April 2000

Béla Fleck - Natural Bridge
Rounder 1161-0146-2
Originally released: 1982

by Srajan Ebaen

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

[Reviewed on CD]To get your foot inside an unfamiliar door, it sometimes helps to immediately blurt out what’s on your mind and let the chips fall where they may. So when you knock on the saloon gates inscribed "banjo," you babble "bluegrass" and follow up with a quick chirp of "country western" just for good measure. When you try to sneak into the narrow hallway marked "banjo soloist," only one name escapes from under a wrinkled brow -- Béla Fleck. Surely nobody stands taller or rides a wilder bull in this remote arena than his Fleckness, but I must admit -- and I reckon you’d join me in this parade -- that I’m up to my ass out of my depth where this or any other banjo genre is concerned. Somebody specialized or more fully exposed -- in brilliant Technicolor perhaps -- could go on impressing you with detailed historical references to fellow banjoists, ground-breaking releases, the evolution of strumming and picking styles and the minutiae of instrumental variations.

But what if you’re an unwashed novice like me? You’d have to filch the liner notes, all the while well aware that none of such insider stuff really relates to you any more than the average tyre-conscious city-dweller appreciates the subtleties of a custom saddle. Let’s hence approach this re-release album of early 1982 Béla Fleck purely on musical terms. That means looking at it not as banjo music or bluegrass or Appalachian blues or instrumental Americana, but purely as music. Remember that Supreme Court judge who couldn’t define pornography but knew it when he saw it? Ditto for good music. Though you may not be able to define it, it should speak for itself loud and clear and ring your bells on its own accord.

Now I have to confess to cheating a bit because having enjoyed many David Grisman Quintet and Béla Fleck releases over the years, I’m well aware that this approach not only works, but is also absolutely mandatory. Both artists have taken their respective instruments outside the narrow confines of their original musical surroundings. A marketing guy would pull out a cue card imprinted "crossover appeal" and proceed to do the math for first-quarter sales projections. To you and me, it simply means that this album neither requires prior preparation to understand nor acquired taste to get it down that windpipe.

If this has you retching, get off your "Rocky Road" and out from the chilly "October Winds," close the "Bitter Gap" that’s an open window, have some "Applebutter," do an "Old Hickory Waltz" and end up "Punchdrunk" in the "Crossfire of Daybreak." With titles like these and a quick glance at Fleck’s release company of the day, Happy Valley Music, you’re not only down home but also having a grand old time. Trade seriousness for a jolly romp across the Natural Bridge that connects Béla Fleck from his heritage as a banjoist with various existing and made-up styles. This includes those made famous by innovative pioneers like Don Reno, J.D Crow, Bill Keith and Tony Trischka, to maraude from David Grisman’s liner notes. If The Dawg didn’t fudge and write those notes in the new millennium rather than when these tunes first hit the stores, he was mightily clairvoyant, predicting "Béla Fleck will be the first banjo-composer since Earl Scruggs to gain mainstream exposure and acceptance." Did he ever. I mean, even I know of him, and I grew up in Kiel, Germany.

The core ensemble is made up of Fleck on banjo, Mark Schatz on bass, Jerry Douglas on dobro and Mark O’Connor on guitar and fiddle. Mandolinists Jimmy Gaudreau, David Grisman, Mike Marshall and Buck White make various contributions throughout, as well as some extra fiddluciaries. All compositions are genuine Fleckster material and span the gamut from countrified, straight-ahead jazz to wistfully lyrical excursions into banjo-dobro duets, from peppy fiddle-derived dances and exuberant hard-driving jams to not-so-straight-ahead, waltz-based constructions with Grappelli-esque violins skirting the issue of locale or a twangy dobro insinuating freewheeling melancholy. The quality of sidemen is top-notch, and the compositions allocate plenty of room for each instrumentalist to strut his stuff. In fact, if you called this contemporary American chamber music, which all of this would imply, you’d be right on the silver dollar.

Rounder Records hits another bullseye and is to be complimented for making these earlier tunes current again. I’m ready for another round. Certain music makes you swoon or ripples the little hairs at the nape of your neck. This one tickles your monkey bone and makes you want to get up and get down, ride a bull, grab a lithe waist for a stomp across the sawdust, have Sunday-morning coffee in the downtown diner, lean against an old hickory tree to eat a sandwich after a hard morning’s work -- there’s something unmistakably American about this music, an America far away from the big cities’ McDonald’s and 275 cable channels, but close to the heart of the wide-open country between the two coasts. Get up to get down -- that’s as apt a recipe for us ailing audiophiles as I can think of. It’s also a fitting description of Natural Bridge, which I thoroughly dug and related to despite living in sunny San Diego.