- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2004

If you’ve ever wondered how far you could go with a banjo, you’re in pretty good company. Bela Fleck, who will be performing with bassist Edgar Meyer at the Lisner Auditorium tonight, has pushed the instrument to more places than most people could have imagined.

“I’ve been practicing the banjo in as many ways as I could,” says Mr. Fleck, who has performed rock, jazz and even classical music on an instrument most people associate only with bluegrass. “Even back in the 1800s, people used the banjo for anything from ragtime to classical.”

Never heard of a banjo virtuoso? Then you’ve never heard Bela Fleck, who can coax sounds and rhythms out of the instrument that even Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs never thought of. And he’s just as likely to play Bach as bluegrass.

Mr. Fleck discovered the banjo when he was 15. At the time, the New York City native was listening to a recording by bluegrass artists Flatt and Scruggs, who performed on the “Bonnie and Clyde” soundtrack. Right away, he fell in love.

“Once I got a banjo, I was in so deep I went to Nashville,” he says.

By 1982, he was playing with the cutting-edge group New Grass Revival, pushing the limits of traditional bluegrass with a wild, virtuosic style that had even staid Washington audiences leaping to their feet.

From New Grass Revival, Mr. Fleck moved to jazz and other genres. With his band the Flecktones, he pushed the limits even further, playing in different keys and different time signatures. He credits band members Victor Wooten, Futureman and Jeff Coffin for the changes.

“We pushed on each other to excel on our instruments and improve as players,” Mr. Fleck says. “My playing has grown in quantum leaps since 1990.”

His association with classical composer and bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer began in the early ‘80s. Since then, they’ve collaborated on a number of tours and projects. Mr. Fleck’s 2001 album, “Perpetual Motion,” explored classical music through the banjo.

His most recent album, “Music for Two,” is a collaboration with Mr. Meyer, honed through days on the road and nights in motel rooms, practicing.

“We’ve got to play a canon that’s in 15/8,” Mr. Fleck says. “It’s quite a piece. I don’t read music very well, so I have to ear it.”

In the end, it’s all about the possibilities of the instrument — and of the sound.

“It’s a mistake just to connect the banjo to a rural idea,” he says. “You can play anything on the banjo. Funk should be played on the banjo.”

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Speaking of funk, blues musician extraordinaire Taj Mahal plays the Birchmere tonight and the Ram’s Head in Annapolis Saturday and Sunday. To call him a “blues artist” is rather like calling the original Taj Mahal a building; the two are much more than just words and music.

Since he began making music more than 40 years ago, Taj Mahal, born Henry St. Claire Fredericks, has recorded blues, folk songs, rock and reggae.

He’s collaborated with African artists such as Toumani Diabate, laid down Hawaiian riffs with the Hula Blues Band and even recorded a children’s album.

“In truth, there’s really only one groove,” Taj Mahal told Guitar Player magazine last October. “And that’s the groove that makes you dance.”

The music comes naturally, he has said, because his background made it so. His father was from St. Kitts; his stepfather was from Jamaica; and music from the Caribbean vied with American blues, gospel and popular music for airtime.

“Unfortunately, Americans rarely listen beyond their borders,” he told Guitar Player. “There are lots of great players that you might never hear because you don’t check out Brazilian or Cuban music, or you don’t go deep inside Turkish, Greek, or Indian music to find that thing that makes your body move … .

“We are the greatest country, but we have to earn, deserve and preserve that fact.”

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