Decades from now, don’t be surprised if Béla Fleck’s superb My Bluegrass Heart project has influenced today＊s rising tide of young bluegrassers as the David Grisman Quintet, Fly Through The Country, and Rounder 0044 records were to the prior generation. Populated with heroes from every part of Fleck’s musical journey, from David Grisman and the Telluride house band to modern stars like Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, Billy Strings and more, My Bluegrass Heart is at once charming, thrilling, challenging, and most of all, inspiring.
The project draws much inspiration from the classic recording My Spanish Heart by legendary jazz pianist Chick Corea where he explores various Spanish musical styles through a jazz perspective. Here, Béla explains that rather than dive headlong into the bottomless reaches of traditional bluegrass banjo as an artist, he’s always viewed the instrument as a lens to explore a multitude of styles and techniques.
The result is a two-CD set of tunes showcasing driving bluegrass, traditional African banjo, and new acoustic pieces with so many beautifully orchestrated harmony and ensemble passages, so intricately formed and brilliantly performed, they could almost be called bachgrass or Bartok on overdrive.
There’s jaw-dropping close ensemble playing on “Sour Grapes,” with Sierra Hull and Dominick Leslie dominating the head with a sublime harmonized mandolin section. That’s followed by Cody Kilby, the man who invented the stunt guitar chair with Kentucky Thunder, soloing at his most emotive and fire-driven state. Find some Dawg-influenced bluegrass on “This Old Road,” with shades of Old and In The Way for good measure. And what a treat to hear Grisman play with Billy Strings.
“Vertigo” is a killer kickoff like “Whitewater” on Drive. Bryan Sutton is perfect here, soloing over the song’s vertiginous changes and tempos. Unlike Béla, he grew up on bluegrass in the south and brings that sensibility to his jazz-inflected, beautifully reckless soloing to this tune and throughout the CD. One joy of My Bluegrass Heart is we get to hear the reactions of musicians like Sutton and Hull to most tunes at the end of the take, expressing everything from joy to near-shock that they actually played it properly.
There’s no end to the highlights here. Wanna hear Michael Cleveland, Stuart Duncan and Andy Leftwich play triple fiddles? Jump to “The Old North Woods” to hear three of the greatest fiddlers of today, with Béla bouncing great fiddle-like bending double stops off them in his solo. And someone call Tim Burton to use “Bum＊s Rush” as the opening movie sequence theme for his next movie. It’s a darkly perfect melody, driven by the insistent chop of Mr. Sam Bush, the King of Bluegrass Backbeat Rhythm.
“Our Little Secret” is another luminous musical excursion, floating high upon Edgar Meyer’s vocal and emotive double bass. It’s basically the Telluride house band, with Sam, Béla, Sutton (in for O’Connor on guitar), Edgar and Flux. It will likely make you long for a followup to the original. “Charm School” captures the driving beat of the Punch Brothers＊ best work, a simmering stew of compelling rhythms, driven by Royal Massat＊s propulsive bass work behind his boss Billy Strings＊ intense guitar stylings.
“Wheel’s Up,” another “Whitewater”-style banjo romp, is a memorably melodic banjo tune. Following Béla’s mesmerizing banjo precision as he channels the great piano legend he so admires, Hull and Tuttle break barriers and find new horizons here. In a way, Molly and Sierra have become the modern version of the ‘Gasoline Brothers’ of Tony Rice/David Grisman fame. They both are expanding and enhancing the voices available on their instruments, and making inspiring acoustic music that future generations of bluegrass musicians will study and absorb, while giving their fans amazing virtuosity to enjoy today.
If anyone had reservations about how this project blending old and new styles, mixing more chamber grass pieces with resounding banjo rave-ups, created by such a wide spectrum of musicians from different eras might not work as a whole, leave those thoughts at the door. Béla’s genius here is how cohesive and coherent the project feels. Repeated close listening with good headphones to this beautifully recorded and mastered record brings out an enormity of subtle thrills, dazzling examples of unfettered creation and virtuosity. If bluegrass lives in your heart, My Bluegrass Heart will take you home.