Bela Fleck: Finding the roots of bluegrass and jazz

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Bela Fleck fell for the banjo at age 15 because of the ebullient picking of Earl Scruggs on the theme song from "The Beverly Hillbillies." After mastering Scruggs' three-finger banjo-picking style, Fleck expanded, taking banjo music to places it hadn't been before.

You'll hear echoes of modern jazz giant Chick Corea in some of his playing, along with ethnic influences from around the globe. And you might hear Bach. There's little argument that Fleck is the world's most versatile and accomplished banjo player.

The Marcus Roberts Trio is known as the standard-bearer for traditional American jazz — ragtime, stride, New Orleans style and swing. The trio's signature style, in which each artist is equally important, has won fans around the globe.

When Fleck sat down with the trio — pianist Roberts, bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis — for an impromptu jam session in 2009, magic happened.

These were musicians with the right rhythmic sense to integrate his banjo's percussive qualities, Fleck said. The trio's classic jazz style created an intriguing cross-pollination with his own musical influences, resulting in something new and fresh.

"It was one of those great jams — unexpected," Fleck recalls. "I think we recognized something in each other within a few bars, that we were kindred spirits. I think we immediately felt the rhythmic bond."

That particular musical voodoo will be on display when Fleck and the Marcus Roberts Trio perform at the Moab Music Festival on Sept. 2, outdoors at the scenic Red Cliffs Lodge along the Colorado River's banks.

Festival co-director Michael Barrett said Fleck and the trio's one-night-only show is a special offering in celebration of Moab Music Festival's 20th-anniversary season.

"Bela Fleck is a huge artist, and so is Marcus Roberts," Barrett said. "It sounds like an odd marriage, but Bela can play jazz — he can do anything. What they've put together is going to be a big deal for us."

The four artists recorded an album together earlier this year, and music from that project will be part of the show. Fleck and Roberts each wrote half of the tunes.

"It was important to me that we touched on ragtime," Fleck said, "and it was important to him that we touched on bluegrass. We were each interested in the parts of each other's playing that are very rooted in tradition, and old-fashioned, as well as the loosey-goosey, crazy, modern stuff."

The album's title, "Across the Imaginary Divide," refers to "the idea that a lot of divisions between different kinds of music are in our heads," Fleck said. "When we actually sit down together, they aren't really there at all."

Celia R. Baker