Bela Fleck is great. Now if only he could swing.
“Across the Imaginary Divide” is another foray for Bela Fleck into jazz, coupling with a pianist much as he has done with Chick Corea in their live shows and on their CD “The Enchantment” (2007). The trio is filled out by Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums.
Fleck is—and this of course needs not be said, but here I go saying it again—a musician of the first order. He has brought new audiences to the banjo, or at least that’s how the story goes, but his music since the release of the “The Bluegrass Sessions” in 1999 has really been less about the banjo and simply more about music. He’s ventured into classical music, jazz, old time, traditional Chinese music (with Abigail Washburn), African rhythms, all while keeping college audiences happy with the work he does with the Flecktones. The fact that it is “banjo” is superfluous; rather, it is just music, masterfully conceived and performed.
Therefore to be critical of someone who has done so much, and so well, can feel a bit like heresy. But, as much as we might like to think so, Fleck actually can’t do everything. As a jazz fan, I’m not sure that he does jazz with any great success, and the reason is something that is true in all of his music: he just can’t seem to swing. Of course, when playing bluegrass that’s not always warranted, and his impeccable timing is something that set him apart on some of his early recordings that are now genre classics, such as “Fiddle Tunes for Banjo” with Tony Trischka and Bill Keith. His rolls have the precision of the metronome, and in a bluegrass setting, that’s a good thing.
The thing about jazz, however, is that it really has to swing. We can disagree, of course—and no doubt this is a topic that could fuel lots of silly, blowhard conversations—but I know that I’m not alone in thinking that one of the things that makes jazz, well, jazz is swing time, using dotted quarters to deliver a feel that is relaxed in the ballads, and fluid in more up-tempo pieces. It’s true that not all jazz players swing all of the time, but they all do at least some of the time. Again, it’s one of the things that makes jazz, jazz.
The irony is that one of the things that Earl Scruggs, a great hero and inspiration to Fleck, brought to bluegrass was swing time, and in some senses that’s what audiences were really responding to. He was using three fingers—and that’s the innovation that is always attributed to him—but his timing was often based in swing whenever accompanying vocals or other soloists. When taking solos, he’d go into straight time, and that was one of the things that allowed his banjo to come forward and really sparkle during those rightfully famous solos.
Fleck doesn’t do that, and in much of his work, it perhaps doesn’t matter. But on this collection, it really does. Marcus Roberts is masterful, but he also is really playing jazz. He swings, feeling out the melody and supporting it. He’s great at it, and whenever he steps back into the mix, we long to have him back at the front again. The banjo is often a distraction from what is really going on. Even on the title track, the banjo sounds like it’s competing rather than participating, something that happens throughout this disc. On “One Blue Truth” the banjo seems to ignore the feel of the piece entirely, which is a gently swinging ballad. There Fleck’s playing is like it is everywhere else: metronomic.
There are some successful moments, of course, and “Big Ups” is perhaps one of them. (But given that it’s in a New Orleans style, it’s easy to wonder why Fleck never gives a nod to the tenor banjo styles of that music. The piece just leaves you longing for that.) “Let me Show You What to Do” is an instance where the straight staccato banjo sections provide a counterpoint to the trio sections, and therefore is a more successful pairing than in the ballads.
But, in the end, I’m left just wanting Fleck to get out of the way of the Marcus Roberts Trio, who are fantastic interpreters, writers, and performers. And they play exactly what they know best, jazz. Which is exactly what they should be doing.