Jamming with a Professional: Victor Wooten, April 21 at the Redstone Room Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 04 April 2013 05:12

Victor Wooten. Photo by Steven Parke.

The best teachers inspire as much as they instruct, and Victor Wooten both understands and practices that.

His chops as a performing artist are unquestionable. He won five Grammys with Béla Fleck & the Flecktones – of which he’s a founding member – and three times was named “best bassist” by the readers of Bass Player magazine. Rolling Stone readers in 2011 voted him the 10th best bass player of all time – alongside icons from the Beatles, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rush, and the Who.

Beyond being an accomplished musician, for the past 14 years he’s run music camps for kids, now held at the 147-acre Wooten Woods Retreat in Tennessee. And on April 21, as part of Polyrhythms’ Third Sunday jazz series, Wooten will give both a workshop and a concert at the Redstone Room.

He will not teach how to play bass like he does. As he said of The Music Lesson, his fictional work-around to a much-requested instruction manual: “I didn’t really want to put out a Victor Wooten method. I don’t want to tell people how they have to play.”

What Wooten excels at, as a phone interview last week illustrates, is gently knocking down the walls that keep creativity and music bottled up. He said he chose to tell a story in his book instead of writing an instruction manual because it freed him to explore his ideas and philosophy without being tied to facts or technique: “It lets me off the hook right away. ... ‘This isn’t true.’ ... That format allowed me to put more into the book – even things that I can’t prove.”

Readers, he added, are also more receptive: “We relax into it, and we take the lessons out of it that we want. ... It’s just a lighter way to approach learning.”

Wooten’s basic message can be summed up by what somebody once told him: “Never take ‘no’ from an inanimate object.”

And that’s what a musical instrument is. “The instrument doesn’t make any sound,” he said. “It’s like a computer; if you don’t touch it, it’ll sit there. ... When you sit all the instruments down in a room, they all sound the same. They only sound different and respond differently when the musician touches them. The expression comes from the musician.”

But idle musical instruments can be intimidating, and Wooten said he wants to make “music as easy as possible. I want to show people that we’re already musical. You don’t have to learn to be musical when you start studying music; you’re already musical. When a song comes on and you bob your head or start to dance or sing along, you already know that; you’ve been doing that your whole lives. What you may have to do at the beginning is learn to play an instrument. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that they’re starting over with music. But no, you need to just take all your musicality and put it into an instrument, and that’s easier than you think.”

Musical training, he said, begins at birth: “It’s the same way you learn to speak English. It started informally at home with people who were great at it. As babies, we’re allowed to jam with professionals, to use a musical term. The people that we’re speaking to are professionals. They don’t stick us in a room with other babies and make us practice for years ... . Even though you’re wrong, they never tell you. Our parents never make us feel inferior because we don’t speak correct English. They do the exact opposite; they learn to speak our way. We’re always made to feel good about how we speak, because we never know we’re wrong.”

Wooten gave the example of his mother, whose sayings he plans to collect in a book. “She would tell us boys, ‘You are already successful. The rest of the world just doesn’t know it yet.’ That’s a good thing to hear growing up, and to hear over and over. ... Hearing it a lot allowed us to realize … we don’t have to become anything to be successful. It’s not like, ‘In 10 years, when I can do this, I’ll be successful.’ No, we’re already doing what it takes to be successful. ... We don’t have to define our success by what the rest of the world thinks. And that’s a very powerful lesson.”

Wooten’s brothers gave him toy instruments, and his brother Regi started teaching Victor bass when he was two. He was playing in the family band by age six.

While the bass is not typically thought of as an expressive instrument, it can be, Wooten said: “It’s because of the fact that I’m expressive. ... If I want to be expressive, for me the easiest way to do it musically is through a bass. I can do that better than a piano or anything else.”

He readily admits that the bass guitar is “designed to support other musicians. In a sense, it’s a role of service. It’s like a parent raising kids. You want your kids to shine more than you; you hold them up over your head. It’s not designed to be on top like a saxophone or a trumpet or the vocals; it’s underneath. It’s the foundation, and the foundation of anything has to be the strongest part, not the weakest. So it’s an understated role; you’re allowed to do the strongest work, and you can allow everyone else to get the credit. ... To me, that’s real expression, that’s true expression. It’s true power.”

But he also said that the intent of the bass doesn’t limit its potential: “You can use it for other things it wasn’t designed to do.”

As Wooten has ably shown with the Flecktones and on his solo albums, “the bass is a guitar, first of all. So when you realize that, you realize what a guitar can do, which means that the bass has the capabilities of doing the same thing. It’s just designed to be an octave lower. But if you were to hear a bass singer, it doesn’t mean they’re not expressive ... . It just means it’s lower. And that’s really it. ...

“With the bass, I can play rhythms, I can play chords, I can play melodies, but we can also groove like no other instrument. That’s a big part of music – what it feels like based upon the groove. Our instrument is born right there.”

His latest albums are Words & Tones and Sword & Stone, both released last year on his own label. The first is a series of collaborations with female singers. “It brings out a different part of me,” he said of working with the female voice. “I just don’t want to hit the bass real hard and start slapping the instrument. ... You have to be a little more sensitive and sensual.”

Sword & Stone presents many of those songs in an instrumental context: “As I was getting songs together, I had a bunch of vocalists in mind,” he said. “And I knew that I would want them to write some of the lyrics. So I was preparing the songs to send to different vocalists. I would always use a different instrument to play the melodies for the verses, for the lyrics. And I just realized I liked the songs that way – instrumental. ... It allowed me to relive an older idea, which was releasing two different records at the same time.”

While Wooten was already an accomplished bass player when he met Fleck in the late 1980s, he said he learned a valuable instrumental lesson from the banjo-playing bandleader: “He doesn’t always know what he’s doing, which is very liberating to see with a musician of that caliber. ... That’s the way I play a lot of the times.”

That’s part of a philosophy that encourages play and experimentation with instruments – something Wooten continues to do. While he already plays cello, guitar, and drums in addition to bass, he’s also learning the euphonium, which he said he’ll likely play during his band’s Redstone Room show. “I’ve always wanted to understand the bass completely, and when I say ‘bass’ I don’t mean just guitar,” he said.

He noted that it’s a different way for him to play music. “For one, just breathing into it. I’ve always tried to do the same thing with the bass” – breathing with the music. “Well, with this instrument, you have to breathe into it. And also, with this instrument, you’re getting all the notes out of three valves. That’s totally a different concept. For the bass or piano, the notes are laid out in front of me. ... It’s helping me understand music a little bit better.”

(Wooten said that his band’s live show features many players switching instruments – even mid-song. “I understand the importance of a show, of giving the audience something to look at.” He called the experience “musically choreographed, physically choreographed.”)

While refusing to take “no” from an instrument is second nature to Wooten, it’s more difficult for many of us – or at least we think it is.

“That’s one of my biggest tasks, is to get people back to the free thinking ... ,” he said, “when it wasn’t about the instrument; it was about the freedom of expression. And everyone still has it. When you sing in the shower, when you sing driving down the road going to work, you’re not trying to be right; you’re just expressing yourself. That’s like a kid playing air guitar with a smile on his face. ...

“It’s already in you. You’ve been hearing good music your whole lives. But we forget all of that just to learn to play an instrument. And there’s no music in the instrument; you have to put it there. But if you forget everything you know, it’s going to be hard to put it there.”

Victor Wooten will present a workshop and concert on Sunday, April 21, as part of Polyrhythms’ Third Sunday jazz series (Polyrhythms.Ning.com). The workshop begins at 5:30 p.m., and tickets are $5 in advance and $7 at the door. Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. concert are $25. Both events will be held at the Redstone Room (129 Main Street in Davenport). For tickets and more information, visit RiverMusicExperience.org.

For more information on Victor Wooten, visit VictorWooten.com.

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