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Bela Fleck and The Flecktones - Outbound CD (album) cover


Bela Fleck and The Flecktones


Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.38 | 20 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars I openly confess to being a certified prog snob. I can't run a ten-minute errand to the local Wal-Mart for Friskies without taking along a prog CD because every time I listen to the radio I get utterly disgusted within seconds of angry button-pushing and I end up driving in silence. That being said, there are times when I get tired of meat-and-potatoes prog fare and I develop hunger pangs for something DIFFERENT. By different I don't necessarily mean weird or atonal but unique, imaginative and fun. If you're also wont to suffer those same cravings then, guys and gals, have I found a savory dish for you!

I knew of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones from seeing them on TV at one point or another and was slightly intrigued by them but never sprang for one of their albums until they were added to this website. For me that gave them validation. (Hi. My name's Chicapah and I'm an effete snob!) You gotta admit that a mostly instrumental band consisting of banjo, saxophone, bass and an unorthodox combo of electronic and traditional percussion is, in itself, rather eclectic. Add in the fact that the members' ethnic backgrounds are just as varied as their musical influences and you've got a strange stew of diversity to ladle into your bowl. While oftentimes such odd experimental conglomerations are hit and miss at best, this group consistently climbs to a lofty level of proficiency and should readily appeal to any progger owning an adventurous spirit and an unquenchable hankering for new sounds.

Now that I've gotten you all hot and bothered about this band I must warn you that they dubiously open "Outbound" with the weakest cut. After a short, horny piece called "Intro" that has nothing in common with what it's introducing, Bela and the boys present their cover of Aaron Copland's "Hoe Down." This carving from his awesome "Rodeo" has always been one of my favorite classical compositions (By the way, ELP did a superb job with it back in '72) and I expected them to nail me to the wall with it. Unfortunately, they don't. It's an uninspired adaptation that dutifully shows off their dexterity and undeniable skills and they do take some jazzy liberties with the score but there's no conviction in their delivery. It's as if the label chiefs "suggested" they put this familiar ditty on the disc (it was their first for Columbia) and they humbly obliged in order to come off as eager to please but their hearts weren't in it. (If you want to hear just how powerful "Hoe Down" can be, grab a rendition by the NY Phil conducted by Lenny Bernstein and you'll know of what I speak. It slays.)

From there on out, though, this is one fine ride to go on starting with a song written for the burg of Funkytown, India, "A Moment So Close." I'm yanking your chain since I have no idea what it's really about but it's still an intriguing Bombay-abuts-Atlanta casserole of seemingly unrelated styles that teases my prog taste buds. Drummer Roy Wooten (professionally known as Future Man) is one who sincerely thinks outside the box. The realistic sounds he conjures from his "drumitar" and other assorted tech toys are fascinating yet he never becomes intrusive or pushy. Here he also adds his vocal acumen to that of guests Jon Anderson (of Yes) and Rita Sahai but it's Shawn Colvin's velvety feminine tone that buffs a glossy sheen onto it. Jeff Coffin tosses in a satisfying sax ride, to boot.

Okay, now let's discuss the banjo in the room. Whatever sadistic hillbilly psychopath "Deliverance" nightmare images the instrument might dredge up from the depths of your consciousness (I've always rather liked its happy and percussive aspects) need to be exorcised pronto because Fleck is no chaw- spittin' redneck pickin' on the porch and this ain't the Grand Ole Opry. He plays it as if he invented it. At the outset of "Zona Mona" his banjo is as delicate as a mandolin, leading to a blissfully uplifting saxophone melody that bestows the tune with wings. Still, the number retains the ability to surprise and delight with its interesting patterns. Victor Lemonte Wooten (Roy's bro) is stunning on the fretless bass and the tactful incidentals supplied by the Love Sponge String Quartet are as classy as diamond cufflinks. The proggy "Hall of Mirrors" has a smooth, flowing groove that slips into a brief contemporary jazz motif on occasion and Bela displays a bevy of his unconventional banjoisms for you to marvel over. Cool doesn't do it justice but it comes closest. Guest guitarist Adrian Belew is included in the mix but he's coyly kept in the background.

Next up is "Earth Jam." They festoon this hip, jazz-inflected cut with a perky pace but it's the incredible tightness of the track that gets your motor running. It's uncanny and Victor's bass performance in particular is phenomenal. Bela turns in a blistering synth-assisted banjo ride but it's the busy 9/8 segment towards the end that astounds. "Something She Said" follows and it's a well-placed mood changer. Fleck's deft acoustic guitar lends a classical notion to the early going before it all slides effortlessly into a folksy aura where Belew's subtle guitar bolsters the pleasant melody line. This tune reminds me of the groundbreaking hybrid music created by the trio of YoYo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor on their resplendent "Appalachian Journey" album. (Another example of "different" music.)

After "Ovombo Summit," a quick-fire exposition of African rhythms, you're treated to the addictive-as- cigarettes apex of the proceedings, "Aimum." This group-written tune, performed in 7/8 Technicolor, is as slick as warm KY jelly yet highly dynamic and the outflow of pure, unadulterated joy that emanates from it is exhilarating. When Future Man harmonizes with Jon and Shawn, singing "If you knew what I've been dreaming of/then you'd know it all comes down to love," you'll find it impossible to harbor a dark thought in your head. I love it and try to live it. "Prelude" is 0:41 of guest artist Andy Norell's steel pans, taking you right into "Lover's Leap," a sauntering, Paris-flavored dealie wherein you'll find another scintillating bass solo from Wooton to drool over. (The man is gifted beyond reason.) Also noteworthy is how the banjo never sounds out of place and how the strings add a mysterious charm. "Outbound" is a proggish excursion into jazz rock/fusion land not unlike the one-of-a-kind territories the legendary Weather Report transported us to in their heyday. Victor's bass impresses yet again, Jeff blows craftily through a mean sax break and Future Man's drums kick butt.

"Scratch and Sniff" has an infectious, funky strut that sizzles under Coffin's sly wah-wah saxophone and includes the string quartet, a bassoon and the steel pans. (How's that for a collage!) By now Wooten has proven he's an authentic wizard of the bass, the whole ensemble handles the tricky time signatures like they were playing "Happy Birthday" and the clever arrangement keeps your ears on their toes. The calm intro for "Shuba Yatra" soon turns into a sprightly trot and at this juncture you're so enraptured by these talented men that you're hooked like a rainbow trout and totally on board for anything they try so their inclusion of an Irish jig-sounding air in the middle only makes you grin wider. They just make everything work. "That Old Thing" is a sweet blend of traditional horn timbres and nostalgia that fits in perfectly. The finale, the extremely brief "Reprise" is a charming folk stir that's right in line with the album's overall eccentricity.

This CD may have taken the 2001 Grammy award for best contemporary jazz album (and who would dare argue with its merits?) but stiff and/or predictable it's not. I'm a big fan of artists who bravely combine unrelated instrumentation to give birth to unprecedented musical textures but I've never come across anything more gratifying than what Bela Fleck & the Flecktones have manufactured on "Outbound." They don't sound like anyone or anything else. If not for the unwise tacking on of their stifled version of "Hoe Down" this would be a true masterpiece of fusion. But considering how the rest of the album enthralls and captivates so thoroughly I have to give it my highest four-star rating. It's good. Real good.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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