Bluegrass as world music, master musicians exploring new ways of combining sounds and styles.
If Americana, or indeed America, is anything it is a fusion of influences combining to make something new. In this case Bluegrass Banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck has brought together a diverse group of people to see what arises. Bass player Edgar Meyer, has backed Fleck, Jerry Douglas, and Chris Thile, as well as working in Jazz and Western Classical music. Zakir Hussain, is a Tabla player and no stranger to fusions, he has been part of John McLaughlin’s Indo/Jazz band Shakti for 50 years. Rakesh Chaurasia plays an Indian Bamboo Flute called the Bansuri.
The press calls this “a new project from perception shattering musicians”, and if you go into this thinking, “world music” then you would be right. But this is hardly the first time Fleck has stepped outside his prescribed box, and anyway isn’t America part of the world?
The beauty of this album is how tunes like ‘The B Tune’ take what is clearly a Bluegrass piece and assign the roles to other instruments. Bansuri for Fiddle, Bowed bass for guitar. Fleck turns in one of his signature Banjo pieces mid-way through, sparring with Myer and Hussain. This has all the elements of a Bluegrass tune, with that essential element of competition and trying to outdo the last solo which is at the core of Bluegrass. Meyer just takes battle with a high-speed bass solo, with Chaurasia a close second.
‘Rickety Karma’ is another tune that takes the Indian Classical musicians and drops them into an American folk tune. In this case Hussain uses the rhythms of Appalachian clogging, taking the percussive aspect of a form of dance that emerged from a blend of English Morris, African and Native American dance styles. More fusions. ‘1980’ features a call and response opening section, before becoming a more abstract classical piece with Meyer finding notes between the Western semitones in the way of Indian Raga’s. Fleck tries to follow him and delivers a possibly unique Banjo Raga.
None of the tunes here have been chopped to make them fit radio or Spotify algorithms. They are the length they need to be to allow the musicians to explore the themes. And there is so much packed into each tune. ‘Beast In The Garden’ features Indian Scat singing that is as percussive as the Tabla and a long way from Cab Calloway. The single release ‘Owl’s Misfortune’ would not be out of place on one of the many “World-Jazz” compilations, except that it is so much better with exemplary soloing from Meyer and Chaurasia. ‘Conundrum’, another long piece at over 8 minutes, mixes in more Jazz, with Chaurasia producing Roland Kirk arpeggios while Fleck and Meyer go again with their Bluegrass dueling. This may be the point where East and West meet most clearly on the album and where each musician gives their best to the tune, another Bluegrass trait. The title track closes the album with a tune that is mostly built around another Raga, and an almost African section in the middle where it becomes hard to distinguish instruments which melt away to allow Hussain’s Tabla the last word in a solo that features motifs more likely to appear in Jazz or Blues drum solos.
The big plus on this album is that unlike Shakti, where McLaughlin’s voice dominates this is a true mix of all the participants. They bring their own expertise but are also open to listening to their band mates and responding to their contributions, and from that something unique and wonderful has been created. To quote the press release again “Weaving a sonic tapestry of banjo, tabla, double bass, and bansuri, these artists convene to make some of the most soulful, fascinating and undefinable music found in today’s world”