'Older, hopefully wiser, more mature': Bela Fleck talks about his band's emotional reunion

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Bela Fleck initial band reunited last year for Rocket Science, its first studio release in nearly two decades — and quickly claimed a Grammy award for the track “Life in Eleven.

That’s the fifth Fleck has won with the Flecktones, part of more than dozen total. But it might be the most meaningful on yet, being as it arrived after so long away from the complete original lineup of Howard Levy (piano/harmonica), Victor Wooten (bass) and Roy “Futureman” Wooten (percussion/Drumitar).

Formed back in 1988, his group has included Victor and Roy Wooten through all of its many lineups. The initial group recorded and toured through 2005. Levy originally left in 1992, to be replaced by saxophonist Jeff Coffin between 1996-2010.

Their long-awaited reunion, however, was precipitated by a moment of tragedy for another group, Fleck tells Jennifer Chancellor of the Tulsa World.

“It came indirectly from Dave Matthews Band’s loss of their sax player LeRoi Moore,” Fleck says. “Our sax player at the time, Jeff Coffin, ending up filling in for LeRoi and eventually becoming their full-time guy. This created an opportunity for change in our group. We decided to see if Howard would consider coming back, and he was into doing so. He is the genius harmonica and piano wizard who started the band with us.”

The results were heralded as a complete return to form.

“Well, we are all 17 years older, and hopefully wiser and more mature,” Fleck tells the Tulsa World. “So we bring all of our experiences apart, and throw them into the pot together. This album sounds like what we might have done after 1992’s UFO Tofu. We never got to make that album till now.”

Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Bela Fleck and Jeff Coffin. Click through the titles for complete reviews …

BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES – ROCKET SCIENCE (2011): 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.

JEFF COFFIN AND THE MU’TET – LIVE! (2011) Saxophonist and composer Jeff Coffin, a three-time Grammy winner, traverses a fine line on Live!, a record that feels both timeless and fresh. The beauty is that he and his Mu’Tet don’t stumble into the pitfalls of either concept. That is to say, Live sounds old without feeling prosaic, and new without feeling too professorial. A deft organization of sounds (some swinging, some noisy), Live! doesn’t find conflict between the tangy joys of grooving and the sheer intrigue of experimentation. Why not, Jeff Coffin and the Mu’Tet assert, simply do both?

SHOWS I’LL NEVER FORGET: BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES, NOV. 18, 2003: Bela took his solo as the last song of the second set, running the gamut from classical pieces to bluegrass weaved together with showy, jaw-dropping runs of incredible speed and dexterity. Not one to be left looking serious, Bela threw in humorous stunts here and there, such as when he paused mid-solo to hold a note on his 5-string acoustic banjo with his chin. Greeted by chuckles as he played a short run, Bela halted again, held up a finger to pause the applause, then proceeded to fret multiple notes with the aid of his chin. Cheers and hoots of laughter flooded the Marquee.

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