Bassist Victor Wooten has always been musical innovator, challenging the limitations of the electric bass and, in the process, developing new sounds and ways to play the instrument. His songwriting follows the same pattern. Whether composing as a founding member of the genre-bending bluegrass/psycho-space outfit Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, his family band (The Wootens), or his trio, Wooten expressively merges jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, and "that funky stuff" into compelling arrangements.
Much of his music is instrumental, but one of his two recent releases boasts vocals of the female kind on every track. In fact, the two albums -- Words & Tones and Swords & Stones -- are intertwined, one being more or less an instrumental version of the vocal version. Both albums have standalone tracks as well.
Up on the Sun recently caught up with Wooten, a five-time Grammy Award winner, to discuss his ideas behind releasing two albums together, growing up in a musical family, his exploration of the bass, and whether he's still slinging it over his shoulder in concert -- a trick he developed by watching Cinderella bassist Eric Brittingham on MTV.
Up on the Sun: The most obvious place to start is with your two new albums. Why two? It seems like a risky proposition, especially in a commercial aspect.
Victor Wooten: I guess if I'm thinking commercially, it is risky. But I'm thinking from my heart and doing what I want to do. I'm following my gut, following my desires. That's my main reason.
Why not make it a double-album?
I did think about that, but I've also done that twice. What I hadn't done is release two albums in this way. What makes it different for me, different from anything I've ever heard of before, is that I released two albums separately, and although they are different, there are a lot of similarities. Nine of the 14 tracks are the same (on both albums). You hear two different versions of the same nine tracks, instrumental versions and vocal versions. And there are five tracks that are individual. It allows people two different looks into my musical brain.
One album is all instrumental, the other all vocals. Are the instrumental versions the backing tracks for the vocal pieces or are they completely different song arrangements?
In most cases, the arrangements are different and instruments have either been added or taken out to make them quite different. In one case, on "A Woman's Strength," I didn't change the arrangement. That song has a James Bond-ish feel, and before I put the vocals in, I really liked the song the way it was. I replaced some of the vocal melodies with bass, but it's one song I didn't change the arrangement at all. In most cases, the songs are changed, with horns or strings added. Maybe the drum tracks are the same, so the songs have similarity, but are different at the same time. I didn't want people to get a Muzak version of the vocal version.
Which came first, vocals or instrumentals?
The idea first was to have an album of female vocalists. As I was recording this music, I realized I liked these songs as instrumentals. Most of what I write is instrumental anyway, and I liked it as instrumentals and that's when the idea popped into my head to do both. So I started adding melodies and things. I was adding melodies so I could send the tracks to the vocalists. In most cases, I like to allow the vocalist to write lyrics. This way, they're singing lyrics that are really true to them. So, in adding melodies, I realized I really liked them this way, and that was the impetus to do both versions.
It's an interesting mix of female vocalists on Words and Tones -- including your 14-year-old daughter. What drew you to these singers with the confidence they would write good lyrics that fit what you were after?
It was a little challenging because I ended up having more vocalists than I did songs. I wasn't able to use all the vocalists I had on my list. But with the lyrics, I trust the vocalists and they understand that I can change it if it doesn't fit. So I wasn't worried or concerned about any of the singers. I had total trust in the women I selected, which is why I selected them in the first place. Listening to your solo work, and then what you do with the Flecktones, the two strike me as being worlds apart. How do they complement each other?
The similarities and the common denominator is that you're hearing me on the bass in both projects. People that know me first and only from the Flecktones get a chance to know me better and really hear my own writing. It includes a lot more of my upbringing: the soul, R&B, the funky stuff. But at the same time, people can listen to my music and hear -- if they choose too -- the Flecktones' influences, some of the melodies, some of the time signatures. It can be fun figuring out where my music and the Flecktones meet and where they separate.
You come from a very musical family. The Wootens have put out an album together. Was it competitive in your household?
No, fortunately it wasn't. It was inspirational. It's competitive in the sense that any young child wants to be like his or her older sibling. I'm the youngest, and I remember them being so good it was inspirational. I wanted to be like that, too. They were my teachers and they would help me. When it came to music, I can't see how there was a way to compete because we were all playing different instruments. Instead of competing with each other, we had to work together to make the band sound its best. Inspiring? Oh, totally.
It's clear listening to your albums that the inspiration is still there. It's pretty amazing some of the things you've accomplished on the bass. Is there still new ground to be broken with the bass, making new discoveries?
Always. And hopefully that will never stop. One thing to realize is that the electric bass is only about 61 years old. As far as instruments, when we think of instruments that have been around -- violin, piano, saxophone -- these things are hundreds of years old. So, the electric bass is an infant, and infants develop really quickly. And with an infant, you have no idea what it's going to be when it grows up. The electric bass is really like that, which is why in the short 61 years it's been around, we've seen dramatic changes. I'm positive Leo Fender, the inventor of the electric bass, could not see -- had no idea -- it was going to be the way it is right now. We've haven't even touched the tip of the iceberg. I don't feel like I've come close to reaching the end of even my ability on the instrument. The short answer is, yes, I'm still growing.
How's your bass-slinging? Is it still a regular part of the show?
I don't do it every night, but it's still in my bag of tricks. It's so funny: I went to sling the bass the other night on impulse and my foot was on the chord and it didn't go around. I slung it and it just kind of stuck in one place. It doesn't always work.
You haven't been here for a while, and it looks like you've got a top band with you.
It will be great to get back; I haven't been there for some time. It will be exciting to be back there with my own band, too. We're all playing three or more instruments, which makes this tour so much fun. At one point, you'll hear and see a string section, and at another you'll hear and see a horn section. Everyone's singing, there's keyboards, guitars, and it's a lot of fun. The singer may or may not play drums. It keeps the audience on its toes.
Sounds like a circus atmosphere.
Yes, you've got to keep your eyes open.
Victor Wooten is scheduled to perform Saturday, February 23, at Marquee Theatre in Tempe.