Something seems inevitable about the recent partnership of innovative string quartet Brooklyn Rider and pioneering banjo master Béla Fleck.
For more than a decade, Brooklyn Rider — its young members graduates of the Curtis Institute of Music and the Juilliard School — has been called the future of chamber music, with their embrace of new compositions and envelope-pushing collaborations with other global artists.
Cellist Eric Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and violinists Colin Jacobsen and Johnny Gandelsman have performed and recorded with Persian fiddle master Kayhan Kalhor; Seattle-area guitarist Bill Frisell; Japanese shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki; and singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega. Philip Glass chose Brooklyn Rider to record his complete string quartets.
And, fresh from joining forces on Fleck’s recent album “The Impostor,” Brooklyn Rider is appearing with Fleck on Tuesday, Feb. 4, at the University of Washington.
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A restless curiosity is common to both Fleck and Brooklyn Rider, and brought them together when Fleck had an idea for a quintet to anchor “The Impostor.”
“Béla wrote a banjo concerto, and that led to the recording,” says Eric Jacobsen, just back from a Brooklyn Rider tour of Oman with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project.
“He’d been wanting to write for a string quartet plus banjo for years. We got excited and said, yeah, let’s do this. He’s incredible, a hero.”
Fleck, who began his career as a progressive bluegrass musician in the 1970s, has been nominated in more Grammy categories than any other artist, venturing into jazz, classical, folk, country and pop. He’s collaborated with composer-bassist Edgar Meyer, jazz-fusion legend Chick Corea and Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain.
Fleck’s concerto, “Night Flight Over Water,” proved such a satisfying experience for both sides as they refined the piece that everyone wanted more.
“[Fleck] came to us about six months before we had a concert with a lot of sketches for music — concepts and ideas,” says Jacobsen. “He would say, what would this sound like if we played it together? We were able to develop his ideas with him. It was a collaboration from day one.”
“We really enjoyed playing,” Fleck said via email, “and decided we’d like to dig deeper into the string quartet and banjo configuration.
“It feels more like I am sitting in with a cool band than a string quartet. They are such a fantastic group, playing with enthusiasm and depth. Our sensibilities match, and it very quickly became a comfortable yet exciting combination.”
“When you hear Béla, who has taken the banjo to a new level, redefined what it can do, you know only he could do that,” says Jacobsen. “Now there are people following in his footsteps and looking at him like a father.”
“There is so much music the banjo has not yet been a part of,” says Fleck. “It’s a great instrument with myriad possibilities. Then again, people’s preconceptions about the banjo are so limited, it’s easy to shatter them.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org