(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

CD review - Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, Rocket Science (2011)

Jazz reunion looks forward, not back

The opening interplay of Gravity Lane sounds like a homecoming. On Rocket Science, Béla Fleck has reassembled the original Flecktones lineup, including Howard Levy. The floating banjo pattern, the touch of piano, and the ebullient harmonica fall together to recreate the jazzy magic of the first Flecktones album.

But as Gravity Lane develops, it's clear that all of the players have matured and extended their skills since those early days. The rhythms are more interesting and the phrasing is tighter. Throughout Rocket Science, the Flecktones celebrate their history together, but they're more focused on scaling new jazzy heights.

The parts are all well balanced between the players - Fleck's banjo skittles along, mutating simple roll technique into the feel of an arpeggiated keyboard line. Victor Wooten's bass warms up with simple comping, but eventually he makes his move to fly off into a busy melodic run. Roy Futureman Wooten lays down a solid classic jazz drum beat. Improvising fills off the basic rhythm, he finds the right flow to accent the melodic phrases. But the key is having Howard Levy back. Levy is adept at using the piano to support the progression while his harmonica colors the song with fill elements or echoes the bassline.

I particularly enjoyed Storm Warning. The bass sets up a moody start. The harmonica creates a poised tension. As the song opens up, it evolves into a progressive groove that twists upon itself, offer a sense expectations. The Flecktones toss the melody around before locking together again for a while. As one of the longest tracks on Rocket Science, Storm Warning drifts through a number of sections, but the high point is Victor Wooten's unchained bass solo section around three minutes in. It has that same crazy spark that Adrian Belew summons on guitar: twisted tones that seem to physically wrench themselves from the instrument. Fleck's composition takes full advantage of his bandmates.

The Flecktones fill Rocket Science with a rich mix of sounds from the bluesy tumble of Prickly Pear to the sweet jazz meanderings of Falling Forward to the musique concrète exploration of The Secret Drawer. It's a heady, exciting album, full of head and heart.

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