More than 20 years ago, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones started playing Christmas songs on their tours during the holiday season. It began with bassist Victor Wooten playing a tune solo and soon grew into the entire band rocking out a medley of holiday favorites.
Over the years, they'd continue to toss out a Christmas tune during the appropriate season, but over the course of the band's legendary run as one of the premiere instrumental acts in the world, the idea of holiday music has never been too far off the radar.
"We made a list of things we wanted to do and [a Christmas album] was always on it," says Fleck, checking in from Calgary where the band had just arrived for the first date of a holiday tour that will bring them to Bend's Mountain View High School as a fundraiser for community radio station KPOV on December 8.
So in 2008, Fleck - often referred to as the world's top banjo player as well as one of the most innovative instrumentalists in American music - and his band laid down an album of Christmas tunes. They called it Jingle All the Way and filled it with standards like "Jingle Bells" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" coupled with more interesting choices like "Linus and Lucy" and a version of "The 12 Days of Christmas" that incorporates 12 different keys and 12 different time signatures. While some of the band's more hardcore fans were skeptical of the project, the album was remarkably well received, and like several Flecktones albums have done in the past, it won a Grammy.
"People might think you might make a Christmas album to squeeze some extra cream out of your fans," says Fleck, "We started making this album and we knew we weren't going to do a cheesy Christmas album. We looked for ways to make a record that our audience wouldn't think of as a cheese-ball thing."
The album is hardly cheesy. It's actually quite challenging and pushes the boundaries of what a holiday album can be. For Fleck, Jingle All the Way, as well as his other recent projects, which include a trip to Africa where he played music and shot a documentary, is just part of his constantly evolving and always engaging career. Fleck is a musician who seems to be constantly stretching his boundaries and learning more about his craft.
"I feel like I'm a better musician. I've forced myself to be better with all the things I've taken on. It's hard to say whether or not I've been successful but I try to pick up something from everything I do," he says.
While the Flecktones were a summer festival favorite as recently as the mid -2000s, the band has recently scaled back its tours, with the holiday season runs being the only shows for the past few years, Fleck says the band will be surging back in 2011. The Flecktones have reunited with original member Howard Levy, who provided harmonica on the band's soon-to-be released album. With saxophonist Jeff Coffin now a full-time touring member of the Dave Matthews Band, Levy will also join the Flecktones tour.
Also, Fleck will be spending much of the winter working on his new concerto, which he will be performing by late 2011 with several different full orchestras. The piece will be the first concerto ever helmed by a banjo.
For Fleck, a guy who gets as much of a kick out of re-engineering "Jingle Bells" as he does out of diving into classical music or jamming with the most skilled bluegrass players, there's hardly a musical challenge he's not up to.
"I want to write a good piece that I can go out and play for the rest of my life," says Fleck, "I really like to go out and play with orchestras, it's a high jump for me and I like high jumps."