Here’s a Christmas promise: You’ll never hear a crazier “Jingle Bells” than the one Béla Fleck and the Flecktones will play Friday at the Bing.
Imagine that jaunty song delivered in a guttural croak, backed by an eerie drone – and all in a Siberian dialect.
“Until you’ve heard a Tuvan-throat-singing ‘Jingle Bells,’ you haven’t felt the holiday spirit,” said Fleck, with a laugh.
Fleck is known for being the world’s foremost banjo virtuoso, yet his version of “Jingle Bells” is not about the banjo. The song’s otherworldly sound comes from Alash, a four-man ensemble from Siberia specializing in Tuvan throat-singing, an ancient vocal form.
This version of “Jingle Bells” came out in 2008 when the Flecktones were recording their holiday CD “Jingle All the Way” in Nashville. Alash was touring through town and asked if they could meet Fleck and the rest of the group.
“So we had them come to the studio and sing a couple of things with us on the off-chance that it might turn out good,” said Fleck, by phone from his Nashville home. “It went great, and we just loved it.”
Yet the sound was so bizarre, he wasn’t sure how the rest of the world would react.
He didn’t have to worry. “Jingle All the Way” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s contemporary jazz chart and went on to win a Grammy.
The CD is full of great music – a bouncy version of Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” and a wildly inventive “12 Days of Christmas” – yet Fleck attributes much of its success to “Jingle Bells,” the opening track.
“I think ‘Jingle Bells’ set the stage that this record was really going to be different,” he said. “These are pieces we all know, but the arrangement of the pieces is so … kind of crazy.
“That’s what’s so special about it. The combination of the very well-known and the completely unknown.”
A large chunk of Friday’s concert will be devoted to songs from that holiday CD. And yes, there will be Tuvan throat-singing. Alash is accompanying them on this tour and will sing “Jingle Bells” along with some of their own material.
“We’ve toured with them before, and it’s a knockout,” said Fleck.
If this music sounds unusual, it’s directly in keeping with Fleck’s wide-ranging musical vision. He can rip through bluegrass runs better than anyone, but is even better known for his extensive forays into world music, classical music and – most of all – blazing instrumental jazz.
He said that on Friday you’ll also hear “some of our regular stuff.” As if anything the Flecktones play can be called regular. Fleck has proven over the last two decades that he can play anything from Bach to traditional African music.
When asked if there was any kind of music that couldn’t be played on the banjo, he had to think hard for a moment.
“It’s a little tough in gamelan (Indonesian) music, when the scale is different,” he said.
Fleck proved long ago that the banjo is an astonishingly good jazz machine – at least in his uncommonly talented hands. And he loves to deliver the blues on his 1930s Gibson five-string.
“It’s a very funky instrument,” said Fleck.
The rest of the Flecktones can venture far out into the stratosphere, too. The percussionist, Future Man (aka Roy Wooten), plays his own invention, the electronic Drumitar.
Bassist Victor Wooten (Future Man’s brother) is considered one of the most innovative bassists in jazz, or any other genre. Jeff Coffin on saxophone completes the lineup.
Meanwhile, Fleck is hard at work in another immensely challenging genre, classical music.
“I’m working on some new classical music for the banjo, written for the banjo,” he said. “It’s not for other instruments, where you’re up against the greatest classical violinists and pianists and trying to play that stuff for the banjo.”
He has also been commissioned by the National Symphony to write a piece for banjo and orchestra. It will premiere in September.
“I really don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m making believe that I do, and I’m working really hard on it,” said Fleck, who was named after composer Béla Bartok.
Yet all of this creative ferment might never have happened except for Jed Clampett, Granny and Jethro.
“I first heard the banjo on ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ TV show,” said Fleck. “I was a little kid and I still remember thinking, ‘What is that? What is that!’
“Earl Scruggs (who played the theme song) had that effect on people. He turned a lot of people into banjo players in 20 seconds.”