Sometimes old really is new again. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones existed as a trio for a handful of years after harmonica/pianist Howard Levy left, only to ask consistent fill-in saxophonist Jeff Coffin to join their ranks. Being a talented guy, he gets around, and when Dave Matthews Band saxophonist LeRoi Moore tragically died a few years ago, Coffin, who had been filling in for him while they were on the road, was asked to join the band permanently, and the Flecktones were left once again as a trio.
The funny thing is, it’s allowed them to go back to their roots.
As a fan who found the band when they were a trio (with 1993’s Three Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) and genuinely enjoyed what followed, I found myself drifting away from the band since Coffin officially joined. There grew a tendency to lean a little toward the … shall we say, “soft”? “New age-y” maybe? The band grew unfocused in the 2000s, and I lost interest — though those first few albums, with Levy, still retained their joyous, curious character.
With Levy’s return, it’s as if a time machine has turned on, rumbled away for a moment, and what materialized in the chamber is an album that effectively erases the history of the band with Jeff Coffin. The whole band seems to have reappeared in 2011 exactly as they were nearly two decades ago. Rocket Science picks up right where 1992’s UFO Tufo left off — the weird melding of banjo, harmonica, bass, and electronic percussion. Or, rather “what should be the weird melding,” because this quartet sounds as natural together as any lineup of “traditional” jazz instruments. It’s those Coffin years, with the de rigueur jazz saxophone, that seem so out of place now, and the music of which sounds like a band struggling to find a real identity.
If Rocket Science struggles, it’s only in that there’s a lot of “been there, done that.” There’s only so much quick-witted, nimble-fingered soloing that can go on before it all sounds just a bit the same and you wonder if you’ve heard it before. The band explores every nook and cranny of each song with each member getting a moment to shine. Nothing new there, of course; that’s what this band does. At times, it does feel like maybe things could have been pulled back a bit, saving the deeper exploration for the stage where they can really follow their muses. This is a trait that developed in the ensuing two decades since Levy left, either in response to growing admiration by fans of their incredible talent or less need to restrict themselves in the studio.
Whatever the reason, the result was looser, longer, but less satisfying songs, where they were once concise and tight. Was it Jeff Coffin’s presence? Was it the revolving door of guest musicians? That need for editing, even just a bit, exists in this album, but not so much as to be a detriment. Once in a while, songs just a feel a bit long in the tooth.
The music harkens back to the earlier efforts with Levy, if a little unfocused, but not less joyfully. Rocket Science‘s greatest gift to both the fans and to the band itself is that it is the sound of a band having a blast. There’s no denying the spirited “Prickly Pear,” with Levy’s distorted harmonic driving the song and a fun break for some stride piano, or “Life In Eleven” where he gets to show off more of his piano skills.
Only time will tell where they are going from here, but here’s hoping this is only a beginning and not a one-off or, worse, a final send-off for this great band.
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