Béla Fleck had multiple collaborations in his time as a banjo master.
While he has an inherent affinity for bluegrass, he has also explored and played country, jazz, jazz fusion (notably with his band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones), pop, rock, folk rock, world beat and classical music, while collecting multiple Grammy Awards.
In Worcester, his appearances included a 2014 performance with New York string quartet Brooklyn Rider at Mechanics Hall and a 2016 concert with late jazz piano legend Chick Corea at the Hanover Theater and the Conservatory for the Performing Arts, all two presented by Music Worcester.
His final stop in Worcester features a duo collaboration that could be called a banjo marriage made in heaven.
Fleck will perform with renowned banjo player, singer-songwriter and singer Abigail Washburn on October 28 in a concert also presented by Music Worcester.
Washburn is also Fleck’s wife.
Indeed, Fleck and Washburn have been dubbed “the king and queen of the banjo”.
“It’s a very banjo-centric show,” Fleck said in a recent phone interview. It will also contain “a lot of folk elements” and a lot of love.
Fleck and Washburn met at a square dance and later played together in the Sparrow Quartet alongside Ben Sollee and Casey Driessen. The couple married in 2009.
Fans were eagerly anticipating that Fleck, 64, and Washburn, 44, would start making music together as a duo.
“We started touring as a duo when we had our first child (Juno, in 2013). We knew if we didn’t, we’d be performing separately,” Fleck said.
Their self-titled debut recording won the 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album. Their next full album, “Echo in the Valley”, was released the following year.
“In fusing their respective approaches with Washburn’s rich, earthy vocals and their unified approach to tradition and innovation, the pair reflect a striking fusion of folk, bluegrass and acoustic influences,” said a review from “Echo in the Valley” in popmatters.com.
Fleck grew up in New York and was named after the 20th century Hungarian classical composer Béla Bartók. However, he said his defining moment of musical inspiration was hearing legendary bluegrass banjo musician Earl Scruggs perform the TV show’s theme song “Beverly Hillbillies.”
He studied the book “Bluegrass Banjo” by Pete Wernick, and then played the streets of Boston for a time before joining the popular New Grass Revival. Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, which combines jazz and bluegrass music, was formed in 1988 and was just the beginning of Fleck’s explorations, combinations and collaborations.
Washburn was born in Illinois and moved across the country before settling in Nashville while combining the banjo with the culture and sounds of the Far East. She collaborated with Chinese composer, singer and guzheng (a zither-like instrument) player Wu Fei on an album fusing early American music and Chinese folk song.
Fleck and Washburn have been described as having “one eye for using the banjo to showcase America’s rich heritage and the other pulling the noble instrument from its most familiar arena into new and unique realms”.
As they began working on arrangements and songs together, there was “a natural back and forth. We approach this with caution. We don’t want to be too dogmatic,” Fleck said.
If there were disagreements, “we worked on it and it made our relationship stronger,” Fleck said.
Technically speaking, they have different styles of banjo playing – three finger (Fleck) and clawhammer (Washburn). During their duet performances, they bring several banjos on stage.
“She approaches music in a different way than I do, and I come at it in a different way than she does,” Fleck said.
“Abigail is part of the folk community. I’m from New York…She’s definitely more about the emotion – the song, the feeling. I’ve always been technical, go into the details.”
But they wrote songs together and their two duet albums have many moments that are musical magic – the magic of the banjo music in particular, although Washburn’s vocals are also fascinating.
“I think she brought out a warmer side to me…and I helped shape her game technically,” Fleck said.
“We try to make beautiful and moving music for everyone. We celebrate our love of the banjo and each other. We go on the road with our family, share our songs. It’s a beautiful experience.” The couple also have a younger son, Theo, who was born in 2018.
Mechanics Hall is “one of my favorite places to play, and I’m aware that some great recordings have been made as well,” Fleck said.
This will be Washburn’s first performance at Mechanics Hall.
Fleck and Washburn’s Music Worcester concert was due to take place earlier, but has been repeatedly postponed.
“After several postponements due to the pandemic, we are thrilled to finally present these incredible musicians in their groundbreaking duo performance,” said Adrien C. Finlay, Executive Director of Music Worcester.
At the height of the pandemic, Fleck and Washburn hosted an online home concert series called “Banjo House Lockdown.”
“Juno was always the star,” Fleck said of their eldest son.
Fleck and Washburn also went on their own musical path. Fleck’s “My Bluegrass Heart” won the Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album at the 2021 Grammy Awards.
In a previous interview, Fleck said, “Bluegrass is my foundation, and it informs every other style of music I play.”
He also pointed out that banjo playing is not just an American phenomenon. In the film “Throw Down Your Heart” (2008), a film crew follows Béla Fleck on his travels to Africa where he collaborates with some of the best musicians and researches the African origins of the banjo.
“The more I learn about the banjo, the more likely a kid from New York will end up playing it,” Fleck half-joked.
“I love this whole southern part of the banjo. It’s a slice of the pie, though. And that pie encompasses a good chunk of the world.” The banjo and its related instruments are “like cousins”, he said.
Fleck and Washburn will be releasing recordings in the near future, and a compilation of “Banjo House Lockdown” is in the works.
The couple, along with Juno and Theo, have just started touring gigs again.
“Kids love getting on the tour bus,” Fleck said.
Despite their musical lineage of the king and queen of the banjo, neither child has yet taken up the banjo.
However, “They are musicians. Juno likes to hang out and sing with us (on stage).”
When it comes to Fleck and Washburn’s collaboration, “raising kids is number one,” Fleck said.
With that, “I just think Abby has a very special talent and I want to cheer her on. She’s a great mother and what she offers (musically) is very special, and I just want to keep that alive. ”
Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn, presented by Music Worcester
When: 8 p.m. on Oct. 28
Where: Mechanics Hall, 321 Main Street, Worcester
How much: $39-55; $7.50 young; $17.50 student. www.musicworcester.org