Victor Wooten: Mr. Universe

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Victor Wooten
By Steven Parke
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Victor Wooten
By Steven Parke

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Although he’s a spirited, skillful and imaginative soloist, Victor Wooten believes that “any good bassist’s first task is to help make your group sound better.” Since 1989, that’s exactly what the Nashville-based electric bass virtuoso has done for Béla Fleck and the Flecktones: made the band sound better. But before taking a New York City stage as part of Chick Corea’s Elektric Band, Wooten is calling to talk about his new solo CD, Palmystery (Heads Up/Concord), and The Music Lesson (Berkley Trade/Penguin Group), a novel he’s written to fulfill his desire to help others avoid some of the pitfalls he’s witnessed over the years.

First, though, Wooten wants to elaborate on his thoughts about the role of the bassist. “You’ve got to lay down the foundation that helps improve everything else that’s going on around you,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll hear bass players in groups and they’re just going all over the place, trying to show how well they can play and how much range and speed they have. But they’re not doing anything for the group and they’re not having any positive impact on the music. If you pay attention to the music, understand your role and know your instrument, you can still make plenty of noise individually.”

Wooten has done that on a host of recordings with the Flecktones, on his own and with numerous other musicians, among them Branford Marsalis, Mike Stern, Prince, Gov’t Mule, Susan Tedeschi, Dave Matthews, the Jaco Pastorius Word of Mouth Big Band and Corea. With the Flecktones, Wooten has been called upon to solidify everything from open-ended jam numbers and outside jazz pieces to Celtic, folk, blues, soul, world and rock, and their concerts draw some of the most diverse audiences of any popular music ensemble in the world. Yet jazz and discerning rock fans also know that Wooten’s been part of many other equally eclectic and experimental ensembles, among them Bass Extremes (teaming with Steve Bailey, Derico Watson and Oteil Burbridge), and the Vital Tech Tones (where his mates were Scott Henderson and Steve Smith). Before Nashville’s critical infrastructure stopped formally tabulating and presenting the Nashville Music Awards, Wooten won two Bass Player of the Year honors, and he’s the only musician in the history of Bass Player Magazine to win its coveted Player of the Year Award three times, in addition to earning four Grammy Awards.

In addition, the dates featuring him as a leader have earned critical acclaim; albums such as the wildly eclectic Soul Circus from 2005, which matched him with everyone from Flecktone saxophonist Jeff Coffin and rapper Speech to other bassists such as Steve Bailey, Will Lee, Christian McBride and Gary Grainger. It also reflects Wooten’s wide-open attitude toward music, one that ignores labels and categories and instead simply stresses artistry and expressiveness.

That open-endedness is the hallmark of Palmystery, a 12-track set that explores virtually every arena in the music universe and also showcases Wooten’s songwriting and all-round bass talents. Those who prefer more improvisational forays will enjoy “2 Timers,” a cut that boasts clever shifts in time signatures between 3/4 and 4/4, but also offers arresting exchanges between Wooten and drummers Derico Watson and JD Blair. “Left, Right and Center” has intersecting percussive textures supplied by Blair, Dennis Chambers and Will Kennedy that are augmented by Hammond B3 organist Neal Evans and rippling guitar from longtime Wooten colleague Mike Stern.

Then there’s the inspirational “I Saw God,” which blends Wooten’s evocative spoken-word narratives with a prickly groove and exuberant vocals from a chorus that includes Richard Bona, as well as “The Gospel,” which reaffirms the unity and tightness within the Wooten unit (there are two generations of Wootens plus some glorious singing by his mother) and a soothing, sentimental duet featuring slide guitarist Keb’ Mo’ and Wooten on “Us 2.”

The youngest of five music-playing brothers (Regi, Rudy, Roy and Joseph), Wooten credits his family with introducing him to music and even getting him started on his instrument. “They needed a bass player,” Wooten said with a laugh. “Regi started teaching me how to play bass before I could really hold one.” At 5, Wooten was already executing complicated basslines and doing gigs with his brothers around the Williamsburg, Va. area (he was born in Hampton, Va.), plus opening for such well-known R&B stars as Curtis Mayfield and War. Wooten’s initial inspiration as a player came from that genre as well. “Before I could really understand, remember and write down the solos and parts, I was knocked out by what I was hearing from the bass players in those groups,” Wooten said. “I was too young and inexperienced to have the technical knowledge to appreciate it, but in my heart I knew what I was hearing was great and was something that I wanted to be able to play myself.

“I remember the things that Bootsy Collins was doing in James Brown’s band and also on his own,” Wooten continued. “Larry Graham was another player who was very influential, and Willie Weeks, he’s someone who I really respected. I also admired Alphonso Johnson quite a bit, and he was someone who worked in both funk and more mainstream-type jazz settings. Back in those years I was listening to a lot of R&B and soul music. Later, when I started hearing more jazz, Stanley Clarke was someone whose music really moved and impressed me. Everything that he did on the bass, the sound he got, the notes he played, the way he could help move every session, was very influential.”

Still, while there are attributes in his playing that no doubt reflect what he learned from others, Wooten’s personal contributions to the art of the electric bass have been considerable. His double-thumbing technique that’s almost the bass equivalent of using a guitar pick, as well as the open-hammer plucking and his frequent use of the two-handed tapping style more notably associated with guitarist Stanley Jordan, have resulted in Wooten delivering astonishing rapid-fire solos that maintain the fullness and tonal quality expected of bassists.

And while most bassists don’t strike the strings in both an up and down fashion, Wooten’s ease in doing this results in frequently awesome riffs and licks. Some of the things he’s played on past albums like A Show of Hands (1996), What Did He Say? (’97) and Yin-Yang (’99) rival the explosive, spectacular lines of Jaco Pastorius or Jamaaladeen Tacuma. But there’s never any excess or unnecessary flamboyance in Wooten’s playing. He’s capable of almost disappearing into the background if necessary, then cascading to the forefront when a more vigorous presence is required. Wooten will also occasionally mix into the live performance some of the things he does on studio dates with samplers and sequencers. He’s even done some banjo playing at Flecktones dates, something that’s always a big crowd pleaser.

When he chooses to, Wooten can deliver rich, inspiring solos and accompaniment on the traditional acoustic bass, though he’s most often heard on either fretted or fretless electric bass. A former cellist in high school, Wooten’s view on the differences between basses differs from what many others in either camp have said regarding this topic. “To me, the issue is about music, and I don’t really see this huge difference between the electric and the acoustic bass. Sure, there are the obvious structural differences and the necessity for approaching them differently physically in terms of how you do some of the playing. But as far as hearing anything differently, I don’t make any distinction. There are some things where the music dictates that you play the acoustic and others where the electric sounds best. I really do make that decision based on what works best for the song.”

Wooten also prefers to compose on the bass rather than use the keyboard to construct the primary song arrangement. “I really can hear how the song should work best on the bass,” Wooten continued. “Sometimes I’ll start out with a melody, and then hear that the bass needs to be restrung either higher or lower. From there, then you work out everything else, the transitions, the other parts and the complete song. The bass is really a great instrument for composition because again you have to think about everything else in the band as well as how you ultimately want the song to sound and what you’re trying to do as a composer.”

He satisfies his passion for spreading the message of music’s benefits and allure in a number of ways. He does many dates, lectures and sessions at Nashville-area high schools both with the Flecktones and on his own. Wooten also conducts two camps each year, one a bass/nature excursion in the spring (this year from April 12-17) and another music/nature exercise in the fall (Sept. 9-14). They are held at Montgomery Bell State Park, 40 miles west of Nashville, and feature Wooten and others offering a mix of instruction, counsel and exchanges with some 60 students. The curriculum includes strict musical subjects like Playing Techniques, The Role of the Bass Guitar, and The Acoustic Bass, but also non-musical survival lessons ranging from basic animal tracking to starting a fire and finding food in the wild, plus one course that shows how everything is related to music. (Information about tuition, requirements and other items is available online at victorwooten.com/basscamp.)

Wooten has also teamed with Steve Bailey to create the Bass Vault (thebassvault.com), perhaps the foremost online archive available for bass players. This site allows players to do everything from ask questions about technique to participate in instructional Q&As with Wooten and Bailey, engage in live chats, watch video clips, and generally gives fans and musicians the opportunity for regular encounters with topflight working bassists. Wooten also gives some private instruction, and he’s quite open about the mistakes and problems he encounters with aspiring bassists.

“A lot of times when I meet a young bassist and just ask him to play a little, he’ll immediately start zipping across the instrument,” Wooten said. “I then try to slow them down and let them know that’s not what I’m interested in hearing. Instead, I’m most concerned with what they’re listening to, what they’re hearing, and how they can then take that and fit it into what they’re playing and what they want to play. Technique is something that can be a benefit or a detriment to a musician. I’m more concerned with whether you really hear and respect music. That’s what I talk about, rather than what type of music you listen to from any category standpoint or whether you’re an electric or acoustic musician. If you really hear and understand music, then I’m really interested in helping you become a better musician. I’m not interested in the whole celebrity or star thing, or who is the fastest or who is the baddest. I leave that to other people.”

Wooten’s also done enough teaching in his career to know what doesn’t work. Hence The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music. “By no means did I set out to be a novelist or even write one,” Wooten admits. “The thing that I really intended to do at first was write some sort of instruction manual because I constantly get asked to do one. But then I started thinking, you know, I really don’t want to write an instruction manual. I don’t like reading those. … So then I decided, why not make a novel, and put in that novel all the things that you would otherwise have put into the manual?”

The Music Lesson weaves analysis, philosophy, even some metaphysical and technical exposition into a narrative about a struggling young bassist whose quest to become great is guided by a mystic music teacher. This combination guru and scholar helps the musician learn not only about becoming a better player but about life in general. While Wooten doesn’t deem it biographical, he feels it does express his wide-ranging views about the ability of music to serve as a healing and unifying bond in society, without ignoring the inevitable problems and conflicts creative people face in a world that values commerce and profit more than artistry and integrity. “I was planning to put it out myself,” Wooten added. “But then I let a guy read it and he was thrilled with it and he eventually helped me get it out on Penguin. I certainly wasn’t expecting to have my first novel published by a major house, and it’s a bit humbling. I’m certainly grateful, and I hope that people who read it, especially musicians, will appreciate it and understand what I’m trying to say about music and life.”

The past few years haven’t exactly been banner ones for jazz in Nashville’s club scene, but devotees of hard-bop, swing, funk and fusion all agree on one thing: the Wooten Brothers’ weekly sets at the popular establishment 3rd and Lindsley are must-see encounters, and among the few opportunities Nashvillians have to see a hard-edged improvisational group date.

Unfortunately, Wooten’s busy schedule often precludes his participation in his brothers’ gigs, something that does tend to frustrate his area fanbase. “Man, I’m out of town so much that I don’t often make those gigs,” Wooten said. “People do ask me all the time why I’m not there and I just have to tell them that I’ve got work in other places. But with the new CD coming out and the book and all, maybe I’ll be doing a few more things around town this year.”

Gearbox

Main bass: 1983 Fodera Monarch Deluxe with EMG pickups and Kahler tremolo

Additional basses: Five-string fretless and six-string fretted custom basses by the late Joe Compito

Fodera Victor Wooten Yin-Yang Signature Series basses

Strings: Fodera Victor Wooten Signature or D’Addario XL-220s

Other equipment used
onstage and/or in studios:

Korg digital tuner

Furman power conditioner

Ampeg cabinets (for backline monitoring)

Shure in-ear monitors

Boss GT-6B multi-effects pedal

Lexicon JamMan

Groove: An Excerpt from The Music Lesson

Victor Wooten—OR Victor L. Wooten as he’s billed in the literary world answered years of requests to write his own method book with something far more inventive. The Music Lesson (Berkley/Penguin) melds fantasy and reality by incorporating real-life musical lessons, from the theoretical to the philosophical, into a whimsical narrative: a hard-up young bassist, living in Nashville, is visited one night by a mysterious, mystical teacher who takes the fledgling musician as his protégé and shows him the ropes in life, music and the mind. Deep stuff. In the excerpt below, the underdog meets his master:

I’d been working in the Nashville music scene for many years and not once had I seen him. I was a known player around town and had played in many bands but no one had ever mentioned his name. Although I hoped to make a decent living playing music, keeping my head above water on a consistent level was always a struggle, and the present struggle was rapidly getting the best of me. Maybe that’s what brought him out.

I was out of work but determined not to take a job waiting tables like so many musicians in town were forced to do. My landlord had just called to remind me that the end of the month was only a few days away, and with no gigs lined up, I was in no rush to return his call. My girlfriend, well, no need to lie about that; I didn’t have one.

As much as I tried, I could never seem to break into the recording session scene. The few sessions I’d done never generated any return calls, and whenever I lost a gig with a club band, I rarely knew why. I was a good bass player—not the best, but good—so I couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want me in his band.

Without a steady gig, and not knowing what to do, I decided to start practicing more. I didn’t like practicing (and still don’t), but I knew that I had to change something. It was either magically get better, alter my playing style or move to another town and start all over. Realizing the gravity of my situation, I decided to practice.

Did I mention I hate practicing? I never know what to practice or why I’m practicing it. I also get sleepy in the middle of the process.

So there I was at home, painstakingly working on scales and modes and not knowing why. I just knew that my previous teachers had told me to do so. All the books I’ve ever read said the same thing, so that’s what I was doing.

I was at my lowest point emotionally because I wasn’t getting anywhere with my playing and I wasn’t satisfied with my current playing situation. My home life and my love life, well, my whole life in general, wasn’t in the best of shape.

The rain beating down on the metal siding of my duplex, coupled with the monotony of playing scales, was lulling me to sleep. It was during one of my sleeping sessions, I mean practice sessions, that I first met him; or, more accurately, when he first showed up. And that is exactly what he did. He showed up, uninvited! At least, I thought he was uninvited. He had a different story. He said that I’d actually called him. I’m still confused by that statement, but for some reason, there he was in my house.

I had no idea how long the stranger had been standing there looking down on me. The fact that he was completely dry when it was raining outside made me wonder if he’d been there awhile. The strangest part of all is that … I didn’t want him to leave.

From my position on the couch, he appeared quite tall and mysterious. He was wearing a blue NASA-style jumpsuit and black motorcycle helmet. And even though his eyes were hidden, I could feel them penetrating deep into my mind as though he was looking for the proper place to begin.

Reprinted from The Music Lesson by Victor L. Wooten by arrangement with Berkley Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2006 by Victor L. Wooten.

Originally published in April 2008

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