Under Review: Béla Fleck & The Flecktones – Rocket Science

The career of banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck is nothing short of remarkable. From inventing and subsequently perfecting a bluegrass/jazz hybrid style he once called ‘Blu-Bop’ to exploring his signature instrument’s roots in the depths of Africa, Fleck has amassed one of the most captivating and creative catalogues in modern jazz. The only thing that could spark a new era of Fleck’s music would be a return to form, and that’s precisely what Rocket Science accomplishes. The ninth album from The Flecktones (excluding live records and their stunning holiday collection), Rocket Science is the first since 1992’s UFO Tofu to feature the quartet in its original lineup.

Returning as a full-time member on Rocket Science is Howard Levy, who gave the group’s first three records a very distinctive sound with his masterful harmonica and piano styles. Returning as usual are the dynamite rhythm section of bassist Victor Wooten and his big brother Roy “Future Man” Wooten. Victor’s basslines are as slippery and mind-boggling as ever and Futureman’s percussion remains idiosyncratic yet amiable. The new compositions are some of the strongest that The Flecktones have delivered in years, a testament to how well these four men play together.

Listening to Rocket Science, it sounds like little time has passed since those first Flecktones albums. Fleck’s banjo and Levy’s overdriven harmonica trade off melodies and intertwine on the multi-segmented “Storm Warning” and things get slightly rock-oriented on the surprising “Prickly Pear.” Perhaps the finest track on Rocket Science is Levy’s “Life In Eleven,” a positively joyful piece that recalls the frenetic pacing of much of the Flecktones’ early material. Though departed horn player Jeff Coffin is not to blame for the largely bucolic direction the band has taken over the past decade or so, Levy’s presence has clearly caused the other Flecktones to get a second wind. Tempo-shifting closing track “Bottle Rocket” captures all that rollicking, celebratory feeling with characteristically impressive solos from each member. As reunion albums go, Rocket Science meets a very high standard. The Flecktones sound renewed, refreshed and ready to not just recapture but surpass their own golden era.

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~ by E. on July 15, 2011.

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