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Bela Fleck on taking holiday music to new places

December 16, 2010 |  3:12 pm

Béla Fleck Eggnog - Senor McGuire 
Musicians who explore the fringes of music as we know it often seem to operate in a parallel dimension with few points of reference for the average music fan.

This historically has been true in jazz, where such innovators as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus abandoned the rules established by their predecessors and opened new sonic vistas, leaving many fans in the dust with their experimentations.

Banjoist Béla Fleck chose an instrument most closely associated with tradition-minded country, bluegrass and folk music, but he's also a longtime jazz aficionado who has typically thought and played with the anything-goes sense of his jazz heroes. On the surface, that makes his current holiday music tour look somewhat curious.

But there’s a method to his musical madness, as he told me when we chatted recently for a profile that appears in Friday’s Calendar. He spoke about why he and his band, the Flecktones, chose to record an album of holiday tunes two years ago, and how they applied their penchant for experimentation to yuletide standards such as “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” for the record,  “Jingle All the Way,” which went on to collect a Grammy for best pop instrumental album of the year.

“When we do our own music, it can sound fairly esoteric on first listen,” said Fleck, 52.  “But on music that people are so familiar with, we can take it even further out.

“In fact, for some of the tracks, the Flecktones teamed up with the extraordinary singers from Tuva in southern Siberia, where vocalists learn to produce two and three notes simultaneously, creating an otherworldly sound. For the current tour, which stops Friday at UC Santa Barbara and Saturday at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, Fleck has brought along the Alash Ensemble of Tuvan throat singers.

“I always forget they're coming until the moment they walk onstage,” said Fleck. “It’s so much fun. They always confound the audience.”

He confessed that he wasn’t surprised when the album picked up the Grammy.

“I’ve learned not to be surprised by the Grammys,” said Fleck, who has won 11 and is nominated for another this year. “Honestly, I thought the [‘Jingle All the Way’] record had a lot of appeal  because it’s music everybody knew. But it’s done better than I’d hoped. The one thing I regret is the title. I just wanted something that wasn’t based in religion, but you’d still know that it’s a holiday album. Now that I look back, I think some people might think that we were just cashing in on Christmas. That’s not what we’re doing.”

-- Randy Lewis

Photo of Béla Fleck. Credit: Señor McGuire

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