Victor Wooten: From the Bottom

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Victor Wooten
By Greg Kessler

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Victor Wooten, Virginia-born and raised and now Nashville-based, is a kinder, gentler bass virtuoso: his hands are everywhere, with heart and mind close behind. The means are not necessarily new in this age after Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, Larry Graham and other electric bass icons have laid the groundwork. Wooten, as heard in the ear-grabbing low end of the neo-fusion band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, with The Wooten Brothers and as a leader in his own right, possesses a rich vocabulary of thump-and-slap techniques, hammer-ons, pinging harmonics, fiendish single line runs and chord fragments. But the trick of a personal signature is in the deployment.

Underscoring it all is a sense of humor and eclecticism that seems to come naturally: Wooten’s albums tend to be less self-absorbed bass journeys, and instead are filled with snippets of spoken word, quirky new technical notions and a spirit of joyful music-making. Chops, of which his are monstrous, are only part of the story, as they should be. That balance is especially true of Wooten’s third and latest solo recording, Yin-Yang (Compass). The two-CD album, nominated for a Grammy for “Best Contemporary Jazz Performance,” combines an instrumental and a vocal disc, vis a vis the message of duality in the title.

Grammy nod notwithstanding, Wooten’s musical sensibility, charged up with gentle humor and instrumental derring-do, hardly fits in with the vapid aural wallpaper effect of a lot of what passes for contemporary jazz these days. A few cuts on the new album follow the agreeable melody-cum-groove logic of the Yellowackets’ approach, but, as a whole, the album is more of a conceptual statement with generous nods to the organic soul of P-Funk and Sly and the Family Stone, ushered into a jazz-flavored atmosphere.

Does Wooten feel a sense of alienation by association with the contemporary jazz scene?

“I don’t really feel alienated from anyone, because I’m not really doing my music for the crowd. I’m doing the music I want to do, and I’ll allow the crowd to think whatever they want to think about it. If they love it, great, if they hate it, great. That’s their choice. The way I can be the most truthful is by being me. If I’m just trying to please the public, then I might not be truthful to myself. For me, the way I’m going to produce the best music is to be really truthful to who I am, and then allow the public to believe or say whatever they want about the music.”

He has a restless experimentalist’s impulse that shows up in intriguing ways here: the vocal part was recorded backwards on “Pretty Little Lady,” and, on the amazing “Singing My Song,” the discrete syllables were recorded in cut ’n’ paste fashion on different tracks, with an end effect of a real time mosaic. Another track, “Kaila Speaks,” features an earnest, babbling dissertation by his infant daughter, Kaila, after which we hear his careful transcription of the speech contours into a dizzying melody line on daddy’s bass. This, clearly, is a monster bassist with more on his mind than bass gymnastics.

Impressive riffs are always around the corner, but musicality is the main agenda, along with real-time rough edges. “I want the rawness and the realness,” Wooten says, at home in Nashville. “I like to use the analogy of going to a circus and watching a juggler. Now, if he does a perfect, flawless routine and makes it all look easy, that’s easy. You’ll give him a bunch of applause. But if he’s up there juggling and he almost drops the ball a few times, but doesn’t, then you start to see how hard it is and you give him a standing ovation.

“So, a lot of the time, what happens in the studio is that people make it so flawless, you can’t really get the picture of what’s going on. For me, I leave it a little rough, so the listener is brought into it a bit more.”

The guest list includes an array of musicians, including Bootsy Collins, Fleck, Kirk Whalum, and Carter Beauford (drummer for the Dave Matthews Band). At root, it’s a family affair, from his own daughter’s instinctive, pre-linguistic hipness to input from three of his brothers (all except Roy, aka Future Man, his bandmate in the Flecktones, who was out of the country when it was recorded).

It all began, almost inevitable, with the family musical connection, growing up in Newport News, Virginia. “I’m the youngest of five brothers,” Wooten explains, “and they started me. By brother, Reggie, the guitarist, started me when I was about two years old. My four older brothers were really my idols, and still are. That’s what really got me into playing.

“Through them, I learned about James Brown and Sly Stone, Motown and stuff like that. I was listening, without knowing it, to Bootsy, Larry Graham and James Jamerson, people like that. I wasn’t even paying attention to who the bass players were, by name. My brothers were just teaching me by example.

“As I grew, musically, I started getting into groups like Return to Forever, with Stanley Clarke, and Weather Report, with Jaco and Alphonso Johnson. My musical language just started getting bigger and bigger. For many years, I patterned myself after Stanley Clarke. I played the Alembic bass, all of it. I was just a big Stanley Clarke fan, and even still, I am.”

Along the way, Wooten has relied on woodshedding to hone his technical skills, but intuition played an important role, as well. “For me, it like how we all learned to talk. You wouldn’t really say that you woodshedded to learn English. When you were a kid, less than a year old, you were listening. Your mind was just wide open. You didn’t really have to woodshed, in a sense. For me, music was exactly the same way. Ever since I was born, my brothers were playing, so I just learned it. It was no big deal. It was what was going on. It like learning a second language. There was English and music.

“But there were times when I would bring my bass to school and practice during lunch hour instead of going to eat. If there something I really wanted to learn, whether a Stanley Clarke solo or whatever, I’d just stay up all night until I learned it. So there was a lot of woodshedding along the way, but I just look at it differently.”

Wooten moved to Nashville in 1988, and soon found himself in the Flecktones, the unlikely vehicle which, in effect, introduced him to the world, and vice versa. Progressive banjo player Bela Fleck, who circulated with such inventive Nashville characters as Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer and others, did a television show with Wooten, harmonica player Howard Levy (who got chromatic harp-like fluidity from a blues harp) and Roy “Future Man” Wooten on the bizarre electronic drum controller called the Drumitar. Together, they forged a unique hybrid of jazz, rock, bluegrass, funk and other ideas that popped into the collective head. Over a dozen years and numerous albums, the group has become a phenom in a category of its own devising.

“A lot of our success has happened from our live shows, because we’ve been out there touring and playing, and it has really grown that way. The record labels, the radio stations, they don’t really know what to call it or where to put it. You go to one store and it’s in jazz. In another one, it’s in bluegrass. No one really knows.

“But that’s the cool thing about it. We play bluegrass festivals, folk festivals, and we play the jazz festivals. When we come to your city, we get all of those people there. We get the bluegrass crowd, we get the Grateful Dead/Dave Matthews crowd, we get a funk music crowd. We get kids and grandmothers. It’s so cool.”

Meanwhile, Wooten kicked off his own solo career, with the impressive, aptly named A Show of Hands, in 1996. What Did He Say? came out in 1997, and he began habitually scooping music magazine polls and other formal kudos, along with an increasing reputation amongst musicians. He was the new breed of bass guitar icon the music scene needed to fulfill its self-imposed prophecy.

The story goes that the electric bass, as a viable lead instrument in jazz, was liberated in the ’70s, but since then, the instrument hasn’t had many heroes who have commanded attention as leaders. Wooten insists that “there are a bunch of them who are trying, but it takes awhile—not for the public—for the record labels and the people who get the sound to the public to open up to it. The saxophone wasn’t always as popular as it is now. Now, smooth jazz has to have a saxophone playing the melody. That wasn’t always the case, and now it is. So I think everything has its turn.

“There have been a lot of people, like Larry Graham, Stanley Clarke and lots of people who have helped get people like me to where I am. I’m just one of the guys carrying the torch for the next guy. To me, the public just wants to hear the music. It’s the rest of us who think we know how the public wants to hear it that causes the problem. The public is just looking to hear good music. I don’t think they’re concerned whether it’s the bass player playing the melody or a sax or whatever.”

Wooten is unabashed about his belief in the possibilities and the potential of the bass. In his ample idea bank for future projects are at least three bass-intensive concepts. One, to be called Virginia Bass Choir or MOB—”Men of Bass”—would feature himself, Oteil Burbridge, Keith Horne and James Genus, four bassists who he knew in Virginia, who have now gone on to acclaim. Another project would criss-cross different types of bass sonorities, from his bass guitar to the vocal bass from Take 6 and the low rumble of a Theremin.

Hanging in the balance is the need to keep the business end mollified, while also achieving creative satisfaction. Judging from just the diversity of the Wooten discography so far, there’s a lot more songs, and surprises, in the fiddle yet. “You can’t say it all on one CD,” he says. “You can’t say it all on ten CDs. The reason is that you’re always changing. If you’re open to the change, you’re going to be getting new ideas all the time.”

Listening Pleasures

Deep in the Heart of Tuva (Ellipsis Arts)

Bakithi Kumalo: San Bonan (Siam)

Vertu (Epic)

Gearbox

Fodera basses, using Ampeg speaker cabinets, and Ampeg power amp and pre-amp, EMG pickups, Kahler tremolo.

Bass-ic Lessons

The educational video market has developed into a strong component of available training methods in music, but the settings are often too conventional and lacking imagination in the mode of presentation. The possibilities of the format extend beyond just the taped lesson format.

Making Music, with Victor Wooten and Carter Beauford (Hudson Music), is a good example of a video which deviates from the norm of educational videos. It takes an analytical, blow-by-blow look at how specific, deceptively simple tunes from Wooten’s album Yin-Yang were put together. For example, Wooten’s “Zernergy,” is a rollicking, folksy 5/4 groove, with the occasional 6/4, and we see Wooten discussing the rhythmic approach with drummer Carter Breauford (from the Dave Matthews Group, and a friend of Wooten’s from their salad days). We see them working it out in the studio, isolating problem areas and arrangement shifts on the fly, in the studio. The band works through the song, through co-songwriter Fleck’s signature arpeggiating intricacies and saxist Jeff Coffin’s tenor sax melody line, as he works through the clinkers. What we get is a close-up, almost “video vérité” view of the process by which a tune is conceived and finished in the studio, warts and all. By zooming up close on the construction of specific songs a valuable lesson is imparted, less about technical details than a general creative process.

On Making Music Wooten and Beauford also discuss how to deal with turnarounds, odd time signatures in a natural way, the art of organic grooving and other subjects, using conversation as a model of behavior. But Wooten’s other recent video, Live at Bass Day 1998 (Hudson Music; 80 mins.), heads out of the studio and into the stretch zone of the live context. Filmed at the Bass Day ’98 in New York, Wooten is joined by drummer Kelly Gravely and guitarist Elijah (Regi) Wooten, and also, as a special cameo, by comrade-at-bass arms, and fellow Virginia-raised musician Oteil Burbridge (who plays with the Aquarium Rescue Unit and the Allman Brothers). The video doubles as a lesson, with the addition of Wooten’s discussion of such subjects as his signature, precision-geared thump-and-slap frenzy.

Originally published in April 2000

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