I’ve interviewed Victor Wooten at length several times in my BP career, seen him play dozens of times, and hung out with him in private a fair amount. I thus feel well equipped to conclude the following: He is the best-qualified bass god ever. Yes, he could arguably merit that distinction on skill alone, but the pitch-perfect casting he enjoys atop the bass marquee suggests more than phenomenal technique and an unflappable pocket—plenty of people can play. Instead, Victor sits at the top of the heap because he comprehensively embodies all the things good musicians preach every day. He’s a walking, talking set of best practices.
If Victor led only by his sterling example, it’d still cement his iconic status. But his special place in the pantheon is assured because above all, Victor is an activist bass player. From the beginning of his career, Victor has consistently advocated for an ever-evolving set of ideas, and he’s created venues to share those ideas, most notably with his long-running Wooten Woods Music Camp (now open to all instruments) and his book, The Music Lesson [2006, Berkley Trade]. The strength and resonance of Victor’s ideology lies not in its sophisticated technical depth, but rather in its full accounting of music’s human origin. Each of us is a person first, and Victor sees no division between our success in life and our success in music. His leadership by example, then, is not limited to playing. It can be found in his attitude, generosity, and ethical consistency.
Above all else, Victor is a relentless and voracious student. When he burst into our consciousness with the 1989 release of Béla Fleck & the Flecktones’ self-titled debut, Victor almost immediately earned his place among the bass gods. Not since Jaco Pastorius’ first album had a player so profoundly pushed the instrument’s voice forward, forever expanding our notion of its possibilities. Victor’s singular slap technique—incorporating rapid-fire double-thumbing and multi-finger pops—overwhelmed the bass world, and the impact was obvious at any large gathering of bassists. At NAMM, for example, a competition seemed to emerge among up-and-comers as to who could best ape Victor’s signature style. Given the depth of his impact, Victor could have easily maintained his rarified status without much effort. Yet, the nearly three decades since he achieved international recognition are marked not by complacency, but by an inexorable drive to get better. His voluminous output, whether under his own banner, as a duet partner with longtime collaborator Steve Bailey, or as a sideman with any number of legends, evince a musician with tireless curiosity and ability to acknowledge his own weaknesses to grow.
Victor’s latest release, Trypnotyx, demonstrates perfectly the fruit of his labor. Self-produced, it represents a significant maturation in his songwriting, harmonic insight, and notably, his full embrace of a revolutionary new technology, the FretTraX MIDI system from InnProcess Music (see sidebar, below). Victor has long thrived on the edges of the bass’s capabilities, employing innovative techniques to wring new tones and textures from the instrument—but the FretTraX system exponentially expands his palette, giving him easy access to a near-infinite sonic landscape. Using the system to trigger synthesizers, samples, and more, Victor makes the Trypnotyx trio sound like a much larger ensemble. It’s not mere studio trickery, either; as his fall tour demonstrates, he pulls it off.
I was excited to speak with Vic not only about his latest record, but also about the insight and process behind his success. Not many artists can boast comparable staying power, and as ever, Vic had much to say on the subject.
What compelled you to release a trio record?
It started because I really wanted to play with Dennis Chambers [drums] and Bob Franceschini [sax]. We started the project with a short tour, although at first I also had Anthony Wellington play some bass. I figured that would free me up to play melodies and things like that. That was right around when I got the FretTraX MIDI system on my bass. As good as it was with Anthony, it dawned on me that that if we could pull this off as a trio, it would be impressive. So I started working on some of the songs myself, and I realized, Wow, I can do it. Anthony of course understood, and then it was obvious we needed to record.
When you say pull it off, what does that entail? There are a lot of layered parts from the bass and MIDI bass on the record.
I have to loop some sections and bass lines. Bob also uses an octave pedal with his sax and plays some bass, and he even has another pedal that allows him to play chords. And then with the FretTraX I can play keyboard-style parts along with the bass line, too. It makes the band sound bigger than it is.
Did getting a MIDI-capable bass enable a new dimension of your voice?
Totally. Even when you buy a new pedal, it opens up new ideas and expands your vision. But having the FretTraX, after people have tried to develop a good MIDI bass for decades, totally expanded my horizons. The inventor, Lee Young, lives in Nashville, so I’m on the front end of it. I can take it out on the road and say, Lee, this is incredible but I need it to do this or that. And he’ll figure out how to do it. It expands the capabilities of what I can play.
Trypnotyx is your most harmonically rich record. How has that progress gone for you?
I’m just growing every day, as a musician and as a person. I wish I could grow in height, but I haven’t figured that one out. I keep getting wider, not taller [laughs]. I play differently depending on who I’m playing with, and I knew that if I did this record with Dennis and Bob, it needed to be a players’ record. It had to be musical, but it wasn’t going to be one of my records where there’s vocals or even rap. I knew I wanted to do more of a fusion record. One of the main things that led me in that direction is the people I’m playing with.
Is there something in your own regimen that you stay committed to?
Really, just listening. Then going for what I hear. I play from emotion, and while the emotion is usually there, sometimes the notes just aren’t, so I end up having to fix a note on a record while trying to keep the emotion. Sometimes I’ll leave the wrong note because the right note didn’t carry the same emotion. Then, sure, there’s some practicing thrown in.
What do you practice?
I try to do a little of all the things I hear. I may literally be onstage at soundcheck and hear Béla or Bob play a line, and I’ll figure out what it is, put some chords in the looping pedal, and then practice it over changes. When we learn a word in English, we don’t just say it over and over, we use it—and when I learn a new line or lick, I try to use it, right then, wherever I am. It’s a lot of that. The days of having hours to practice are gone for me, because I’ve got a busy schedule, kids, and more who need my time when I’m off, so I have to know how to practice in the spur of the moment wherever I am, whenever I can. A lot of it happens at soundcheck and maybe after soundcheck if I get to hang in the dressing room for a bit.
What have you learned over the years about balancing so many demands on your time?
The main thing is to try not to do it alone. I surround myself with good people who help. The other thing that comes to mind is finding that time for yourself to do whatever it is you need to do to feel balanced—something to relax, to bring enjoyment, or to get away from work. You always need to replenish your energy, especially when you’re living such a public life and giving yourself to other people, like I do when I’m out on the road. I want to see everyone, sign everything, and hug everybody. It takes a lot. Sometimes you have to go in your own cocoon.
What does your cocoon look like?
I love to take walks. Usually when we get to a town, I go out for a walk. I’m very lucky that I rarely have to set up my own gear anymore, even though I sometimes enjoy it; it’s almost meditative. But now when I get to a venue, I can take a walk. I also love spending time in my hotel room by myself.
For nearly three decades, you have successfully weathered huge changes in the music industry. How would you advise someone coming up now?
Some things are different, but many are the same. I learned a lot from my parents, especially my mom. Even when we were playing sports, she would say, “Somebody has to lose, and if you’re not big enough to lose, you’re not big enough to play.” I translate that to music. As egotistical as this may seem, you have to please yourself first; then, you become so good at it that other people enjoy it. I’d rather be the me that makes me happy and that would make my parents happy, and in doing that, I found an audience. They love me for who I am, not some façade that I’m putting on.
I can hear my mom’s voice right now: “You may not have any control over whether you become famous, but you have control over whether you are worthy of being famous. Become someone that the world should know about.” She’d say, “You boys are already successful. The rest of the world just doesn’t know about it yet.” I tell people, Don’t worry about becoming famous. Develop something. Become someone that the rest of the world will benefit from knowing about. That’s been my goal since I was little.
Endeavors like the Music Camp and your book show that good art and artistry often come from good people.
Who you are shows through your music, and that’s truer now than ever, because your music is more widely accessible. People aren’t putting up with the bad-attitude folks anymore. Musicians are too easily replaced; we don’t live in the day when there was one Jimi, Jaco, or Charlie Parker—now Stanley Clarke can go on YouTube and find a kid barely out of high school to replace his drummer. You want another Victor Wooten? They’re out there on YouTube.
Do you listen to pop music?
Not as much as I’d like, but I’m always asking my kids what they listen to. For this record, I listened to a lot of pop for the sonic range in the mixes. After I got my record mastered, I had to go back and do it again, and I told the engineer to reference big pop records. I wanted that pop sound, with high highs and low lows. Jazz records tend to be more midrange-y and smooth. I wanted more of that pop sound. It’s popular for a reason, and it’s good to know what that reason is.
Some of the tunes have deep layers of interesting sonics and sound design. Are there keys on Trypnotyx?
There are almost no keyboards on the record. I played a lot of keyboard-style parts with the FretTraX on my bass, and some of them were played with an effected sax. I love ear candy—if there’s a solo happening, there’s still something going on in your left ear, or sounds panning across the stereo spectrum, or whatever. I wanted things to keep the listener’s attention, like a pop record, and less like a jazz record.
How do you find sounds to use with the FretTraX?
I start by going to the synth and turning a knob to see where it ends up. In the studio I have time to explore. I can listen to another record or have someone else come in and say, Hey, what if you try this? I was always taking advice and direction from Dennis and Bob, too.
How do you deal with the temptation to perfect everything and possibly kill the vibe, now that digital recording makes that possible?
That’s the gift and curse of Pro Tools. Nowadays we even have our own studios, so we’re not stressed looking at the clock on the studio wall. I can sleep in my studio, wake up, and then keep going. For me, the best way to keep perspective is to let other people hear it. And then it always starts with the playing; I want to make sure we play well. Then we just want to add things that don’t take away from that.
Did you mix the new album?
I mixed most of it. I’m the one who’s always there, and we recorded in my studio. But because I wanted the record to sound better than my abilities, I also reached out to a couple of mix engineers. In every case I’d have to stick my head back in and change a few things, but real engineers know how to get better sounds than me. The drums came back sounding bigger. The vocals from Varijashree Venugopal and Michael Winslow sounded better. Even though I mixed most of the songs, hearing these other guys made my mixes sound better.
The hardest part of having a studio is knowing when a mix is finished. How do you deal with that?
If you don’t have a deadline, nothing will ever get completed. I have friends who’ve been working on their records for ten years, no exaggeration. For my record, I got together with my manager and a few other people, and we looked at the calendar. I knew that I wanted it to be eligible for a Grammy, so we looked at the deadline for that. Then my publicist said he needed a few months to promote the album before that deadline. And so on. Finally we settled on July 4 to deliver the record, and that gave me a hard deadline to work toward.
Anytime you’ve recorded something, you’re better by the time you start mixing it. Even by the next day you’re a better person and musician, hopefully, so you’re going to hear it differently. You’re going to second-guess, and if you have the ability, you’ll fix it. But with a hard deadline eventually you’re going to say, Okay, I think I’m done.
How do you think about the difference in your roles as a sideman and a leader?
When it comes to being a leader, my first big teacher was Béla Fleck. Béla is the leader of the Fleck-tones—always has been, always will be. But he’s also consistently said he feels like a leader among equals. He knows that when you squash someone’s chance to speak, they’ll quit speaking. Also, when Béla writes a song, he comes in and plays only his part; he doesn’t dictate other parts. He tells us nothing. He just starts playing, and that allows us to react with our first impressions. It’s wonderful, and his songs often change because of it. If we’re taking his song too far away, he can always bring it back. I’ve learned to do that, also.
Dennis and Bob are such good sidemen. They’ve played on everything with everybody. How do people like that get those gigs? It’s because they can paint many different pictures, and they’re really good at helping you paint yours. They’re like chameleons; whatever color you put them in, they become that.
In his just-released book/online video package, Victor Wooten outlines his ten essential elements of music and presents lessons ranging from warming up and hand-strengthening to tapping, looping, soloing, and thumb technique. Available from hudsonmusic.com.How much does the interpersonal stuff matter as a sideman, as opposed to the musical ability?
It’s a little of both. Bob was telling me that when he was rehearsing with Paul Simon for a year, people in the band would just disappear. How can you stay attentive in a year-long rehearsal? You have to be able to perform and do a good job whether or not you like the music or situation. That’s the mark of a good musician, playing like you love it, no matter what. You’re not always going to play what you enjoy.
How do you maintain that focus even when the music is not happening?
The fact that you’re playing music should be inspiring enough. There’s too many people out there wishing they had a gig. Don’t get the gig and then complain about it. There’s a fine line, though; you don’t want to lose yourself, either. If the band stands for something you don’t, then there’s a decision to make. Not playing because you don’t like the music is not a good enough reason. If you can’t find something good in the music, that’s your fault, not the music’s fault.
You spent a lot of time playing with Chick Corea. Tell me about that.
Wow. Chick is even better than most people realize. I’ll tell you a great lesson Chick taught me. Before my first rehearsal with him, I had a short time to learn the music, and then we only had one evening to rehearse. Now, I’m no John Patitucci; I can’t solo through changes like him. John is unbelievably good. So, we’re at rehearsal and playing a ballad, “Crystal Silence” or something. I start soloing over it, and I’m royally sucking. Finally, Chick stops. And he says, Do you know the melody? Embarrassingly, I had to say no. And immediately I thought, Man, how many times have I told people to learn the melody? I realized I’m not above what I teach. Just because I teach it, it doesn’t mean I’m good at it. So Chick said, “Learn the melody.” And then we just moved on. It was embarrassing, but what a wake-up call.
What would you like to improve in your playing?
I’d like to get better at using the theory I know. I’m still not good at that. I’m not that good at soloing through changes. If I know the tune well, I’m fine, but if you give me a new song and I’m just looking at it on paper, I’m horrible. I know how to do it, but I can’t do it fast enough on the spot. And if I could start over again, I would learn to play piano. Every musician I know who has a good harmonic sense plays piano, and not necessarily as their main instrument. It’s harder when you only have one way to get home and that road is blocked.
You’re currently sharing the bill with the Elektric Band. It must be great to hang with John Patitucci, too.
I’m so excited! I got my upright from Stanley Clarke, and I’m getting a copy made and a friend is bringing it to me today. I’m so happy. I cornered John and said, Look, man, I need an hour with you!
You’ve been more interested in upright lately.
Definitely. I’ll tell you a crazy story. I got called last-minute to do a week with Chick at his 75thbirthday residency at the Blue Note in New York. I was already scheduled to do the final week, but something happened with Avishai Cohen that made it impossible for him to get to the U.S. So I was asked to do a week on upright with Chick, Ravi Coltrane, Hubert Laws, and Lenny White. I told my manager to make sure Chick’s people know that I don’t really play upright. The message that came back was that Chick knows, but “Victor is the magic man. He’ll make it happen.” What an honor to be thought of that way. He could have called up so many people in New York who could have walked to the gig and nailed it. I also thought that if I could pull this off, my stock goes up—not just to the public, but to myself. So I got the confirmation on Friday after Thanksgiving, and the first gig was the following Wednesday. Chick sends me the music, and I start practicing on my upright at home. I’m dealing with it; it’s cool. I’m going to be able to do this. Then Sunday comes, and Chick sends an email to the band with the song list. I don’t recognize any of the songs! I send Chick an email and say, Sorry, but I don’t know these tunes. My phone rings, and Chick says, You’re learning the wrong music. Inside I’m screaming; I have to fly to Boston to teach at Berklee, so I only have enough time to print out and tape up the music. I put all the songs on my phone so I can at least listen on the plane. I don’t get to touch or look at the bass at all. I get to Boston that night, no bass, so Steve Bailey gives me a bass and lets me practice in his office. I practice from like 6:30 to 2 in the morning, and the bass has super-high action. I ask Steve for another, but he says, No, if you learn it on a hard bass it’ll be easier later. Meanwhile my bass is being repaired by a guy in Connecticut, Gary Upton, and it’s important because it’s a ⅝-size, which I can deal with. The week before, he had sent me photos with the top off. I say, Gary do you think you can get my bass back together for these gigs? He says, No way, but I’ll bring you a bass and I’ll even put dots on like yours. So we arrange that when my train from Boston to New York stops in New London, Connecticut, he’ll be there waiting, and I’ll just hop off and grab the bass. As the train pulled up, I saw my upright bass case. Gary Upton had done it—he finished my bass. I was able to hop off the train, grab a photograph with Gary, and then get back on the train.
I pulled off the gig after all. I’m not a great upright player, but I had a blast. I learned a lot. It made the following week where I got to play electric way easier. It made my juices start flowing, though. I really want to learn how to play the upright now. I need to get together with people like John Patitucci, John Clayton, and Steve Bailey, and I’m going to start taking lessons. I want to do an all-acoustic record.
What do you like about upright?
It’s where the electric came from, and there’s nothing cooler than the sound of an acoustic. Piano is cool, sax is cool, but there’s nothing cooler than a walking bass. I want to get good at doing that. I don’t want to ever stop growing.
THE FRETTRAX REVOLUTION
If you’ve seen victor’s FretTraX demo on YouTube, watched one of his recent trio gigs, or checked out Trypnotyx, you’ve undoubtedly been curious about the new technology, which brings unprecedented tracking speed and accuracy to a MIDI bass system. I talked with designer Lee Young of InnProcess Music for his thoughts on working with Victor during the system’s development:
“Victor Wooten is an amazing ambassador for the FretTraX bass-to-MIDI technology. From the first time he tried my FretTraX prototype in a small cabin at his Wooten Woods Music Camp—ordering one on the spot—to premiering it to a packed house in Nashville on his 2016 tour kickoff, his performances and comments have changed people’s minds about what can be done with a bass and MIDI.”
Changes on the horizon include support for Apple MainStage and Ableton Live, battery power, wireless MIDI support, new licensing opportunities, and “pluck detect,” which will allow for MIDI velocity messages.
Victor Wooten, Trypnotyx [2017, Vix]
Bass 1983 Fodera Monarch, ’80s Fodera Monarch Tenor (strung ADGC), Fodera Monarch Yin-Yang w/FretTraX MIDI system, fretless Fodera Monarch Yin-Yang, Fodera NYC Empire 5-string, fretless Compito 5-string, 18th-century ⅝-size upright
Rig Two Hartke LH1000 heads, two Hartke HyDrive 4x10s, two Hartke HyDrive 1x15s
Strings Fodera Victor Wooten Signature Nickel (.040, .055, .075, .095)
Synth Yamaha Motif-Rack XS
Effects Boss GT-6B, Source Soundblox-Pro Multiwave Bass Distortion, Rodenberg Volume Boost