On paper, it definitely sounds weird: a band with electric banjo, keyboards, occasional harmonica, electric bass and a custom-built guitar synthesizer that sounds like a drum.
But when Bela Fleck and the Flecktones take the stage, as they will tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, they take this odd combination of instruments and use it in a very musical presentation.
"I'm trying to make music that is thought-provoking, emotionally satisfying and technically interesting with a band that plays instruments that are unusual and plays them unusually," Fleck, a 32-year-old native of Manhattan, said on the phone Sunday from Los Angeles, where he had played at the Hollywood Bowl on a program that included the Miles Davis Tribute band, pianist Chick Corea and saxophonist Gerald Albright.
Listen to the Flecktones, and you'll hear bits and pieces of pop, jazz, bluegrass, funk and more. Though the contemporary jazz undercurrent arguably is the strongest, variety is the name of the game for Fleck and partners Howard Levy on keyboards, Victor Wooten on bass and Roy (Future Man) Wooten on Synth-Axe Drumitar.
"We're not trying to do pop or jazz or anything," Fleck said. "We're trying to blend it all together, sort of a melting pot of all these elements so that we find our own little niche."
As they search for that spot, the Flecktones are attracting a substantial audience. They worked about 200 dates last year, including a number of performances in Europe opening for Bonnie Raitt, a tour with the a cappella Take 6 and a new Year's Eve engagement at the Oakland Coliseum on a bill headlined by the Grateful Dead.
Fleck expects the band to work about the same schedule this year, mixing large venues like the Hollywood Bowl and clubs such as the Coach House into its itinerary.
"We like the variety of venues as much as we like the variety of the music," Fleck said. "If you just played clubs or arenas, you'd get sick of it."
Fleck thinks a major reason for the band's appeal is its ability to, as he puts it, speak a number of musical languages, albeit some more fluently than others.
"Say bluegrass. Now, the men don't speak it well, but they understand it, so we can work in that mode when I want to. Howard plays Bulgarian music, which the others don't, but we understand odd time signatures, like something in 7/8, so Howard can show us that. Victor speaks funk, and while I'm not what you would call a funk musician, I have enough of that language to understand what he's doing and to go with it.
"That's what makes the band fun. The music can suddenly transform itself into something different when someone plays in a certain way."
Fleck said Sting's mid-80s "Bring on the Night" tour, which featured jazzmen Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland, inspired him to start the Flecktones.
"Sting took his music and blended it with these great jazz musicians, and made something very unique. It wasn't jazz, and it wasn't strictly pop. It was a different kind of pop, and I thought that was really cool. So I thought in my band that I could do that, come up with my own music, my own band concept."
He has taken the same attitude toward his own playing. Originally drawn to the banjo when he heard it on the soundtrack of "The Beverly Hillbillies" television show, he later discovered such jazz players as Charlie Parker and Corea. While he was a member of the progressive New Grass Revival bluegrass band, he began working out their improvisations.
"I became a closet jazzer, and for a while I thought that was what I wanted to do. Those solos sounded so good on the banjo, where you don't hear that kind of complexity.
"But then the other music I had been playing, and music such as that played by (mandolinist) David Grisman, I liked that, along with a lot of other music. So instead of simply becoming a jazz banjo player, I thought it was more interesting to use that jazz sense with funk, Irish, bluegrass and other music."
"Ufo Tofu," Fleck's third release for Warner Bros., showcases him and the band playing pieces such as the title track (the title is a palindrome and the musical phrases are played forward and backward) and "Sex in a Pan," named after a dessert at a North Carolina restaurant.
Another number, "Bonnie and Slyde," is dedicated to Raitt, with whom the Flecktones played an encore each evening of the European tour.
"I had been trying to play slide banjo for a while, and during the tour Bonnie gave me some different slides," Fleck said. "Then on the last date in Madrid, she gave me her personal slide, the one she'd been using all tour. That's the one I play it on the album. On the song I use the slide as a melodic voice, rather than playing the blues," which is what most listeners associate with the slide.
Asked if he thinks album reveals any growth, Fleck was hard-pressed to answer.
"I don't know," he said after a long pause. "It's a year later than the last album, these are different compositions, the growth is subtle, hmmmm , I have to think about this . . . We're playing music that's more complex than ever, and we're playing music that's simpler than ever. I guess we'll know later on."
As to his own playing, Fleck was more direct.
"I'm always insecure, always self-critical, I feel like I have a lot of work to do," he said. "I feel I've achieved some things, yet after hearing Wayne (Shorter) and Herbie (Hancock) at the Bowl, I feel like such a beginner that it's laughable. But here I am in this position, and I'm happy to be here."
* Bela Fleck and the Flecktones play tonight at 8 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $18.50. (714) 496-8930.