Flecktones Prep Ambitious Triple 'Worlds'

Bela Fleck & the Flecktones are preparing to release "Little Worlds," a three-disc studio set due Aug. 12 from Columbia. Produced by banjo virtuoso Fleck at his Nashville home studio, the 27-track

Bela Fleck & the Flecktones are preparing to release "Little Worlds," a three-disc studio set due Aug. 12 from Columbia. Produced by banjo virtuoso Fleck at his Nashville home studio, the 27-track collection will also be pared down into a 10-track single-disc version aimed at casual fans of the progressive bluegrass/jazz group.

"I was gonna make an eight-disc set, but [Columbia parent] Sony cut me down," Fleck tells Billboard.com with a laugh. "Actually, we just started recording and since it was at my house, there was no real limit. We figured we'd choose the stuff we liked the best, but then we got attached to everything.

"When you're doing a three CD set, basically you're trying to make something pretty deep, with a lot of nooks and crannies for people to drop into and lose themselves in, peaks and valleys. Hopefully, it's the kind of thing that will stay new for people for a long time."

Several guest artists join the Flecktones -- who are rounded out by bassist Victor Wooten, electronic percussionist Future Man, and saxophonist Jeff Coffin -- on the set. Bobby McFerrin shows up on several tracks, as does saxophonist Branford Marsalis, noted mandolin player/fiddler Sam Bush, guitarist Derek Trucks, Irish folk act the Chieftains, and dobro master Jerry Douglas.

Also appearing is popular bluegrass act Nickel Creek and New York Yankees centerfielder Bernie Williams. The latter is also an accomplished guitarist who will release his GRP Records debut, "The Journey Within," on July 15.

"In almost every case," he says, "the guest happened to pass through Nashville, and we couldn't resist inviting them to do something."

Among other songs, McFerrin and Bush collaborate with the group on a rendition of the Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs gem "The Ballad of Jed Clampett." The song is one Fleck credits as the inspiration that led him to take up the banjo as a teenager. "But the version that we did," he explains, "We kind of realized that it worked as a rap song. It's a lot of fun. It was supposed to be a joke, but then it got serious (laughs)."

Divinity, a singer who performs with Wooten on his solo tours, provides the rap. "We were in Atlanta with the Flecktones, she came to a soundcheck, and I asked her if she would rap it with us, and it was great, you know? It was really cool. So, that's what made us take the idea more seriously."

"Little Worlds" is the follow-up to 2000's "Outbound," which debuted at No. 2 on Billboard's Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart. Last year Columbia released the concert set "Live at the Quick," which bowed at No. 5 on the tally.

Fleck & the Flecktones are already out on the road, performing tonight (June 12) in Cincinnati. Tomorrow, they'll be among the acts playing the opening day of the second Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn. This leg of their tour will close June 20 at the Telluride (Colo.) Bluegrass Festival. The tour picks up again July 26 at the Toronto Star Bluesfest.

Here are Bela Fleck & the Flecktones' upcoming tour dates:

June 12: Cincinnati (Annie's)
June 13: Manchester, Tenn. (Bonnaroo Music Festival)
June 14: Saint Louis, Mo. (The Pageant)
June 15: Columbia, Mo. (Blue Note)
June 16: Kansas City, Mo. (Uptown Theatre)
June 17: Denver (Botanic Gardens Amphitheatre)
June 18: Boulder, Colo. (Chautauqua Amphitheatre)
June 20: Telluride, Colo. (Telluride Bluegrass Festival)
July 26: Toronto (Toronto Star Bluesfest)
July 27: Grand Rapids, Mich. (Frederik Meijer Gardens)
July 29: Peoria, Ill. (Madison Theatre)
July 29: West Des Moines, Iowa (Val Air Ballroom)
July 30: Madison, Wis. (Orpheum Theatre)
July 31: Apple Valley, Minn. (Minnesota Zoo Amphitheatre)
Aug. 1: Bayfield, Wis. (Big Top Chautauqua)
Aug. 7: Chicago (Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center)
Aug. 8-9: Cleveland Heights, Ohio (Cain Park)
Aug. 12: Red Lodge, Mt. (Red Lodge Rodeo Grounds)
Aug. 13: Missoula, Mont. (University Of Montana)
Aug. 14: Sandpoint, Idaho (Festival at Sandpoint)
Aug. 15: Bend, Ore. (Athletic Club)
Aug. 16: Eugene, Ore. (McDonald Theatre)
Aug. 17: Portland, Ore. (Oregon Zoo Amphitheatre)
Aug. 18: Jacksonville, Ore. (Britt Festivals at Britt Pavilion)
Aug. 20: Seattle (Woodland Park Zoo)