Sometime in the autumn of 1991 I went with my mother to see a band perform at the University Of Maine called Bela Fleck & The Flecktones. At the time the band had a number of popular songs from their then current album Flight Of The Cosmic Hippo that even made appearances in an episode of the also popular TV series of the day Northern Exposure. This was one of the most entertainingly captivating events of my youth,especially considering I was still at an age where my attention span was still developing. My entire family seemed somewhat surprised that a band like this was coming to this area to perform,and we all wanted to see them. My father was working and unable to come. I wish he had because he loves concerts,he loves jazz and on both fronts this was one to remember. Here was this band mixing all sorts of different types of jazz. They had swing,they had gypsy jazz,they had the blues and above all they had the funk.
They helped me to realize these styles were all links on a chain rather than anything too separate,a similar impulse to what Quincy Jones was telling young people during the same time. The musician who made the most impact on me in this band was Roy Wooten,who referred to himself as Futureman. Decked out as a dreadlocked musical pirate,Futureman played a costume instrument called a drumitar,which allowed him to electronically reproduce all the percussion sounds needed to accompany his now revered bassist brother Victor Wooten,also a member of the band playing the same night. The band played songs like “Sinister Minister”,with Futureman and his brother taking exciting solos that even had 11 year old me applauding. In the end Bela’ himself led the audience in a call and response chant of “YEE HAW!!”,perhaps understanding Mainer’s affinity for country/western music,during the performance of “Flight Of The Cosmic Hippo”.
At the end of the concert my mom somehow arranged a meet and greet with the band and ourselves. I remember their personalities. Bela’ Fleck himself was aloof and mildly cocky. He was rather dismissive of the origin of his name,as I recall describing it only as “a cool jazz name my parents gave me”. Victor Wooten was shy,gentle and very professional. He had little to say,but seemed to enjoy talking about his music. Roy however was outgoing and funny. He explained in some detail how his drumitar worked,what inspired his sound and at some points had me in stitches with his sharp wit. This was one of those events that has had the effect of producing an extremely long delayed reaction in me. Because almost 22 years later it’s only just hitting me how this entire event impacted on my appreciation of music.
One of these delayed revelations was that the custom drumitar Futureman used was based on a rather obscure musical instrument from England called the SynthAxe. Only a hundred of them were ever made in the mid 1980’s. They were popularized on albums by jazz guitars Lee Ritenour on his Earth Run album and Allen Holdsworth’s Atavacron, both from 1986. This was an amazing instrument. Unlike many other synthesizers of the period,the SynthAxe actually allowed for musicians to interact with it like a conventional instrument by touch sensitive electronic frets that altered in tone depending on how they were played-just like a standard guitar. Also the range of sound it had,from percussion instruments to an eerily realistic replication of a symphony orchestra gave it the effect that it might’ve changed the entire face of music. Sadly it’s expense and possible difficulty of use might have been it’s demise. Where is the truth?
One of the most important questions this concert bought up for me was one also asked by George Clinton in 1978-who says a funk band can’t play rock? In some quarters I’ve heard many rap battle-like cold wars erupt because admirers of funk/soul music and rock n roll. Both sometimes refer to music made by the other as “cheesy and out of date”,or other more aggressively prerogative terms. Basically it comes down to this. In a band like the Flecktones where funk and blues is a huge part of their music,they will tend to play their instruments cleanly. They play emphasis on creating sounds from the melody,bending harmony and accenting rhythm. In rock n roll,especially where the guitar is concerned,it tends to be about the display of the individual musicians display of ego: how much noise can they make,and how long can they keep it up. Some view this as the difference between European style musical flamboyance and a more Afrocentric communal method of musicianship. Of course some American musicians such as Bo Diddley,Jimi Hendrix,P-Funk’s Eddie Hazel and Prince had bridged these two ethics quite successfully.
Whether it be for reasons of finance or geographic location,I have actually seen comparatively few live concerts in my life. A good deal of the ones I have seen had an enormous impact on me just the same. And as time goes on,that Bela’ Fleck & The Flecktones concert perhaps asked more questions than it answered for me. And that’s a wonderful and exciting thing because,after all as long as someone is asking questions,they are opening their minds to wisdom. Perhaps that is what defines the ultimate difference between funk and rock musicians. The average funk musician will tend to have a very expansive and humanistic philosophy of life. And that will often carry over into their music. They play and sing to communicate with their audience. A rock star generally isn’t thinking of “we are the world”. They tend to think in terms of “I am the world. They will tend to be humanistic only if it’s either theoretical and/or benefits them in some fashion. This might even be where the phrase “guitar hero” comes from. In funk,the real heroes are likely the ones who listen to it rather than the ones who play it.