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Bela Fleck and The Flecktones - UFO Tofu CD (album) cover


Bela Fleck and The Flecktones


Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.15 | 11 ratings

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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.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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