“If people are getting the fun vibe, then I’m happy,” says virtuoso bassist Victor Wooten. “Like the music or not, if you can feel the fun that we are having, then that’s great.
“And we definitely are having fun.”
A Victor Wooten show is a family affair. His current band features his brother Joseph on keyboards and brother Regi on guitar, plus drummer J.D. Blair — the same group that plays on Wooten’s latest album, Yin-Yang (Compass, 1999).
In concert, they mix dazzling instrumentals and melodic pop-funk from Yin-Yang with covers of the Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone tunes they were raised on in the family living room.
“It’s so easy when I have my brothers with me,” the bassist says. “Because we really do the whole thing without rehearsing. We go back so far, as far as playing together — we can pull out that old-school music that we grew up on, and it’s a lot of fun.”
Born in Idaho to a military family, Wooten — the youngest of five brothers — moved with his family to Hawaii, where Regi Wooten started training his brothers to play gigs in recreation centers. The Wootens then relocated to Sacramento, Calif., when Vic was 8 — and the number of performances increased. The bassist remembers that, because of their age, the brothers weren’t allowed to leave the stage after they finished playing some nightclubs.
Wooten never took bass lessons, but studied with Regi — whom he and his brothers reverently call “The Teacher.”
“Regi would take me aside and teach me my parts, and then we would get together as a band and rehearse the songs for the gigs. We were doing quite a few gigs at the time,” he recalls.
“The thing is, I played a lot. I had the opportunity to be out playing, and to me that’s just as good — no, I would say better — than just sitting in your room practicing or taking lessons. Get out there and actually do it. I’ve been out gigging since I was 5, so that’s where it really came together for me.”
After the family moved yet again — this time to Virginia — the Wooten brothers landed a steady gig at Busch Gardens amusement park in Williamsburg. In 1985, they were working with soul singer Kashif and recorded a pop album for Arista records. Three years later, Wooten relocated to Nashville (to work with blues singer Jonell Mosser) and met the progressive banjoist Bela Fleck, who hired him — over the phone — for a TV special he had in the works.
The show went so well that the group continued playing together. Keyboardist/harmonica ace Howard Levy, Roy “Future Man” Wooten — on the “drumitar” (his own invention) — and Victor joined Fleck to become the much-lauded Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. The world-touring Flecktones went on to release six albums, winning a 1997 Grammy for best pop instrumental.
Victor’s first solo album was truly that — an all-bass affair called A Show of Hands (Compass, 1996), which won Bass Player magazine’s album-of-the-year award. For his follow-up, What Did He Say? (Compass, 1997), Wooten brought in drummer J.D. Blair, Fleck, bassist James Genus, Paul McCandless and other notables whom he was able to record in dressing rooms, buses, hotels and living rooms while on the road. Yin-Yang, a double CD featuring one purely instrumental disc and one with vocals, was a little more settled.
“More of Yin-Yang was done in the studio, even though I did do some on the run,” Wooten explains. “With this one, for the first time I was able to get a band in the studio — drummer, keyboards, guitar — and on one track, I had Bela and Jeff [Coffin] too, all in the studio at the same time. I did some mixing on it out on the road, did a little bit of recording on the road, but not as much as the previous record.”
Drummer J.D. Blair (“The Groove Regulator”) has been playing live dates with Wooten in Nashville and beyond for several years — when he’s not on tour with Shania Twain, that is.
“I like playing with J.D. because we don’t need to see each other,” Victor says with a smile. “We just kind of know what’s happening with each other. We don’t have to talk; I’ll make a move and he’ll hit it right with me.” Wooten also called in a long list of notables, including Bela Fleck, Bootsy Collins, Peter Rowan, saxman Kirk Whalum, and drummer Carter Beauford (of the Dave Matthews Band) for contributions to Yin-Yang.
“That was great, having Carter around,” Wooten says. The bassist had known the drummer since their high-school years in Virginia, and he recently filmed an instructional video with Beauford.
“To get the best music, you have to let people be themselves. I had Carter in there because of how he plays,” the bassist explains. “It’s not for me to try to direct him all the time and tell him what to play. My goal was really to let him go and add his thing to it.”
The Chinese yin/yang symbol (representing the interdependence of opposites) is part of Wooten’s albums, his clothes, even his instrument:
“When I was younger and into the martial arts and things like that, I would see the symbol all the time,” Wooten remembers. “And the more I would read different things and see that symbol and find out what it meant, it just seemed really cool. It encompasses everything: It has the two opposites that make up the one thing, and the two opposites are needed to make up the thing. Even though they appear as opposites, they are really the same. It kind of means a unity or a oneness, for me.
“It really means everything — that’s what I like about it.”