with Alash as Guest Artists
Rounder Records, 2008
Bela Fleck's Holiday Surprise
by Geoffrey Himes
2 December 2008
Bela Fleck had no objections to making a Christmas album. But if he were going to do a holiday recording with his instrumental jazz quartet, the Flecktones, he didn't want to take the expected approach.
"I didn't want to go the route of getting super-famous guests because that could lead to cheese," he explains. "That suggestion came up: 'Why don't you make a Christmas record with Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson and Sting with you guys as the backing band?' We're not a backing band. We'd rather go down in obscurity than to be famous for something we're not."
Instead, the only vocals on the Flecktones' new holiday project, "Jingle All the Way," come from the Alash Ensemble, a quartet of Tuvan throat singers from the high plains of central Asia. Each throat singer splits his voice into two or three parts: a low, guttural drone, a nasal baritone and/or a high, whistling overtone. When these men apply the technique in their own language to "Jingle Bells" and "What Child Is This," the results are unlike any versions of those songs you've ever heard.
Of course, the rest of the album is pretty unusual as well — let's start with the fact that a legendary bluegrass banjoist, a funk bassist, a jazz saxophonist and a drum-machine whiz are playing Christmas songs together. And they are playing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" sequentially in a dozen different time signatures and dozen different keys.
"Sleigh Ride" is taken at a dizzying tempo, as if jet-propulsion engines had been strapped to the sleigh's runners. Fleck's banjo, Victor Wooten's bass, Jeff Coffin's soprano sax and Roy "Futureman" Wooten's drumitar (a drum machine shaped and worn like a guitar) send notes flying like gale-blown snow. They slow down for "Silent Night" and prove they are just as capable of coaxing the feeling out of a simple melody as they are at quadrupling the number of notes per measure.
"There were certain songs, when we listened to takes, I said, 'Guys, I think we need to play more melody.' Sometimes when you go too far from the melody, you're not playing the song anymore, and on this record, I wanted to play the songs," Fleck says.
That's because people know Christmas songs. It was time for the band to take advantage of the fact that listeners might, for once, recognize what they were playing.
"When we perform these Christmas songs in front of people, they're so happy to hear us playing tunes that they actually know. Christmas music is inside everyone's DNA," Fleck says. "Our other music can be very complex and difficult for some people to figure out, but if we play a tune they're familiar with, they can tell what we're doing with it. And from that they can get an idea about what we're doing with our own music. It's a doorway."
The Flecktones are in the midst of a tour after spending most of 2008 apart. Each of the four members has been off pursuing other projects. . . .
"By doing other projects," Coffin says, "we bring new influences into the Flecktones and also attract new audiences to the group. By getting to play with these other musicians, you conceptualize things in another way. You hear someone weight an accent in a different way or shape a line in a different way, and that might inspire you write a tune in that style or to play a solo differently. But first and foremost we love playing with each other. That's what's most important for us."
And so for now, that playing together is focused on holly leaves, twinkling lights, snowflakes and Santa.
"In a weird way, it makes you feel like a little kid again; certain buttons get pushed, and there's a sense of wonder again," Fleck says. "For me as an instrumentalist, it's always gratifying to find ways to have my music become parts of people's lives. People who don't normally listen to instrumental music will listen to this because it's Christmas music."
(original no longer online)
Bela Fleck & The Flecktones: Jingle All the Way
by Juli Thanki
14 December 2008
Nothing says the holidays like electric banjo and Tuvan Throat Singing.
The thing about Christmas music is that so much of it is godawful. One can only listen to Paul McCartney sing about simply having a wonderful Christmas time for so long before the urge to drown oneself in the eggnog becomes overwhelming. Luckily, there's Béla Fleck and his backing trio the Flecktones, who liven up cookie-cutter carols with their unique jazzy bluegrass sound and infectious holiday cheer. All of the standards from Bach to Guaraldi are tackled here, and a couple nontraditional songs as well; Jingle All the Way ends with a lovely instrumental version of Joni Mitchell's "River". Despite their oftentimes breathtaking innovation, mixed with a healthy dose of weirdness, Fleck and his bandmates keep the improvisational noodling to a minimum, making this an enjoyable album for jazz fans and nonfans alike while still maintaining the integrity of these holiday classics.
The album begins with a version of "Jingle All the Way" in which the vocalizing is done by Tuvan throat singing ensemble Alash. The raspy chanting is an interesting counterpart to the delicate flute and banjo arrangement, creating a Christmas song like you've never heard before. Alash's strangely beautiful vocal stylings may turn off more conservative listeners, but it gives the song a uniquely international quality that so many traditional holiday songs are lacking.
Up next is a no-nonsense "Silent Night", featuring some nifty bass playing by Flecktone Victor Wooten, who shines throughout the record. By far the shining song on the album is Fleck's lighthearted rendition of "Sleigh Ride", complete with nimble banjo riffs, understated percussion from Flecktone Future Man, and some mean saxophone, courtesy of woodwind expert Jeff Coffin.
The Flecktones' version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is sure to put a smile on anyone's face, thanks to the back-and-forth between band members, the inclusion of Edgar Meyer on bowed double bass and a brief cameo by Alash. Meyer reappears on Bach's "Christmas Oratorio #41", his bass providing, in Fleck's words, "intense counterpoint" to Coffin's saxophone.
The band then pays tribute to A Charlie Brown Christmas with their version of "Linus and Lucy", which will have listeners bopping along just like the Peanuts gang. Really, "Linus and Lucy" is one of those songs that is so wonderful that it becomes impossible to screw up, and anything other than a fairly straightforward cover, which the Flecktones thankfully perform, would be borderline sacrilege. Jews don't get left out of Jingle All the Way: Béla and the boys deliver a "Hanukah Waltz" while guest star Andy Statman contributes clarinet. "Medley" is exactly what the title states, an amalgamation of several holiday songs including "We Wish You a Merry Christmas", "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer", "My Favorite Things" and others. "Medley" has actually been a popular Flecktone holiday standard at concerts for several years, but this is the first time it has been recorded.
As far as holiday music goes, Jingle All the Way is a keeper, thanks to Béla Fleck's reinvention of tired songs. Put it on your stereo and your Christmas party will have the best soundtrack in town.
Bela Fleck & the Flecktones – Jingle All the Way (jazz)
by Jeff Pinzino
6 November 2008
The most adventurous Christmas album to come out in years. Bela Fleck is a samurai banjo player who has created thoroughly modern versions of holiday chestnuts. He’s broadened the cannon to include “Linus and Lucy” and Joni Mitchell’s “River” alongside “Silent Night” and even an excerpt from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Oh, and don’t forget “Jingle Bells” done by Tuvan throat singers.