Victor Wooten jams onstage at the 2017 Newport Jazz Festival with his brother and fellow Flecktones bandmember, Roy “Future Man” Wooten, as bandleader Bela Fleck looks on. Future Man is playing his own invention, the Drumitar.
Photo by Doug Mason
I’m glad you mention that. I was curious about how that was recorded. So you improvised your bass solo first, and she learned it and doubled it?
Yeah, exactly. I met her on Facebook. I haven’t even met her yet in person—I just heard her singing some things on videos she posted. The first video I saw, she was singing in unison to John Coltrane’s solo on “Giant Steps” and it blew me away. I contacted her and she agreed to be on the record. She’s amazing.
You play all the different basses—fretted, fretless, upright. How do you decide what type of bass the song needs?
In most cases, the song will tell you. In some cases, you have to try stuff until it seems to fit. I just try to let the music dictate it, but there are times I might have a bass or a sound in mind and I think, “I need to find a place for this on the record.” In that case, I’ll either write something for it or just stick it in there, so it’s kind of all of the above. Number one, you let the music dictate.
What’s the story about Michael Winslow? Did you guys already know each other?
We did not, no. Earlier this year, our trio played a festival in Houston. My manager, she was contacted through Michael’s manager saying he was going to be there too and wanted to sit in with us. I immediately got excited because I’ve seen a lot of his musical things and he’s amazing, of course. He’s going by the term voicetrumentalist and he’s been doing more and more musical things, so when I heard he wanted to sit in, I thought, this is perfect, because I love anything that’s way out of the box like that. As soon as we did it, the thought of putting him on the record was immediate.
What did you perform together that first time?
We did “Funky D” as an encore. And I told him, I’ve been sampling James Brown and triggering it from a pedal. I said, that’s the vibe, but you do whatever you want with it. Then I did a solo spot and I didn’t tell him what I was going to play—mainly because I didn’t know what I was gonna play, but I also wanted to see how he was at improvising. Does he need to know what’s gonna happen first? And, man, he came out with some stuff that he told me later he’d never even done before. I did a version of “Yesterday” by the Beatles and he just laid in some harmonies, like violin parts and cello parts. It was all his voice, but he could change the octave really nicely, and he could add chords to it with a pedal—he had a whole pedalboard with distortions and reverb and all of that. It was really, really amazing.
Do you think he has a musical improvising sensibility, or is his improvisational sense more comedic?
He does both and that’s what makes him special, because a lot of high-level practicing musicians, we just play our music. When you can add some comedy to it, when you can add different elements to it other than the music, you grab people’s attention. That’s what Michael’s all about with his profession, so bringing that over to the music side, he forces you to listen because you know it’s funny, it’s serious, it’s a surprise, and he’s really, really good at it. He’s a really good improviser and you can tell he’s pulling from his upbringing—all these rock guitar solos he takes, he can make his voice sound like a harmonica, and he can pull out the blues. It’s just fascinating to watch.
So on “Funky D,” the James Brown references were your idea. What does James Brown mean to you?
Well, James is a big part of the core of my musical upbringing. He was so powerful for me because I got to see him in the early ’70s when I was really young, and they’re still the best live performances I’ve ever seen. I don’t know anyone who worked harder onstage and commanded the stage more than James Brown. There’s other performers, good ones—Michael Jackson, Prince, I love Beyoncé—but nobody, in my mind, can touch early James Brown.
We were just a James Brown family. Even before I was born, my parents took my older brothers to see him. Much of our upbringing really comes out of James Brown, and that’s true for a lot of people. There are even classical musicians who have pulled from James Brown, because he did it his own way, he was the energy. It was just a hot band all playing simple parts, but when you put it together, it fits like a glove and makes an amazing, funky thing. And in most cases, James is just ad-libbing, improvising on top of it and calling for changes and calling for hits and solos right on the spot. To me that’s just amazing.
James Brown liked to play in the key of D a lot, which he called “funky D”—the Dorian mode. A lot of this music comes from James Brown. That’s where Prince got a lot of it from. Bruno Mars and those guys got it from Prince and the Time, but it’s really from James Brown. And so I just wanted to capture that vibe. I wanted a fun song like that on the record, that you just groove to and you don’t have to listen to every note.
There are some social themes on the record, particularly in “Final Approach” and “Caught in the Act.”
Yeah, there’s some things that we are addressing a bit. First, I just want people to enjoy the music. But on every record I’ve done, there is a social message as part of it. Equality—that’s something. Talking about injustice, but more about peace, love, unity. That’s the main thing, and I like to do it in a subtle way and not a preachy way.