Thirty years ago, before forming the Flecktones, innovative banjo player Béla Fleck tried putting together other combinations of musicians to produce the music he was writing as a sidelight to his work in the progressive bluegrass outfit New Grass Revival.
But it didn’t work. “It wasn’t the right chemistry,” Fleck says by phone from his home in Nashville, Tenn.
“What I needed,” he says, “were people that were kind of freaks.”
Of course, he means that in the nicest possible way.
“Each person had to be an equal or more, and that’s what made it work when I ran into these guys and we started playing together.”
“These guys” are bassist Victor Wooten, drumitar inventor and player Roy “Futureman” Wooten, and multi-instrumentalist Howard Levy. Fleck and the Flecktones are celebrating their 30th anniversary with a tour that stops Thursday at Powell Symphony Hall.
The band has no new album or anything else to plug right now. “It’s like we’re promoting a tour with nothing,” Fleck says with a laugh.
“We’re just playing because we love to play together. We’re not trying to make new music right now because everybody is busy. It’s just the sheer love of playing and celebrating our friendship. That’s why we get together these days.”
Fleck likens the band to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the comic-book superhero collective.
“It’s hard to say that about yourself, but I can certainly say it about everybody else,” he says.
Wooten, according to Fleck, “has redefined the electric bass in a lot of ways. People talk about the guy who has shaped it and changed it the most in the last 20 years: It’s got to be Victor.”
He calls Futureman “a mathematical genius” for his ability to play crazy combinations of time signatures and also because he invented his own instrument — the drumitar — which is a drum machine that can be played like a guitar. “Not only did he fulfill that vision, but he sounds good on it, which is maybe the hardest part,” Fleck says.
He calls Levy “the man with two brains.” “He can play piano backwards, facing away from the instrument,” Fleck marvels. “He can play piano with one hand and harmonica with the other.” And he’s known for finding a way to get chromatic notes from a standard blues harmonica. “There’s so much expressiveness in these bends that he plays. It’s like magic, what he can do with the instrument.”
Fleck, of course, has no need to be modest about his own abilities. In addition to the body of groundbreaking jazz and bluegrass of the Flecktones, he has written, performed and recorded work from all over the musical spectrum, including collaborations with bassist and composer Edgar Meyer; jazz great Chick Corea; a host of elite African musicians; and his wife and fellow banjo player Abigail Washburn among many, many others.
And it’s not like people haven’t noticed. Fleck has been nominated for Grammy Awards in more categories than any other musician.
“I know that I bring my share to (the Flecktones),” he says. “But I’ve always called myself the common man of the group.” Amid the music’s complexity and his bandmates’ virtuosity, Fleck wants to make sure his compositions have, first and foremost, a melody and a hook.
“I’m the focuser,” he says. “I’m the prism that all these guys have to shine through. It’s my job to balance them.”
For this tour, the band is playing plenty of fan favorites such as “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo,” “Blu-Bop” and “Sinister Minister” — songs they know so well that they scarcely have to practice them.
But it was Levy, Fleck says, who suggested they dust off more ambitious fare like “Jekyll and Hyde (And Ted and Alice)” to challenge themselves a bit.
“It’s a complicated tune,” Fleck says, “but that makes it fun for us. As the tour goes on, we’re digging out more and more old ones that we haven’t done in a long time.”
Besides the anniversary tour, Fleck has plenty of other projects in the works. There’s an upcoming album with Meyer, tabla player Zakir Hussain and flautist Rakesh Chaurasia, as well as a new banjo concerto and a sequel to his “Bluegrass Sessions” series, this time featuring guests including Sam Bush, Chris Thile and Billy Contreras, among others.
Also on the schedule is the re-release of the 2008 film “Throw Down Your Heart,” which chronicles Fleck’s African adventures that resulted in his album of the same name. The reissue will include an extra hour of footage and an extra CD of music and will also spin off a stand-alone live album with Malian kora master Toumani Diabate.
That’s a heavy collection of commitments, especially considering that Fleck is 60, and he and Washburn have two children, ages 6 and 1.
“I don’t recommend this for the low of energy,” he says with a laugh.
“I don’t think I would have been mature enough before now to (have a family) because I had so much I was trying to accomplish on my own,” he adds. “But now I don’t want to stop, and I’m just as fanatic as I ever was.
“It’s OK to be a little less out there and make sure my family is getting everything it needs from me.”
What Béla Fleck & the Flecktones • When 7:30 p.m. Thursday • Where Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand Boulevard • How much $40-$70 • More info 314-534-1700