Years ago, Grammy-winning bass player Victor Wooten performed at the Rio Theatre as a member of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. During his solo, Wooten was playing little bass runs, including snippets of “Ave Maria.” He then started plucking out “Amazing Grace” using harmonics. It was a lovely version that stilled the audience into a collective hush. Then the transformative happened: with four rhythmic thumb strikes on the same note, Wooten elevated the song to an otherworldly realm.
In the span of about three seconds, Wooten took the song from lovely to soul-stirring. My heart soared at the magnificence of the transition and tears welled up in my eyes. The moment moved me—and I’m not alone. Online videos of Wooten’s “Amazing Grace” have millions of views. In each version, he drops into the groove with those same four notes. The improvised intro changes each time, however, which is testament to Wooten’s proficiency and trust in his abilities.
“‘Amazing Grace’ has always been a beautiful song for me,” Wooten says. “I’ve heard it my whole life. I worked out the song’s arrangement, but every time I play it, it will be a little bit different.”
Wooten talks about improvisation as freedom, saying the details are not as important as the overall message.
“I won’t say I’m as free improvising as I am talking,” he says, “but that’s my approach. The goal is ‘Amazing Grace,’ but how I express it today might be slightly different than yesterday.”
The youngest of five musical boys, Wooten picked up the bass at the age of 2, and was encouraged by his brother Regi to develop his own sound. Though the boys’ parents weren’t musicians, they saw their sons’ passion for music and supported it. Their primary concern, however, wasn’t raising successful musicians, but raising good people.
“They knew if they could raise five boys that were good people, with good heads on our shoulders, who knew who we were, then whatever we chose to do would be fine,” he says. “We just happened to choose music.”
Being a good person is still Wooten’s main focus, as is “helping people find themselves” through what he does. He says the worst compliment he gets is when people say that watching him play makes them want to quit.
“It makes me happier when you tell me that what I’m doing makes you want to go and do what you want to do, and do it better,” he says. “You never hear someone who’s such a great speaker that it makes you want to quit talking.”
This perspective on music and language is a common theme for Wooten, one that’s found in his music as well as his teaching style.
“In music, we’re often taught someone else’s voice so long that we have to fight our way back into finding our own voice,” he says. “It’s not that music is difficult, it’s that traditional music curriculum pulls us into someone else’s message and we have to work ourselves back to find our own way.”
When asked where he starts with someone new to playing music, he says he doesn’t treat anyone as a beginner.
“By the time someone comes to you, they’ve been hearing music for many years,” he says. “They may be a beginner to the instrument, but not music. If you like rock music, that’s where we start. If you want to hold the instrument and pluck it with your thumb, that’s where we start. You don’t correct a baby because they’re not speaking proper English, because English is not the point yet. Communicating is the point. As long as they’re communicating, they’re right.”
A masterful musical communicator, Wooten released his 10th album, TRYPNOTYX, in September. As usual, it’s a masterpiece of technical virtuosity which, Wooten acknowledges, does take practice.
“With different types of music, like when you’re trying to get that Bach cello suite down, you’re learning someone else’s method … so more practice may have to come in,” he says. “But putting practice above playing, to me, will always be out of balance. That’s just my method. I don’t claim to be right. But when I compare it to talking, the language we’re best at, the musical process doesn’t make sense.”
Victor Wooten will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 11 at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $30/gen, $45/gold. 423-8209.