Innerviews, music without borders

Victor Wooten
Persistence and equality
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2009 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

Victor Wooten

Since the dawn of Victor Wooten’s career, the bassist and composer has made a point of infusing his work with ideas encompassing peace, equality and respect. Those leanings color his lyrics, as well as the multi-genre, multicultural influences represented in his instrumentation. His six solo albums take a hybrid approach featuring remarkably fluid combinations of jazz, funk, soul, hip-hop, and world music.

At the center of Wooten’s output is his distinctive electric bass style that’s made him one of the most riveting and sought-after players to ever pick up the instrument. His combination of techniques including double-thumbing, open-hammer-pluck and two-handed tapping enable him to perform solo on his bass with impressive flexibility and melodicism, as well as create jaw-dropping pyrotechnics. His first solo album, 1996’s A Show of Hands, showcases all of those elements. The disc is almost entirely bass-focused, with vocal accompaniment. And while it features chops galore, they exist in service of a cohesive set of memorable and carefully-architected tunes. His next five CDs, leading up to 2008’s Palmystery, built on that foundation and saw him layering additional instrumentation, heightening production standards and exploring more adventurous subject matter.

He’s also well-known for his role as a founding member of Béla Fleck & The Flecktones. As with his own output, the banjo-driven group specializes in fearlessly blurring genres. The world fusion act, also comprised of Fleck on banjo, Roy “Future Man” Wooten on percussion and Jeff Coffin on saxophone, is enormously popular worldwide. And with multiple Grammy awards and significant record sales, The Flecktones have proven that creative, largely instrumental music still has mainstream possibilities.

Wooten credits the influence of his musically accomplished brothers for establishing a direction that led him towards the major success he enjoys. His guitarist brother Regi encouraged him to begin playing bass at age three, and the youngster began performing with the Wooten Brothers Band at age five. The group, also featuring Rudy on saxophone, Joseph on keyboards and Roy on percussion, went on to release a funk and soul-infused self-titled pop album in 1985, prior to Wooten pursuing his own path in the late '80s.

His brothers also introduced him to the music of legendary artists such as Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller—people he went on to work with himself. In 2007, Wooten toured as a member of Corea’s Elektric Band, and in 2008 served as one-third of S.M.V., a trio featuring Clarke and Miller. S.M.V. represented a fusion dream team with three generations of acclaimed bass virtuosos in one line-up. The group delivered a high-energy tour de force in concert and on its 2008 release Thunder that fulfilled the lofty expectations the collaboration inspired.

Even with all the fame, accolades and opportunities afforded him, Wooten’s feet remain firmly on the ground. He captured his philosophies in 2006’s The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music, his first book. It crystallizes his core tenets of exploring the outer reaches of creativity by harnessing the muse in a purposeful and meaningful way. He also shares his perspectives at his Bass/Nature Camp, located at his Wooten Woods Retreat in Nashville, Tennessee. Several times a year, musicians from across the world gather together with Wooten and other bass all-stars to make the connection between inspiration, imagination and the outdoors.

Victor Wooten

Describe your evolution as a writer from A Show of Hands to Palmystery.

Writing is like most things in life. The more you do it, the better you get at it. These days, the writing is better, but the production is a lot better. I recently went back and listened to all of my earlier records and was surprised and amazed at how clever some of the writing was. The writing is just as good today but totally different. Getting exposed to so much music by playing with so many diverse artists from across the world over the years with Béla has really expanded my language. It’s really given me a lot of new ideas. Working with Howard Levy, our harmonica player during the first years of The Flecktones, also really influenced me. He’s the guy that introduced us to Bulgarian and Indian music, as well as odd time signatures. Jeff Coffin’s deep jazz background also brought a whole different side to the band which I’ve learned from too. It’s been an ongoing musical education and you hear it in more recent tunes like “Stay” from my 2005 album Soul Circus. It’s funky and very reminiscent of my roots, but the song is also in 11/8 and has Indian percussion on it. I wouldn’t have done that on A Show of Hands.

How do you look back at A Show of Hands?

That album was designed to prove that I could make a solo bass record that was listenable—one people could sit down and enjoy for 30-40 minutes. A lot of that music was written quite a few years before it came out in 1996. Some things even went back to the '80s, including “Classical Thump” and “Overjoyed.” I really did that record for myself. I wanted to make an album that to my knowledge, no-one had ever done before. Believe it or not, I’ve never focused on the virtuosic side of the playing, even on the first CD. It’s just that in order for it to be a complete solo statement with no overdubbing, I had to be virtuosic. My ideal situation is to always focus on songs and exploring ideas, not virtuoso stuff.

When I grew up and played in a band with my brothers, my role was being a supportive bass player, but my brothers also encouraged me to learn how to solo and gave me lots of chances to do so. It wasn’t until The Flecktones that I began soloing on almost every song. As a result, I became known for that technical virtuoso side of things. The way I look at it is, I have those abilities in my repertoire, but it’s not my main focus. That’s why since my first album, I’ve made a conscious effort to make each record different. I don’t want people to know what’s coming next. I also try to make sure there’s something on each record for kids, grown-ups, musicians, and even people who don’t like jazz. In addition, I include things that could be played on radio, even though I don’t expect them to be. The idea is that the records are balanced. The main thing I did production-wise after the first CD is add more instruments. The first record was strictly bass with a little bit of vocals. The second, What Did He Say?, was mostly bass, but I added drums and a lot of overdubbed bass tracks. By the third record, Yin-Yang, I brought in horns, keyboards and guitars, and it grew from there.

I understand you feel the best music writes itself.

I do. Music in a sense is already written and it’s up to musicians to find the place where it resides. That goes beyond music because all of our ideas are out there somewhere and human beings have to bring them into existence. In terms of music, there are no new notes being invented. It’s about how we put 12 notes together. The good thing is the combinations are infinite.

How do you go about finding those ideas?

I pretty much always keep a recorder of some sort with me so I can sing and capture ideas that may pop into my head. New ideas usually also happen during soundcheck when I’m out with The Flecktones or my own band, because that’s when I’m usually in music mode. Usually, when I’m off the road, I’m not in music mode because I like too many other things. I’ve got a family, so when I’m home, I’m not playing. I’m hanging out with the kids and my wife. When I do get into music mode, I’ve found that I can open my mind and go to that place where I can find the ideas I need. Sometimes I just have to touch my bass or another instrument like a piano. I’m not really a piano player, but I can sit down at our piano and ideas will start flowing. But ideas can also happen anytime, like when I’m driving or at someone else’s show. In fact, I get a ton of ideas when I see other people play.

When I start writing, one of the things I keep in mind is that I have to get to that “finished place” which actually exists when I first start. It was already there, but I wasn’t. So writing is a journey to get to that place. We call it creation. In my mind, the song is already done. I trust that the song is already complete and that I can get there. It’s the same thing as when you start talking—you trust the words are going to come out because you have the vocabulary and you keep your mind focused on the idea you’re trying to express. Most of the time, my songs are doing just that—expressing an idea. I allow the notes and chords to show up the same way the words do. Most of the time it works, but every once in a while I have to stop and focus in a little more to figure out what needs to happen next.

You believe in treating music as an entity in and of itself—one you can speak to and interact with. Describe how that works for you.

I’ve only felt comfortable talking about this in recent times because it sounds kind of crazy. [laughs] I literally ask music questions. Say I have to come up with a bassline. Instead of me saying “Okay, I have to figure out what to play,” in my head, I’ll ask the music “What should I play? What do you want to hear? How do you want to be expressed?” A lot of us have spent our whole lives learning how to play music, but what if you allow the music to play you? It’s just a thought and it’s one that allows me to experience being in the zone as much as possible.

Think about any relationship. If you’re always the one in control in that relationship and directing everything, it never works out. The same goes for music. The best relationships are the ones that are about equality. For me, this is all about attuning myself to a certain place, opening my mind and being receptive. The ideas end up coming more easily when I do that. Another related idea is that in some other countries, they say you have to be inducted into the world of music and that music has to invite you in. Those cultures also believe not everyone that wants to be a musician is allowed in. It goes back to music as a calling. Some people say it’s a calling because it sounds cool, but haven’t thought deeply about what they’re saying. What if those people really allowed the music to call out to them? They might be surprised where it leads them.

Victor Wooten

Another one of your key mantras is “What you don’t play is as important as what you do play.”

Absolutely. What I’m talking about is space, rest and not playing when you don’t have to. In my book The Music Lesson, a character says “Music is a lot like life. You have to have some rest in there. You have to sleep. If you don’t sleep enough, your body starts to break down.” Music does the same thing without proper rest or space in it. Good speakers know how to use space and dynamics. They understand it’s a very important tool to grab people. It’s very important to understand how to manipulate notes, modes and scales, but you can do the same with space. That’s something a lot of people don’t do. Master musicians like Miles Davis always understood space. When you understand space, you know you don’t need as many notes and that you can play slower, yet people will still listen. It’s the same situation if your mind, your house or your pockets are cluttered. Things have to be emptied out and spaced out. Notes and music are exactly the same.

What are some of the first experiences in your life that made you consider the endless possibilities music could offer you?

There are a couple of things that first made me think deeply about that back in the early '70s when I was in second grade. When I started listening to James Brown, I realized his main thing was based upon the groove. His thing was not melody. If you think about “Sex Machine” and say “Okay, sing the melody,” you’ll go “Wait a minute, there is no melody!” There’s a groove with James improvising on top of it. And I realized “Wow, you can do an endless amount of things even within just one groove.” He could carry a song for eight minutes like that and you never got tired of it. Curtis Mayfield is someone else I heard early on that really changed how I thought. He plays very soft and sings in a high falsetto. He’s not powerful in the James Brown sense, but the intensity is there. His soft intensity helped me see the endless possibility of dynamics in that softness can be very powerful. He did so much with dynamics without hitting you over the head all of the time. That was the way I did things before Curtis—I played loud and fast. I understood it doesn’t have to be that way and that was an amazing realization. I have to thank my brothers and parents for pointing these things out. They helped me understand there is so much more to consider about music than just a bunch of notes.

In many of your recordings and gigs, you work with one or more of your brothers. Describe the importance of having that connection.

Your family helps you build the foundation of your life, including your character. I like to say I had six parents—my mom and dad, and my four brothers. They taught me everything about music. We weren’t the kind of brothers that fought. We were literally a band and to be able to continue to play with them brings me back to that comfort zone. It’s really easy to play with my brother Roy in The Flecktones, no matter what instrument he’s playing. There aren’t a whole lot of bassists that would have an easy time playing with him on his Drumitar (a MIDI-based percussion instrument shaped like a guitar). You don’t know what to look for. You can’t see the big hits coming, but because he’s my brother, we can do it because we understand each other so well. When I do my own tours, I bring at least two of my brothers, including Regi on guitar and Joseph on keyboards. I know if I have them, we barely have to rehearse. We have a long-term repertoire and relationship. It’s just like sitting down to talk with people. You already know what you’re going to say to each other. You don’t have to practice. It’s really easy and makes me feel at home.

Given all the accolades you receive, does knowing your brothers will always be straight up with you help keep you grounded?

Yeah. If I’m not playing my best, I can always get a straight answer from them. They’re not going to give me what my brother Roy calls “the Elvis Treatment.” Even if I have a horrible night, sometimes audience members will come up to me after the show to tell me how great I was. That’s a challenge because in my own mind I know I wasn’t great. But with my brothers, and close friends like Béla around, I know I’ll hear the reality of the situation. I count my crew in that equation too. So, in addition to being surrounded by my actual brothers, I have these other brothers who help fulfill that role too. It’s a good place to be.

You’re a very spiritual person, yet you dislike the idea of framing that within any sort of religious context. What does spirituality mean to you and how does it inform your life as a musician?

Spirituality is everything to me because everything is spiritual, whether you use that word or not. A song is spiritual because it comes from an idea. Where does the idea come from? Can you see the music? Where does it live? Think about when you see a picture in your mind. Where is that picture located? That’s spiritual. How does an acorn turn into a tree? Explain that. That’s spiritual. I can turn on a radio and suddenly there’s music coming out of a box. That’s spiritual. So, to me, all things are spiritual. The spirituality part comes in when you can talk about all this sort of stuff without having to sound too religious. I don’t have to subscribe to any one religion to be able to talk about life in this way. I don’t care what religion you call it or what name you give it. It’s all the same thing. The safer term is to call it spirituality. For me, it’s even safer to just call it music. When you do that, nobody argues or gets too upset.

“I Saw God” from Palmystery takes those ideas even further. Tell me what you wanted to say with the song.

That song expresses how I feel about life and religion. The main thing I wanted to do was portray God as a male and a female. The song was designed to have people question their beliefs, because with religion, people try to keep things the same. It’s not allowed to change. It’s supposed to be the way it was a thousand years ago even though everything else changes. And that’s a pretty good example of what death is—when things stop changing. So, in my opinion, religion has to change with the times. We need to question, rethink and revisit our beliefs and I wanted a song that would cause people to do that. The idea of God being a man or woman isn’t a new idea. It just makes sense. The song also talks about God looking like you or me. The Bible says we’re made in the image of God, so why won’t God appear as you or me, as well as people of different races? All of that feels right to me and the song has communicated to a lot of people. I’ve been invited to speak in churches, and even at a pastors’ conference since it came out. I’m really happy that people have been so open to a song like this.

Victor Wooten

What did it mean to you to be part of the S.M.V. album and tour?

It was a dream come true. It was an idea I brought up with Stanley and Marcus about six years ago. Everyone was too busy, but it remained in the back of everyone’s mind. We all played together at a Bass Player magazine event in 2006 and it was the spark that made us realize it was time to do it. Stanley was my biggest bass hero growing up as a kid. I had others like Marcus and Larry Graham, but Stanley was the main guy. I first met him when I was nine years old backstage at a Return to Forever show. He was really friendly and encouraging even then. When The Flecktones started hitting, he came to see us play in Canada and we developed a relationship. To be part of a band with him is really amazing and everything has come full circle. I now own a couple of his basses, including the one he recorded “School Days” on. In a sense, I’m carrying on the tradition of Stanley Clarke with my own work because he’s a big part of my musical upbringing.

What was the key to making this line-up work, musically speaking?

Equality. We all got to participate equally while making Thunder. We have great conversations and stories to tell each other in words and in music. So we made a point of making the record balanced between the three of us in terms of tunes, as well as ensuring different types of songs and ideas were represented. We didn’t want to make a bass record with a bunch of flashy playing. It had to be musically good and include other instruments. We talked about that, went away to write a couple of songs each and brought them back to the group to see where we could go with them. I ensured my songs weren’t totally finished too. I left the melody for Marcus and Stanley to write so the songs would sound like collaborations, rather than solo tunes. When I recorded my demos, I would try to sound like Stanley or Marcus. It was a lot of fun writing with those guys in mind.

What did you learn about yourself during the process?

The main thing I learned, and it may sound a little egotistical, but I don’t mean it that way, is that I had to approach this project as their equal. They are my elder brothers, but it wouldn’t have helped me to go into S.M.V. thinking “Okay, I’m just going to sit back and let them tell me what to do.” The record wouldn’t be as good if I had done that. I have a lot to offer and although there were times when I sat back and listened to them, there were also times when I had to step up and say “Let’s try this here.” It was valuable for me to realize “Wow, okay, I have something to offer my heroes like Stanley and Marcus.” It was also good to know that after all these years, I can still get nervous and be awestruck. It was a wonderful feeling to know that I’m not too jaded for that to happen.

Your solo career has evolved into a significant, self-sustaining entity. Tell me how you went about building an audience outside of The Flecktones.

Through persistence. A lot of artists don’t realize they need a lot of that when they go out on their first few tours. I didn’t either because I was making a certain guarantee money-wise with The Flecktones and assumed if I had my own band that I could make close to the same thing. That wasn’t the case. If you don’t have a track record, promoters don’t want to risk their money. So, on my first solo gig with my drummer J.D. Blair in 1997, we made $75. I was shocked. The tour ended up going well musically, but monetarily, there was hardly anything. However, the promoters saw the potential and they brought us back and more people would come out. I was also getting more popular with The Flecktones and that helped my solo thing, so every year and every tour it would keep growing just through persistence. Me and J.D. were just getting in my car and driving around. It was all I could afford, and I couldn’t really even afford to do that. Trying to convince anybody to book a bass player and a drummer was really hard, but we got to open shows for other people, and it kept evolving. The one thing about the jazz-type music we do is you have to keep doing it. You have to get out there and get people to notice, including the promoters. Also, we jazz players don’t make much money from record sales, but when we tour, the money we make is ours. That’s another reason why we’re always out there.

Tell me about your approach as a bandleader.

Let’s use those first tours as an example. You may have to sacrifice and not make any money. Your band might make more money than you, but if you’re a solo artist, your band is working to promote you. So they should make good money when your name is on the marquee. When the audience goes home, they’re going to remember that marquee name. So, treat your band as equals. Make them feel good and honored for helping you out. I also don’t want them to feel like they have to do what I tell them to do. In fact, they sometimes get to tell me how they think something should sound or what song we should play next. If it’s not on the set list, I tell them to call it out. We’ll know after we’ve done it if it was a good idea or not. I want to make sure there is a collective creative spirit. I want people to feel equal offstage too. I’m totally open about everything, even the books. If you want to see how much the tour is making or how we split up the money, you can. I also don’t stay in a suite while the band stays elsewhere. We all stay in the same type of room. We travel together too. I don’t fly first class while they fly in coach. In addition, everybody gets a big spot to do their thing in the show. I got a lot of this from Béla who’s been a great role model for me as a bandleader. He really stresses equality whenever we work together as well.

You’re passionate about your anti-racist perspectives. What did the election of Barack Obama in 2008 mean to you?

Man, it means a lot. I get to travel the world a lot and it was very interesting to see how everyone outside America was very happy about Barack representing hope, whereas the only place I saw hatred-type remarks was here at home. As Barack got closer to the presidency, those racist remarks were showing up in the media, but the cool thing is they didn’t get in the way of him winning. It also meant a lot to me because of what my mom went through. My dad isn’t around anymore, but my mom got to see this man elected president. She never thought she would see that in her lifetime, and I didn’t know that I would see it in mine either.

When she was pregnant with my oldest brother, she had to get up and give her seat up on a bus so a white man could sit down. So this presidency means lots of change, but there is still a lot of change that has to come. However, it has given hope to a lot of people of different races. Also, I have four kids between the ages of four and 11. The first election they’re aware of is the one in which we elected a black president. So what my generation and the generation before them struggled for is unnatural to them. I still want them to understand what it took to get here, but they’re growing up thinking “A black president? What’s the big deal?” That is truly an amazing and wonderful thing.

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Victor Wooten