“We were just a James Brown family,” says Wooten. “Much of our upbringing really comes out of James Brown, and that’s true for a lot of people.” Since the early ’90s, Victor and his brothers Joseph (keyboards), Roy “Future Man” (percussion), Regi “The Teacha” (guitar), and the late Rudy (sax)—have been a potent force in the Nashville music scene.
Starting with his solo on the first track of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ self-titled debut back in 1990, Victor Wooten has been at the cutting edge of bass playing. His extensive discography as a solo artist, with the Flecktones, and with various side projects has earned him massive recognition, including five Grammys. In addition to touring the world and recording, Wooten also works hard to give back to musicians by maintaining a strong presence in bass education. He hosts workshops and clinics, runs a music camp—Victor Wooten’s Center for Music and Nature—and even wrote a novel, The Music Lesson, that chronicles the journey of a young, struggling musician looking for meaning in life.
This year, after hitting the road with saxophonist Bob Franceschini and drummer Dennis Chambers, Wooten brought them into the studio to make Trypnotyx, his 10th solo record. The energy the trio stirred up on tour translates onto Trypnotyx, as they take listeners on a wild ride through fast bebop-inspired heads, funky meter changes, and dazzling improvisational pyrotechnics that only such high-level technicians could even dare attempt.
As a producer, Wooten knows how to engage listeners and make things fun, so he had his friend Michael Winslow, the “voicetrumentalist” comedian best known as Larvelle Jones from the seven Police Academy movies, add a tastefully surreal dimension to several tracks on the album.
During our interview, Wooten spoke in deliberate and considered tones, whether discussing James Brown’s influence on modern music or ear training exercises using a cell phone. Surely this focus and clarity has been an asset to Wooten in a career that’s made his name synonymous with bass virtuosity.
As we tackled the story of Trypnotyx, Wooten offered advice for both students and teachers, and throughout our conversation, he remained humble about his abilities and described his own efforts to improve as a player. The ideas he shared with PG reveal the depth of his unwavering dedication to music, which keeps him on a lifelong quest of constant growth—a sign of a true master.
It has been five years since your last album. Why make this album now?
Though some people release records every year, I just do it when it feels right. The number one reason I wanted to release a record now is because of the trio I have with Bob [Franceschini] and Dennis [Chambers].
How long have you guys been playing as this trio? You’ve been playing with Bob and Dennis individually for a while, right?
We’ve been doing it on and off for at least a year now. Yeah, I play with them mostly with the Mike Stern band. That’s actually how I met Bob, but I’ve played with Dennis in different situations. When we decided to do this, we came up with some songs and then just went out and did some shows and solidified the music a little bit. That made it inevitable that we’d record.
How important were those shows in steering the music we hear on Trypnotyx?
Very important. When you play together, the music shapes itself and you also learn about each other. The music starts to emerge. It’s like when you sit down to talk with your friends, or, even better, strangers. When you sit down and talk, you don’t have to plan it out beforehand and say, “Hey, I’m gonna say this,” or “Say this to me when we meet.” It just happens. That’s the magic of every conversation—it’s not planned out. When you first get together with a new band, of course you have songs and concepts. But because there’s so much improvisation in this genre of music, that’s how things really start to emerge. Ideas go in their own direction and not so much in the direction you pointed out.
TIDBIT: Trypnotyx is Victor Wooten’s 10th solo record. “Though some people release records every year,” says Wooten, “I just do it when it feels right.”
At first, trying to do a record with bass, drums, and sax, or even just a tour with only those three instruments, is a little challenging—that’s not what you usually hear. We knew we could make it work because the musicians are great. But how to do it? We had to figure that out on tour.
The relationship between bass and drums is so important. What have you noticed develop over the time you and Dennis have been making music together?
Well, over the years of playing with Dennis, I’m very happy that I have worked on my timing. If you don’t have good timing, it could get very difficult to play with Dennis, because his timing is so good and it’s so free, he could lose you if he wants to. You won’t know where beat one is, unless you have really good time. But if you do, you free him up, and he knows that he can go anywhere he wants and he has you to fall back on, rather than the way we musicians always fall back on the drummer.
As far as composing for the trio, you’re writing melodies that ultimately get played by another instrument. Do you hear melody or rhythm first?
It’s either. It just depends on what goes up first. The thing about writing—or doing anything—it’s good to have more than one method. Imagine you’re driving home from work and you only know one route. If that road is blocked, you’re in a jam. So it’s great to have different songwriting tools and methods. Some of the songwriting ideas came about as I started playing with these guys. Bob uses a lot of effects and he can play chords with them. Also, using an octave pedal to bring the sax down an octave, he can become a bass. So I knew that at some point playing with Bob, I’d want him to play bass lines and let me play the melody or solo. Something totally different.
Your solo in “Liz and Opie” has some wild tones! What are you using for pitch shifting?
There’s a couple of things. On some of it, I use a DigiTech Whammy pedal, but also I’m using MIDI to have a keyboard sound play along with the bass. It sounds like I’m playing in unison with a keyboard. That’s happening on a few songs. You even hear some organ on “Thirteenth Floor,” and that’s being played on the bass.
On “Liz and Opie,” there’s a singer from India [Varijashree Venugopal] who’s actually singing along with my solo. She’s singing the exact notes that I played. That sounds like an effect, but it’s the human voice.