Sometimes the effect of hearing a virtuoso perform can be discouraging. “I’ll never be that good,” you say to yourself.
Victor Wooten aims to have the opposite effect. Yes, he’s a five-time Grammy Award winner and the only person to ever be called Bass Player magazine’s “Bass Player of the Year” more than once (he’s held the honor three times). And yeah, he’s been playing since his four older brothers put a bass guitar in his hands when he was three (The Wooten Brothers were opening for Curtis Mayfield by the time “Victa” was six). And as the backbone of Béla Fleck & The Flecktones — a versatile group Wooten helped form in 1989 — the bassist cemented an esteemed reputation at the top of his field.
But Victor believes you can play like him too. In his new book, The Music Lesson (also available as a seven-CD audio book with Wooten and friends narrating and playing), the bassist uses a parable format to convey life lessons through elements of music, like articulation, tone, and phrasing.
Need more? Wooten also owns and hosts Wooten Woods, a 150-acre retreat on Tennessee’s Duck River, where he offers week-long music and nature camps.
“We start early, somewhere around 7:30 a.m., and have a morning activity like yoga or tai chi. It might be a blindfolded activity, and it’s usually a short exercise,” describes Wooten of the experience. “We start every meal with music, where we have one of our instructor guests play a short selection. Then we start classes. We usually have about 60 students, with three musical instructors and one nature instructor, and rotate through, so all the groups see all four in a day.”
Nights are spent jamming or working on reading music, with Wooten and his hyper-talented musical friends around Nashville. In The Music Lesson, Wooten compares learning music to learning a language as a child.
“That’s why [at Wooten Woods] the beginners and professionals are sitting next to each other,” explains Wooten. “When learning a language, you don’t tell the kid, ‘You can’t speak to me until you practice for a few years.’ A kid would barely learn to talk. We make sure the students are surrounded by really great players. That’s the way you grow; when you’re exposed to the best.”
Wooten’s last local visit was in December 2009 during a Béla Fleck & The Flecktones holiday concert at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center. The set included a 15-minute solo that earned a standing ovation. He swapped licks and solos with Fleck and guest sax player Jeff Coffin all night.
Palmystery, Wooten’s latest solo release, is a funky, world-inspired disc recorded in 2008 with friends like guitarist Keb Mo, guitarist Mike Stern, sax player Karl Denson, violinist Eric Silver, and his four older brothers, all of whom are still professional musicians. Wooten followed the Palmystery sessions with a remarkable collaboration called SMV, a bass supergroup he formed with superstar funk/fusion cats Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller. SMV released the album Thunder in 2008.
Wooten regularly makes a habit of surrounding himself with the best. On his current tour, his quartet includes older brother Regi on guitar, drummer Derico Watson, and keyboardist Steve Weingart. They’ll pull heavily from Palmystery. “We’ll be taking it anywhere, drawing from our old-school heritage,” he says of his current lineup and stage show. “Funk tunes, R&B, rock … we like to leave the shows open so we can go any direction we want.”
As a child, Wooten says he learned “even when I didn’t know I was learning” from his brothers. Asked what lessons he’s learned recently as a bass player, the first that comes to mind is from his six-year-old daughter’s blog. During the Nashville floods, her friend lost all of her soccer trophies. She decided to give that friend her own favorite trophy to cheer the girl up.
“To me, it was really amazing for a six-year-old kid to do that and to admit how hard it was, but to do it,” says Wooten. “So in a sense, to me, that is the role of a bass player. A bass player’s job is to support other people and make them feel good, and even though I want to be out front and I want to solo, that’s not what I’m supposed to do all the time. First, I’m a supporter, a foundation. So even reading my daughter’s blog makes me a better bass player.”
Honestly though, Victor, we like it when you show off.