Banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck has proven time and again that there's little he won't try with his instrument. Most recently, Fleck's solo ventures took him to West Africa, where he traced the banjo's origins. He's also explored playing the banjo in classical ensembles. Of course, Fleck is best known for the aptly dubbed "blu-bop" fusion of bluegrass and bebop pioneered with the help of his longtime band, the Flecktones.
For that reason, his latest project with the Marcus Roberts Trio may not seem so adventurous at first blush. However, Roberts—a blind pianist who served as a sideman for Wynton Marsalis—is a more straight-ahead instrumentalist, focusing primarily on early jazz styles from stride to ragtime. With his own albums, he pays tribute to icons such as Gershwin, Joplin, Monk, Morton and Waller. The collaborations between Fleck and Roberts—they're joined by bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis—offer a more natural view of the banjo in the context of jazz. Fleck, as usual, melds plenty of other influences, from blues to bluegrass and Latin to African, to keep this far from traditional. —Spencer Griffith