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Bela Fleck and The Flecktones - Greatest Hits of the 20th Century CD (album) cover


Bela Fleck and The Flecktones


Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.00 | 4 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
4 stars I'm not a fan of "Best of" collections (and I dare say that few proggers are) but, in the case of these free and eclectic-minded bohemian fellows, it's money well-spent, indeed. In fact, instead of being called "Greatest Hits of the 20th Century" it should be called something along the lines of "A small sample of what you've been missing if you haven't checked out Bela Fleck and the Flecktones yet." That includes yours truly, in case you're wondering, because I'd never heard a single cut from their albums in the 90s before I gave this one a spin in the changer. Evidently this group amassed a decent catalogue of unique music in that decade before they jumped from Warner Bros. to Columbia in 2000 (debuting on that label with their excellent "Outbound" CD) and this low-cost medley of tracks is a fine way to catch up in a hurry. I think you'll like what you hear, especially if you are of the jazz rock/fusion or prog folk persuasion. Since I can't pigeon-hole them into any kind of identifiable and, therefore, restrictive category I'll just call what they do "Prograss" and leave it at that.

"The Sinister Minister" is a perfect example of their unconventional attitude because the mixture of musical influences involved is downright staggering. I guess I'd say it's a parcel of Latin-tinged funk combined with bluesy harmonica and bluegrass banjo but that really doesn't describe it fully and that's why they're on this website. They are of a different breed altogether. Bassman extraordinaire Victor Lemonte Wooten's solo impresses mightily as he points the song in a new direction at one point, backed by Howard Levy's soothing synthesized velvet curtain that surrounds him. "Stomping Grounds" is next and it's as entertaining as skipping flat rocks across a still pond. Recorded live, it's a fascinating goulash of instruments with Bela on banjo, Future Man (Victor's brudder Roy) on SynthAxe Drumitar, Sam Bush on mandolin, Paul McCandless on soprano sax and Wooten on bass that displays an uncanny level of virtuosity on the part of the individual musicians as well as how tightly they cooperate as an ensemble. When they go "'round the horn" midway through their unbridled joy bursts outward and the audience is swept up in their enthusiasm. Fun stuff. They must be a hoot in concert.

"Flight of the Cosmic Hippo" features a slow, loping, fat, deep (and I mean DEEP) bass line very appropriate for the tune's title. Levy's piano provides a cool, jazzy flavor and his interesting synth work makes parts of this number truly "cosmic." Future Man's one-of-a- kind electronic drums are so tasteful that they're easily overlooked but try not to. He's an artist in the truest sense of the concept and a big part of what makes the band so eccentric. "Shocktime" is a rather frantic, Indian-influenced piece that brings to mind what guitarist John McLaughlin did with Shakti. Victor's bass playing is dazzling and so fast at times that it sounds like he's being assisted on the fretboard by a dozen hyperactive Keebler elves hopped up on speed. In other words, Stanley Clarke's got nothin' on this dude. I'm serious as an aneurism. Bela also gets to shred on his banjo a bit although I'll admit that "shred" and "banjo" don't usually belong in the same sentence. Yet that's what he does.

Wooten's "Sex in a Pan" has a soulful, funk-infested groove as southern as biscuits & skillet gravy that owes a sizeable debt to the specter of James Brown. No one stands out in particular; they just let the infectious melody and the song's natural drive carry the load. "The Yee-Haw Factor" is seven minutes of pleasure. Howard sets up an accordion- like rhythm with his blowing in and out on the diatonic harmonica but don't be misled. There's no backwoods, hillbilly "Deliverance" foolin' around going on here. It's all on the up and up. The tune's tricky tempo and time signature changes come often and without warning, creating a very adventurous journey that's anything but predictable. They even venture briefly into a crazy Brazilian motif before Levy leads you out with a blistering harp ride. These boys are game for anything so they throw in slide banjo (Slide banjo? As they say in hockey, "What the puck?") on "Road House Blues" and it fits as if it's always been there, runs the county and owns most of the land. It's another odd amalgamation of instruments as Bush returns with his mandolin and throws a fiddle into the mix while future Flecktone Jeff Coffin performs more than capably on alto sax. At first glance it appears to be a slice of pure Americana but if you pay attention to the song's imaginative chord progression it becomes apparent that it's not exactly Stephen Foster.

"Vix 9" is amazing. It's a fast-paced jazz composition played in front of a rich, dense synth backdrop and on this cut it's just the basic trio. They're so tuned-in to each other that you'd think they're joined at the hip. Fleck's electric banjo don't sound like no banjo I ever heard, that's for sure, and Future Man's percussion settings are dern near indescribable. "Communication" isn't bad but it does mark the nadir of the proceedings and it's due to the inclusion of some indistinct vocals (Future Man and guest Dave Matthews in a duet). They detract from Coffin's soprano sax that otherwise adds a whole new color to the sound texture of the group. It's pretty obvious why they brought him into the fold as a permanent member down the line.

The last two tracks make for superb listening. "Big Country" is like an aural hike through the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Beautiful and invigorating. The song's memorable melody and the fancy interplay between Jeff's saxes and Victor's silky bass lines is uplifting. Once again the encompassing wall of synthesizers provides a dreamy depth. They close with the relaxing "Sunset Road," a moody stroll down memory lane that shows off Bela's deft technique on the banjo and the band's overall progressive tendency to embellish even the simplest of ideas. Howard's sly piano ride towards the end is scrumptious and not what you expect to hear.

While I realize that Bela Fleck and the Flecktones may not be everyone's cup o' mud necessarily, they certainly deserve to be considered by the discerning progster and this satisfying conglomeration of tunes is a great way to get to know them. An old ad slogan used to say, "a gift for the man who has everything." Well, this album is custom-made for the prog enthusiast who thinks he's "heard it all." Give it a whirl.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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