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Bela Fleck and The Flecktones - Flight of the Cosmic Hippo CD (album) cover


Bela Fleck and The Flecktones


Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.66 | 22 ratings

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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.

ExittheLemming | 4/5 |


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