Béla Fleck has come back to bluegrass, even though he says he’s never really left it. He’s just released an album with a suggestive title — ”My Bluegrass Heart” — featuring the contributions of an array of luminaries both established (Jerry Douglas and David Grisman, to name a couple) and new (Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle among them).
He’s currently on tour in support of the record, using a couple of different aggregations of players from the album’s voluminous roster of collaborators. At Berklee Performance Center on Saturday, Fleck will be accompanied by Michael Cleveland, Sierra Hull, Mark Schatz, Bryan Sutton, and Justin Moses. (They’ll also be playing at the FreshGrass Festival at Mass MoCA in North Adams on Sunday.)
Fleck made his mark early in his career in bluegrass as a member of progressive trailblazers New Grass Revival. He’s best known, though, for where he’s taken his banjo, for the wide-ranging forays he’s made beyond bluegrass borders into jazz, funk, world, and even classical music over the past 30 years or so, especially with his band the Flecktones. But he says that whatever musical direction he headed toward, bluegrass was always at the heart of it.
“No matter how I try to avoid it, it’s there, so even if I’m playing with Chick Corea, for instance, or with Zakir Hussain or playing music with an orchestra, and I think I’m really stepping away from bluegrass, it’s actually in the center of everything I’m doing,” he says during a recent Zoom conversation. “It’s so innate that I don’t even know I’m doing it.”
He nicked the title for the new album from Chick Corea’s “My Spanish Heart” (with the late Corea’s blessing). Spanish music is considered to be at the center of what Corea did, notes Fleck. “But he wasn’t from a Latin background; he was an Italian who came from Chelsea, Massachusetts. And yet he felt this kinship with that kind of music.” Fleck sees his relationship to bluegrass as akin to that.
He grew up in New York City, his family had no connection to the South, and neither he nor they had anything to do with folk music of any kind. Yet he found an affinity for bluegrass that, he says, makes no sense on paper. “So I can relate to that idea of being an outsider and yet feeling at home in that world.”
What was it that hooked him? “Earl Scruggs,” Fleck says. “It was Earl Scruggs in particular, it was the sound of that banjo. It shook me to my core.”
This is the third record in what Fleck labels a “trilogy” of bluegrass returns; he made the first, “Drive,” in 1988, and the second, “The Bluegrass Sessions,” in 1999. But on those records, and “My Bluegrass Heart,” too, it isn’t simply a return; Fleck brought back elements of the musical forays he had made that added to and expanded his rendition of bluegrass. “There were things that I incorporated into ‘Drive’ and ‘The Bluegrass Sessions’ that are now much more commonly found in bluegrass than they were back then,” he says.
He thinks that in a way, that made it easier to do this time — to bring an Indian influence into the song “Vertigo” (which is as close a musical representation of that sensation as you’re ever likely to find) or to convert a song written for chamber orchestra, “My Little Secret,” so as to meld its classical elements with the oomph of a bluegrass band in full drive — in short, to once again push the boundaries of the form and combine that with more straightforwardly bluegrass fare such as “Boulderdash” and “The Old North Woods.”
“Drive” and “The Bluegrass Sessions” were both made with a remarkable core of players: Sam Bush on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Mark Schatz on bass, and Tony Rice on guitar. But Rice died late last year, and when Fleck started to think about this project, he felt like he should try something new because he could no longer play with him. So he started with a new cast of collaborators — trad-leaning fiddler Michael Cleveland, Travelin’ McCourys member Cody Kilby, Punch Brother Paul Kowert, and young mandolin ace Dominick Leslie.
“I was knocked out by how everybody showed up and could play my stuff, so I decided to go ahead and record with those guys. And that’s the point when I had the buyer’s remorse thing. Why would I not record with Sam and Jerry and Stuart after all these years just because Tony is not there?”
Then his wife and fellow banjo player, Abigail Washburn, asked him why he couldn’t do it with all of them. So that’s what he decided to do.
Then she pointed out a lack of female representation. So he asked Sierra Hull and Molly Tuttle to lend their talents.
Then — why stop a good thing once you’ve started? — he made several more high-powered additions, including Billy Strings, Chris Thile, and David Grisman.
The end result: a sprawling yet coherent multi-generational double album. Fleck describes it as “a community record,” one that represents both his past and, he hopes, some part of what’s to come. “It just checked a lot of the boxes of the people that have really been important to me through the years,” he says — ”and of the people that I want to have relationships with in the future.”
Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Berklee Performance Center, 136 Massachusetts Ave., Sept. 25 at 8 p.m. $29-$80. 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org