With over thirty years in the business, bassist Victor Wooten knows a thing or two about what it means to play music. When he’s not out on the road creating music with his Trio or reuniting with Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, Wooten can be found teaching at his popular music camps or at the Berklee School Of Music. Unlike other music teachers who focus on music theory, Wooten’s lessons are guided towards unlocking music as a tool of expression, painting a more complete picture of what music really is.
Our own Dave Melamed recently linked up with Wooten, who has plenty of ongoing projects with which to express himself. The bassist is currently putting the finishing touches on a new studio album, his first official project with the Trio of Dennis Chambers on drums and Bob Franceschini on sax. They’ll be out on the road throughout the year, including a headlining performance in Denver, CO as part of The Drunken Hearted Medicine Show, a full day of music featuring performances from The Band Of Heathens, Drew Emmitt & Andy Thorn Duo, The Drunken Hearts, Brad Parsons Band and Coral Creek at Cervantes Masterpiece & The Other Side on March 24th. More info can be found here.
Read on for the exclusive interview with Wooten, below.
L4LM: I appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us. From what I hear you’re working on a new album?
Victor Wooten: That’s right! This is something I’ve wanted to do for years, to do a project with these two gentlemen, Dennis Chambers on drums and Bob Franceschini on sax. It just works out where it’s time for me to do a new record anyway. I don’t do new records every year, I do them every two to three years, and I felt it would be a great, different thing for me to do. Usually, each of my records are different from the last, and I felt doing this trio record would be perfect. Everybody was into it.
L4LM: Is this the first record you’ve done with the trio?
VW: Oh yeah, with this trio, absolutely. I’m really, really looking forward to it. Lot of great music, we have most of it recorded, and I’m actually working on some things while we’re on tour. There will probably be ten songs, and we are playing a few of them live already. Still not settled on the title of the album yet, but we’ll know very soon.
L4LM: How’d you come to work with these two musicians?
VW: I’ve known about Dennis for a long time. I think the first time we ever played together was with jazz guitarist Mike Stern. I know, for sure, that it was with Mike that it was my first time playing with Bob, but I think it was my first time playing with Dennis also. The three of us had played together behind Mike in the Mike Stern Quartet, with Dennis on drums and Bob on sax. I just love the way that felt.
L4LM: So is this a new approach for you?
VW: Well, I’ve done different things. I’ve traveled with larger bands, I’ve traveled with just a drummer. I’ve done quite a bit with just myself and a drummer. I’ve done some with just a drummer and my brother on guitar, so I’ve done that trio. But I haven’t done a trio with no other chordal instrument, so this is quite different, and quite fun.
L4LM: Is the music mostly instrumental?
VW: Yeah, the record is instrumental. On Facebook, believe it or not, I found this woman from India and I heard her sing off of Facebook. She’ll sing along with John Coltrane’s solo on “Giant Steps,” she’ll just sing it note for note with amazing pitch. I heard her sing a few of these things so I contacted her. At first it was just to say, “Hey, I love what you’re doing.” When I started working on the record, I thought, “Wow, it would be great to have her sing a few things.” No words, just singing melodies. On one part, I recorded a bass solo and I had her learn it, singing along with me. So there will be a couple of songs with her.
L4LM: So it’s vocals, but it’s still instrumental.
VW: Yeah, it’s the voice used as an instrument, not lyrics. She came in on a couple of songs. It’s really cool, really neat stuff.
L4LM: I also realize that this is your tenth solo album. How does that feel?
VW: It’s really nice. That’s an accomplishment, that I can even have a career that’s long enough to produce ten solo albums, especially when I don’t do them every year. It feels good, it’s pretty nice. I guess the last half of them, or most of them by now, have been on my own label.
L4LM: When was your first solo album?
VW: The first one, I believe, was 1996. It was my solo bass record called A Show Of Hands. And then the first record I released on my own label was that same record, A Show Of Hands, but we released it fifteen years later and called it A Show Of Hands 15. I remastered it and added a few bonus tracks, and made a vinyl out of it also and released that on my own label. That was my definitely very first solo record, my overdubs, no other instruments.
L4LM: And how did you decide to start your own label?
VW: Having been on three different labels with my own solo stuff, and different labels with Béla Fleck & The Flecktones also, having had positive experiences with those labels, I just wanted to be in more control so you know where the money’s going. You don’t have to ask. And this way, I get to own my music. When I retire, my kids will end up owning my music, rather than a record exec’s kids. I like that a whole lot more.
L4LM: I know you’re currently on tour with your band, and you said you’ve been playing some of this new music. How has that been going?
VW: Yeah, it’s been going great! It’s been nice to really get to know these songs. For a couple of them, we’ve been playing them before we recorded them, so it’s nice to be able to get in the studio and just knock it out.
The one thing that we do is that we’re playing different versions of the songs. Nowadays, if you play something live, it’s on the internet before you even get to the hotel. So we’re making sure we’re not playing them all, because we don’t want people to feel like they’ve heard the record already. Even when they hear the songs that they’ve heard on tour, they’re going to hear them differently when they hear the record!
L4LM: I know one of your upcoming shows with the trio is in Colorado. I’m sure you’ve had a lot of great experiences performing in that state.
VW: Yeah! From my early days with Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, we’ve always had positive experiences in Colorado. Anywhere in Colorado, it’s just been wonderful.
L4LM: Any particular memories come to mind?
VW: Well lots! Béla Fleck & The Flecktones have played the Boulder Theater many times. We played the Botanical Gardens in Denver. We’ve been able to play some of the ski resorts in Aspen and Vail and places like that. Even though I love all of those, I have to say my favorite experiences in Colorado have been in Telluride at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
Such gorgeous scenery. And because it’s a weekend festival, it’s a chance to see a lot of other music, good music, and to see a lot of my friends who I don’t get to see that much. So the overall experience is just wonderful at Telluride, even though I just love Colorado as a state. The clean air, the mountains – you can see far in the distance and the air is still clear. I just love everything about Colorado. It does get a little cold, but Telluride, that’s been an experience.
L4LM: This Colorado show you’re performing on is actually called The Drunken Hearted Medicine Show. What was your take on that name?
VW: Haha, I know it is pretty crazy. Names are crazy these days! I mean, one of my favorite bands is named Snarky Puppy. What is that?
But we love the music, right?!
Victor Wooten Trio, Band Of Heathens, Members of Leftover Salmon, Drunken Hearts & More Announce Stacked Colorado Show
L4LM: That is the important thing. I know there’s a lot of bluegrass on the lineup for this upcoming show. Your current trio doesn’t seem too bluegrass influenced, but obviously there’s a lot of history there with your roots in the Flecktones.
VW: I have a huge influence in bluegrass and country music. I actually started playing it in 1981 when I got hired, believe it or not, as a bluegrass fiddle player at an amusement park in Virginia called Busch Gardens. At the time, I had never played any bluegrass at all, and I definitely had never even played fiddle. I had to learn, within a couple weeks, how to play fiddle. Literally! So I got some recordings. I had played cello, and I needed a job, so I figured I could play violin. I didn’t realize how difficult it was holding that thing under your chin, not sounding like a screaming cat.
Through it all, I ended up learning to love the music, and that eventually led me to meeting Béla Fleck and a lot of other bluegrass musicians. My life has changed ever since.
L4LM: So I don’t suppose there’s any chance you’ll be donning the old fiddle for this upcoming show in Colorado?
VW: I seriously doubt it! I don’t think anyone would want that. Hopefully I’ll get to sit in with someone… I don’t know if it’ll be on fiddle though.
L4LM: Speaking of Béla Fleck, I happened to catch a reunion show with The Flecktones last summer. What was that like?
VW: Oh it was a lot of fun. That reunion was with our original member, Howard Levy, the harmonica player. It was a different type of reunion than we normally do. A lot of the time, if we’ve been off for a little while, when we come back, we will have written new music, recorded a new record, and then a long tour. This time, we just got together, no new music, we just learned old music, got out there for two weeks, and had a blast. It was a lot less pressure.
We’re actually going to do it again this August! Béla Fleck & The Flecktones is going to tour with the Chick Corea Elektric Band, so that’s going to be a lot of fun.
L4LM: That should be great. So aside from your work creating music, I know you spend a lot of time teaching it as well.
VW: Yeah, I’ve been doing more and more teaching over the last decade. It started back in the 90’s when Béla Fleck & The Flecktones started becoming popular. I found myself in Bass Player Magazine quite a bit. I found out that, if you’re in that magazine enough times, people think you must be good and you must know how to teach it. So I started getting asked to do workshops.
So I had to figure out how to teach. I just played my whole life, I never thought about how I played. I had to learn how to teach, and I did that by looking at other teachers and finding out what other people were teaching. And although I loved everything people were doing, I felt there were a lot of things that were being left out in the music curriculum. So I set my sights on focusing on those other things, to help round out people’s knowledge, and to help round out the music curriculum by teaching what everybody else wasn’t teaching. It’s turned into a really nice angle for me, because people know that what I’m going to do is quite a bit different from what they’ve heard before.
L4LM: How is it different?
VW: In short, most music curriculum is based on what we call music theory, and most music theory is based on the twelve pitches that we have, the twelve notes. So we have ear training, but ear training goes up to the twelve notes. You have to learn to recognize chords, you have to learn to recognize intervals, key changes, key signatures – all of that deals with notes.
Music is much more than twelve pitches. In other words, if I just play a note for you, if I just play an E, it doesn’t do anything to you. You have to do something with that note. It has to have rhythm, a tone, some dynamics. I’ve got to put a lot of feel into it. Overall, as part of what we call music theory; tone, feel, dynamics, phrasing, articulation, things that make the music speak to you, are not stressed.
In other words, there’s no music theory for space. It doesn’t include space. How you use space, silence, to pull a listener into you. How to use dynamics for a desired reason, not just to get loud or soft, but how do you use it? The same way musicians know how to use notes for desired effects, but the other parts of music aren’t really stressed.
L4LM: So it seems like music theory is only telling part of the story.
VW: Exactly! It’s a good part of the story, but it’s still only part of the story. I look to help fill in more of the story. Of course I can’t tell the whole story either, but I want to offer a different part than what most other people are offering.
L4LM: Is that what someone would hear about when they attend a Victor Wooten class at Berklee?
VW: Absolutely. I’m brought into Berklee to offer this other stuff. The guy who hired me, Steve Bailey, is a longtime friend and a wonderful musician. We’ve been teaching at my music camps since the year 2000. And even before that, Steve and I, for at least six or seven years, toured together doing clinics, just a bass duo. We had a bass duo called Bass Extremes. He actually helped me form the whole idea for the first Camp that we did in 2000. Now, he is the chair of the Bass Department at Berklee, so he brought me in to offer the different approach that I have.
L4LM: Do you find that the students are receptive to it?
VW: Very receptive to it. Again, what I do is not better than what anybody else does. It’s just different. It’s like what you say, I’m helping tell more of the story. I’m telling a different part of the story than everyone else, so that the musicians can learn the whole story. Part of that story they have to create themselves, that’s the thing.
L4LM: If you were to give an aspiring musician one piece of advice from the Victor Wooten experience, what would that look like?
VW: For the most part, it’s make your music groove. You’re not just going to play a collection of notes. People want to feel it. You want to move people. You don’t do that with notes alone, so you have to make people feel something. You want to have something to say with your music.
When kids learn English, they don’t just learn rules. The first thing they do is, they learn the words they need because they have something to say. A lot of times, in music curriculum, what the student wants to say is not ever brought up! We just teach our curriculum, and that forces most people who start taking music lessons to quit. They never get to their own story. When we’re learning your first language, you’re learning what you want to say first. That helps you learn it quickly, and you’ll also do it your own way, which is really, really nice. It’s personal, and it makes you want to stay with it.
L4LM: Absolutely. That sort of approach lets you express yourself.
VW: Right. In a lot of curriculums, you’re expressing what someone else has already expressed. You have to learn that first before you can express yourself. To me, that’s backwards.
L4LM: So I imagine the new album is going to be quite the expression then.
VW: Haha, yeah. It is. I mean, you’ve got three great musicians coming together for a project of all new music. It’s almost like there’s no way that it can’t be good with us three. It may not be everyone’s taste, but you will feel it. I guarantee you that. You will feel the love, the expertise in everyone’s musicianship. It will be a musical record. It won’t just be a bunch of licks and a bunch of notes. You will feel the music and you will be able to sing the melodies, and, at the same time, you will get blown away by it.
L4LM: Right on, I can’t wait. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. Anything else you’d want to share with the fans?
VW: Yeah sure! As well as teaching at Berklee, we do a summer bass weekend at Berklee. It’s the Victor Wooten/Berklee Summer Bass Program, that comes up in June. But I’m also in the 18th year of running my own music camps, just outside of Nashville, TN. People can go to my website, victorwooten.com, or directly to the camp website, which is vixcamps.com, and people can check out the camps. Registration is open! We do a camp every month from May to October, all levels, different ages, and all different instruments, not just bass.
And I’m looking forward to getting back to Colorado!
L4LM: Thanks again! Take care.
Don’t miss The Victor Wooten Trio headlining The Drunken Hearted Medicine Show, featuring The Band Of Heathens, Drew Emmitt & Andy Thorn Duo, The Drunken Hearts, Brad Parsons Band and Coral Creek at Cervantes Masterpiece & The Other Side on March 24th. Tickets and more info can be found here.