“The Original Flecktones” new release “Rocket Science” finds the band in its original lineup for the first time in over eighteen years. The result is well worth the wait.
Tuesday morning I hopped in my car and set out for Washington DC. That same morning, a “China Bus” running from North Carolina to New York City lost control and rolled over killing four passengers. A two-hour drive quickly turned into a four-hour grind. Before the trip, I put the new Béla Fleck and the Flecktones album into my CD player. Rocket Science didn’t stop playing for the entirety of the trip.
Press play and banjo, harmonica, bass and drumitar create a unique sonic fabric that has enough variety that it is interesting but enough consistency that the big picture is still beautiful.
The first track, Gravity Lane, is a light tune with a simple theme, but its development is inspiring. Victor Wooten (bass) and Howard Levy (harmonica/ piano) play five notes that start so peacefully and then effortlessly travel through different keys, moods and rhythms while Béla Fleck (banjo) and Futureman (drums) lay down a floating homey groove. It won’t take long for this tune to work its way into your iTunes top 25.
Too quickly the playful tune is over and the band moves on to serious business. The metrically modulating “Life in Eleven” changes meters almost as quickly as its intensity rises and falls. Its many different sections offer every member of the band brief moments to shine. Victor Wooten finds himself doing what he does best. His slapping bass lines make way for some of Levy’s most convincing piano playing and finally Levy takes the tune home with brilliant and accelerating flashes of harmonica in unison with Fleck’s banjo.
The hidden gem on this record is “Falani.” The tune is next to last on the album and it has another relaxed groove. Melodic material is passed between Wooten, Levy and Fleck over a casual back-beat. Eventually Wooten takes a very convincing and melodic bass solo. Don’t let this track hide in the depths of the order.
The best thing about this album is the band. For the first time in eighteen years, founding member Howard Levy rejoins the group on harmonica and piano. Levy brings the sophistication of many jazz harmonica players but the thick sound and soul of many blues players. I have never heard a diatonic harmonic played with such presence, flexibility and agility.
Futureman adds to the excitement on drums with playing that effortlessly dances and has life of its own. His use of the ride cymbal makes this album. Of course, it isn’t really a ride cymbal. Futureman plays a custom Drumitar. It blends electronic drums with the interface of a guitar and its sounds are deceptively realistic.
On the far right, Futureman plays his Drumitar on this older video:
With saxophonist Jeff Coffin on tour with Dave Matthews Band, the group is touring and recording as “The Original Flecktones.” With change forced upon them, The Flecktones used a new approach to create the music on this record. Most importantly, Howard Levy and Béla Fleck composed a large portion of the music in Levy’s house in Evanston, Illinois. This collaborative process paints a picture that would be unrecognizable if any one of its artists were removed.
If you are searching for something with a different sound, something you can roll your windows down and listen to on the open road (over and over again), Rocket Science is a must buy.