Non-fans of the banjo are legion, and reluctantly I count myself among them. I think of the banjo as something like balsamic vinegar: it’s excellent in small doses but if you drink a pint glass of it you’ll probably become ill. I feel the same about the harmonica, especially that excessively smooth harmonica sound Toots Theilmans made so popular in the theme to Midnight Cowboy. That’s the harmonica tone Howard Levy delivers in Rocket Science. You can even make out the first strains of “Midnight Cowboy Theme” in the track “Falani” on this album.
That being said, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with what Rocket Science does. There are some good tracks, especially “The Secret Drawer,” in which drummer Roy “Futureman” Wooten gets the chance to shine, and the banjo and harmonica take a hiatus. “Like Water” is another good one. It borrows its melody from Irish jigs, and gets away from the frenetic arpeggios the banjo so often lends itself to. I could easily see Rocket Science providing the background music at a Red Lobster or Outback Steakhouse, although played too loud I might become agitated and demand my steak be delivered as I had ordered it, and with ear plugs and a slug of rum to boot.
Bassist Victor Wooten, Roy Wooten’s brother, does a good job filling out the quartet. The band’s present configuration is relatively new, since Howard Levy, who also plays piano on Rocket Science, hasn’t been in the group since 1992 when he was replaced by saxophonist Jeff Coffin. In 2008 Coffin accepted an invitation to join the Dave Matthews Band and Levy rejoined.
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones have been around for a long time, and if you’re not a banjo fan there’s a good chance listening to the unique things Fleck does with the instrument will convert you. He incorporates African, classical and even European folk music into his compositions, and this inventiveness has garnered the band five Grammy Awards. Checkout www.flecktones.com for dates and locations of their current North American tour.