Victor Wooten just might be the busiest bass player in the world (and no, we’re not talking about his note-per-measure ratio). His days are packed with clinics, radio appearances, meet-and-greets, and soundchecks, and night after night, the man and his righteous band take it to the max, proving that he never, ever lacks for ideas, and can boldly surpass artificial limitations and the expectations of bass fanatics everywhere with marathon performances that border on the superhuman. The next morning might find the father of four tending to his family, his label, his music camps, and his other gigs, or the follow up to his acclaimed book, The Music Lesson, as he heads to the next town. And what does he do when he has a little time off?
He practices. “I’m trying to improve every side of my playing, but right now I’m working on getting more proficient at being able to solo through jazz changes,” Wooten says. “I’m okay at soloing through the changes once I hear them, but I’m not as good at just looking at a piece of sheet music and knowing what to play. That’s a fun lesson, though.”
The five-time Grammy winner, whose name is synonymous with electric bass virtuosity, will never stop evolving. Like Michael Jordan shooting free throws in the early hours before games, 48-year-old Wooten isn’t in it for the money, the notoriety, or the endorsements. It isn’t work, it’s love, and it’s about striving toward his highest potential, knowing all the while he’ll never reach it. And therein lies the greatest game for the man who will go down in history among players who are exactly that: the greatest of the greats.
So it makes sense that Wooten has raised the bar and simultaneously released two new albums on his own label, Vix Records. Words and Tones showcases Wooten’s collaborations with some of his favorite singers, including Saundra Williams, Divinity Roxx, and Meshell Ndegeocello, while Sword and Stone flaunts instrumental, orchestrated takes on 11 of the same songs, with different solos, string arrangements, and horn sections (plus three other tracks). Both albums showcase Wooten’s unique combination of R&B, contemporary jazz, funk, gospel, and world music while maintaining his signature, bass-tastic approach. As you might expect, there are plenty of virtuosic licks and jaw-dropping techniques, but Wooten’s primary focus is on grooving.
His tireless work ethic could make anyone feel lazy, but that’s far from his intention. In fact, the man who dedicates a large chunk of his time to sharing his knowledge with others understands that when people deem him the best, they are merely seeing the best in themselves. Perhaps this Zen outlook comes from all the effort Wooten puts into his craft, or it could be a manifestation of the wide-eyed joy that has stayed with him since he first picked up the bass at age 2. Whatever its source, the force of his creativity keeps Wooten’s past achievements in the rearview mirror, his soul and his craft steadily moving forward into the unknown.
LEFT: Two bassists are better than one, that’s why Wooten tours with 6-string fretless wonder Steve Bailey.
RIGHT: Wooten onstage with a Yamaha SVC-110SK SILENT Cello. Photos by Steven Parke
What inspired you to release
instrumental and vocal
albums at the same time?
I’ve wanted to put out two albums at once for a long time. Many years ago, when I was on two different record labels, I wanted to put out a record on each label on the same day, which I thought would be so cool. But record companies don’t like to work together like that because they’re competitors. This time around, I had planned on doing just one CD with female vocalists. In most cases, I allow the vocalists I work with to write a majority of the lyrics so that they’re singing what’s true to them, and so they get credited as writers. But as I was putting melodies on the songs so the singers could get a feel for them, I realized I liked these songs as instrumentals, too. Then it hit me that I could release these as two separate records—now that I own my own record label, I can do whatever I want with my albums. I finally had an opportunity to pursue an idea I’ve had for a long time.
How did you decide which
songs to put on these records?
A lot of it just comes out on its own. I’m not the type of musician who’s writing and recording all the time. I do have songs I’ve recorded in the past and have not used. In a couple of cases, I put old songs on these records. I have a voice recorder on my phone, and whenever an idea pops into my head, I either sing it or play it into my phone. So I went through those ideas, wrote charts from them, and wrote songs based on them.
How did you record
I used all Pro Tools. I used a little bit of both DI and mic’ing my cabinet, but mainly DI. I always keep a cabinet set up in the studio so I can do both and mix the two, but this time I didn’t use my cabinet much in the mix.
Did you try any new techniques
on these albums?
I’m always looking for new tricks and techniques. I always use a ponytail holder hair band on the neck of my bass, and I found that if I moved it to the 17th or 18th fret, I could make sounds like a guitar player using pinched harmonics. So I put distortion on the instrument and, just like a guitarist, I took a solo on Sword and Stone that sounded just like a guitarist would. It was definitely something new for me.
You’ve used that hair band on
your bass for many years now.
What function does it serve?
It serves as a string mute, and depending on what you’re playing, it’s great for muting the open strings. Between myself and my brother Regi and his students, we’ve all come up with different ways of using the hair tie.