Bela Fleck has put the band back together -- literally.
"Rocket Science," which is out today (May 17), marks the first recording by the original Flecktones lineup -- with pianist/harmonica player Howard Levy rejoining Fleck, bassist Victor Wooten and percussionist Ray "Futureman" Wooten -- in 20 years. "Having everyone together again is amazing," Fleck tells Billboard.com. "When I put the band together (in 1988), it was a particular group I was assembling in the foolish hope we might stay together for a long time -- and that has happened, mostly, with Victor and Futureman and the rest of our crew. Howard is the one guy who flew the coop... We kept going and found things to do that we're very proud of, but all that said, this is the four people the band was designed around. All four of us were the people that needed to be in the Flecktones and the reason (the group) happened in the first place."
The door opened for Levy's return when saxophonist Jeff Colvin, who joined the group in 1998, was offered membership in the Dave Matthews Band in 2008, and the other Flecktones, who had dialed-down the band's schedule at that time, encouraged him to take it. The trio then decided to contact Levy, who joined them for some 2009 shows, which led to a commitment to record "Rocket Science" and spend a year promoting it.
Fleck says there was no major bad blood to overcome dating back to Levy's departure, but he acknowledges that "there's always stuff under the surface with people." In Levy's case that was a "frustration... that his compositions weren't being treated with the same respect mine were, or that he wasn't the leader, because he's such a strong leader and focal point of other things he does." Fleck says that this time he made a concerted effort to involve Levy in the songwriting process, and "Rocket Science" includes both collaborations and co-writes in a different manner from the early Flecktones work. "I really wanted him to feel good about it," Fleck acknowledges. "I think we were always good at (collaborating). The difference now is we're all 20 years older and have different musical experiences and are better at finding elegant solutions to things."
The reunited Flecktones plan to be on the road until April of 2012 and will play an assortment of festivals -- including Bonnaroo on June 10 in Tennessee and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival on June 17 in Colorado -- and headline dates as well as a run of July and August shows with Bruce Hornsby. But Fleck isn't speculating about life beyond "Rocket Science" for the lineup.
"And I don't think we should, either," says Fleck, who plans to premiere a banjo concerto commissioned for the National Symphony in September. "One of the things that's so precious and special about it is we've committed this time to it and haven't spoken about the future. Maybe six months into it we can decide, 'Hey, this is going great. Let's make some plans,' but the truth is everyone's got these other projects they're juggling, including me. Sometimes it's good to take things in small bites, and this is a pretty big bite, actually, what we're doing. So I think we'll just play it out and see how we feel. Going back to the original band is really exciting; I just don't want to have expectations beyond this year."