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Fleck, Roberts jazz, banjo mix still being improved

| Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, 9:08 p.m.
Bela Fleck (left) and Marcus Roberts Rounder

Bela Fleck and Marcus Roberts both are busy musicians, but not enough to be kept from exploring a new jazz mixture together.

That blend of banjo and jazz trio keeps on growing, as will be seen Saturday at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild on the North Side.

“The shows keep changing as we begin to understand each other better,” says Roberts, a pianist who has played in any number of jazz settings and teaches at Florida State University. “The shows now have a lot more freedom and sense of spontaneity.”

Fleck, who has given the banjo a modern sound in whatever he does, agrees.

“The spontaneous nature of the group is pretty amazing,” he says in an email. “I certainly can't work on soloing by myself, because what I play is predicated on what the other guys play before it. This is a four-way conversation, not a monologue. So I need to know the structures well, then I can play what is needed off the top of my head.”

The tour is in conjunction with “Across the Imaginary Divide,” the album by Fleck and the Roberts trio that also features drummer Jason Marsalis and bassist Rodney Jordan. It is a release that grew from an encounter between the pianist and banjoist at a festival in Savannah, Ga., in 2011, they say.

“We ending up jamming there and it was pretty intriguing,” Roberts says. “Bela had done all sorts of music, but was interested in learning more about jazz.”

Fleck says he felt “incomplete” in his limited work with jazz.

“I have loved jazz, and dabbled at applying the banjo to it,” he says. ”I have interacted with jazz musicians for a long time — I toured as a duo with Chick Corea, recorded with Branford Marsalis, and McCoy Tyner, etc. But I had never played for an extended period of time in a straight-ahead jazz combo, and that is what I'm finally getting to do now with Marcus, Rodney and Jason.”

The result of this teamwork is jazz in the usual rhythmic and harmonic flavor, but music with a tonal quality that is far different from that produced with a horn — or a guitar — as a fourth instrument. In some ways, the lightness of the sound is closer to that produced by jazz violin.

Fleck says that sound mixture has provided a challenge.

“The banjo has some inherent issues,” he says, “but I've been working at developing an approach that uses its strengths.”

Besides working on developing this jazz sound, both musicians are busy in other ways. Roberts is finishing a piano concerto that will be premiered later this year in Atlanta and has an upcoming show in New York City with a 12-piece band.

Fleck has been performing the banjo concerto he premiered in 2011, and is recording a piece for string quartet and banjo. He also is touring with a new, traditional bluegrass group; his wife, Abigail Washburn, who also is a banjoist as well as a singer; and Chick Corea.

But both think a second recording of this group might be in order.

“It would be fun to see what we would come up with now that we really know what each other are capable of,” Fleck says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7852.

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