If you’re a bass player who suffers from frequent bouts of career envy, you may want to skip over this introduction and head straight to the interview.
That way, you won’t have to dwell on the fact that Victor Wooten has won five Grammy Awards and been hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the “Top 10 Bassists of All Time.”
You’ll also be able to overlook his work as a founding member of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, his solo albums for the legendary Vanguard jazz label, his power trio with bass legends Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller, and his session work with artists ranging from Bill Evans and Jaco Pastorius to Gov’t Mule and Keb’ Mo’.
Wooten’s professional career began earlier than most. He was 6 years old when he and his older brothers — Roy, Regi, Rudy and Joseph — graduated from performing in their front yard to touring as the opening act for Curtis Mayfield.
Moving from base to base with their military parents, The Wooten Brothers were naturally drawn to playing USO shows overseas, and went so far as to record a not-so-successful self-titled album for Arista Records. Not long after, the brothers disbanded to pursue other musical projects, with Victor and Roy going on to form the Flecktones with the multidisciplinary banjo player Béla Fleck.
Wooten has also written a pair of critically acclaimed allegorical novels, The Music Lesson and The Spirit of Music: The Lesson Continues. The Washington Post praised the latter as “a book that stands happily against traditional music pedagogy and canned notions of achievement.”
Now, Wooten is back out on the road with Bass Extremes, his trio with six-string bassist Steve Bailey and drummer Derico Watson. We caught up with him between rehearsals to talk about legendary bassists, being compared to Carlos Castañeda, and what happens when you can’t get your fingers to play the right notes
Indy: You’ve been pretty busy over the past few decades: Fifteen albums with Béla Fleck, 10 albums of your own, the bass collaborations…
Victor Wooten: I’ve been fortunate, I’ve been very fortunate.
You’ve also played on tons of other artists’ albums. Was there a point where you realized that you were becoming a kind of “hot-call” session player?
That didn’t happen until I started playing with Béla Fleck. I’d grown up playing as the bassist with my four older brothers, the five of us, The Wooten Brothers. I always thought my whole career was gonna be with them. And it was a bad record deal in the early ’80s that caused the five of us to not be playing exclusively together.
And then, a few years later, I met Béla, and I wasn’t doing much, so I did some stuff with him. And here we are, 35 or so years later, and we’re still doing it. But I didn’t know that was going to be my kind of call to fame, where people started to recognize me. Once the Flecktones became very popular, then I started getting more calls.
And how old were you when you figured out that the bass would be your primary instrument?
Oh, I knew that from birth…
How does that work? Were you listening to a lot of Stanley Clarke in the womb?
Not in the womb, unfortunately. I was born in 1964, and by the time they [Return to Forever] hit the scene, I was already out playing gigs. I’d started playing gigs before I started kindergarten.
I’m not joking. My brothers got me doing it, because they needed a bass player.
How did you even hold a bass at that age, let alone play it? I mean, maybe if it was a short-scale Hofner….
That’s exactly what my first bass was. Well, it was a Univox copy of a Hofner, and it looked just like Paul McCartney’s Hofner. But actually, my very first instrument — I was looking at photos of me playing my first gigs — was a four-string guitar. Reggie took two of the strings off his electric guitar, and I used that as a bass in those first early days. But then my parents found that Univox.
Were your parents musicians?
No, but they were very musical. They grew up in a Baptist church where instruments weren’t allowed. They were allowed to sing, but there were no instruments.
In The Music Lesson, you write about a teacher who appears out of nowhere to guide a young musician on his journey. Were there teachers that you encountered in your life who played that kind of role?
Absolutely, absolutely. And we’ve all had them. That’s how we learned to talk, walk, or do anything, is through teachers. Whether they were labeled a teacher or not, that’s how we did it.
One of my biggest influences was Stanley Clarke. And I remember exactly when those records came out, even though I was very young. My brothers were into it, and so I was into it too. Stanley played with fire, in a way that bass players weren’t doing at the time. So when Stanley came with that heavy attack and those rapid-fire notes, it woke all of us bass players up to something new.
But he’s not the only one I’ve learned from. Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins, Jaco Pastorius, there’s a bunch of them. James Jamerson, of course, Chuck Rainey, Carol Kaye, Bob Babbitt, Duck Dunn, all the people that played on the music that a lot of us players grew up with in the ’60s and ’70s. But Stanley was really —and still is — my No. 1 hero when it comes to electric bass.
So going on to record with Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller, two very different and very legendary bass players, I can’t imagine not being freaked out by just the idea of that. I know you were well into your career at that point, but what was that like for you?
Yeah, there were some freak-out moments. Because I met Stanley Clarke when I was 9, and I was much older by the time I met Marcus. So every time I’m near Stanley Clarke, I feel 9 again. It was hard to get over that, because I was being treated as an equal. And, in my mind, I’m not. I’m the little brother.
When your second novel came out last year, The Washington Post critic Ben Ratliff compared it to Carlos Castañeda’s books about Don Juan, the Yaqui Indian guide that he insisted was real, and others say was fictitious. But you don’t make any claims that the teacher in your novels is real.
Well, you know, the main thing with these stories — whether it’s the teacher in my story, or Don Juan, or whatever — is that you weren’t there. So to you, it’s just a story, right? And whether I say it’s real or not, it’s just whether you believe. So what’s real or false? It’s up to you.
I’m sure a philosopher could debate that with you endlessly.
Yeah, and he’d be wrong. Because you decide what truth is.
So the author’s intent doesn’t matter?
No, it’s up to you. I’d like to know the author’s intent. But I don’t want the author to decide for me.
A lot of lyricists won’t reveal to fans or critics what a song is about, because that can spoil it for the listener.
Yeah, I mean, it can. But that’s also up to you, too. I approach my book as fiction, just to try to alleviate the argument of what was real and what was false, because it doesn’t matter. What’s real are the lessons. The story may not be. And I read every story that way. Whether you tell me it’s real or not, whether it’s the Bible, I don’t care whether it’s real, I wasn’t there. By the time it reaches my ear, it’s a story. So I put my attention on what I can learn from it.
There’s a book devoted to James Jamerson, who you mentioned earlier, called Standing in the Shadows of Motown, that has nearly 200 pages of transcripts of his basslines. The problem is that there’s really no way to get the feel of that music onto the page. Was that something you contended with doing your own book of transcripts, and were there tricks you used to get around that?
Well, what I did in my transcriptions is, I would not only write the notes, but I would put a number under the note. In other words, if I wrote a C, I may put a 3 underneath it. That lets you know, I play that C on the A string, third fret. And then, if I was hitting the note with my thumb, I put the letter T under the 3. So I put as much technique in this as possible. And the hope is for you to listen to it and get what it’s supposed to feel like, at least when I played it. But it’s allowed to be different when you play it.
The James Jamerson book did include two CDs. But it’s still impossible for me — I mean, I’m a white guy — to get that vibe. I hope that doesn’t sound racist, but….
No, not at all. I get it. The same way you have a certain voice, I have a certain voice. Our accents are going to be different, and it’s supposed to be that way. The thing is, if Jamerson played it, he would not be able to play it like you.
You mean like a metronome that’s not working quite right?
I mean, if that’s what it is. But either way, James Jamerson only has his voice. Everybody has their own voice — they play the way they play — and it’s hard to be able to speak someone else’s voice.
One last question. I read an interview a while back in which you mentioned having an affliction where your brain tells your fingers to play the wrong notes. Is that a real thing? Because if it is, that means I’ve had it ever since I first picked up an instrument.
[Laughs.] It’s totally legit. It’s called focal dystonia, and people from all walks of life get it. And what ends up happening is you lose the ability to do what you’ve done all the time, whether it’s writing, whether it’s golf, whether it’s gymnastics, whether it’s walking. And it’s something that takes over your brain and tells your limb or your digit to do it the wrong way.
How have you managed to deal with that?
I’ve had to learn to play around it as I work on it. The thing is, my fingers work perfectly without the bass. I can still imitate playing it. But as soon as I pick up a bass, three of my fingers on my left hand curl into a ball and don’t want to operate. So I’m working with a woman who’s helping me retrain my brain. But it’s a struggle to get them to hit individually on the string. It’s just the brain has learned to tell the fingers the wrong thing.
There are times, maybe not frequently, where the wrong note can be a good thing.
Of course. Mistakes are usually just things I didn’t mean to do. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It’s sort of like when you’re driving, you take a wrong turn, that road will still get you to where you’re going. Any road will get you there. And when you take that wrong turn, it might mean that you see something you didn’t expect.
So wrong doesn’t mean wrong, it doesn’t mean bad. And wrong notes can definitely take you into a better place than you were headed in the first place. If life happened exactly as you wanted it to every time, you would be bored.