Graham Nash (you know: British Invasion harmonizers the Hollies, folk-rockers Crosby, Stills & Nash and sometimes Young) once told me he had a list of artists he wanted to sing with, and he was grateful his long career had let him go through most of it. Banjoist Béla Fleck may be going through his list even faster, checking off an all-star crew of African musicians on his new album, film documentary and the tour that brings him to EMPAC on Saturday.
Let’s catch up, before looking ahead.
The most recent Fleck shows I’ve seen were with the electric evolutionaries (and recent Grammy winners) the Flecktones at The Egg; Abigail Washburn’s folk- and Chinese music-inspired string band the Sparrow Quartet, also at The Egg; and with jazz pianist Chick Corea in a duo show at Proctors.
I also caught the restless virtuoso with the Flecktones at the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival at Saratoga Performing Arts Center and a folk festival in the same place, opening for the Dave Matthews Band at the former Pepsi Arena (now the Times Union Center) and headlining at the Palace Theater and the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. But I missed him at SPAC’s Jazz Festival with jazzmen violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and bassist Stanley Clarke, at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival with the Sparrow Quartet and in Northampton, Mass., with his acoustic trio. He plays so many shows here it’s easy to miss some, but also to feel comforted by the chance to catch him again soon.
All this hyperactive collaborating makes the nine years he spent with New Grass Revival, and his 21 years with the Flecktones seem like an eternity of stability. No wonder he has been nominated for Grammy awards in more categories than any musician in history.
Flexible and fearless
Fleck presents his “Africa Project” show on Saturday at EMPAC at RPI. Collaborations with musicians in Mali, Gambia, Uganda and Tanzania, this pilgrimage explores the African roots of the banjo with contemporary masters of related instruments.
Fleck isn’t the first to do this, or even the first banjoist. Tony Trischka, Fleck’s teacher, investigated the banjo’s African origins on “World Turning,” a near-legendary 1993 album that sparkles with African tunes despite its Fleetwood Mac cover title track. The drone blues trance-master Otis Taylor took the banjo way back into the blues on his spooky-deep “Recapturing the Banjo” album.
The super-flexible and fearless Fleck, however, undertakes this pilgrimage with admirable, typical thoroughness — also a film crew and a recording engineer in five weeks of musical exploration in 2005. The result is a documentary film “Throw Down Your Heart” (which opens later this spring, with a DVD to follow in the fall) and “Tales From the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3: Africa Sessions.” The New York Times reports in an album review that “Traditional African music turns out to suit him just fine,” though the reverse is equally true: Fleck can play with anybody.
The EMPAC show on Saturday features musicians from the film and the album: kora player Toumani Diabate from Mali; South African guitarist and singer Vusi Mahlasela; guitarist and singer D’Gary, and percussionist Mario, from Madagascar; and guitarist John Kitime, and thumb pianist and singer Anania Ngoliga from Tanzania.
Absent on Saturday, but very present in the film and on the album, is the great Malian singer Oumou Sangare. Fleck plans to tour with her in July; who knows, they might play here on that swing.
As if that were not enough — and it would be, for most musicians — Fleck is featured on the debut album “Sounding Point” by guitar prodigy Julian Lage. In January Fleck recorded a triple concerto with percussionist Zakir Hussain, bassist Edgar Meyer and the Detroit Symphony conducted by Leonard Slatkin. He’s touring with Hussain and Meyer this fall, but the nearest show announced so far is in Princeton, N.J.
“Béla Fleck: The Africa Project” is scheduled for 8 p.m. on Saturday. It’s sold out — fans recognized early the unique nature of this show. But he will certainly be back again soon; and who knows who’ll play with him then?
Sgt. Dunbar & the Hobo Banned were touted in a recent interview with Bob Boilen (All Songs Considered) from SXSW on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Listening to recordings by 1083 of the 1800 bands playing at this huge Austin music festival, Boilen decided to see this Albany band, saying on NPR: “On Thursday night, there’s Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned. They sound like they’re inspired both by Charlie Mingus and some great New Orleans jazz band. I can’t quite make this band out, but I do know they sound very different from most of the mostly guitar-based bands here.”
Nice props, and nice that we can hear them here: Sgt. Dunbar & the Hobo Banned play at Crumbs Nite Out at WAMC on April 23 and at Valentine’s with Dust from 1000 Years and Desperately Obvious on May 3.
The Doc Scanlon Trio just returned from playing in France and Spain, including Barcelona’s Hotel Casa Fuster, where Woody Allen relaxed, playing jazz, after shooting scenes for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Doc was playing there that happy night when Penelope Cruz won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in the film. The full Doc Scanlon band plays on April 4 at Daisy Baker’s in Troy.
Last, and maybe most impressive of all, check out www.moogis.com, a new online concert streaming and download service that is now presenting the Allman Brothers Band’s Beacon Theatre shows from New York City. It’s a project by Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks and Schenectady native Michael Davis. He grew up on Union Street, graduated from Linton High School, played drums in bunches of bands here and has been an Allman Brothers fan since their now-legendary free show at Skidmore College in 1971.
Davis lives, works and plays in a handful of bands in Atlanta these days. His Moogis crews shoot sharp video using five cameras, mixing — with real musicians’ sensitivity and insight — to what’s most interesting and dynamic onstage, with superb audio quality. FYI, “Moogis” is how Butch Trucks’ young kids said “music”.
Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at firstname.lastname@example.org.