Blessed Are the Flexible
Victor Wooten owes his phenomenal bass-playing career to his oldest brother, Reggie. Inspired by a local band in their hometown of Newport News, Virginia, Reggie and his five brothers began making music any way they possibly could, including beating on cardboard boxes and shaking chains. Soon they were playing real instruments -- drums, guitars, keyboards -- but they lacked one crucial element: a bassist. So Reggie fashioned a crude bass by yanking the top two strings off of a guitar, then handed it to Victor. At the time Victor was three years old.
Though his hands could barely grasp the guitar's neck, Victor did the only thing he could: He improvised. And he's been doing it ever since.
By the time Victor was seven, he was playing with the Wootens as the opening act for such prominent performers as Curtis Mayfield and War. It's no wonder that now, at the ripe old age of 33, Wooten's bass playing comes as naturally to him as breathing.
"This is the only life I ever knew," says the soft-spoken musician, speaking on the telephone from his Nashville home. "We have been playing for as long as I can remember. It's very natural to me, the same way that when you grew up your parents spoke English, so you can't imagine speaking another language."
Most music fans know Wooten from his work with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, the singular bluegrass-funk-jazz outfit from Nashville. Wooten's dexterous playing was one of the more striking elements of the Flecktones' eponymous 1990 debut. His 60-second bass interlude on the track "The Sinister Minister" heralded the arrival of possibly the best electric bassist since Jaco Pastorius. Wooten's rich tone, abbreviated slap-bass style, and astounding quadruple-time riffs left no doubt that he was a master technician. His gift for whimsical melodies provided evidence of a creative voice as well. In 1993 the readers of Bass Player magazine named him Bassist of the Year.
Wooten struck out on his own in 1996 with the jazzy, funky A Show Of Hands, a solo album in the strictest sense: It utilized a single bass track, without overdubs or other instruments. It was voted Record of the Year by Bass Player's readers. That same year Wooten won the Gibson Guitar Award for Best Male Bassist.
Wooten's second solo outing, What Did He Say?, is a bold step in a different direction, boasting full band arrangements and as many as eight bass tracks on certain songs. It's an ambitious mix of musical styles: big band swing, contemporary jazz, hard funk, stomping Southern blues. Sometimes Wooten coasts through several genres at a stretch, as on "Cherokee," which features his four brothers.
"I don't always enjoy doing a whole record that's jazz, or a whole record that's R&B, or country, or whatever," Wooten contends. "I love diversity. Record companies think that your record has to be only one thing, because if it's not, they don't know where to put you. To me that doesn't make much sense at all, because people are diverse, so that's the way I like to do my records."
It's the way Wooten likes to do most things, even his religion, which sometimes informs his lyrics. Once an interviewer tried to pin down Wooten's denomination but received a less-than-concrete answer: "I don't put a name to anything. That way there's no boundaries. I'm formless, I'm shapeless, I'm boundless." Wooten's latest CD features the songs "My Life" and "Heaven Is Where the Heart Is," which tackle heady concerns such as freedom, independence, and existence itself.
"Those thoughts are a big part of what I'm about, a part that I guess a lot of listeners don't usually get to hear," Wooten says frankly. "It has a lot to do with how I was brought up and taught to think for myself. The best thing you can do for someone is to teach them how to think."
Wooten's humility saves him from pretentiousness. His new CD includes a sound bite of Mama Wooten posing the kind of question only a mother would ask: "If the whole world today decided to follow you, Victor, where would you lead them? Think about that."
When Wooten shows up in West Palm Beach this Monday, the only person following him will be the drummer J.D. Blair. "This lets me experiment," Wooten explains. "There's new technology where I can play a line, step on a button, and play a new line along with that. I play keyboards sounds from the bass, make it keep repeating and then come back and put a melody on that. I'm layering and looping, and it's all done live."
Wooten's improvisational skills are now being put to the ultimate test: His first child, Kaila Brooke, was born in October.
"The whole parent thing seems pretty natural to me," he says. "There's a lot to be learned, but I'm pretty good at improvising.
"After all, life is improvisation. You can plan it and plan it, but it's still gonna throw you some curves. A lady once told me, 'Blessed are the flexible, because they never get bent out of shape.' That's what improvisation is."
-- Larry Getlen
Victor Wooten performs at 9:30 p.m. on Monday, December 15, at Respectable Street Cafe, 518 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $15. Call 561-832-9999 for more information.
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