Better Keep Your Eyes Open at Fusion Bassist Victor Wooten's Show
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.