At its heart, the success of Across the Imaginary Divide comes from the simpatico sensibility and musical humility of two virtuosos from different planets of music: pianist Marcus Roberts, whose straight-ahead acoustic jazz is steeped in the blues, and banjo player BÃ©la Fleck, who first came to fame as a bluegrass master. In theory, they are unlikely partners, but in practice, their magical music makes for a perfect fit thanks to a jaunty, playful alchemy of jazz, gospel, blues and bluegrass.
Arguably the more adventurous of the pair, given his collaborations with the likes of Zakir Hussain, Edgar Meyer, Oumare Sangare, Toumani DiabatÃ© and Chick Corea, Fleck said in the album notes that he chose the name Across the Imaginary Divide to “communicate the idea that there are supposed barriers between all these musical styles, but they’re largely imaginary.”
During a weeklong engagement at New York’s Blue Note club in support of the album release on Rounder Records, Fleck and Roberts sat backstage before the first set halfway through their stint to talk with eMusic’s Dan Ouellette about the story behind their meeting and how they came to develop their singular piano-banjo conversations.
BÃ©la, when did you decide that working with Marcus Roberts could be an intriguing collaboration?
BÃ©la Fleck: It was a long time ago when I heard Marcus performing with Wynton Marsalis. It was one of those “aha,” lights-coming-on moments for me. It was the level of intelligence in Marcus’s playing that was phenomenal. His brain and his heart came though to me. I’ve been a fan ever since. There are people I can listen to, but those who knock me out the most are the ones I feel I can learn the most from. I knew Marcus had a lot of information, and the way he packaged it was so attractive to me. Plus there was so much soul that I felt connected to a bigger picture of what music can be. He was the guy. I wasn’t thinking that I’d ever be able to play with him, let alone hang in there with him. He’s in a different straight jazz world than me harmonically. And, frankly, I was surprised by how much he was into exploring beyond that world.
Marcus, did you know BÃ©la’s work?
Marcus Roberts: I knew of him. We were on Columbia Records together for a while, but I hadn’t investigated his playing until more recently. I was always aware of him. He had a big following back in the ’90s. He’s been around. But when we first got on stage together, it was pretty miraculous. We didn’t know each other and we were supposedly involved in two different genres. But the camaraderie and the instant collaborative feeling came through strongly in the beginning of our first jam. I was definitely into it.
Dial back to the first time you played together.
Fleck: We were both playing at the 2010 Savannah Music Festival [in Georgia]. I was playing with my wife Abigail Washburn and her band, the Sparrow Quartet. Marcus was playing with his trio. I told the festival curator Rob Gibson that I really wanted to see Marcus play, so I went to his show. Rob then told me that there was going to be a jam session later in the evening and that he thought Marcus would be there. He told me I should come. I figured I would just come to say hello and not jam because I wasn’t prepared for that. But I did end up on stage with Marcus, and we had this wonderful interaction. It happened immediately. It wasn’t, OK, you play solo and then I’ll play solo. We played lines together, which you don’t get much of a chance to do in jazz. But since I come from bluegrass, that’s what I always want to do.
Do you remember what you played?
Roberts: I think it was a blues in G or something. But it was the energy of the interaction and the feeling and intelligence of it that was exciting. Unfortunately, we always get caught up in labels. Honestly, I feel that jazz musicians have been destroyed by this. You put yourself in a corner. Duke Ellington was famous for saying, “No boxes.” The categories limit the understanding of what other people are doing. Hopefully this kind of project will illustrate to people that it’s more important to focus on the music, the rhythms, the harmonies, and let all that [speak for itself].
What happened after that initial meeting in Savannah?
Fleck: It was definitely cool and we talked about doing more.
Roberts: It was like going to a place where you’re not sure if you’ll be getting any food. Someone gives you a small snack that’s incredible. And you want more, but you’re not sure if that’s going to happen. That’s the way it was with BÃ©la. We were offered to do a concert together the next year at Savannah, so we decided to prepare. BÃ©la drove from Nashville to Florida [where I live] and we rehearsed for the very first time. We both have a work ethic where we want the music to be right. So we rehearsed and rehearsed, but at the same time, you just want to let go and play and make the music happen.
Fleck: Not everyone likes to rehearse the way we did. It can be unpleasant to just sit together and refine. But that part of the brain doesn’t work when you’re improvising. The way we worked was incredibly spontaneous. It’s been a challenge for me because, on the banjo, I don’t have the same repertoire as Marcus does. So this experience has been broadening me, allowing me to dig deep in ways that I never had to do before. This is exactly why I’m doing it. And I love the music we’ve come up with together.
Marcus, is this something new for you in regards to playing in the piano trio format?
Roberts: We’ve always been doing new material. The trio — bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis — is the framework that everything comes out of, whether it’s playing with a big band or doing the orchestral work playing Gershwin. What I was interested in wasn’t something new, but someone who actually might be interested in understanding and digging into what we do as a trio, participating in it — not just appearing as a guest performer, but as someone integrated into the sound. I wasn’t sure something like that would ever happen, so it was only on my wish list.
Had you experienced that before?
Roberts: Most other people I’ve come to play with, I’ve had to train myself. I had to invest a lot of myself into getting to that place. That’s why working with BÃ©la is so good. It was an instantaneous meeting. Honestly, the only other person I had that rapport with was Wynton [Marsalis]. That was the last time that happened before BÃ©la. I’m very cautious to not be in search for something new just for the sake of it. But I believe that new things come to you based on the creative environment you’re working in
For the Florida recording session after you played the Savannah showcase, you both came up with almost an even number of new compositions. What was the creative process like?
Fleck: I came toFlorida with some music that I had worked on. I’m not into showing up at a recording session and figuring it all out there. I was playing in an area that I’m not usually in, so I wanted to have a leg up. Most of the creative work came in the arranging. Marcus wasn’t sure how much original material he could come up with because at the time he was finishing up a concerto. We didn’t want to do some of his older songs, so he wrote new ones. We wanted to give the record its own identity.
Roberts: BÃ©la has to be credited. He pushed me to view this as an opportunity to find new ways to play where we could co-exist. He wrote music that had a broad-brush perspective across many genres, and I tried doing the same thing. Then we sat together and tried to figure out how we’re going to make it work, dealing with issues of harmony, the separation of the banjo and piano, figuring out how the bass and drums were going to fit in. Actually in my trio, Rodney and Jason have the ability to both lead and follow even though they play the traditional roles of rhythm section. But they’re flexible enough in my music that is tailored so that everyone can participate. That’s just like your band, BÃ©la, with the Flecktones. We both shared the interest in showcasing talent and let the other people around us push and inspire us. So literally we came up with the arrangements section by section. No one was satisfied until we figured it out. That’s what was so great about this project.
Fleck: It was surprising how we were finishing each other’s sentences a lot. I wasn’t expecting that. And it all came together very, very fast. We’d play a song and there it was. And I can’t remember any conflicts we had about we both came up with.
What was it like with two virtuosos learning to play together?
Roberts: To be a true virtuoso at the highest level, you have to know how to hold back and learn to play with a nuance to keep an audience interested. In the studio the fact that we had to make sacrifices, to solve how we’d do a song to make it work, was very cool. And the best part of jazz is that there’s a conversation at work, where there’s speaking and listening. For spontaneous music you have to be able to listen to know the appropriate response.
Were there any road blocks in the composition collaboration?
Fleck: They were tempo shifts in some of the songs, like Marcus’s “Let Me Show You What to Do.” I understood the first part, but the second part I had to really learn because it was hard to play.
Roberts: BÃ©la tolerated all that.
Fleck: But some of the songs Marcus wrote in the keys that are the hardest to play on banjo.
Roberts: But he didn’t complain and he made it sound easy.
Fleck: Oh, yes, I did complain.
Roberts: I really wanted to write songs that I thought would be good for the banjo, but they were all in the wrong keys.
Fleck: But I’m glad we did them. Like I said, it was a challenge.
What about the song “Some Roads Lead Home,” which is a piece with tempo shifts?
Fleck: We were playing that song for a while, but we realized we needed something different in it. That’s when we put in a gospel section.
Roberts: You figured that out.
Fleck: Then all of a sudden the song worked. Actually, I had written the song while I was waiting for a plane in an airport inChina. I was just sitting around and came up with this rolling 3/4 time banjo thing. I never could find someone else to play it with me to make sense of it. I talked with Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain and they said no. Then I didn’t think it would work with the Flecktones. But then with Marcus and the trio, it found a home.
Roberts: We had a lot more music than what we recorded. We didn’t get to it all. They’re varied, with some bebop in the mix, and the improvisations are different because of the banjo.
You also wrote a song together, “Petunia.” What was that like?
Fleck: I wanted to write something that has a bluegrass feel to it. Marcus liked it and immediately came up with a bridge. Then I wrote a bunch more in the tune. So, it’s like how Lennon and McCartney used to work. One would bring to the other that essential part of a song that was missing. “Petunia” couldn’t have happened unless Marcus and I both worked on it.
How was it bringing the banjo, which doesn’t have much improvisational jazz history, into the mix?
Roberts: As I was growing up, I didn’t play with guitarists. It was too much work to make it sound good together. It’s easy to get in each other’s way. But in this environment with BÃ©la, I’ve been reshaping my sound. He’s got such good ears and great reflexes, unlike a lot of guitar players. Plus BÃ©la has such a global view of music that comes out in his banjo. The music becomes bigger as a result. That makes us both better musicians.
Fleck: The way the banjo is tuned, especially in playing bluegrass, only small clumps of tones are available in one position. I play chords and they’re usually just three notes. I can’t spread out over several octaves. I have to focus on the small clumps when I have a harmonic idea. So Marcus lets me use that part of the register and he just floats around it.
Where do you go from here? Is this just a one-off collaboration?
Fleck: Oh, no, we’re in it for good.
Roberts: We didn’t know it at the time we first started, but at this point, we’re heading deeper into it. Musically, it’s a lot of fun with an open spirit. My group always gets excited when they get to play with BÃ©la.
Fleck: I’m in deep water, battling my own demons by playing with these three musicians at this level. But I want to keep going.