Musical mind meld: Bruce Hornsby and Béla Fleck share a jones for genre-blurring exploration

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For many jam-band fans, a double bill featuring Bruce Hornsby's Noisemakers and Béla Fleck's Flecktones is a pipe dream come true. Both bands feature virtuoso musicianship, startling versatility and a lust for exploring the outer limits.

For followers of local music, the show playing Portsmouth on Saturday, Aug. 13, is extra special because it connects three of the most accomplished players ever to emerge from the Peninsula: Bruce Hornsby from Williamsburg and the Flecktones' Roy and Victor Wooten, brothers who spent formative years in Denbigh.

Saturday's show is part of a first-ever tour starring the two groups.

Hornsby and Fleck — the two band leaders — share an unusual musical mindset. To mark their arrival in Hampton Roads, we asked the pair questions about their bond, their mutual admiration and their plans for the future.

Interview with Bela Fleck:

You and Bruce Hornsby are both virtuoso musicians who are passionate about jazz, classical and bluegrass music. There's lots of common ground there. Do you remember when you first played together? What was that like?

I first met Bruce and played with him at Red Rocks and Telluride in Colorado, back when I was in New Grass Revival. He invited me to sit in on anything I wanted to play. It was very exciting, because I was a big fan of his music, and he was really doing well. I got to come out on tour with him and The Range, play on a couple of his albums, and eventually we did some duet concerts. He also came out and played with the Flecktones a couple of times.

Is there a type of music or type of playing you can do only with Bruce?

There is certainly a beautiful place for banjo in his music. His songs are perfect vehicles to expand and play differently each time. He and I have a lot of harmony in common, so we follow each other well.

What's your favorite thing Bruce has recorded? Why do you like it?

I love the album "Harbor Lights." That record has such great songs, and great guests. Branford Marsalis and Bonnie Raitt in particular sound great in Bruce's music.

The Wooten brothers, featured in your band The Flecktones, grew up in Denbigh, not to far from Williamsburg, Bruce's home town. Have you ever been worried that Bruce might try to steal them away from you?

I'm not worried about that! But they can play his music, that's for sure. Maybe someday they'll do more stuff together. It'd be fine with me. I must say that the current Noisemakers band is really fabulous. They are perfect for Bruce. And what a heavy rhythm section. They rock hard for sure.

What's been the best Hornsby-Fleck or Flecktones-Noisemakers jam of the tour so far?

Every night has been great. Bruce comes out with us on a couple of songs, I come out with him on some stuff, too, and we do a duo at the end, as well as big jam with everyone on stage from both bands. So it's what we both think a co-bill should be — with lots of interaction.

If you and Bruce made an album together, what would it sound like?

Hard to say! I guess it depends on whether we did it as a duo, or with a band.

Harmonica player and original Flecktone Howard Levy has rejoined the band. How has his return changed the band's live sound?

Wow, it's an entirely different band with Howard. The fourth member of our band defines us in so many ways. Having the harmonica and piano back brings the original classic sound of the band back to the stage, but we have all changed and grown, hopefully, in the 17 years since he left, and the music reflects that.

What's been the crowd reaction to the live versions of tunes from your new album "Rocket Science"?

Absolutely fabulous. The audiences are just loving it.

Can fans expect to hear anything extra special at the Portsmouth show?

Yes!

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Interview with Bruce Hornsby:

You and Béla Fleck are two boundary-pushing musicians who share a passion for jazz, classical and bluegrass music. There's lots of common ground there. Do you remember when you first played together?

We first Intersected at the Telluride bluegrass festival back in 1989, at the end of the New Grass Revival era. I remember very well that night. After playing with them … He said, "Hey, here's this cassette. This band is breaking up soon. I've got this new band and this is our first record. Check it out." Sure enough, they've had this great run. He's had this wide-ranging, stylistically disparate career — kind of like mine. We've played piano-banjo duo concerts here and there through the years. I've I sat in with his band, he's sat in with my band. He's been on two of my records, I've been on two of his. There couldn't have been a more natural package than this.

Is there a type of music or type of playing you can do only with Béla ?

We do a piano-banjo duet at the end of the show. It's one of the parts that's etched in stone. It just needs to happen every night. Béla said, "We need to have a part of the show where it's just the two of us." … We started playing the minor key "Mandolin Rain," the bluegrass version, the Skaggs-Hornsby version. That's been a great vehicle for us. It becomes new every night … I feel a great connection there. It's coming back together again. We should do more of the duo playing, not on this tour, but in the future because it's very natural.

What's your favorite thing that Béla Fleck has recorded?

I'm a bluegrass fan, so I love it when they fuse the bluegrass with some other elements. But I can't generalize because they have some crazy, interesting compositional areas in their tunes, little sections that I just love, that hit me hard … The record with Chick Corea, I love that record with Chick. I think that's beautiful. I really loved the "Tales from the Acoustic Planet" record.

The Wooten Brothers — Victor and Roy — grew up in Denbigh, not far from where you grew up. Do you remember the first time you played with them?

It would have been the first time I played with the Flecktones, sometime in the mid 1990s. I remember doing a couple of jazz festivals with them, in Pennsylvania and Kentucky … I had never heard about them, because when they were coming up, I was living in L.A. The '80s were their formative years, when they were in high school. They're a good bit younger than me. So, no, I learned about them first from Béla , not from the local scene at all.

What's been the best Hornsby-Fleck or Flecktones-Noisemakers jam of the tour?

I love it when he plays the old song from our first record "The Red Plains" with us. We've had a great "Across the River" with him. We play an old song I know from the New Lost City Rambers, "I Truly Understand." That's been beautiful. "Shadow Hand" has been beautiful with him. "Crown of Jewels" … There have been lots of great moments with him sitting in with us. The jam at the end is just a big joyful noise.

If you and Béla made an album together, what would it sound like?

A duo record, that would probably be the most special, I think … I think he would say the same thing. We both feel we have a very natural and easy duo connection. But I love playing with the Flecktones. They are killers, man. It's just fun to play with them.

What makes the Flecktones special?

They're just a band of freaks, really, musically. The musicianship in their band is legendary and fantastic. And Howard Levy, he's so underappreciated to me. He's a complete innovator … He's a heavy shedder and a heavy analytical mind, a deep analytical mind. Then you've got Vic and Roy, the Wooten brothers. Future [Roy] is an innovator, also. He created his own instrument. Vic is one of the great bass players. He's a bass player's hero.

What have you and the Noisemakers been up to on stage this summer?

We're continuing to make the music new, try to find new ways of doing it … In Portland, Oregon, about a week and a half ago, we were playing "The End of the Innocence" … and went into a different feel into the middle … after the sax solo, It moved into this very Mumford & Sons-like, English folk 6/8 thing. So much so that I actually started singing a few lines from one of their songs …Talk about achieving liftoff. It was one of those euphoric, intangible moments where the crowd spontaneously combusted and jumped up. … We'll try things and every now and then these great moments are created.

Can fans expect to hear anything extra special at the Portsmouth show?

I thought about having some of my old homies sit in with us …but probably not. There are enough mouths to feed between the two bands, enough opportunities for special moments with the amazing musicians who are already there. While we've got them, we want to utilize them … It will be the night of a thousand notes.

 

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Want to go?

Who: Bruce Hornsby and The Noisemakers with Béla Fleck and The Flecktones

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 13

Where: Harbor Center amphitheater, Portsmouth

Tickets: $20-$43.75 from Ticketmaster

More information: http://www.pavilionconcerts.com

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