Banjo player Béla Fleck, bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla player Zakir Hussain have come together to play music described as “blu-bop.” - Photo by Jim McGuire

Béla Fleck and friends at Britt

Béla Fleck is always looking for something new. For the summer touring season, the world's most protean banjo player has teamed up with longtime pal and bassist Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain, India's foremost tabla player.

The trio will perform Thursday at Britt.

"When you have an old friend, sometimes a new friend spices up the old relationship," Fleck says in a telephone interview. "Edgar and I have really done our duo. Zakir changes both our musical worlds."

The three musicians combine to create a unique, acoustic world music steeped in American roots, chamber music and the classical music of India.

"I make sure to do things that are musically satisfying," Fleck says. "And I like to play in small groups."

The three musicians' recent album "The Melody of Rhythm" is an original, three-movement concerto for banjo, double-bass and tabla recorded live with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, no less. Fleck says the title refers to the tabla's ability to play melody even though it's a percussion instrument.

When the piece was commissioned by the Nashville Symphony in 2004, Fleck and Meyer agreed that their ideal third man would be the much sought-after Hussain. Fleck had developed a fascination for tablas while touring India in the 1980s. Hussain has collaborated with an A-list of musicians in the West and is perhaps best-known here for his part in Mickey Hart's Global Drum Project, which earned him a Grammy last year.

The tabla is a percussion instrument of obscure origins that combines two drums of different sizes and tones and can change pitch.

"He's also a tiebreaker," Fleck says of Hussain, laughing. "What's great is saying what's on your mind. Sometimes when you're playing there's a logjam, and Zakir might say, 'Why don't you try this?' "

But the Grammy king of the project remains Fleck, who has been nominated in more categories than any other musician, ever. He's also credited with taking the banjo places it had never been before.

Fleck grew up in a musical family in New York City and was named for the composer Béla Bartok. He played with Sam Bush and company in New Grass revival before forming Béla Fleck and the Flecktones in 1988. The Flecktones toured energetically, including several visits to the Rogue Valley over the years, playing a unique mix of bluegrass, fusion and jazz that got dubbed "blu-bop."

Meanwhile, Fleck, who always seems to have a side project going, collaborated from time to time with his old pal Meyer, the acclaimed bassist The New York Times called "the most remarkable virtuoso in the relatively unchronicled history of his instrument." The two released the album "Music For Two" along with a documentary DVD. Fleck also played with Chick Corea, Bruce Hornsby, Branford Marsalis, John Medeski, Dave Matthews and others.

For the "Melody of Rhythm" project, Fleck says the partners recorded live with the symphony orchestra in front of audiences, then went back and tweaked the results in the studio for the CD. One reviewer for Amazon.com called the results "music that can be instantly recognized as unique and incomparable."

In another recent project, Fleck traveled in Africa — the home of the modern banjo's ancestors — and recorded with African musicians both famous and unknown. That project, called "Throw Down Your Heart," featured a giant marimba played by villagers in Gambia.

"The rhythms were undecipherable," Fleck says. "They sing and dance to it. A lot of slaves came from Gambia, so it's one of the places the banjo calls home. When they came to the U.S. they made it out of what was here, and it evolved."

Fleck is carrying just one banjo on tour, an old Gibson from the '30s. After all the years of gigs he still enjoys playing live.

"Flying is such a pain," he says. "But being with the guys, I love. I relish the chance to play and see where I can get to. After all the work we did, the layers keep unfolding."

So far, nobody has come up with a label for the music as concise and descriptive as blu-bop.

"All the complexity gets lost if you try to put it into words," he says. "There's an earthy acoustic quality a lot of people love. It's three guys coming together and trying to play something lovely."

Bill Varble is a retired arts and entertainment reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com

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