Victor Wooten is currently working his way through a tour with longtime musical collaborators Dennis Chambers, on drums, and Bob Franceschini, on saxophone, as The Victor Wooten Trio. The fusion of their individually dynamic approaches to musical performance have proven to be incredible over the years, and it is now better than ever. Last weekend was the latest evidence to such, in which they played two sold out shows at The Sinclair in Boston.
Wooten is a guru on and off the stage. When he has a bass in his hands, he is speaking through his music, in ways nobody else around can. Utilizing the wunderkind technical skills he mastered long ago, and combining them with a limitless artistic creativity, he continues to make profound statements both in front of audiences and on his albums.
It turns out, the messages the man gives when using his words to speak are often just as profound as well as inspired and authentic. Wooten gave us a little chat this weekend, discussing things like staying true to yourself, to his incredible theories on teaching music, to not being in a metal band called Octavision. We started by asking him how these recent gigs went.
Victor Wooten: They went great, they were both sold out, the band sounded good…We still remembered the music, so it went well.
The Poke Around: What is this trio dipping into musically, is it older or newer stuff you’re playing?
It’s a combination of both. Some of it is brand new, and we do a few songs from earlier records of mine, as well as a couple of songs we just learned for this trip, even though we haven’t ever recorded them before.
I know you’ve played with both of these guys a lot in your career before…is this the first time you’ve toured as this lineup?
Yeah, we started doing a little bit last year, but it is the first time as a trio. We have played together in different configurations, mostly with jazz guitarist Mike Stern.
You guys started off with a tour in Europe, last year, this the latest of a number of times you’ve toured abroad. Has the music of other cultures had a significant impact upon your own music?
That is correct. Our first shows ever were a couple of dates in Japan, just to try it out. And then last year we went…to Europe for a couple of weeks, and had a really great tour. We really got it together.
But yeah, totally. Other countries, depending on where you go, might use different time signatures, and even different ways of approaching time signatures. So, my years of being with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and travelling around the world with them, introduced me to a lot of these different approaches to music, a lot of it having to do with different time signatures. Playing in 11/8, or 13/8, or even something like 21/8, which is really weird. But they do those types of things in other countries, and being able to play and tour with The Flecktones for so many years introduced me to a lot of different things about music, even in different places where they have more than twelve notes. You know, our Western music we only have twelve, but other countries they go well beyond the twelve.
And so all that stuff is very interesting, and has totally influenced my music.
Well I know what I love about your music is your combination of your very rhythmic way of playing the bass, versus other times that are more melodic, where you are really writing with the bass and painting these bright musical colors. Is that something you’re alway trying to incorporate into your playing or do you find there are times when the two are completely separate?
Oh yeah, you know I want to be versatile, and to have the widest audience, and to keep that audience interested for a whole night of music, or even maybe for my whole career, you have to have variety and diversity. And so I try to do that with my music. I know that not everybody just wants to hear me use my thumb on the bass and play rhythms all the time, so I try to keep it diverse. You know, it’s sort of like…if you ever have a favorite food, you don’t want to eat it every night, so I have to keep it fresh, by diversifying.
Well you have done so many different musical things, with so many different people. In your career, has it been more a case of you going after certain artistic ideas or goals, or more a case of just being open to what things sort of happen with those people?
It’s all of the above. It’s sort of like when you get together to talk with your friends. It depends on who you’re talking to, it might determine how you talk. If you’re with really close friends, you might talk a certain way, if you’re with strangers you might be more polite. If you’re with adults, you might change your dialect. Music is the same way, depends on who I’m playing with, it determines how I play. But the fact that it’s all me, that continuity, that’s what links it all together. But my goal is to be diverse enough to be able to fit whatever style I’m put into, and then to be able to bring a part of myself into it.
There’s a video I was watching where one of your longtime collaborators, Marcus Miller, said “Victor Wooten very much plays who he is. So, if you listen to his music long enough, when you meet him, he’s exactly the guy you’d think he’d be, from listening to him play.” Do you agree with that?
I totally agree with that. There’s some people, especially in the top music world, and this is not a criticism…but sometimes, maybe in the top music world, we may dress a certain way, or sing a certain type of song, or maybe even do a rap type of song, and it may or may not be who we really are.
When I’m playing, it’s totally who I am. And, I understand, too, that some of that may cause me to have a smaller audience. In other words, if I dressed a certain way, if I wrote a certain type of tune, you know I might be able to hit a smooth jazz audience or a pop audience or a rap audience. And nothing wrong with that. But I play the way I play, so that the people who love me, they love me for who I am. And then that’s easy. You know, I don’t have try and maintain a false front. I can just be me. And the people who like me, hopefully they will continue to, because I’m not changing. It’s just me the whole time. So, I agree with what Marcus said, and I like that.
I personally love your ideas on young people learning music, especially the idea that teachers should learn about what messages their students want to say through their music, as they teach them music. That made me curious: Have you found that you’ve been able to say what you’ve wanted through your music over the years?
Absolutely, yeah. With my music, I’m free to say whatever I want. I have become that comfortable with music. The same with our words, we can say whatever we want, we can express whatever views we want.
And when our children are learning to talk, we don’t tell them what words to learn first. They learn the words they need first. And it might be ‘mama,’ or ‘daddy,’ or ‘milk’ But they are free enough to learn the words they want, I like that. So I think that we should approach music, as teachers, the same. Find out what kind of music a student is interested in, and let them learn that. Let them learn to play that music right away, rather than having to teach them a lot of rules first, let’s just let them play first. Like learning to speak a language, you just talk first, the rules come much later.
When you incorporate this into your music camps, do students take to it well?
Well, most of the students that come to my camps are coming to me because of that approach. So they’ll come to me wanting more of it. But, even the ones who don’t seem to really like it, I guess if they don’t like it, they don’t tell me because I don’t hear about it. But they like it because they realize that it works, really quickly. And, I get the comment a lot, they say this is fun, I’m having fun. And, a teacher rarely gets that in a classroom setting or in a lesson. And so, students are having fun, and they’re learning how to play really quickly. And it’s the same way a child learns to talk really quickly.
And do you find that students end up expressing these ideas or messages they never thought they’d say?
Oh yeah, students do it all the time. They finally learn that they can speak their own language. You see, most music curriculum teaches students to say other people’s stuff first. Learn these scales that someone came up with, learn this knowledge that someone came up with. And I’m not even saying that’s wrong. Because even with language, a baby is listening to the adults talk. But still the baby gets to choose what they learn first. We don’t tell babies, you have to learn this first. And so, they’ve developed their own way of communicating. But in music, most of the time a student has to learn our way of communicating first. And then, many years later, you go and find your own way. I think that is a slower process, and it also cause most people who start taking lessons, to quit. Because they’re not getting what they want out of it.
One of the main things I run into with musicians young and old has nothing to do with how well they play the instrument. It has everything to do with how they think about it. And so, a lot of musicians might hear me play, or hear Marcus or Stanley Clarke and they instantly want to sound like that. Or they have all these great ideas and they can’t play them, so they get frustrated. And it’s like me trying to learn Spanish, I’ve only been speaking a year, but I want to say everything that other Spanish people say. At first I may have to say those same things simpler, in a simpler way. Doesn’t mean I can’t say it, but I may have to simplify it first. As a teacher or a guide or coach, I show them, yeah you can say this, but you may have to do it in a simpler way. And a simpler way is just as valid. If you’re a bass player, most people want to hear it from the bass in a simple way, not a fast, complicated way. So, the main thing is just helping that student express themselves in the way they want to express. But, as a teacher, we have to be smart enough to know also what that student needs. The same way a child may only want to eat sweets. We have to be smart enough to say that in the long run you have to eat some vegetables.
You know, everything has its place. What other teachers say has its place. My main thing is, let’s give the student all of it, and let them choose, rather than telling them it has to be this. Let’s give them a buffet. And, give them as much help as possible, as much guidance. But, we don’t tell them what they’re going to be when they grow up, we don’t tell them that as a child. We expose them to many things and let them choose, and I like to do the same thing musically.
What about you? Are you these days in more of just a playing mode, delving into material in new ways, or do you have plans for new material?
Sure, we’re recording a record right now! We have probably eight of ten songs, we’ll probably record two more. So yeah, we’re recording, and these other two songs are still being written. So, it’s like we’re always creating. But, because we have a show tonight, and a soundcheck soon, you know, we’re in playing mode. But we’re human beings and there’s no way not to create, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. We’re alway creating new things, new ideas, and hopefully that never stops.
Back in the fall, you joined this band called Octavision, can you tell me about that?
I didn’t join that band, that’s the main thing. It got put out as if I did, but no. I just played on one song for a friend of mine, and it got kind of blown out of proportion. And people wrote articles as if it were my band…
Do requests to collaborate on stuff come your way a lot?
Yes, and most of the time, I refuse them because I don’t have time. And, other cases, I also know that the person contacting me just wants to use my name to make their project bigger, and so I’m not always into that, either. And so Octavision…you know, good friend of mine, good guitarist, asked me to play on a track, so I played on it. And then, next thing I knew it was my new band (laughs).
Well the Flecktones also came back this past year. The Capitol Theatre show was my first Flecktones show, and it was an exhilarating night. What’s it like to pick back up with those guys again?
Nice, thank you. Yeah, yeah, we did a tour last year and we’ll do another tour in August. It was fun! It was easy. Usually when we get back together after a long time off, we’re writing new music, recording a new record, and it’s a big, long process. This one was shorter, we just knew we were only going to tour for two weeks. We learned a few of the older songs, and it came back into our memories very, very easily. And it was just like being at home again. We’ve all played together for so many years, decades, now, that it was very, very familiar, and very fun, very enjoyable.
The Trio has a date coming up in Colorado as part of an event called The Drunken Hearts Medicine Show. What do you know about that?
(Laughs) You know, I’m not even sure what that one is. But, I’ve been lucky enough to play a lot of festivals, and they’re usually very fun. That’s where we get to hear other bands, and in many cases we get to see friends of ours that we don’t usually get to see. At a festival, we get to be fans, and hear other music.
One last question for you. We’re in a pretty…interesting time right now, politically, socially. Is it having any kind of affect on you artistically?
Absolutely, and I think it would have an affect on any musician that is free with their music. The same way you’re free with your language, whatever’s happening in the world, you talk about. So, if you’re free with your music, whatever’s happening in the world, you play about. But it doesn’t have to affect you negatively. We’re traveling around, we see the news around the world. People talk to us, you know, we’re in Europe and people ask us, “hey what’s going on?” And so it’s hard to have it not affect you, I believe. But through it all, I’m hopeful.
Written by Miles Hurley
Photographed by JD Cohen
The Sinclair | Boston, Massachusetts | 2/24 – 2/25/17