It wasn’t hard for pianist and harmonica player Howard Levy to reintegrate into The Flecktones.
Banjo master Bela Fleck formed Bela Fleck and The Flecktones with Levy and brothers Victor Wooten (bass) and Roy “Futureman” Wooten (Drumitar) in 1988, initially as a one-off project for an appearance on PBS’ “Lonesome Pine Specials.” But the chemistry among the four stuck, and by 1992 they had released three albums under the Flecktones name.
Then Levy left the band. Fleck and company continued on, modifying their sound with saxophonist Jeff Coffin. That lineup remained in place until 2009, when Coffin left to fill the saxophone vacancy with the Dave Matthews Band left by the late LeRoi Moore. The timing was right to invite Levy back to the group.
“We have maintained our friendship, and he has sat in on occasion,” Fleck said via email while in the midst of the band’s fall U.S. tour, which heads to The Egg on Sunday night. “This was the first time we had a good spot for him to jump into.”
For Gazette music writer Michael Hochanadel’s review of this show, click here.
The initial reunion, which saw the band performing throughout 2010 under the name Bela Fleck and the Original Flecktones, revisiting early classics “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo,” “UFO Tofu” and the 1990 self-titled debut, has now blossomed into a full-fledged studio effort, “Rocket Science,” released in May.
“We seemed to know how to operate as a unit again almost instantly,” Fleck said. “Once we started getting creative, it was like being at a buffet full of great possibilities. We did well at agreeing on things.”
The results, found on the 12 tracks that make up “Rocket Science,” both recall the band’s early days and forge new ground with a combination of jazz, bluegrass, classical, funk, rock and world music. Throughout, Levy’s playing cuts through Fleck’s immediately recognizable banjo licks and Victor Wooten’s slap bass.
According to Fleck, Levy had a larger role in the album’s creative process than he ever did on the first three Flecktones albums.
“I really wanted to involve Howard in the composing process this time,” Fleck said. “I think he was under-represented in the early recordings in terms of writing.”
Levy wrote or co-wrote three of the album’s tracks — in an interview video about the album on the band’s website, Levy states, “It’s much easier for me to collaborate with him now — it’s interesting how people change, people grow.” All four members of The Flecktones contributed to the songwriting almost equally this time out, unlike the first three albums, which focused primarily on Fleck’s compositions.
The band didn’t specifically attempt to revisit its earlier sound while creating the album. However, according to Fleck, it was inevitable that the band would gravitate back to that.
Fleck’s recent journeys to Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali in Africa, to study the origins of the banjo — the journey was documented in the 2009 documentary “Throw Down Your Heart” — didn’t have an overt influence on the album, either.
“Everything I do influences what I do afterwards,” Fleck said. “It’s all in my subconsciousness from then on, and comes out in my playing and writing. However, I didn’t attempt to put any overt African influences in.”
Don’t expect any reimagining of material from the band’s years with Coffin — whose contributions with the band span the majority of its career. Instead, the shows are focusing on the new record and cuts from the band’s first three outings.
“We are doing about half music from the early recordings with Howard and half from ‘Rocket Science,’” Fleck said. “Also, we have a surprise guest on fiddle for some tunes. We aren’t doing any Jeff-era pieces.”
And the future of the band at this point also remains uncertain. “We are only committed through April,” Fleck said. “After that, we’ll go our separate ways. When the time is right we will return, but that remains to be determined, as the lineup will.”
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