Sharps & flats

Bila Fleck ditches the jammy, New Age dreck for an album of smokin' jazzgrass.

Published July 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

There's a moment at the end of "Major Honker," one of the many gems on this CD, when five string players break into a loose swagger that recalls a riff at the end of Bila Fleck's 1988 album "Drive." It's a moment with swing, virtuosity and reverence that sums up all that's right with Fleck's latest effort.

Since 1990, Fleck has focused on his electric banjo outfit, Bila Fleck & the Flecktones, a combo that has simultaneously won a boatload of Deadhead-type fans attracted to long, spaced-out roots jams and lost some acoustic purists who preferred Fleck unplugged.

Throughout the '80s, Fleck and many of the musicians on "The Bluegrass Sessions" -- including flatpicking guitarist Tony Rice, Dobro player Jerry Douglas, mandolin picker Sam Bush, bassist Mark Schatz and fiddler Stuart Duncan -- took turns playing on each other's solo efforts. If "newgrass" was the electric-acoustic hybrid genre that debuted at bluegrass festivals in the '80s, the style whipped up by Fleck and his comrades was "jazzgrass," using traditional bluegrass instruments within the parameters of jazz. (The supergroup Strength in Numbers released the premier album of the genre, "The Telluride Sessions," in 1989.)

Over the last decade, every once in a while, Fleck has gone back into the acoustic realm. The results have been, for the most part, uninspired: Volume 1 of "The Acoustic Planet" was hesitant and tepid compared with Fleck's earlier acoustic work, and "Solo Banjo Works" (1993) was, well, solo banjo.

"The Bluegrass Sessions" is a full-fledged return to Fleck's jazzgrass glory. Over the course of 18 tracks and 75 minutes, Fleck and his acoustic soul mates capture the transcendent magic they once regularly churned out. They make finger-knotting runs and improvisational leaps sound smooth and easy. They're also confident enough to play together and avoid grandstanding solos. Douglas -- nicknamed "Flux" for his unerringly smooth style -- is a standout, filling songs with resplendent blue notes and soulful lines. And Fleck once again shows he is the meanest banjo player New York City (and perhaps anywhere else) has ever produced, laying down a churning groundwork for the other musicians to build on. The songs range from mournful, heart-wrenching ballads ("Plunky's Lament") to full-throttle yee-haws ("Blue Mountain Hop") to meandering jazz explorations (the exquisite "Dark Circles").

It would be too much to expect this album to mark a return to the acoustic heyday of the late 1980s. Fleck is going to go on making New Age funk with the Flecktones, Rice will continue to focus on more traditional bluegrass projects and Douglas seems content exploring New Age and classical realms. It's enough, then, to know that these guys are playing as beautifully as any picking circle has ever played. You're not likely to hear it again for a while.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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