CD Review: Bela Fleck & Marcus Roberts

Thursday, 05 July 2012 06:00 AM Written by 
 Despite its African origins and its 19th Century popularity as a classical instrument, most of the world still associates five-string banjo with folk, early country and particularly bluegrass.  Given that ongoing misconception, Bela Fleck has been an agent of change.  32 years after his first solo album, the 14-time Grammy winner has been the cutting edge of five-string virtuosity. His bold, eclectic musical palette showcases the instrument in various settings, both with his band the Flecktones and with other collaborators from various genres including classical, Western Swing,  Jazz and World Music.

Fleck is no stranger to jazz. He recorded the Grammy-nominated "The Enchantment" with Chick Corea five years ago. "Across The Imaginary Divide" (Rounder) recasts the five-string as a weapon of Bebop and Hard Bop as Fleck joins pianist Marcus Roberts and his trio: bassist Rodney Jackson and drummer Jason Marsalis, youngest son of that distinguished family.

The dozen Fleck-Roberts originals reflect a sense of both adventure and invention.   "Let Me Show You What To Do" moves between high-velocity bebop and slower, funkier moments.  His easy-flowing passages enhance Roberts' beguiling, Latin-flavored "The Sunshine and the Moonlight." Their dazzling piano-banjo counterpoint gives the title track real heft. 

"Petunia's" seamless bebop-bluegrass conflation reflects Fleck's longtime admiration of Charlie Parker.  Playfulness dominates both the swinging "That Old Thing" and Thelonious Monk-flavored "Let's Go."  Even dialing back the intensity on the minor-key "I'm Gonna Tell You This Story One More Time," Fleck's bluesy, minimalist solos remain inventive.

Over four decades ago, the late Earl Scruggs, bluegrass banjo master and Fleck's earliest influence, expressed his belief that five string banjo could fit into blues, jazz and rock.  Indeed, it was that vision that led to the undoing of his partnership with Lester Flatt (who objected to the band recording songs by Bob Dylan and other rockers) and moved him to more ambitious work.  Fleck's not only expanded upon his mentor's vision; he's made it his own. Blended with the virtuosity Roberts has long been known for, the results are never less than stunning.

This is the Rounder EPK (Electronic Press Kit) that gives more insight into the process.


Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.