A San Francisco Jazz Show, Banjo-Style
Written by Cassie Newman
What does it mean to defy expectations as a jazz quartet? It means to feature, even star, a banjo instead of a guitar. Two banjos, in fact: an acoustic one and a purple electric one. It means to play the banjo with such silky delicacy and to elicit notes from the electric bass at such extreme ends of the musical scale that the absence of a guitar goes unnoticed. It means to open a set with a song deeply rooted in funk music, move into a medley of Christmas songs and then add some sprinklings of bluegrass here and there to taste.
To defy expectations means, at the end of the day, to play like Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Spread comfortably and casually across the width of the stage at Yoshi’s, the reputable jazz club in San Francisco, the quartet’s show on November 22 served in part as a teaser for their new Christmas album.
They anticipated the reluctance of certain audience members to hear Christmas songs pre-Thanksgiving, amending their introduction with a witty, “...unfortunately, yes”, but their versions of the catchy classics were colored with a fresh, original approach (which, all things considered, comes as no surprise).
Undeniably, these men are at the very top of their game. They have a striking presence on stage, passing the focus amongst one another generously and seamlessly. There is an innate physical communication between them by means of subtle gestures or knowing glances which allows for clean, clear transitions and conclusions of pieces.
Each song in the set took the audience on a journey; from the reminiscence of a looming storm that opened “Shinai” with ominous tapping on the drums and minor-key whirring of the flute, to the staccato notes that bounced one melody or key right into the next in their classic song “Big Country.” The set featured one bass solo: a rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” in which not a string or fret was left untouched, and yet the song maintained its sweet simplicity.
Like the rest of the set, the Flecktones’ Christmas songs were infused with all of the requisite jazz techniques: call and response between the sax and the bass or the banjo; an impressive specificity and sense of collaboration even in the freest of jazz improvising; and moments of subtle playfulness. The quartet’s eccentric drummer, “Futureman”, often took on Jeff Coffin on saxophone in a musical showdown of sorts. Standing close together, the musicians played simultaneously yet built off of one another, taking each phrase one step above the one before until the sound exploded into a reunion of all four musicians, followed by an eruption of applause from the audience.
Most impressive of all was, appropriately, saved for last. Fleck made no bones about building up the risk involved in playing the final song of the night, ultimately explaining that the quartet was going to attempt to play “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in twelve keys and twelve time signatures (and adding a reassuring “Don’t worry, Futureman, it will all be okay” before launching in). What followed was a journey through that epic song more satisfying than any that has come before it, as each of the twelve days brought with it a new key and a new tempo. This also meant that at the end of each verse, when the lyrics descend in a backwards fashion, each key and tempo was maintained, making for a frenetic yet highly specific medley. It was a wonder how they not only remembered each distinct composition, but also jumped between them with such rapidity and ease.
Then again, when it comes to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, one would expect nothing less.