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Victor Wooten: Words and Tones

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The simultaneous release of these companion-piece discs with the anagram-infused titles is intended to display two disparate sides of Victor Wooten, and does it ever. Although the recordings share several root compositions, and some personnel, the approaches are poles apart: Words and Tones is a vocal record, featuring a number of women expressing lyrics penned by Wooten-best known as the extraordinarily individualistic bassman with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones-sometimes by himself, other times in collaboration. Sword and Stone is an instrumental set that deconstructs and reassembles nine of the tracks from the vocal set. Each album also includes five songs not found on the other.

For Words and Tones, Wooten and his often often-oversized cast are out to spread positive vibrations. In well-framed, melodic, neo-soul packages that often border on classic smooth jazz or mainstream ’70s-esque R&B, the singers exhort us all to treasure what we’ve got, love one another and all that good stuff. “Heaven,” a song the Jackson 5 could have done wonders with, includes a dozen Wooten family members-kids and adults alike-reminding us to tell those closest to us that we love them “before it’s too late,” even though “I know I’ll see you again.” In the ballad “Be What U Are (I Love U More),” Cheryl Morse sings of the advice she was given: “Now that I’m older, my mommy’s voice still ringing, be what you are.”

If some of this seems a bit on the drippy side, it is and it isn’t. Although Wooten plays an array of basses in his usual virtuosic manner, Words and Tones is a song record, not one for the jam-band crowd. For that, Sword and Stone more than takes up the slack. Wooten’s sandblasting volley of bass power in the title track establishes that he and his crew-many of them not named Wooten (although brothers Joseph and “Futureman” Roy do turn up)-are here for some serious playing. On Words and Tones, Meshell Ndegeocello’s vocal turn and Divinity Roxx’s rap on “Get It Right” (as in “I’m gonna get it right next time”) speak of boldness and confidence in the face of love lost, but stripped of that intent, the instrumental reworking allows the focus to shift to Victor’s swampy wah bass (as well as standard electric and upright, plus Ndegeocello’s own bass thumping), Joseph’s flashback-funk keys and Rod McGaha’s slinky trumpet lines.

Victor’s brief bass solo “H.O.P.E.” says just as much about that subject as any of the more blatant paeans to optimism on the vocal disc, and “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” one of several gospel-themed numbers on the two sets, exudes its reverence without shouting it out. Neither album is necessarily better than the other, although it’s difficult to imagine much of a crossover audience.

Originally Published