Posted by: George | October 6, 2012

Victor Wooten: A New Tour, Two New CDs

I have been a Victor Wooten fan since he broke into a broader audience with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones in 1990.

It’s a good time to be a Victor Wooten fan. Wooten is now on tour (I saw his show in Little Rock on September 28), and he has just released two CDs on the same day. Words and Tones focuses on vocals. Sword and Stone focuses on instrumentals. If you’re smart, you’ll buy them both as a set.

Wooten is, in my opinion, the central figure in the transformation of the electric bass from a background harmony and rhythm instrument to a foreground melody and solo instrument. Few musicians have explored their instruments as thoroughly as Wooten. He does things to a bass that probably put a smile on the corpse of Leo Fender. I can’t verify this, but I am pretty sure it’s true.

At least since 1998, Wooten has been exploring harmonizing the low end of the musical register.  On Bass Extremes, Wooten’s four-string electric bass is paired with Steve Bailey’s six-string fretless bass. Drums and other instruments are added to some of the tracks, but the album is mostly Wooten and Bailey, two master bassists. It is not supposed to work, but it does. Someday, I predict there will be entire courses in music theory taught at major conservatories that attempt to explain what Wooten and Bailey do in this album

.Victor Wooten Band


Wooten’s current albums and tour continue this experiment. (Wooten would probably prefer the word “journey”.) The lineup is four bass players (Victor Wooten, Steve Bailey, Anthony Wellington, Dave Welsch), two drummers (J.D. Blair and Derico Watson), and one singer (Krystal Peterson, more about her later). This is also not supposed to work, but it does.

And it doesn’t work just because the bass players switch to other instruments: Wooten also plays cello, guitar, and a ¾ upright electric bass; Bailey also plays trombone, keyboard, and an upright double bass; Wellington also plays guitar and keyboard; and Welsch also plays trumpet. (On one number Krystal Peterson plays drums so Blair can move to center stage and play a tune by inserting one drumstick in his mouth, hitting that stick with another, while adjusting the echo chamber that most of us use less artistically, that is, to speak or eat.) The lineup works because the four bass players, who often play at the same time, know how to find multiple registers in the low end register. If you didn’t see all four people on bass, if you didn’t listen very closely, you would not think that you were listening to bass on bass on bass on bass. For some of Wooten’s thoughts on this line of development, I recommend Rod Taylor’s interview.

Please, don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying this is just an interesting experiment. The albums and the tour are stunning. I am fascinated by the experiment, by the virtuoso play, but this iteration of Victor Wooten and friends (I think this tour should be titled “Victor’s Playhouse”) delivers pure joy. Which brings me back to Krystal Peterson.

On the Words and Tones album and on the set list of the tour is a cover of “Overjoyed,” featuring Peterson on vocals and Wooten on cello. You might think you have heard “Overjoyed” before. You haven’t. The instrumental break—on the CD, Wooten on cello and electric bass, Joseph Wooten on keyboard, Blair on drums, and Casey Driessen on violin—is about as good as it gets, and Peterson’s vocals are a match. It is difficult to sing with good jazz musicians. There’s a reason why most jazz songs are instrumentals. With the exception of the Big Band era, which is the pop side of jazz (without saying pop is necessarily bad), vocals are the exception. Start counting singers who can match real jazz musicians, and I doubt you’ll get past your middle finger: Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald . . . Krystal Peterson.

I’ve never written a fan letter. If I had Krystal Peterson’s address, I would write her a fan letter and call her “Ella Baby” through the whole thing. Then I’d end by asking her to be my girlfriend forever and ever. (Well, maybe I would tone it down so she didn’t think I was creepy, but the point I am trying to make is that she can sing. In an earth-shaking, historic way.) I have to admit that I haven’t fully explored Wooten’s new albums. I got to “Overjoyed,” and I keep playing it over and over. I don’t know what else to say.

Just so I don’t come across as too sappy, let me add a few minor complaints. Re the tour, I wish I could have heard more of Steve Bailey. During the Little Rock show, Bailey came stage center for only one solo. I wanted to hear more of his six-string fretless. Bailey has a smooth, fluid tone that is peerless, a perfect complement to Wooten’s funk.

Also re the tour, Wooten took several minutes early in the show to ask that the fans not post entire clips of songs on YouTube. He seemed concerned that, if people can see the show on the Internet, they won’t come to see it live. The speech is not going to do any good. Also, I personally think the opposite will happen. When I see amazing clips on YouTube, I want to see the live show. Then, after I’ve seen the show, I like to relive it on YouTube. Cut the speech, give me another Bailey solo. Then ask the fans to post it on YouTube.

Re Wooten in general, I’m not always fond of his lyrics. I love “What Did He Say?” and many other songs, but, sometimes, just sometimes, Wooten’s lyrics are a little too gushy for my taste, not a match for his instrument or his voice. I wish he would work with a lyricist or take a seminar in Ludwig Wittgenstein. On second thought, scratch the Wittgenstein idea. I don’t think a seminar in Wittgenstein has ever done anyone any good. Work with a good lyricist.

At the same time, Wooten’s lyrics clearly come from his heart, and he seems to be a genuinely good person. (Too many musicians are all to obviously stunted human beings. It seems like I should be able to separate the music from the person, but I can’t.) I often share Wooten’s TED lecture—where he plays a harmonic version of “Amazing Grace” on his electric four-string as he talks about his philosophy of teaching—with my graduate students. Be more like Wooten, I tell them. The same ethos permeates Wooten’s The Music Lesson. In fundamental ways, good teaching is universal. Whether you are teaching music or writing, it begins with a teacher believing in a student. Unfortunately, this fundamental core of good teaching is not very teachable because it has to emerge from the core of the teacher’s identity. It can’t be imitated; it has to be embodied.

About a year ago, I was able to visit Wooten’s Bass Camp, thanks to an invitation from Rod Taylor, my good friend and one of the instructors. I was able to see Wooten the teacher in action. When I see teachers like Wooten, it gives me hope, and I am a little less cynical. So, I’ll take a little gush.


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