Bela Fleck, "Juno Concerto," "Griff (G-Riff)" and the second movement of the Quintet for Banjo and Strings performed by Fleck on Banjo with the Colorado Symphony conducted by Jose Luis Gomez and Brooklyn Rider (Rounder)
Has there ever been an instrumental virtuoso more doggedly devoted to his instrument under adverse circumstances than Bela Fleck?
Absolutely no one now living is ever going to argue that Fleck is the greatest living banjo player. That his bass-playing friend and mentor Edgar Meyer got him into classical composition is evident from his composition "Juno Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra" named after his first born son who was born when Fleck was 55. It would be churlish to deny a piece composed from such life joy its value.
But as attractive as the music is, it never quite sounds any more authentic than the kind of ersatz-Copland you'd find in relatively conventional '40s and '50s film music of no distinction. The farthest it moves away from Copland's influence is to sound like, say, a distinctly lesser piece by Leon Kirchner or David Diamond. All of which is mildly pleasant but what you simply cannot get around is that all this undeniably virtuosic playing -- including sudden eruptions of travis picking -- is being done on a banjo, an instrument of no intrinsic sonic beauty whatsoever. There are times in the small excerpt from Fleck's Quintet for Banjo and Strings that barn dance rhythms make Fleck's banjo sound almost at home but they are rare. The sound of the instrument, inevitably, makes it sound like a concerto for Banjo Versus Orchestra.
Put it this way about the banjo: a cello, it ain't.
2 1/2 stars (out of four)