Review: Béla Fleck's "The Impostor"

08.12.13
Béla Fleck
Alto Riot

Whatever you thought you knew about Béla Fleck—throw it out the window. The Impostor is such a radical departure from Fleck’s past work. You’d The Impostor believe this was his first swing at writing a concerto for banjo, resulting in a terrifically energy-induced ride through Fleck’s deepest imagery.

The Impostor, entitled in part to Fleck’s first true foray into writing music for an orchestra, is a deceptive gambit for a banjoist that hasn’t done this rodeo before. A ruse in disguise, Fleck negates any doubts with his concerto and quintet arrangement and will surprise even the most diehard of Fleck fans.

The Impostor is clearly not your happy-go-lucky go around for Fleck and The Nashville Symphony Orchestra. The concerto is deeply sinister in sound and far-removed from any of the standard twang strumming you’d expect from the banjo extraordinaire.

Broken into three movements, the opening, “Infiltration,” is as an aggressive and andrenaline-fueled passage, starting as the strongest of the two movements. Though subtle and innocent enough, the piece turns into a raucous romp into Fleck’s most ominous narrative. Never has Fleck sounded so aggressive, so angry and what he demands out of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra is laid out so forcefully that almost every sense of emotion is nearly exasperated before the first movement is done.

In the second movement, “Integration,” a curious and light-hearted tone protrudes before turning back to an earth-rattling chase. Throughout the midst of “Integration” and the riveting finale, “Truth Revealed,” never does Fleck’s banjo take an overbearing command of the orchestra; he seamlessly blends with the orchestra creating a unison ominous chorale of sound. Here is where Fleck shines as a composer, integrating himself and the banjo so well, never once losing sight of the banjo’s chords yet somehow providing every instrument the right amount of balance to create a thick, tense-filled atmosphere.

Fleck slightly missteps in the second half of the album—the quintet for banjo and strings “Night Flight Over Water.” Dragging in”Tumbledown Creek,” Fleck and guest quartet Brooklyn Rider just never seem to mesh resoundingly well. While Brooklyn Rider’s skills are utilized to their max under Fleck’s vision, Fleck himself is subdued for a strikingly good amount of time. The matchup snails by, until “Hunter’s Moon” finally turns into a jubilant, coming of age opus where vintage Fleck shows up. The composition ends in epic fashion on “The Escape,” a nail-biting movement of soaring strings that returns to much of the dark themes of the earlier part of the album. Without “Night Flight Over Water’s” early minor slips, The Impostor would be nearly flawless but considering this is Fleck’s first attempt at writing music solo, its remarkable how well the composition holds up.

In a storied career that has allowed the banjoist to transcend the barriers of genres, The Impostor is single-handedly Fleck’s most ambitious effort on an unimaginable scale. Every aspect of The Impostor nearly rewrites the whole book on Fleck.  Never do we think the banjoist could be so risk-taking, so disturbingly mischievous, and so willing to take the backseat for the greater good of the art.

It’s easy to lose sight of Fleck in all the madness of The Impostor, but that is perhaps the defining essence of what The Impostor was meant to be. Only a fool would believe and expect the record to be another “Fleck, Fleck, Fleck” highlight reel, rather than its true identity in disguise—a stirring testament to his undeniable gift of storytelling without speaking a word.

4/5