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BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES

Jazz Rock/Fusion • United States


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Bela Fleck and The Flecktones biography
BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES are an ambitious Progressive act out of the USA who are influenced by a wide array of different musical styles and cultures. Most notable influences include but are not limited to: Jazz, Bluegrass, Fusion and Rock. The band members currently include BELA FLECK (Electric and Acoustic Banjos), VICTOR WOOTEN (Bass Guitars), ROY "FUTURE MAN" WOOTEN (Drumitar & Additional Percussion) and JEFF COFFIN (Saxophone & Various Wind Instruments). Each member has their own unique style and influence, which contributes greatly to the band's overal eclectic sound.

Fleck himself is a master Banjo player, and his unorthadox playing style has helped change people's opinions on what type of music the instrument is meant for. Over the course of the band's career, Fleck has slowly transformed the Banjo from being strictly a Bluegrass instrument and made it appeal to everyone from Jazz to Rock musicians and everyone in between. Victor Wooten is widely lauded in jazz and bass-playing circles for his hyperkinetic pop n' slap technique on his guitar, and many consider him the leading bass virtuoso in music today. Future Man is perhaps the most unique of them all in that he plays an instrument that he invented himself called the 'Drumitar', a MIDI instrument that is based on the Synthaxe design of the Zendrum and other similar instruments. Jeff Coffin is best known as saxophonist, though he also plays clarinet and flute. His unique playing style lends itself well to the Jazz aspect of The Flecktones' music, but he also plays very melodically and beautifully for the more Folk-inspired songs.

The Flecktones first began when Fleck joined the Wooten brothers and Keyboard/Harmonica player Howard Levy to play on the PBS televised show Lonesome Pine Specials. The gig was initially meant to be a one-time event, but Fleck had other plans. Soon he and the three other talents were writing and recording some of the freshest material to come out of the Jazz scene in years. Over Two decades and Two-Hundred performances later, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones are still together and breaking new ground with each consecutive release.

The band's self-titled debut album woke up the Jazz and Bluegrass crowd with a resounding success, and already landing their first grammy with the song "The Sinister Minister". It was a huge success, and listeners could never look back again.

One successful album after another followed over the next...
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BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES discography


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BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES top albums (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

3.52 | 4 ratings
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones
1990
3.63 | 12 ratings
Flight of the Cosmic Hippo
1991
4.15 | 6 ratings
UFO Tofu
1992
3.51 | 5 ratings
Three Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
1993
2.12 | 5 ratings
Left of Cool
1998
4.36 | 12 ratings
Outbound
2000
4.00 | 1 ratings
Little Worlds
2003
3.05 | 3 ratings
The Hidden Land
2006
2.00 | 1 ratings
Jingle All the Way
2008
3.75 | 7 ratings
Rocket Science
2011

BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES Live Albums (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

4.00 | 1 ratings
Live Art
1996
4.00 | 4 ratings
Live at the Quick
2002

BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES Videos (DVD, Blu-ray, VHS etc)

4.50 | 2 ratings
Live at the Quick
2002

BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES Boxset & Compilations (CD, LP, MC, SACD, DVD-A, Digital Media Download)

4.00 | 3 ratings
Greatest Hits of the 20th Century
1999
0.00 | 0 ratings
Ten From Little Worlds
2003

BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES Official Singles, EPs, Fan Club & Promo (CD, EP/LP, MC, Digital Media Download)

BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES Reviews


Showing last 10 reviews only
 Little Worlds by FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES, BELA album cover Studio Album, 2003
4.00 | 1 ratings

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Little Worlds
Bela Fleck and The Flecktones Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by RockHound

— First review of this album —
4 stars This album got mixed reviews when it came out. It is a very ponderous three-volume set that explores the complete Flecktone arsenal, which is a unique fusion of jazz, bluegrass, and rock. I have most of the Flecktones albums. They are remarkably even in quality, and this one stands out as my personal favorite.

Admittedly, three packed CDs may be a bit much for many people, but I think this offering is displays the breadth of music the Flecktones have to offer. Perhaps "Little Worlds" is to the Flecktones as the White Album is to the Beatles. This probably is not the best album to start exploring the Flecktones, but if you like their music and want to dig into the depths of their catalog, you will not be disappointed.

Four solid starts for the typical prog rock fan, and five stars if you love fusion.

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 Rocket Science by FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES, BELA album cover Studio Album, 2011
3.75 | 7 ratings

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Rocket Science
Bela Fleck and The Flecktones Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by RBlak054

4 stars Bela Fleck and the Flecktones returned in 2011 with Rocket Science, one of their best and most consistent albums in several years. Rocket Science contains the signature experimentation, instrumental prowess, and cocktail of styles that have made the Flecktones successful in the past and is a nice addition to the band's discography.

This album features the talents of Bela Fleck on banjo, Victor Wooten on bass, and Future Man on drumitar and other percussion instruments. While sax man Jeff Coffin is no longer part of the lineup due to commitments with the Dave Matthews Band, founding member Howard Levy steps back into the spotlight with his harmonica and piano playing. Despite not being on a Flecktones studio album in almost twenty years, Levy seems to be right at home and his presence appears to have revitalized the band.

Versatility has always been a key feature of the Flecktones' music in the past, and this material is no exception. The music on this album touches on and explores all kinds of genres, from bluegrass to jazz to funk to rock to classical to pretty much anything else you can imagine, making for some very unique and progressive music. While for the most part the Flecktones seamlessly incorporate these styles into their compositions, there are a few moments when it feels forced and perhaps slightly out of place.

The group also enjoys playing around with rhythm and meter on this release. From the odd-metered Grammy-winning track "Life in Eleven" (which is, as the name implies, in 11/8) to the rhythmic shifts in the Hungarian minor piece "Sweet Pomegranates", the Flecktones always keep things interesting.

Virtuoso is not a word I throw around lightly, but when dealing with each of the members of the Flecktones it's an accurate description. Along with being able to keep up with the aforementioned versatility and rhythmic challenges, these guys are fierce improvisers. Special mention goes to bassist Victor Wooten, who never fails to captivate with his great bass work and tone. My only gripe in this department is that Levy's harmonica playing can be quite abrasive at times.

The Flecktones have always struck me as an incredibly creative group, and this album proves that even after twenty years these guys still have it. Rocket Science is not perfect, but it's a great album with solid songwriting that is backed up by world-class musicians. If you have yet to check these guys out and are an open-minded listener, I highly recommend giving them a try... And this album is a good place to start!

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 Flight of the Cosmic Hippo by FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES, BELA album cover Studio Album, 1991
3.63 | 12 ratings

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Flight of the Cosmic Hippo
Bela Fleck and The Flecktones Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by ExittheLemming
Prog Reviewer

4 stars Say No to Hippy Pot Amos

There's not many new developments in music capable of stirring the habitually mordant sang-froid of PA's Rollie Anderson (a.k.a. Chicapah) so I therefore owe a large debt of gratitude to Forney's most distinguished resident for introducing me to this very fine and innovative band.

Blu Bop - Fleetingly suggests Mahavishnu's entrance examination for the School of Crafty Guitarists at the outset but deviates very quickly into a malleable jazz fusion vehicle. They exploit the wide angular scale leaps of hard bop but soften the latter's routinely jarring frisson with some airier chord choices, a very mellifluous but rapid dialogue between bass, piano, drumitar !? and (doggone it) banjo !? all buttressed by some swinging and slinky jazz grooves. This is a real shock to the system as I was expecting an 'earthier' Dixie Dregs but not so, as illustrated by the unlikely marriage of some 'Deputy Dawg' textures wedded to the melodic dialect of Art Blakey. Their daddies buckshot should be firmly in the Flecktones bottoms for this midnight elopement but somehow it works brilliantly and they are well over the county line by the tune's end.

Flying saucer Dudes - if there are intelligent critters on other planets, according to Bela and his buddys their climate will be sufficiently warm to ensure a perennial suntan judging by this funky and soulful welcoming tribute. No landing party is ever gonna zap us with their ray guns as long as the 'Tones get that particular gig (Houston, we have a solution) I never thought the humble banjo was capable of such stirring beauty and nuances of mood and expression as those coaxed by Mr Fleck from his axe of choice on this album.You are also advised to pencil in one Victor Wooten Esq as a bass player of consummate taste and eloquence who, like percussionist brother Roy, is capable of nailing a groove with a staple gun.

Turtle Rock - a gloriously tongue in cheek stadium rawker for those who would never be seen dead in one of the places. In other less skilled hands this could lapse into self conscious irony but such is the strength of the musical ideas and their subsequent imaginative treatment anyone not wearing a huge joyous grin at this track's conclusion must be shackled in gridirons. A sports broadcast theme tune for those who loathe sports.This is what Zappa fans think their hero's jesting instrumentals sound like but never do.

Flight of the Cosmic Hippo - Considering that there are sufficient jazz standards from an earlier era to last any fledgling jazzer several lifetimes over, it is something of a jolt to discover their ranks have now been swollen by one courtesy of Bela Fleck. As soon as you hear this your will find your eyes drawn to the sleeve-notes searching in vain for the names of Monk, Ellington, Strayhorn or Davis. A shoo-in for the 'instant jazz classic award' left unclaimed now for nigh on 40 years. Hippo takes it's unyielding tread from Otis Blackwell's Fever and furnishes that addictive rhythm with a melodic hook that like all similarly inspired phenomena, appears to have existed forever once untapped. Just in case you're wondering, it ain't remotely psychedelic but any tune capable of mimicking a lumbering and loveable creature roiling up to a waterhole for a well earned 'dunk' from nature's gantry, is deserving of the label 'cosmic'.

The Star Spangled Banner - I was dreading this but even my delicate Limey sensibilities are not bruised by a refreshing reading of a tune that is inextricably linked to all we from Europe associate with crass vulgarity. Howard Levy's harmonica is slippery exquisite and the indelible melody is never cloaked in any 'gee whizz' plank-spanking pyrotechnics. Bela and Co utilise some sly and astute chord substitutions to imbue the tune with a wistful melancholy we don't normally associate with same.

Star of the County Down - I like how the group pay homage to their formative cultural heritage without recourse to any ingratiating sentimentality. This is a swaying country waltz not dissimilar to many others you may have heard but the crucial difference is they were unlikely to have featured the heart breaking and plaintive harmonica of Howard Levy and the understated brilliance of Bela Fleck's banjo. Both gentlemen clearly have a healthy respect for the past but at no point in their performance do you ever feel they are trapped by it. At surface level the melodic contour carries a feint trace of Dylan's Man in the Long Black Coat so considering it is listed as the time honoured 'trad arr' on the sleeve, did ol' Big Nose purloin this old tune for his own ends?

Jekyll and Hide (and Ted and Alice) - this composition features Fleck 'up close and personal' on an unaccompanied intro which illustrates his exemplary attitude to his craft i.e. he draws upon a rich musical legacy most of us will recognise instantly but invests same with a modernity of his own devising that grows and enhances the tradition. There are quotations from North American and Eastern European folk melodies, subtle meter changes, a chromaticism and extemporaneous bent normally found in jazz, and an insistent rock pulse that is never allowed to either overpower or disappear entirely. Bugger, I almost neglected to say it's as catchy as hell to boot.

Michelle - Considering that the source started as a pastiche, I'm not sure the irony of a mock French chanson is transferable into the instrumental realm. The 'Tones reading of this Beatles tune is that of a quaint and deliberately understated waltz. Very tastefully done to be sure, but of the two main pitfalls lurking for Fab Four adaptations both are fallen into here: the unadorned beauty of the Beatles music does not respond well to 'gilding the lily' plus considerably more irreverence is required if new light is to be shed in the direction of that which is hitherto roped off from adulteration. (I'm none too crazy about the original either and no amount of witty jazz licks or conservatory heads nodding appreciatively is going to change that)

Hole in the Wall - Possibly the heaviest track on the album but once again the weight of the drums and bass is judiciously (and deliciously dammit) compensated by the relative lightness and playfulness of Fleck's skittering banjo which weaves all manner of mischievous patterns under, over and through the unequivocal Jazz Rock leaning of the pivotal themes. It is testimony to their unwavering taste that Bela and his colleagues resist what must occasionally be an overriding temptation to inject some toe curling 'Yee Haw' hootenanny hoe-down drivel to proceedings with a view to harvesting the lucrative s.h.i.t. kicker dollar. Kudos for their restraint.

Flight of the Cosmic Hippo (Reprise) - No beast that size is capable of making a (slight return) are they? Nothing wrong with the author realising he has a fully credible future jazz standard in his songbook. Give the critter a Grammy for God's sake.

I'd hesitate to describe this as 'Jazz Rock/Fusion' in the conventional sense as although there is a reasonable amount of that herein, the other 'alien' elements of bluegrass, folk, country, gospel and pop together with the revolutionary textures deployed, make such a label inadequate to describe the potency of the contents. It's become almost fashionable to deny that there will ever be anything new under the sun at this juncture in the 21st Century but Bela Fleck and the Flecktones prove if nothing else, that such post-modern sentiments are solely the preserve of the jaded, the unimaginative and the plain vanilla talentless.

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 UFO Tofu by FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES, BELA album cover Studio Album, 1992
4.15 | 6 ratings

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UFO Tofu
Bela Fleck and The Flecktones Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by Triceratopsoil

3 stars Although UFO TOFU is a very technically impressive album from a very technically adept band - especially considering they record everything live in the studio - it is somewhat less engaging and lustrous than The Flecktone's previous two albums. Victor Wooten, slap bassist extraordinaire, makes everything funky while Fleck and drumitar player "Futureman" counteract this somewhat with jazziness, plus a certain bluegrass spice from the sounds of Fleck's banjo and Levy's harmonicas, regardless of the total lack of bluegrass style in the music. Although the musicianship is flawless, the tunes themselves perhaps could be better.

Standout tracks: Sex in a Pan, Scuttlebutt, UFO Tofu

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 The Hidden Land by FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES, BELA album cover Studio Album, 2006
3.05 | 3 ratings

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The Hidden Land
Bela Fleck and The Flecktones Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by JLocke
Prog Reviewer

3 stars Right from the off, I could tell that this album was going to be much more Jazz-influenced that the band's previous release. The first two tracks are almost completely pure Jazz, with Coffin and Future Man taking the most prominent roles. The synth drum and percussion stylings are very reminiscent of the past greats in the genre, and the Sax stuff reminds me a lot of Charlie 'Bird' Parker.

''Rococo'' is a little more varied, but still more-or-less straightforward Jazz. Coffin now plays a flute, and Fleck's banjo adds a slight folksy edge to an otherwise straightforward Jazz tune. Wooten's bass playing first begins to stand out in this song. The flute melody played by Coffin really drives the song, and it's quite moving.

The track flows naturally into the next, titled ''Labyrinth''. A little more eclectic stuff, finally. A really fantastic bass lead section starts at around 1:45 (accompanied by some nice drumming and synthed vocals) and doesn't quit until 2:30, when finally the rest of the band comes back in with the melody. It's then Bela's turn to shine with what sounds like a classical guitar, but it could easily be something else; my ears aren't keen enough yet to tell for sure. (He does play guitars and banjitars as well as his traditional banjo on this record, but it's hard for me to tell when those moments are.)

At four minutes in, and absolutely beautiful flute solo from Coffin seasons the track with style, soon followed by his signature sax stylings. He's the bright light in this band, and always adds something new and interesting to the songs. ''Labyrinth'' is my favorite song on the record. So much happens in it.

''Kaleidoscope'' is the first predominately non-Jazz tune on The Hidden Land. I mean, the Jazz stuff is there, but it is far outweighed by a more uplifting, bluegrass-style melody. However, a particularly wild sax solo section near the song's middle ensures that the main influence on this album isn't soon forgotten. On the whole, it's a really nice, varied track, and probably the 'happiest' song yet on the album, if being happy is something you aim at when hearing music.

The banjo intro to ''Who's Got Three?'' Is straight out of the south, but soon the flute comes in and adds a bluesy palette. This goes on for quite some time as just the banjo and flute before any other instruments come in. It's really rather nice and peaceful. Finally the rhythm section kicks in at 2:20, lifting the song up into a more groovy environment. Close to for minutes, the song shifts gears completely and once again goes almost completely 'Jazz'. Bela's banjo playing is especially clever.

''Weed Whacker'' starts with some killer bass from Victor Wooten and crazy beats from Future Man, then Bela comes in with some cool chords, followed by his signature virtuoso stylings. That then serves as a backing track for Jeff Coffin's soulful sax work. This is a very uplifting tune as well, as usual led by Coffin's heartfelt sax playing as well as Fleck's mighty fingers. It's also the longest track on the record, which is weird, since I don't have much more to say about it. Usually the longest tracks on albums are the most varied and interesting (if they're done well). This song is well done, but I just can't think of anything more to write on it. Oh well. moving on, then.

''Couch Potato'' is one of the shorter songs on the record, but it's really cool. Basically, slow, hillbilly music for a while, then a sudden jolt of crazy jazz saxophone. Rinse, repeat. That's about all there is to this song. But the frantic back-and-forth between the styles and track length itself make sure things don't get boring.

''Chennai'' has a very indian vibe to it (good thing, considering the name of this song), with a lot of ambience (including more tuvan throat singing, it sounds to me) and Bela playing something very unusual. Soon, the rhythm section comes in with cool, grooving beats and Fleck has now changed into playing something more spacey. Coffin then breaks in with some killer flute overtop of everything for a little while, before meeting up with Bela for a side-by-side movement that really accentuates the mood. By three minutes and fifty seconds in, all of the guys in the band are taking short moments to step out of line and play something unique to them. The space between these moments gets short and shorter until finally every meets up again, playing the same melody until the end. Really awesome song, but nothing like anything else on the album.

The next track, ''Subterfuge'', isn't one of my favorites. It's still quite good, but seems a bit directionless to me until it hits 1:30. At that point Bela plays a really cool electric banjo (guitar?) groove that just won't quit. Then at 2:13 Jeff and Victor bring in the next phenomenal moment. Soon the other two band members are relevant again, and the song goes out with a bang, returning to the original sax theme before moving into the next track. Good overall, but better stuff is on The Hidden Land.

''Interlude'' is just that. It's beautiful, but merely a transition. Let's move on.

''Misunderstood'' is the second-longest song in this album, and is, in my opinion, a much better song than the very longest track, ''Weed Whacker''. It's much more varied and adventurous. The bass theme that keeps reprising throughout is beautiful, catchy and memorable. This song goes in so many different directions, it's not really worth describing it moment for moment; suffice it to say that well into the five minute mark, you'll be hearing a massive wall of sound, but for the last thirty seconds of the track, it calms down again, serving up a very pleasant outro.

''The Whistle Tune'' is the final and most Bluegrass-inspired song to be found on The Hidden Land. Fitting name, to, because as Fleck plays away on his banjo, Coffin lays down the most beautiful melody on the whole album on his whistle. So the 'whistle tune' itself serves as a brilliant and lovely album closer. I feel like I'm out on the open range whenever I hear this song. I might even go as far as to say that is makes me emotional from time to time, but let's keep that just between you and me, k?

So how does this album fare when compared to other Flecktones works? Well, I certainly wouldn't put it near the very top of my list, but it's still well above the mid point for me. I suppose when I rate this, I need to do so on its own merits, but also take into consideration the types of music fans that may be approaching it. Let me say this: if you are new to this band, The Hidden Land is not the way to go. It gets a little easier to digest at certain points, but on the whole, a lot of the music on this particular album is heavy influenced by some really heavy Jazz stylings, and I think a more eclectic, varied release like Outbound would be a much better choice for an introduction.

As for people already familiar with Bela and crew, but haven't heard this one yet . . . I think if you're a big Jazz fan, you'll be more likely to thoroughly enjoy it than some others, but on the whole, it's an average Flecktones release. You'll surely find something like, here, but at times I think the balance was a little off. Then again, this IS Jazz-Rock in a big way, so in that sense, it's one of the more fitting albums by them for the sub-genre they are located in. Still, not one of their very best.

3.5 stars. Fairly happy listening.

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 UFO Tofu by FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES, BELA album cover Studio Album, 1992
4.15 | 6 ratings

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UFO Tofu
Bela Fleck and The Flecktones Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by Chicapah
Prog Reviewer

4 stars I was ready to knock off a star or two while assessing the merits of this album for being no more than a mere extension of the trek they had taken through territory they'd already explored on their first couple of recordings but then I noticed this in the notes: "This music was performed live in the studio." Well, kiss my ring and call me the pope! That information made me listen with a different ear to what BFF tried to accomplish on "UFO TOFU" because laying down stuff so involved so tightly and without overdubs is a feat that few artists will even attempt, much less pull off with such aplomb. Having spent a slew of hours in the studio myself over the years I can avow from experience that it ain't exactly tiddlywinks to create flawless tracks and that it takes musicianship above and beyond the norm to do such a thing. But to do it all at once as a group? Fuggitaboutit. I guess they were trying to challenge themselves by creating something they could reproduce note-for- note on stage. Well, as they say, it's not bragging if you can do it.

The opener, "The West County," fades you into a busy commotion that eventually morphs to a jazzy, Latin-tinged fandango. Every band member impresses as they always do but Howard Levy's piano work is downright liberating. Bassist Victor Lemonte Wooten's James Brown-inspired "Sex in a Pan" is next and it's a funky romp that still retains the unmistakable Flecktone sensitivities that sets them so far apart from the herd. There's a lot of spirited back and forth riffing between Bela Fleck's banjo and Howard's harmonica but it's Victor's silky bass lines that steal this particular show. "Nemo's Dream" follows and it's one of the best songs on the CD. After a proggy synth intro Bela's slightly dissonant chords give the tune an air of tense mystery and the tricky 7/8 time signature keeps you on your toes. Levy's piano ride is thrilling and further convinces me that his keyboard prowess is vastly underrated. The number comes full circle and they go out the same way they came in.

"Bonnie & Slyde" is a smooth, pleasant stroll through the countryside. Contemporary without being patronizing, it would be right at home as the theme for a show about trout fishing. I know, that sounds bad, but it's really not a distraction at all. Another gem, "Scuttlebutt," is an ingenious "get the funk outa my face" kinda deal that contains a strong dose of clever complexity tossed in for good measure. Howard shines on the keyboard again and Fleck's banjo doesn't sound like any banjo I ever heard at the Grand Old Opry if you know what I'm getting at. The group is consistently tighter than a chubby stripper's G-string and I offer this cut as proof positive. The album's namesake is a speedy-paced, jazzy doo-dad wherein everybody bedazzles both individually and collectively. In the notes they claim it to be a musical palindrome as implied by the title but I didn't play it backwards to check so I'll take their word for it. (Not really. I remain skeptical.) Whatever it was that their muse whispered to them worked, though.

"Magic Fingers" sports a bluesy feel and Wooten romps & rolls splendidly on his solo. Levy's harp is sharp as a razor and Bela is uncannily graceful on his banjo, an instrument not known for its grace. On "True North" Howard's gleeful pennywhistle lends an Irish aura to the intro before it quickly evolves into an engaging waltz with an impish attitude. Levy's exquisite piano ride is like golden sunshine reflecting off of rippling water. "Life Without Elvis" is next and it's another highlight of the proceedings. It's an eccentric little ditty that befits their boast of spotting the King of Rock & Roll "in perfect health on the bullet train." There's a nifty section where drummer (or whatever he calls himself) Future Man and Fleck's banjo spar brilliantly and the song is filled with odd moments of cool weirdness.

Howard contributes his laid back "Seresta" at this juncture and it's another swaying waltz that features his sprightly harmonica, Victor's impressive bass chording technique and Levy's somewhat cocktail lounge-ish pianoisms. The tune's not totally out of character for them but it does drag the momentum a bit. "The Yee-haw Factor" definitely has hillbilly overtones but Wooten's sleek bass lines keep it out of the barnyard. They also throw in numerous twists and turns to keep it from becoming predictable hokum or seriously compromising their eclectic mannerisms while still giving a respectable nod to modern bluegrass trends. The frantic fadeout is commendable. They end the album on a very high note with "After the Storm." Bela's banjo cruises over the kind of hypnotic, dense synthesizer settings that I can't resist overindulging in and the tune's upward-climbing progression is reassuring and hopeful without ever veering into crass sentimentality. It may be simple but there's nothing simple-minded about what these guys concoct together here.

I will concede that there is an unavoidable sameness about Bela Fleck & The Flecktones' music that becomes noticeable and numbing after a while but I can say the same thing about Chopin's piano etudes. I'm not comparing BFF to that great genius but you get the point, I'm sure. At the risk of becoming a broken record or an annoying parrot with dementia I'll reiterate that, despite what your instincts may tell you about a group that utilizes such unlikely instrumentation, these boys do make some very progressive noises and deserve to be investigated by the sort of inquiring minds that tend to frequent this website. They will turn your head, I guarantee it. 3.8 stars.

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 Flight of the Cosmic Hippo by FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES, BELA album cover Studio Album, 1991
3.63 | 12 ratings

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Flight of the Cosmic Hippo
Bela Fleck and The Flecktones Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by Chicapah
Prog Reviewer

4 stars So much for sophomore jinxes! That superstitious myth doesn't apply here. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones' follow-up to their distinguished debut album is even better. The overall feel I glean from it is one of bolstered confidence and tenacity most likely budding from their growing flock of fans that found their cool oddness irresistible. Their unlikely combination of instruments and ethnicity made them stand out from the madding crowd and attracted aficionados of both jazz and high-end bluegrass who couldn't help but be impressed by their undeniable virtuosity. Since they couldn't be neatly pigeon-holed into either category they fell into that scary, foggy classification known simply as "progressive" whether they wanted to be members of that quirky fraternity or not. I deem them to be a good fit and my hope is that more of my fellow proggers will drop any discrimination or unfair judgment they might be tempted to assign to a band that features both banjo and harmonica and give these guys a chance. It will be time and currency well-spent.

They don't waste a second in grabbing your attention as they open the album with a fast- paced, spirited, jazzy deal in 5/4 that smokes like a coal-fed locomotive. Howard Levy's keyboard work is stellar in the early going and then they level out onto a calmer plateau before evolving into a more traditional "walking" motif for Bela Fleck's banjo ride. When Howard and Bela trade hot licks toward the end you'll know these boys ain't fooling around. "Flying Saucer Dudes" offers an example of the voodoo they do so well in that they seamlessly veer off from a straight beat pattern into a section peppered with intriguing kicks and accents that boggle the mind. Levy's harp-through-a-micro-synth is a neat trick and goes a long way toward making this cut one of their proggiest. The hard-driving "Turtle Rock" is next and they, of course, inject their own slant into the "rawk" genre with Fleck's electric banjo providing the requisite steely balls. Their clever arrangement takes the listener through some very interesting and unexpected twists and turns along the way and it also incorporates one of Future Man's heaviest electronic drum sounds.

Victor Lemonte Wooten's fretless bass work creates the perfect, bloated aural image for "Flight of the Cosmic Hippo" and it's something you need to hear at least once in your lifetime. (The slippery, old-school melody reminds me of "Put the blame on Mame" but maybe that's just my off-kilter mind at play.) The tune's delightfully heavy, trippy vibe gives the track plenty of weight. Their take on "The Star Spangled Banner" follows and I have to say that it's one of the weirdest renditions of a national anthem I've ever heard. I didn't like it at first but it's eccentricity made it grow on me. All the numbers up to this point are engaging to some degree but "Star of the County Down," a silky-smooth folksy thing in 6/4 that's pleasant aplenty, fails to take me anywhere special. Bela does toss in some sweet runs on his banjo during the fadeout, though.

"Jekyll and Hyde (and Ted and Alice)" is a return to extravagance. Fleck begins this 7- minute piece with a haunting solo, then the other three ease into the tune's 7/8 structure with nary a bump. Suddenly the tempo quickens and the song's personality changes into something much more complex and involved and the result is an exhilarating, fun journey. On "Michelle" they try to put a new face on the classic Beatles' standard but it still comes off a little stale, nonetheless. While I admire the tune's catchy melody it's never been one of my favorite Lennon/McCartney offerings and perhaps that's from it being covered for 45 years by everyone except the Sex Pistols. The jazzed-up midsection adds some pizzazz thanks in no small part to Howard's deft piano chording going on underneath first Bela and then Victor's leads. The latter's delicate fingering is exquisite in particular but it still can't save this cut from being sub-par.

"Hole in the Wall" serves up a big helping of this group's infectious strangeness that draws me right into their mad sphere of existence. It coasts right along at a decent clip but when Wooten's bass and Levy's piano take over it ascends to the mountain tops just before Fleck jettisons away from the mother ship and floats like a cloud on his own. The band eventually joins him aloft and the last minute or so is thrillingly intense. "Flight of the Cosmic Hippo (reprise)" is exactly what you'd think it'd be but it's sort of a dirty saloon take and Howard's sexy, sleazy piano provides the provocative personality necessary to make it work.

I haven't said much about the Hippopotamus in the room which is the near-mystical presence of Roy "Future Man" Wooten and his Synthaxe Drumitar contraption but that's because I can't explain what he does. I can only reiterate from other reviews that his percussive contributions are without exception exactly what the tune needs and nothing more. He's a bit of an enigma but they wouldn't be the same without him so I just accept his art on his terms and don't ask questions. In many ways this album is an extension of the one that preceded it but they felt brave enough to take some risks with their music this time around and that gamble paid off. Any progger that leans to the more eclectic side of jazz rock/fusion will find a lot to enjoy here. 4.4 stars.

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 Béla Fleck and the Flecktones by FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES, BELA album cover Studio Album, 1990
3.52 | 4 ratings

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Béla Fleck and the Flecktones
Bela Fleck and The Flecktones Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by Chicapah
Prog Reviewer

4 stars From the looks of things it appears that there aren't a lot of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones fans on this site. Too bad. I can only hope that underexposed situation changes over time because these fellas are good. Real good. And any progger who likes to occasionally venture into areas of music that he/she might not naturally be attracted to for the sheer thrill of possibly discovering something unexpectedly cool should try BFF out for size. A banjo, harmonica, piano, funky bass and some kind of Frankenstein-ish drum machine contraption really do make for strange bedfellows. (Imagine, on a par, an accordion, ukulele, tuba and Indian tablas mixed together. I'd be skeptical, too.) Yet that's where the magic comes into play. These four imaginative souls don't think along the same lines that the rest of the musicians in the world do and their creations reflect and reinforce their gutsy eclecticism over and over again. In a word, they are interesting. And, on a planet teeming with has-beens and imitators, that's enough for me.

After delving into their work shortly after their inclusion on this site I added quite a few of their CDs onto one of my online wish lists and, lo and behold, I got three of them for Christmas. (Most likely because they're relatively cheap and so are many of my relatives.) I'm always curious about debut albums because sometimes groups are so elated over getting a recording contract that they try too hard to please their new bosses and put out material that sounds like something else we've all heard before instead of just being themselves. Other times they proudly and stubbornly stick to their guns but also nakedly reveal their amateur status and the result is raw, ragged and unappealing. I found that neither applies to this hardy band of explorers. They're not only true to themselves but their professionalism is beyond reproach. Have I piqued your interest? If so, this one's not a bad place to start.

The Latin-flavored "Sea Brazil" serves as an excellent introduction to the unique blend of instruments this quartet utilizes. It features tight kicks and arresting accents peppered throughout and every member gets a chance to shine on their own. A springy Jew's Harp sets the initial tone for the aptly-titled "Frontiers," a tune in which their delightful originality becomes very evident. The song hangs suspended by Bela's spry banjo as the rest of the group frolics around its distinctive timbre before the beat develops halfway through. This movement only lasts a while, though, as they end up erecting a loose but substantial structure upon a foundation made of thick, synthesized strings. The whole thing is remarkably involved. "Hurricane Camille" is a swift-paced, jazzy number where Howard Levy's piano and Victor Lemonte Wooten's bass are prominently displayed. Levy's superb keyboard work in particular is a wonderful surprise. He's got some serious chops.

"Half Moon Bay" is a smooth, breezy piece in 6/4 time that can really take the edge off even your most stressful day. It's important to note that principal writer Fleck never forgets to sprinkle in the essential ingredient of melody into his compositions. Howard's spicy harmonica solo will grab your attention and Bela's sleek banjo ride ain't too shabby. There's a palpable Spanish aura hanging around "The Sinister Minister" but it's totally different from the feel of the album's opening cut. Here bassist Victor seizes his opportunity to dazzle all with his extraordinarily deft finger technique and he doesn't fail to impress. Some songs paint vivid aural pictures and "Sunset Road" causes me to envision a working man walking home in a golden dusk along a quiet country pathway. Levy's dense synthesizer settings provide a soft depth and his fresh piano solo arrives like a cool wind.

"Flipper" emphasizes their strong jazz leanings and makes it apparent that they possess both an affinity and a talent for that genre. I detect a little Dave Brubeck in Howard's piano stylings and that's a huge compliment. Victor gets yet another chance to showcase his proficiency on the bass guitar and every time he does I shamelessly marvel at his gift. He ranks right up there with the best in prog. The two-sectioned "Mars Needs Women" is next. Part one is called "Space is a Lonely Place" and it's constructed around a banjo riff/chord progression in 7/8 that successfully conveys a sense of unwelcome solitude. The second part is "They're Here" and it's an odd little ditty in 9/8 that typifies their unconventional attitude. It doesn't sound like anyone else and that's what I came here for.

"Reflections of Lucy" is a mesmerizing number inspired by some interspersed snippets of a well-known song by the Beatles but you really have to pay close attention to discern the familiar melody. The tune is respectful of the hallowed ground from which it sprang from but it has a personality all its own. With nary a skip of a beat "Tell it to the Gov'nor" closes things out and it's got more zip than early-morning customers leaving Starbucks. It provides enough space for everyone to slide into the spotlight one last time to parade their collective and virtuoso skills. The result is a blistering but fun track. I have to mention Roy "Future Man" Wooten at this late juncture because he blends in so well with the overall ambience being generated that he's easy to overlook. His personal invention, the "drumitar," doesn't sound like any drum machine I've ever heard and its uncanny proximity to real drums keeps his efforts from ever being contrary to the cause. Whatever it is he does with that thingamajig allows him the freedom to adapt brilliantly to every inflection and mood the music evokes and needs. He's definitely one-of-a-kind and indispensable to their art.

Bear in mind that while these boys are courageous they aren't reckless. They aren't trying to re-invent the wheel. This isn't the kind of brazen jazz rock/fusion that will test your noise threshold or make your hair stand on end. For the most part this is pretty mellow fare without being boring or predictable. And there's a place for that in Progland. You can put this on when you want to relax or when you desire to have a little prog playing in the background while you read or when friends drop by. This album is not necessarily a must- have album but there are no glaring shortcomings to rag on, either. It's a pleasant, enlightening listening experience. Whatever you do, don't let the banjo's dour reputation mislead you into thinking this is some kind of a hillbilly hootenanny on acid. You'd be dead wrong. The musicianship is phenomenal and you'll probably get a charge out of turning your know-it-all progger buddies onto them. 3.5 stars.

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 Three Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES, BELA album cover Studio Album, 1993
3.51 | 5 ratings

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Three Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Bela Fleck and The Flecktones Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by Evolver
Special Collaborator Crossover & JazzRock/Fusion Teams

3 stars This is the first album by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones after the departure of keyboardist and harmonica player Howard Levy. I would have thought the band would have gotten better without him, since I always felt that his harmonica and light keyboard style detracted from the overall sound, but this album is definitely a step backwards. At least they didn't regress all the way back to the sound of their debut album.

Where previous albums, especially Flight Of The Cosmic Hippo were exercises in adventurous fusion, this one, save for a nice romp in Bumbershoot, tends to be aiming more towards commercial viability (translate to boredom). I can't fault a band for trying to aim for a wider audience, but I can't praise them for it either.

And a rap song? Oh come on. I doubt the target audience for this album is children.

2.5 stars.

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 Flight of the Cosmic Hippo by FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES, BELA album cover Studio Album, 1991
3.63 | 12 ratings

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Flight of the Cosmic Hippo
Bela Fleck and The Flecktones Jazz Rock/Fusion

Review by Evolver
Special Collaborator Crossover & JazzRock/Fusion Teams

4 stars This is the second album by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Just as the cover art on this disk is an expansion of the first album, the music here is an expension of the first album as well. Where the first album introduced us to this band's form of bluegrass fusion, but stayed in a mostly soft jazz realm, this album explores more adventurous forms of fusion.

Right from the start, where we hear Fleck's electric banjo played through guitar effects, the sound is much more like Return To Forever than easy listening, partly because the staccato sound of the banjo tends to sound not unlike Al DiMeola's signature sound.

The Wooten brothers continue to amaze on this release, with Victor's great bass chops and Roy's unbelievable Synthaxe drums. Howard Levy is the only weak spot in the band. His harmonica style still brings to mind elevator music. But at least the majority of the compositions transcend his playing.

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