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


Bela Fleck and The Flecktones

Jazz Rock/Fusion

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5 stars You don't know how happy I was when I heard that Bela Fleck & The Flecktones were finally going to be accepted to the archives. I pushed for their inclusion here, and it finally payed off!

For those of you who aren't very familiar with this band, I suggest you read their biography I wrote to get a good idea of just how 'progressive' they truly are. But this isn;t the place to defend their place in the archuives; instead, this is the place where I will give you my opinion on their 2000 studio release.

Happy reading.

OUTBOUND is my favorite Bela Fleck album to date, because it is so incredibly diverse and contains not one weak track. Frankly, I felt like The Flecktones would always release a record that contained 60% quality tracks and 40% throw-aways. Not the case here.Every track is solid, enjoyable and has its place on the album.

''Intro'' - Is just that; a less-than-a-minute-long ambient track that leads in to the true beginning of the album. Still worth listening to, though.

''Hoedown'' - Okay, okay, it's Aaron Copland, but honestly this is still a very fresh take on the classic piece of music, complete with Victor Wooten's signature poppy basslines that send shivers down my spine every time I listen to this track. Not to mention the wonderful dichotomy of Jeff Coffin and Bela Fleck as they churn out the memorable melody overtop of Roy Wooten's unique drumming style.

''A Moment So Close'' - Is a very funky track that feels half-rooted in Arabia, half-rooted in in Africa. Very ethnic choice of percussion sounds, here. Clearly a very Funk-inspired track, and one of the most fun to listen to on the track. The liner notes credit someone else as the lead vocalist for this song, but it is Roy Wooten using an alias. Yes, ''Future Man'' can sing-- very, very well!

''Zona Mona'' - Until this point in the record, Bela Fleck's signature banjo has been virtually non-existant, but finally we get to hear the virtuoso at his best, with an absolutely beautiful melody plucked effortlessly, making way for a very special song, indeed. After a moment, a beautiful Sax melody plays overtop of the initial one to creat a very ear-pleasing tune that has yet to be topped by the band in my opinion (In fact, the whole album is this way.) Things only get better from there, with sax solos, powerful Victor Wooten bass, and of course the always interesting, never dull synth-drumming by Future Man. All of these elements continue to build into what has quickly become one of my top three favorite tracks on this whole effort. This song marks what I consider to be the beggining of a pure gold streak on the record that lasts until track 14 without missing a beat. Every single song during this period of the album is absolutely flawless. Don't believe me? Listen on.

''Hall of Mirrors'' - I said that this album was diverse, didn't I? ''Intro'' was a pleasant Ambient track, while ''Hoedown'' was a Symphonic, Classical experience. ''A Moment So Close'' had every good reason to be considered a Funk track, and ''Zona Mona'' was a pleasant mixture of Bluegrass and modern Jazz. Already, five genres have coalessed into the unique melting pot of sound that is The Flecktones' music, but wait, there is more diversity to be had, for the intro of this track, ''Hall of Mirrors'', makes good use of synthesisers and highly ehtereal electric guitars to create a wall of psychedelic sound- pure Space-Rock. Soon, however, Bela Fleck's banjo comes in and takes the song in a much more straightforward direction, along with the sax. That isn't a bad thing at all, though, and by a minute thirty into the song, a beautiful vocal melody breaks in as well, completing the experience. This trend and order of things repates one time before allowing Fleck to wow us with a wonderfully tasteful but effective banjo solo. This is backed by Victor Wooten's glorious bass stylings, and finally we hear the power of Future Man's drumming, as it accompanies the vocal harmony. All in all a very spacey track that minus the banjo could pass for Ozric Tentacles ore than Flecktones. Once again, a glowing example of how diverse this band is. I love it!

''Earth Jam'' - Can't be mistaken for anything else but pure, energetic, modern Jazz-Rock! A very catchy, swinging melody breaks in rigght from the beggining, and never relents. Bela plays rhythmic games with Future Man, as each man sticks to their own unique, odd time signature on their own instruments, with Victor Wooten seemlessly gliding back and forth between the two Truly masterful songwriting and musicianship abound, here. Soon enough, the Wooten brothers team up and perform a very funky paring of vocal and bass-- Victor plays an amazing solo on his five string pipeline to God, while Roy follows the same patters with his voice, scatting away like a madman. It's absolutely ferocious and amazing. Even more fun follows, with a distorted electric banjo solo that puts many guitar gods to shame. Finally it all comes back around to the original saxophone-led main theme, then it becomes Coffin's time to shine as he and his fellow saxophonists finish out the track with amazing form, all of them holding long, powerful notes on their sax's before sounding off for the last time in one incredible flourish.

''Something She Said'' - Although this track is played on the banjo, the song structure makes it sound like a classical piece, and something that could be just as 'at home' when played on a classical, nylon-strung guitar. A very short, but very beautiful piece of music. Wonderful guest vocals held add even more beauty and class to this song. Flawless, of course. What else would you expect by this point? The entire record is a master work.

''Ovombo Summit'' - Is just another interlude track, but still very interesting to hear. It sounds like a tribe of some sort chanting in their village in a distant, uncharted land. Great percussion here. Almost church choir-sounding vocals.

''Aimun'' - Another ethnic track, but tha sax soon comes in and brings it back into the Jazz realm. Absolutely fantastic vocal work here. Very soulful, complete with the organ and big vibrato while singing. I cannot STRESS just how beautiful this track is, so you rerally must hear it for yourself.

''Prelude'' - Is another spacey track that used Reggae bubbles to give a dream-like quality to the already mysterious, climax-less tune.

''Lover's Leap'' - This track is the closest to actual 'Bluegrass' you are going to get on this particular record. It is also the one track that remindes me the most of the classic Flecktones days. ''Flight of the Cosmic Hippo'', anyone? It is very banjo-heavy, but also has a Bluesy, almost European-quality to it, thanks to the flute and the very intruiging tune that could pass for something coming out of France or Italy. The atmospheric vocal hums that come in from time to time also help this track. It is certainly the most different of the songs on the album thus far, but not un welcome in the least. A nice break from all the chaos, in my opinion. Just don't listen to this when tired, or else it is liable to put you into a deep, spaghetti-craving sleep.

''Outbound'' - The album's title track is just as worthy of being on the album is its counterparts, with very hypnotic qualities that only Bela Fleck can pull off.

''Scratch & Sniff'' - Is by far my favorite track on the album. It is the most perfect of the songs, in my opinion, and has not a dull moment the entire five minutes flat it graces the listener's ears. To describe it too specifically would truly ruin a great listening experience, so all I can really say is that you are in for such a treat when this song comes up. It has everything: catchy tunes, great playing, Victor Wooten! What more could you want? And the most special part of the track in it's middle section. Oh, how beautiful it is. It has actually brought me to tears before, no lie. Have I mentioned how much I adore the Saxophone as an instrument? I have said it before, and I will say it again: the addition of Jeff Coffin into this band has truly heightened the entire listening experience for me. Before Coffin, saxophone prominancy in Fleck's music was abscent in a major way, buit ever since he has joined, the entire band has taken a step up. Don't get me wrong, I love Piano and Harmonica as well, but for this type of band, Coffin is a much better fit than Howard Levy ever was.

''Shuba Yatra'' - Very Reggae. Bubble effects, ethnic percussion, etc. The only thing that really makes it into something more is the banjo. Great, great track. It even has a section that makes me think of pirates! Very cool!

''That Old Thing'' - Is the only song on here that has yet to speak to me. I'm not saying it is a weak track, as it certainly is not, but it IS the one track I tend to skip when listening to the record on my Zune. Not because it is bad, just because I don't feel personalyl connected to it like I do the other tracks. I think it's a bit too lounge music for me. I don't really think it fits, that's all. Still great fro what it is, but not my own cup of tea. Still worth hearing, though. Absolutely.

''Reprise'' - The album ends just as marvelousely as it has begun, with this beautiful piece of music that-- you guessed it-- reprises what we have heard before. It wets our appetites for the next venture into music the band will take. Until then, I will leave you.

Closing comments: If you want a detail, note-for-note recounting of this album, then I can't help you. After all, I am just a music fan like everyone else here. Indeed, I still haven't been able to pick out Jon Anderson's voice on this thing. However, I CAN say that anybody who likes music in any form, this is an album that you must not pass up. You don't even have to be a fan of Bluegrass of Jazz in order to enjoy this music, because there is enough diversity here for everyone to find something about they like.

This album is flawless as far as I am concerned. Nothing, not even the one track I'm not soo keen on, causes OUTBOUND to lose any stars from me. A perfect five out of five, for sure. I don't take this rating lightly, so you can trust me when I say something is worth five stars, it truly must be something extra special. OUTBOUND surely is. Buy it. Enjoy it. You won't regret it.

5 out of 5.

Report this review (#207858)
Posted Friday, March 20, 2009 | Review Permalink
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.

Report this review (#216253)
Posted Saturday, May 16, 2009 | Review Permalink


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