busy to do it so I got Sam and Jerry and we just started messing around with it. The question was, “Is there a way to play this as a little Southern blues?” And that string-snapping technique was the first thing I tried. And it gave it a different sound and a different tempo.

Milkowski: At some point in your journey with Rhapsody In Blue, Chick Corea came into the picture, if only tangentially. How did that happen?

Fleck: We were on tour in Europe in 2017 and he gets a phone call from the classical pianist Lang Lang, who was supposed to open the Carnegie Hall series that year with a performance of Rhapsody In Blue. But he was recovering from tendonitis in his right hand and he asked Chick if he would come play the right hand part of Rhapsody with him. And during our tour, Chick was mulling it over out loud in the bus. And so we’re chatting about it and I said, “Chick, you can do anything you want with this piece because I read this book, Arranging Gershwin, and it’s really ripe for reimagining. You could really take some liberties with it.” Like he needed me to tell him that!

So during our tour, I would be coming to sound check and Chick would be there early practicing Rhapsody, and he’d say, “Hey, man, I think this is what George was trying to do with this section.” And for what he called “the Cuban section” toward the end of the piece, he’d say, “I think George was trying to do a montuno here.” He was thinking as a composer, of course. And he not only did that performance at Carnegie Hall with Lang Lang [on Oct. 4, 2017], he ended up with this really fabulous live version of it [recorded on Nov. 29, 2018, with Orchestra da Camera Della Sardegnathe] that you hear on his album Sardinia [Candid] that came out last year. I only found out just recently that he had even recorded or performed the piece as a whole. I thought he had just done it with Lang Lang. But I heard his version of Rhapsody, and I was just thrilled. It’s so “Chick.”

Milkowski: How did you find this unnamed solo banjo piece by Gershwin that appears on your Rhapsody?

Fleck: Ryan Banagale, the Gershwin scholar who I had met at my wife’s commencement speech in 1999, came to the opening gala of Rhapsody In Blue on Sept. 9, 2023. That was the first time I played it with the Nashville Symphony with their star conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. The day afterwards, Ryan and I were chatting about it and he said, “Well, what else are you going to put on the record?” And I told him I was thinking of doing some of Gershwin’s solo piano pieces.

Then a month or so later he got in touch with me and said, “Hey, I found something at the Library of Congress. It’s this unidentified Gershwin piece. It has no name, it’s not even registered. But it’s written in George’s handwriting. And it’s a solo banjo piece.” So he sent it to me and it wasn’t very fleshed out, just the main line. The whole first half had almost no chords written in, but it was pretty obvious what the chords ought to be in there for that time period. It was a little bit quirky but just a cool little tune. So I quickly learned that tune and it became another gift from Ryan to me.

Milkowski: So, that gala performance with the Nashville Symphony got the ball rolling, but you ended up recording Rhapsody with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

Fleck: Yes, that initial gig became the thing that forced me to make decisions about the piece, because I had to have it ready to perform for real in front of a sold-out crowd of Nashville’s community. It wasn’t even in a small town off the beaten track, which is where I usually like to break in new stuff. So it was a lot of pressure, but it worked out.

Two weeks after that rather exciting debut of the piece with Nashville Symphony, I was in Norfolk recording it the Virginia Symphony Orchestra with my good friend Eric Jacobsen conducting. Eric had recently worked with my buddy Edgar Meyer [bassist and frequent collaborator who appeared on 2023’s As We Speak with Fleck, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and bansuri player Rakesh Chaurasia] on recording all of his bass concertos with Chris Thile producing. Eric and the orchestra did a wonderful job, and we got it done in plenty of time to meet the deadline for 100th anniversary of Rhapsody In Blue.

Milkowski: You’ve described yourself as “very self-critical.” How has that helped you in your career?

Fleck: There’s that saying: “Sometimes perfection is the enemy of excellence,” where you try so hard to be perfect that you can’t get to “good.” These days I’m trying to do better at not using self-hate to motivate me. I’m trying to be more like, “Hey, let’s just do better and be really positive.” But it used to be a lot of self-loathing. So on some level I didn’t think I was that good, and I had to prove it over and over and over again. And it actually ended up giving me a lot of juice, a lot of power to push forward.

But I’m in a happy place now. I’m in a lovely relationship, have lovely kids and life is good. So it’s not like I have to stand around being dark. But sometimes you some get some gifts from unexpected quarters. DB

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