Béla Fleck

Little Worlds

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Super-jazz freakout bluegrass picker Béla Fleck's broad three-CD concept album has ambitious intentions, but ultimately ends up feeling a bit scattered. The idea seems to have been to record an album that sounds like sitting in a car and flipping through radio stations -- hearing snippets of hip-hop, Chinese opera, Irish folk, Hawaiian ukulele, mid-'80s funk, and, of course, bluegrass and jazz, then expanding that experience out to three entire discs. If any group on the planet could pull this off, it could only be Fleck and his Flecktones, but the concept (being as convoluted as it is) makes for a rather uneven listen.

The bright and jazzy "Puffy" neatly bridges the gap between contemporary jazz and new acoustic music, and tabla, Irish harp, and even theremin meld nicely on the genre-spanning "Sleeper." On the flip side, the bizarro hip-hop version of Flatt & Scruggs' "Ballad of Jed Clampett" never needed to be recorded, and many of the songs seem cluttered and over-tweaked, almost as if during production the band reasoned that the addition of more instruments and more synthesized sounds could only enhance the music. The addition of nearly everyone they knew -- including Bobby McFerrin, several of the Chieftains, Nickel Creek, and even the lady from the Chinese restaurant down the street -- only adds to the confusion.

It seems as though Fleck will never run out of ideas, and taken one at a time, the majority of the songs have obvious merit, but as each of the songs drift from centuries-old Indian percussion into one of Future Man's synth-axe drumitar jams, it sounds a little too disjointed and almost "quirky for quirky's sake." "Say, what if we mixed digeridoo with an electric synth banjo?" "Well, OK...but only as long as I can have a gong solo!" Sorry fellas, but just because the instruments exist doesn't mean they all need to show up in the same song. Still, every note is impeccably played and pristinely recorded, and those Flecktones fans who like to pull apart their extremely technical pieces of music, analyze them, and put them back together will find hours of rabid discussion on Little Worlds. [Sony also released a stripped-down, ten-song version of the project called Ten From Little Worlds.]

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