Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn share love for the banjo and passion to innovate

May 13, 2014   | Wallace Baine  | Santa Cruz Sentinel

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz
Tickets: $35 general; $50 Gold Circle
Details: kuumbwajazz.org.

Undoubtedly, the banjo would be a more obscure instrument without Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. The husband/wife pair haven’t made many waves yet as a duo, but individually, they have brought the banjo to a prominence that it simply would not have otherwise.

Fleck, you probably know. The New York-born musician first gained wide notice as the hotshot young player in New Grass Revival in the 1980s, and since, with his band the Flecktones and as a solo artist, Fleck has done as much to expand the vocabulary and context of the banjo as any one musician has.

Washburn was on her path to become a student of ancient Chinese culture when she discovered the banjo and in her own career, has spread the gospel of the banjo around the world. The two play Saturday at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz.

She may, in fact, be the world’s leading figure in interpreting Chinese tunes with banjo.

She first heard banjo in the music of Doc Watson and was instantly struck by its deep beauty and earned emotion.

“I was a student of Chinese culture and language,” she said, “and it really had a spell on me because it was just so deep and profound. We’re talking 10,000 years here. So I was fully immersed in that when I first heard Doc Watson and I thought, well, this is stunning too, and it’s American. I hadn’t heard anything in American culture that I thought was as striking and profound as Chinese culture until I heard the sound of Doc Watson.”

Since then, she had made it a mission to bring the banjo to China and has played there many times. “It’s really on the front edge of the phenomenon of cultural globalization, not just the mainstream products of trade, like Western music and Hollywood, but these small strains of authentic tradition being found and spread.”

She and Fleck share an abiding faith in the versatility of the banjo, but they play different styles. Washburn is more focused on the clawhammer style of playing and Fleck is from the three-finger school. Washburn is more rooted in the old-timey Americana song styles, while Fleck emerged from progressive bluegrass. Still, they’re touring in advance of their first album as a duo.

“Abby is a warm, solid and inventive banjo player,” said Fleck. “Her old-time clawhammer style is actually quite different than my three-finger style in technique and in attitude. She tends to hold the songs together while allowing me to improvise over the top, and color the songs in differently every night.”

With the attention given to the recent death of the banjo ambassador Pete Seeger and comedian/actor Steve Martin’s latest career foray into the banjo (which he’s been playing since his youth), the banjo is enjoying a cultural prominence not seen in a while.

“It’s definitely being received with less prejudice than it has in the past,” said Fleck. “Folks generally seem to appreciate it and see it as a special connection to the past. For a long while, it was too associated with things like the movie ‘Deliverance,’ which helped the banjo, even as it hurt it.”

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