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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

3.67 | 19 ratings

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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.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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