The bass guitar and the symphony orchestra may strike some as strange bedfellows. But it’s not like they’ve never met before. Every now and again, they connect over a concerto on stages typically home to classical musicians. John Patitucci recorded such a piece written for him by Jeff Beal, while Finland’s Lauri Porra, great-grandson of composer Jean Sibelius, composed and played a bass-guitar concerto, and Ramon Vazquez performed one by Alfonso Fuentes, to name just a few examples of a field that’s still small, if growing.
Now Victor Wooten has entered the fray with La Leccion Tres (“Lesson Three”). The Nashville-based bass virtuoso, best known for his work with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, played his ambitious suite in front of a live audience for the first time with the full Boston Symphony Orchestra last October; the four performances followed an earlier livestream concert premiere with the smaller Chicago Sinfonietta. The first electric-bass soloist in the BSO’s 141-year history delighted an enthusiastic Symphony Hall audience and garnered a glowing critical reception: “…[B]y the end, it was running at a full grooving gallop, with Wooten’s mellow, warm tone singing out above the crackling orchestra and driving snare,” critic A.Z. Madonna wrote in The Boston Globe.
Several months later, Wooten was still basking in the afterglow. “I’ve heard classical music, of course, and growing up in grade school I even played some,” he said during a break from a virtual classroom session for Berklee College of Music. “But with this, I have my hand in every note that is played, and classical musicians can read it perfectly. It’s amazing to stand in the middle of that on stage, and to hear all of it. It puts me in a different place, musically. I feel like I’ve grown.”
For the concerto, he deployed two Fodera bass guitars, a four-string Yin Yang and a custom five-string fretless with an arched fingerboard, allowing it to be readily bowed. He describes the latter instrument as a cross between bass guitar and electric cello, a hybrid that tends to raise eyebrows for those seeing or hearing it for the first time.
Wooten’s adventures in sonic shock and awe first peaked more than 25 years ago with the release of his solo debut, A Show of Hands, which featured only four-string bass and vocals, sans overdubs. La Leccion Tres is something of a follow-up to “The Lesson,” a tune on his 2008 Palmystery album associated with music originally published—a measure at the start of each chapter—in Wooten’s popular musical-mystical book The Music Lesson.
The journey to writing and performing a concerto began when Wooten collaborated with violinist Conni Ellisor on “The Bass Whisperer,” debuted by the Nashville Symphony in 2014. He at first was reluctant to take on the challenge and declined the opportunity: “I didn’t want to enter into the classical world and be just okay. Then I thought, if I can write it with [Ellisor], I can learn how to do it.”
There’s little that Wooten, owner of five Grammy Awards, hasn’t learned how to do. In addition to being a teacher, an author, and bass guitarist, for more than 15 years he’s helmed a series of music-and-nature camps, now held on his sprawling Wooten Woods property near Nashville. Next up is the 2022 release of S’Low Down on his Vix label, an all-star project with Bass Extremes—Wooten, fellow bassist Steve Bailey, and drummer Gregg Bissonette—joined by a roomful of marquee low-enders, including Billy Sheehan, Oteil Burbridge, Edgar Meyer, Joe Dart (Vulfpeck), and Justin Chancellor (Tool). One track features five bassists, including Miller, Patitucci, and Ron Carter.
“People don’t expect to hear the bass sing and play chords, and have bass players get together and sound like music and not just like a bunch of elephants,” he says. “Electric bass is an instrument that can still surprise and shock folks.”