Even if there were more of them, Bela Fleck would still be the world's best jazz banjo player; the fact that he's apparently alone in his field just makes him an innovator to boot. (The banjo, for a number of reasons, is especially unsuited to the expressive demands of jazz even though the instrument and the genre share African roots; Fleck has simply created his own stylistic cove to shelter his hybrid interests.) To explain the dynamics of his odd quartet, Fleck says that "lack of conventionality is the one thread," and he's not just strumming "Dixie." The bassist uses an unusual technique that's virtually all thumbs: by relying on these traditionally underemployed digits, he's come up with a bunch of different sounds and effects. The drummer isn't a drummer at all: he plays percussion on the Drumitar, an electric-guitar-like synthesizer affair on which he taps his fingers to replicate a full trap set. In this context, local boy Howard Levy seems almost conventional except to audiences outside Chicago, where they're not expecting a pianist who also plays the blues harp like it was a jazz saxophone. The Flecktones are not jazz, and they ain't bluegrass--even though they combine elements of both into a quirky and uncategorizable brand of improvised, instrumental Americana. Also, they're loads o' fun. Monday, 7:30 PM, New Regal Theater, 1645 E. 79th; 721-9230 or 559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Senor McGuire.