Studio Sessions


There was a time when jazz was thought to be the devil's music. Today, a jazz virtuoso is using the music to explore spirituality and devotion to God. His name is Victor Wooten. He's known best for his work in the Grammy Award-winning bluegrass jazz fusion band called Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. But for many, Victor Wooten himself is considered a messiah of the bass guitar.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Victor Wooten's latest solo CD is called "Palmystery." He joins me from Nashville. Welcome.

Mr. VICTOR WOOTEN (Bass Guitarist): Hey. Thank you very much.

SEABROOK: I understand you have your bass there ready to play…

Mr. WOOTEN: I do, I do.

SEABROOK: …a little bit for us.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOOTEN: That's the bass.

SEABROOK: And that was a Beatles song.

Mr. WOOTEN: Yeah, it was. I was asked - "Ms. Norwegian Wood."

SEABROOK: Yeah, I love that.

Mr. WOOTEN: It was funny, I was asked quite a few years ago to play for a John Lennon tribute show and - this was quite a few years ago - and it's like I don't know any John Lennon songs. So, the guy made me a CD of a bunch of them and I realized that I knew all of them and didn't realize John Lennon wrote them. So, I worked out an arrangement of that song.

SEABROOK: Let's talk about the title of this CD. It looks at first glance like it's called Palm Mystery. It's got a picture of your…

Mr. WOOTEN: Correct.

SEABROOK: …palm. But it's actually written palmystery.

Mr. WOOTEN: Right, right.

SEABROOK: What does that mean?

Mr. WOOTEN: That's a good question. And it's a question I don't always like to answer because then the mystery's over. It's like life is a mystery and life is also in the palm of your hand.

SEABROOK: Let's hear a track from the CD. This is "I Saw God."

(Soundbite of song, "I Saw God")

Ms. SAUNDRA WILLIAMS (Vocalist, Victor Wooten Band): (Singing) I saw God the other day.

Mr. WOOTEN: (Singing) She looked like you, he looked like me.

SEABROOK: I love that line - I saw God the other day; she looked like you, he looked like me.

Mr. WOOTEN: Thank you.

SEABROOK: The whole CD, in fact, is exploring spirituality.

Mr. WOOTEN: Yeah, it is. And it seems to me, as far as my own life goes, the message that seems clear to me is that my job - I don't even want to call it a job - my joy, I guess, is to help other people find themselves. To help -whether it's musically or through nature or whatever. And I usually use music because music's safe. You know, I could talk about, you know, God, religion, anything, but I just call it music and then we're safe. You know, no one's ready to, you know, murder me if we disagree because it's just music.

And I found that music is a great tool for finding a way to express myself and helping other people express themselves. So, right now - I'm 43 now - and this part of my life, it's not so much about playing the notes as it is helping other people find themselves and find the notes that they want to play.

SEABROOK: You're known for being this amazing technical bass player, a god among ass players. You're known for developing several new techniques of playing the bass. I wonder if you'd demonstrate a couple of those. This thing called double thumping.

Mr. WOOTEN: Yeah. This is actually something that my brother Reggie showed me when I was really young - I'm going to guess maybe seven or eight. And I was trying to learn some songs. I think at the time I was learning a Sly and the Family Stone song with Larry Graham playing the bass. And this may not, it may not make a whole lot of sense over the air, but basically I'm using my thumb. Most people play with their thumb and they're popping like…

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOOTEN: That's the normal sound, which is very, very cool. So, I learned how to do that. But when I was younger, I started learning drum solos on the bass.

SEABROOK: How do you play a drum solo on the bass?

Mr. WOOTEN: Well, that was the same question I asked and I had to figure it out. And I knew that the Larry Graham-style of, you know, hitting the bass…

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOOTEN: …what we call slapping. We used it call it thumping back then because you're just hitting it hard with your thumb - that gave me the power but it didn't give me the rapid-fire speed that a drummer had. So, Reggie showed me how to use my thumb but use it in a down and up motion the same way a guitar player uses a pick.

So, normally when I'm hitting down with my thumb…

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOOTEN: …right? In order to keep going down, my thumb has to come up.


Mr. WOOTEN: So, what I do - yeah, exactly. It makes sense. So, like a guitar pick, I use my thumb on the downward stroke and on the upward stroke. So, this downward stroke…

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOOTEN: …if I double it…

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOOTEN: Okay. So, that's no added motion but I can get twice the speed and efficiency.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOOTEN: So, basically I can double everything. Normally when I'm playing thumb stuff…

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WOOTEN: …that's normal. But I can double it by…

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: That is unbelievable. I mean, it's just amazing.

Mr. WOOTEN: A little different, you know. And it's something that, you know, I'm the youngest of five brothers - all my brothers play - and in learning from them I was just always inspired. I would think like any kid with their older brother or something you want to be like them. So, a lot of the techniques come from being a little kid trying to imitate my brothers.

SEABROOK: And then there's your trademark open hammer pluck technique. Tell me about that.

Mr. WOOTEN: Yeah. Now, that's a weird name but when people started asking me to teach it I had to call it something. And I'll try to explain this clearly. If I want to play a note - let's see this is an E on my A string…

(Soundbite of plucking)

Mr. WOOTEN: That's an E, okay.

(Soundbite of plucking)

Mr. WOOTEN: Now, what I might do is I might pluck an octave higher…

(Soundbite of plucking)

Mr. WOOTEN: …and I'll get that E, okay?

(Soundbite of plucking)


(Soundbite of plucking)

Mr. WOOTEN: …normal bass players…

(Soundbite of plucking)

Mr. WOOTEN: …or the way I would normally do it is just to thumb the E, low E…

(Soundbite of plucking)

Mr. WOOTEN: …pluck the high one. But if I want to add speed to that or add another rhythm idea to it without having to add any extra motion, instead of just hitting this E…

(Soundbite of plucking)

Mr. WOOTEN: …I'll hit the open string. Like, I won't fret the E and I'll hit the open string that the E is on, and then with my left hand fingering alone…

(Soundbite of plucking)

Mr. WOOTEN: …I hammer down on the E. So, what I'm doing is I'm hitting an open string…

(Soundbite of plucking)

Mr. WOOTEN: …I hammer the E…

(Soundbite of plucking)

Mr. WOOTEN: …and then I pluck the high E.

(Soundbite of plucking)

Mr. WOOTEN: So, instead of this…

(Soundbite of plucking)

Mr. WOOTEN: …you get…

(Soundbite of plucking)

SEABROOK: I see. So, you see…


SEABROOK: …you're hammering with your left hand.

Mr. WOOTEN: Exactly, exactly. So, when I play something like…

(Soundbite of plucking)

Mr. WOOTEN: …like the whole disco sound, with the open hammer I can speed it up.

(Soundbite of plucking)

Mr. WOOTEN: So, I can take some relatively slow concepts like…

(Soundbite of plucking)

Mr. WOOTEN: …anything like that and speed it up…

(Soundbite of plucking)

Mr. WOOTEN: …and it sounds a whole lot faster. But if you were looking at me doing it you wouldn't see any extra motion. So, it kind of appears like the notes are coming out of thin air.

SEABROOK: Let's play a track off the album. This is called "Flex."

(Soundbite of song, "Flex")

SEABROOK: At the same time you released the CD you released a book called "The Music Lesson." It's also a very deep spiritual search, and you are taking music lessons from this teacher who isn't really there or is not a real human being let's say.

Mr. WOOTEN: For many years people have been asking me to write a book about my views on music. Because I relate music to life and I relate music to language. And to me that just makes sense because music, you know, is a language to me and what do you talk about when you use a language? You talk about life.

So, a lot of musicians, we just lock ourselves in a room and practice all day. And we don't realize that we're not living a life. So, in other words, we have nothing to talk about. And our music expresses exactly that. So, in this book, "The Music Lesson," I offer a different view, a different outlook, a different method of exploring music. And instead of writing as an instructional book or an instructional manual, like I knew people were asking me to do, I did it as a story, as a fictional story.

I call it fiction so that there's no argument. I don't have to defend whether it's true or false.

SEABROOK: Through this book you write one measure at a time a song that is on the CD called "The Lesson." Would you play that for us?

Mr. WOOTEN: Sure. Yeah, I'll play a little bit of this.

(Soundbite of song, "The Lesson")

SEABROOK: Grammy Award-winning bass player Victor Wooten. His new album is called "Palmystery."

(Soundbite of song, "The Lesson")

SEABROOK: There's more of Victor Wooten, including his beautiful version of "Amazing Grace," at Look for the Music section.

(Soundbite of song, "The Lesson")

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