The instant that a musician gains mastery of their instrument, a phenomenon occurs where that musician instantly becomes a subject of idolatry. Everywhere that this musical giant travels, their skill and precision leaves nothing but devoted followers in the wake behind. Victor Lemonte Wooten is aiming to shatter this phenomenon. He is at the same time a master, a teacher, a friend, an intellectual, and most importantly a human being just like you and I.
Known by most as the bass player in famed fusion group Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Victor Wooten (or Vic for short) has released five solo albums to date. He has also studied and played with legends such as Bootsy Collins of Parliament Funkadelic fame, Stanley Clarke, and Larry Graham. Perhaps most renowned for his amazing slap-bass stylings and rhythmic fret board wizardry, Vic has fast become a rising star in the music scene today.
With bass guitar in hand Vic made a stop in Rochester on his “Soul Circus 2006 Tour” in support of his solo album of the same name. Following a packed clinic at the “musical Mecca” House of Guitars, I rode with Vic from there to the German House Theatre where he would perform later that night, and got the chance to ask him a few questions.
Evan: For anyone who is not familiar with you, could you describe yourself in a few sentences?
Victor Wooten: Most people would know me as a musician, bass happens to be my instrument. I’m one of the few that gets to travel around the world and make a living doing what I love to do.
E: How has the tour been going so far?
V: Wonderful! Good response, great crowds… We had a great band called the Lee Boys with us far a while. It was a great inspiration having them around for a few days.
E: Philosophy seems to be a big part in the way you approach music and life, in contrast to many musicians who strive for just technical ability. Could you expand on this?
V: I think most musicians have their own philosophies, but not all of us talk about it. A lot of the times when we go to play music we forget about our philosophies and get right into the technical aspect of it. But I try to look at music like a language, and we don’t look at speaking a language technically. We just do it! The most important thing is having something to say. When speaking, we know our technique so well, that we rarely, if ever, think about it. The focus stays on having something to say through language. My approach to music is the same.
E: You have had the opportunity to play with many great musicians. How do you approach playing with people with different styles and abilities?
V: I approach it the same way as if I were going to sit down and talk to them. You have to listen to what they have to say to know what you want to add, and at the same time I want to be myself. I believe those guys want to play with me because of who I am, not because they want me to play like someone else. Even if we come from different backgrounds, or speak different languages, we still speak the same language and can communicate. We have to look for that common ground that allows us to communicate effortlessly. When I play with different people we try to find that common ground where the music just flows out.
E: If you could raise the dead and play music with anyone, who would you choose?
V: The first name that comes to mind is Miles [Davis], but it would be something I would want to think about. I’d love to hang out with Jaco [Pastorious]. I don’t feel the need to play with Jaco because I’ve heard him play so much, but just to hang out. Jaco had an energy that I loved.
E: That would be interesting since a lot of people compare you to Jaco [Pastorious].
V: The only way I compare myself to Jaco, besides being a bass player, is in the spirit, the energy, the fun he had when playing that instrument. He put his whole self into that instrument every concert.
…But I would love to spend some time with some of the great classical composers. Stravinsky, Mozart, Beethoven. The thing that we don’t realize about those guys is that they were good improvisers. We have to remember that they didn’t approach classical music the way we approach classical music. The same way Miles [Davis] and ‘Trane , didn’t approach jazz the way we approach it. We’re trying to learn jazz while they were creating jazz! Jazz was their lifestyle, so now we’re trying to preserve it. They were the rogue musicians of their day, the same with the classical composers.
E: What music have you personally been listening to lately?
V: I’ve spent a lot of concentrated time listening to Chick Corea lately since I had to learn some of his music for a week long gig in New York City. I got to play as the bass player for the Elektrik band at the Blue Note. But right now, I’m away from music. When I'm not on stage, I’m not putting something on to listen to. I really try to look at music as a language. If you want something good and meaningful to say, you’re not going to sit around in a room and talk all day. You’re going to get out and have experiences. Music is the same way. So for me to get on stage and have something meaningful to say, I don’t get that from practicing all day. I gotta get out and have some fun! And then when I get on stage, wow, I’ve got something to talk about!
E: So the bottom line is that there is more than just music out there?
V: Oh I hope so! But yes, there definitely is.
Later that evening, Victor Wooten, along with two of his brothers manning guitar and keyboards, a drummer, a second bass player, and a vocalist, would take the stage at the German House Theatre. The air was heavy with excitement as fans of all ages, races, and walks of life poured into the room. The space filled quickly, and with still 45 minutes to show time, the theatre was already packed full. If you listened closely, conversations could be heard throughout the crowd about music; from classical to jazz, and everywhere in between.
As the lights dimmed and the band took the stage, the crowd erupted with cheers and applause. The band blazed through a tune which introduced the band members musically, allowing each an opportunity for a short solo. At this point it became apparent that every person on that stage possessed enough power to melt your face and rock your socks with a mere flick of the wrists.
Watching these musicians, it was apparent that they had fun doing what they did, and that they loved it. This feeling fed into the crowd’s reaction through the next four songs, which were from
Victor’s Soul Circus album.
The second half of the concert is the stuff of legend. The band left the stage after Victor introduced his brother, and guitar player, Reggie Wooten. Reggie displayed his unique style of finger-tapped guitar work and astonished the audience with perhaps the only “slap-guitar” ever played. The band gradually came back to the stage to join Reggie in renditions of “Roller Coaster of Love”, Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” (complete with overdriven, Marshall-fueled distortion) Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire”, closing with a James Brown styled shout chorus freak-out, complete with an impressive guitar flip.
The closing half of the show saw solo performances from Victor’s older brother Joseph Wooten on keyboards and vocals, and a blistering drum solo from Derico Watson. Vic then took the stage to display just why so many see him as a musical icon. Weaving in Christmas tunes such as Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and classic Amazing grace, Vic let loose a beautiful amalgamation of sound and vibration which was nothing short of breathtaking.
At the concert’s close, the band stuck around for over an hour to mingle with fans while breaking down equipment. There was not a single annoyed look when each band member was asked to sign hundreds of autographs in succession. As the house lights came up, it became clear what makes Victor and all of these musicians so special. At the end of the night, they are still people, just like you and me. They are as far from the stereotypical rock star that one could possibly get, and that is a refreshing sight.
Victor Lemonte Wooten occupies a special place in the music world. He dwells not in the practice room, backstage, in the recording studio, or on the tour bus. He resides in a place where he can connect with his audiences night after night, forever avoiding that phenomenon which can turn musicians into inaccessible idols of worship.