The Palmystery of Life with Victor Wooten
Most people play louder to get someone’s attention, but getting quieter can stop a bull from charging. – The Music Lesson by Victor L. Wooten
Victor Wooten returns with his first solo album since 2005 on _Palmystery_a twelve-song collection which dips into various forms of spirituality while maintaining an expert grasp on songcraft and diverse instrumentation. As the reader will notice, this Jambands.com writer felt it was Wooten’s most focused album to date; specifically, because the musician seems to finally combine his philosophy, influences and collaborators into a single, refined work of arta conceptually consistent masterstroke.
Wooten’s day job as a long-time bass player with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones is currently on hiatus, but the musician is extremely busy, nonetheless. Along with the solo album, Wooten has recently published a book titled The Music Lesson, which further cements his unique “hands-off” approach to teaching that is both profound andwell, extraordinarily instructive with its explicit nod towards self-determination and hard work. Then again, some of these traits that appear so easy to attain for Wooten can be daunting to the non-musician as the man was playing bass guitar at the age of 3, having been living in a very lively household that featured four dynamic, older musician brothers. Indeed, Wooten is humble about his own prodigal skills, as well as acknowledging that true genius can be found within anyone as his spiritual quest includes a wonderfully selfless attitude towards opportunities for all, rather than just the lone individual. Case in point, the fact that numerous bassists find a home on his new album, but, let’s be clear, Wooten is the Man who is the Music and Jambands.com finds him on the road ready to talk shop.
RR: You’re in Michigan today and I know some of the tracks from Palmystery have been played live before, but how has the response been to the new songs, thus far?
VW: This is the second leg of our tour, first leg of the tour since the record came out. It has been going very, very well. So far, it’s great. People are loving it live and the reviews that we’ve been getting. There’s a lot of playing involved and different music from what we have done previously so people are digging it.
RR: And the VWB touring band has gelled well while playing this new material?
VW: Yeah, it’s exciting for us to get to play this new material because nowadays with YouTube, it’s hard to go out and practice new material on the road before the record comes outeveryone is going to have it already. We kind of had to wait to start playing a lot of this new music.
RR: It has been three years since your last record, Soul Circus. Did you want to talk about what you’ve been doing in that time span?
VW: Sure. Mostly I’ve been touring a lot with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. I’ve been doing some touring with my own band, also, and, you know, a lot of home life. I have four kids so it’s been a lot of dealing with home life and music. There’s been lots of fun stuff going on in the last three years.
RR: Speaking of the family vibe, you have a bit of that happening with the Bass Nature Reunion Camp this month. Those have been fairly successful.
VW: Right. Sure, yeahthose have been very, very successful. When we do our camps, the students that come, they are usually not allowed to come back because the waiting list to get into our camp is so large. We only take 60 people for each camp so we turn away quite a few people and we don’t allow the people that have been to camp to come back. Well, the people that attend our camp do want to come back so we started doing a thing called a Reunion Camp and that’s what we’re doing in April. This will be a camp where we do similar things but everything will be raised up a levelall the information musically and nature-wise will be raised up a levelbut it’ll be all familiar faces.
RR: And this will be the third Reunion Camp?
VW: Since 2000, yes. We do one every two-and-a-half to three years.
RR: Your 2006 book The Music Lesson had a profound impact on me.
VW: WOWI appreciate that.
RR: Well, I appreciate it, too. Your music has always had a very interesting attraction to me, but The Music Lesson is on a completely different plane. I see a lot of similarities between the book and the Bass Nature Camps. Would you like to talk about that philosophical cross-pollination between the book and the camps?
VW: Definitely. The book came from the camps because people kept asking me to write the information down that I was sharing with them in the camps and workshops. People kept asking me to put it into a book, but I knew that people wanted an instruction book, a manual and that’s not what I wanted to write. I figured out if I write it as fiction, as a story, then it’ll do the right thing. People will take it lightly. If they don’t agree, it won’t be a big deal so I decided to write the book as fiction, a fictional story which is how our ancestors used to teach all the time anywayby telling the kids stories. I took a lot of the information from what I talk about in camps and put it into the book, but then I was able to add onto that. For people who have been to camp, they will be very familiar with the information, but will also be able to grow with new information.
RR: The camp is located about 40 miles west of Nashville, right?
VW: Yeah, the new camp that my wife and I just purchasedwe’re building a campgroundis about 40 miles west of Nashville. The camp that we’ve been renting is a little bit closer and, still, west of Nashville.
RR: Great. I wanted to give our readers a bit of a geographic feel for the camp. As far as the book, I agree that The Music Lesson should be viewed as not an easy “how-to” manual, but as a story that should be allowed to sink in over time.
VW: Yeah, I agree. I just don’t want to tell anybody how to do something. If I write a manual, I feel that, I think, overall, it may be taken too strictly and the method will be attributed to me. I don’t want it attributed to me. I want people to find their own way. Like the way we teach our kids to speak English, we do it by showing them a way. We don’t sit them down and say, “Heyyou have to say this or that.” We just speak with them and let them find a way. We show them examples and we show them many different examples, and then they develop their own voice though the freedom of choice and the freedom of opportunity. Kids have an opportunity to use what they’re working on, in their own way, and that’s the thing that allows kids and adults to learn rapidly.
In music, a lot of us are looking for someone to tell us how to do it. As a teacher, we think that we’re supposed to tell people how to play and I just think we should just show them many different ways and allow our young peopleand old aliketo participate and they’ll figure it out. With a fictional book, I think they will do that. People take fiction lightly and people will view my information as just another way.
RR: One of the things I liked about the book is that there are many lessons outside of music that the reader can apply to life. Would you agree?
VW: Absolutely. Yeah. Totally because really, there is no separation. Music is like a language and if you think about speaking, what do you speak about? You talk about life. Something happens to you in life, you talk about it. In my mind, music does the same thing and I think the sooner that a musician realizes that, the faster they will grow and the faster they will understand this language and learn how to use this language that we call music. I was able to put a fewwhat I think aregood examples that people may not have looked at in this way before where I show direct correlations of how music can teach you about life and visa versa.
RR: I felt that you presented a very unique spin on the concept that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
VW: Sure, like you said, this was just one way of seeing the teacher appear of just having a guy, a quirky guy, show up and literally appear from some unknown place and start sharing this strange and different knowledge with this student. There’s a way of reading that and there’s a few hints in the book that allude to the fact that this teacher may be in the student’s mind, totally. The cool thing about this teacher is that the teacher is forcing the student to figure it out. He’s not just answering questions. He’s causing the student to think for himself. And then, one day, the teacher’s just gone and the student is left on his own. As a teacher, that’s what we want to do. We want to cause our students to think for themselves as quickly as possible. We want to wean them from the need of us as a teacher as quickly as possible. That’s what Michael [the teacher] in this story is doing by sometimes refusing to answer the student’s question and firing a question back at him.
RR: I also liked how you detailed the many ways how the music should play the musician instead of the other way around.
VW: Yeah, absolutely. Now, can you imagine that in an instruction book or a manual?
RR: (laughs) No. It would be very dry.
VW: People that disagree would like to argue about it or, maybe, disagree very defensively. In fiction, if you don’t agree, you just put it aside. No big deal. That’s what I like about fiction. I can say the same things and more but the thing is that anybody that reaches what we call The Zonewhether it’s playing music or sports, playing basketball, sewing, or whateverwhen you reach that Zone, it’s like whatever you’re doing, all of a sudden, it’s like a mutual agreement where music’s playing me as I’m playing music. And to me, that’s the magic in any relationship to where it is total equality. We don’t reach that in music. Well, we don’t usually approach it that way. I always have to decide what to play. I write the song and it’s usually not a mutual relationship so the book addresses that in a nice way.
RR: There’s a great chapter with scenes at Radnor Lake in Tennessee about the importance of listening to what is going on in your surroundings.
VW: Most people know how to hear with their ears, but I would say that not most of us really listen with our ears. There are different ways to listen and there are some listeners that are skilled at it. If someone can be a better listener than another, that means listening is a skill that can be practiced. We allow listening to happen organically, which is O.K. To learn it quicker, you might want to learn ways of practicing. Also, the book addresses listening with your whole body and that’s going to be a different concept for a lot of people. Anyone who deals in a psychic world or what might be called a spiritual world would know exactly what I am talking about. To put into less spiritual terms and more tangible terms, you have to pay attention to how a song affects your whole body, not just your ears. A lot of the times, a person who knows nothing about music can do this better than musicians because we study our whole lives to learn how to understand a song intellectually, or academically. A person who doesn’t know anything, allows the music to enter into them to make them dance, make them cry, make them shiver or whatever. Once you learn to listen with your body that way and with your emotions, you’ll remember songs after hearing them once. That will definitely affect the way you are going to play and the way you’re playing affects the listener. That’s why that listening chapter had nothing to do with the instruments at all. Listener in life is so important in any relationship whether you’re married, you have kids or your bosswe always want to do the talking but it’s listening that’s really important.
RR: In the Rhythm/Tempo chapter, there’s a passage which discusses the need for a bass player, specifically, to properly hear a drummer and focus upon what he is playing instead of what the bassist is laying down.
VW: Yeah, the thing is, that with music, I’ve been doing this at camps and workshops all the time and I’ve found a way of getting musicians to play better when they stop thinking about what they are doing. You have to let what you’re doing go a little bit but you can listen out to the rest of the music, the rest of the musicians and then, unconsciously, you’ll fit in better and play what’s needed. In the same way, you’ll talk better if you’re listening to whatever everybody else is playing. You’ll talk less and what you’ll say will perfectly fit the situation. Most of us musicians are listening to ourselves so much that we’re not playing what the music is asking us.
RR: At the end, it is not so much about how you have accomplished this education for yourself and your listening skills but how important it is to teach others what you have learned based upon your own life experiences.
VW: Well, you knowI think it’s important but I don’t think it’s important to the point that I need to make a point to sit someone down and tell them. The thing is that the better you become naturally, the better everyone else is going to become. It’s not that you’re going to become a teacher in the general sense of what we think of as a teacher. It’s just that you want to become as best as you can be and by example and by osmosis, everyone else is going to grow, also. To me, that’s the only obligation that we haveto become as best as we can be. Not everybody is cut out to be a teacher in that sense but become the best you can belisten to music, allow her to speak back to you and learn how to listen as best as possible. To me, I could say that that is your obligation.
RR: Hopefully, one is left with the beautiful phrase in the book: “Boy, do I have a lot to learn!”
VW: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a never-ending process. You’ll always not know more than you do know. That doesn’t mean you don’t know much. You always pay attention to what you do know and be satisfied and be happy with that, but with a drive to move forward and learn more. That’s what is going to help the next generation, and the current generationthe more you know, the more everyone else has a chance to know.
RR: Absolutely. It also provided additional depth, for me, to listen to Palmystery after reading the book. The story’s different layers fed into the album quite well.
VW: Once you get an idea into my way of thinking about music, it is going to allow you to hear and understand my music even better.
RR: Let’s start at the top. I really like the title of your new album. What is the meaning of the word Palmystery?
VW: Thank you. It is almost like if someone asked me: “What’s the name of that tree?” It’s rare that I’m going to say, “Oh, that’s a sycamore,” because then, the story’s over. It is the same with people asking me about this title. I could give you an answer, but it won’t be complete. The main answer is that it’s a mystery. The hint I give isit is whatever you want it to mean but it’s a mystery and, like life, it’s in the palm of your hand. Life is a mystery, but the answers are always in the palm of your hand, always closer than you think. Of course, it is a play on the word palmystery. because you can tell a lot by reading people’s palms, but this is not palm mystery, it is palmystery.
RR: Well, I was holding your book in my palms and my four-year old son said, “That’s a book about music!” I said, “Yeah, you’re right; it’s about a lot more, but I’m glad you got that.” I think he’s already figured out the concept of musical notes because we have sheets of music in my wife’s piano bench and they are no longer just crows sitting on a telephone wire to himthey’re musical notes.
VW: That’s great. That’s great. Wonderful.
RR: Your last album, Soul Circus had a vast array of guest collaborators. However, not to take anything away from that work, but Palmystery has a more focused, contained body of conceptual work with a core group of players despite having its own fair share of collaboration. Would you agree that there is a conceptual focus?
VW: Well, I guess there is. I definitely had an idea of making this record a more instrumental jazzier record with not as many vocals. Most of the record is the core band that I am touring with, but I’d have to go back and look at the past records to see if it’s any more focusedespecially band-wise. I’m not sure that it is, you know, but if people hear that, I’m totally fine with that. Whatever people want to get out of the record is cool. The thing is that I don’t want to tell people what it is. That’s the cool thing. I made the record. I satisfied myself, and then, I put it into the listener’s hands. However you want to see it.
I’ve been getting talk and reviews about the song “I Saw God” on both sides of the fence, and to me, that’s great, that’s exactly what I want. “I Saw God” is going to make you question something. It’s either going to make you feel a little weird inside or that’s going to make you question yourselfconsciously or unconsciouslyand that’s why I do these songs. I could do some straight ahead easy songs with easy lyrics but I want people to question. It is time to question our existence, our beliefs, our religion, our musicality, and, so that’s why, I write the songs the way that I do. Also, just so you knowfor the record and the bookin the book there’s a measure of music written at the beginning of each chapter. When you read that book and take all of those measures and put them together, you get the song that’s on Palmystery called “The Lesson.”
RR: Yes. I was going to ask you about that so I’m glad you brought that up. I thought that if I brought that upI subscribe to the conceptual continuity ideas of certain artistsyou’d reply, “No. No. Where the heck did you get that idea?”
VW: (laughter) It’s that song. Thank you.
RR: There’s a very cool Spanish salsa feel to the track.
VW: Exactly. Exactly. Definitely. You can hear the Spanish flamenco, as well.
RR: Let’s dig deeper into the collaboration on Palmystery. I’m going to throw some names out so you can make a comment about each musician. Is that alright?
RR: I have a different favorite track based upon my mood or the time of day.
VW: Yeah. Good. Good.
RR: Currently, I love the interplay between the musicians on “Left, Right, & Center,” specifically the guitar work from Mike Stern.
VW: Incredible. Yeah. Mike, when I threw that song at him and said, “I need a guitar solo,” just played a guitar solo one time through and that’s what you hear. Incredible. As I was mixing and working with the song, I was thinking, “Manhis solo is so amazing.” I got my bass out and I started learning it and in playing in unison with him, I realized that this sounds good. I had never heard this before, so I basically doubled his whole solo with the bass. I learned it and doubled the whole solo and that’s what you are hearing in the middle. I’ve got a lot of credit for it but I had to learn how to play that way. (laughter) That’s just the way Mike played it. It’s pretty amazing. It was a fun, fun thing.
RR: How about Keb Mo on slide guitar on “Us 2?”
VW: Well, a lot of times I’m attempting something by playing slide on the bass. I’m not a slide player but I love to hear people use a slide so I wanted to do it. I like to bring in some authenticity. For one, it pushes me to sound as good as they do. Also, it brings some authenticity to that track. Keb is just an amazing bluesman and he’s great with the slide so I brought him in, and I also like his touch on the slide. This is a song where you needed to have a gentle touch and he just provided everything that the song needed, as well as Richard Bona [vocals, percussion] on “I Saw God.” Here I am attempting to play this African-style music and I’m not really from Africa so I may be speaking this music with an accent. Bringing someone from that culture in, for me, just solidifies it.
RR: You also played some slide bass on “Miss U,” a track featuring The Lee Boys.
VW: The Lee Boysyeah, yeah, that was the same situation. They have a steel guitar player that plays slide.
RR: The DoctorRoosevelt Collier.
VW: Yeah, Roosevelt. Man, that band is on fire. They were the inspiration for that song. I heard them during a performance, and while I was listening to their performance, I wrote that song in my head, so it was fitting to bring them into the studio and have them perform it. It was another chance for me to get to play slide. I had a perfect example sitting right there showing me how to do it.
RR: You displayed some other textures on tenor bass on “Flex” with Anthony “Flex” Wellington on bass, specifically his thumb solo.
VW: Yeah. Yeah. “Flex”exactly. That was a song we were playing live, so it was fitting to go into the studio and perform it the way that we had done live a few times with Anthony on bass and Regi and Denrio [Watson, on drums and Amir Ali on violin]. [Author’s Note: Regi Wooten, one of Victor’s four older brothers, plays on a track that also features Joseph Wooten on keyboards. See page 16 of Site Editor Dean Budnick’s Jambands for further detail about the Wooten musical family heritage].
RR: Anthony also plays a low bass on “Cambo,” as well.
VW: There’s at least five different bass players on the CD that are playing bassmy brother, Reggie, John Billings on “Happy Song,” “Lil’ Al” [Alvin Cordy] is on “Miss U,” Anthony is on a couple of tunes, and Steve Bailey is on “Song For My Father.” There are four tracks where I am not even playing the bass line. It is someone else. I like that.
RR: And some support from the Wooten and Woodard families on “The Gospel.”
VW: Exactly. My mom’s maiden name is Woodard. When they go to church in the old Southern Baptist church, the way they sing, man, it’s a different thing. It’s almost a lost art, so I wanted to get that on that song. I was able to preserve something that is really amazing. One of my uncles that was doing the lead singing in some of that has since passed away, so I’m really happy to have gotten that on a recording and been allowed to use it. I appreciate my relatives for allowing me to use that recording.
RR: Doug Woodard, right?
VW: Yes, actually Douglas Woodardmy mom’s baby brother.
RR: I hear a lot of that family feeling throughout the record. I’d also like to mention one of your long-time collaborators, Jeff Coffin on tenor and baritone saxophones.
VW: Oh, yes. Uh huh. Jeff is just one of those amazing musicians. He plays all these different wind instruments, including clarinet and flute, so he’s always one of the first calls that I’ll have. When I need an alto sax, sometimes I’ll call my brother Rudy. When I need a bigger tenor or a bari, Jeff’s the man.
RR: Bela Fleck and the Flecktones is currently on hiatus, so what are your plans for the next year?
VW: It’ll allow my own band to do a little bit more touring. Also, at the end of this year in August, September and October, I’ll be touring with Stanley Clarke and Marcus Millera big trio of bassists, Thunder Tour, it is called. I’m looking forward to that this fall. We’ll see how it goes. Hopefully, that will spill in ’09. I’m also planning a reunion with drummer JD Blair. We’re planning on doing a duo tour, just bass n’ drums, the way we started when I first went on tour with my record A Show of Hands. We’re planning on bringing that back out in the middle of ’09. The other thing, too, is that I’ll be doing more camps. I do these camps twice a year, but we are planning on upping that to maybe, four times a year. My wife and I just purchased nearly 150 acres and we are building our own camp, now, so we can have it setup the way we want it and do our camps and other types of camps, also. Your readers can go to www.victorwooten.com, and there’s a section for Wooten Woods where they can find out more about the campground that we are setting up. If they want to make contributions, donations, or suggestions, they can do that there.
RR: Extrapolating a concept from your book, when the musician is ready, does the proper instrument appear for the student of music? How does a beginning player, much like someone attending one of your camps, select the right instrument?
VW: I say don’t worry about it because the bass isn’t going to make any music, anyway. You’ve got to make the music. I hope that the beginning student has a horrible bass, because then, he’s going to have to be better himself, instead of relying on an instrument that is easy to play and tailor-made for him. That little bit of struggle, if you persevere through it, you’ll learn 10 times as much as someone who has it laid out for him. Whatever bass you have, learn to play music; don’t learn to play bass, learn to play music. By the time you get a good instrument, you’ll realize how good you already are. Play whatever instrument you have. If life wants to throw another instrument at you, life will do that.
RR: You just reminded me of another favorite passage of mine in The Music Lesson. The musician is blindfolded and pulling out random CDs off his shelf. I won’t mention one particular CD that was pulled outyou know what I’m sayin’
VW: (laughter) Oh, yeah.
RR: but one of the CDs was a Return to Forever selection. They just announced a reunion tour and I wanted to hear your opinion about that bit of good news.
VW: I am so excited about that. I think every jazz musician wants to see that. I will be at as many of those gigs as I can. I’m happy about that.
RR: And people should be getting out to see you, too.
VW: If they can, we’d appreciate it. Hopefully, we’ll see you, too, somewhere out there.
_- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com