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Bass Hit

Victor Wooten scores as a Flecktone and solo artist


Victor Wooten inhabits a lofty perch. His bass playing puts him on a level that few who have ever attempted the instrument reach. He's been compared to Jaco Pastorius, who one critic called "the Charlie Parker of the electric bass.

" But Wooten isn't comfortable being on that pedestal alone, and he has a plan to remedy the situation. "I used to deal with it by trying to step down off that pedestal," he says. "I have since changed my approach. I realized that if people have high ideals, meaning that if they could see me up that high, if they could put me up on a pedestal like that, it's good for people to be able to raise their sights that high," he explains. "So why come down, why lower my sights, why bring myself down to a lower level?"

His solution is to bring those people up on the pedestal with him. "So that they realize, wow, they can do this stuff too. I'm no different from you," he continues. "Yeah, I'm way up here, but so are you. That way, hopefully, our whole lives are raised by this experience."

Wooten has said the secret to his exceptional abilities on the bass guitar are due to the fact that he started at such an early age -- around age three to be precise -- and at such a young age he wasn't afraid to try anything. He compares learning the bass to learning to talk. The young bassist was a pro at the age of eight, playing with his brothers in The Wooten Brothers Band at Busch Gardens in his hometown of Williamsburg, VA.

The Wootens started out playing covers, but soon got to the point that major stars including Curtis Mayfield and War used them as their opening act. When the band broke up, Victor moved to Nashville.

When he wasn't performing with his brothers, the young bassist played in a country band and sometimes fooled around with the banjo, applying the techniques he utilized on bass to that instrument. A mutual friend who'd heard him play the banjo, told Wooten he sounded like avant-garde banjoist Bela Fleck -- who was also living in Nashville, and had met Wooten when he worked at Busch Gardens. The friend called Fleck, and Wooten played some of his stuff for him over the phone. Fleck liked what he heard so much that he invited the young bassist over to his house to jam. The two got along so well that Wooten was Fleck's first choice when he was putting together a band for a TV special. After the show, Fleck decided to keep the band together as the Flecktones, with Wooten's brother Roy "Future Man" on a percussive instrument of his own design and harmonica wizard Howard Levy on keyboards. Levy left the Flecktones in "92, and the band has continued as a trio.

What sets Wooten apart from most other bassists is his picking style. Using his thumb as a pick, Wooten uses a rapid up and down motion just as a guitarist would, enabling him to get sounds out of the instrument few are capable of. "I'm not sure if I came up with it or it came up with me," he laughs. Initially, he was trying to get Sly Stone bassist and Graham Central Station founder Larry Graham's signature string pulling funk bass style down. "But in order to get L.G.'s sound, my oldest brother Regi said, hey, try it this way," he recalls. "Regi was playing guitar, he used a pick down and up, so he could automatically use his thumb that way also. And in order to get this sound Regi taught me to use my thumb in a down and up manner. And that was kind of a start-up -- it opened up a whole new world for me."

Wooten gives his brothers credit for helping him develop other techniques as well. They were all innovators and experimenters who listened to a wide variety of music. "My brother Roy would be listening to Billy Cobham, and all these great drummers," he remembers. "So I would learn these drum licks, but I would learn them on the bass. A lot of times, there was no way to play these drum licks with traditional bass techniques. So I had to come up with a way to accomplish what I was trying to get at."

Though his main gig is with the Flecktones, Wooten keeps busy playing with a wide variety of players in side projects. His whole family, including his brothers and parents, played on his solo album What Did He Say (1997). Two years later, Wooten explored unusual grooves with ex-James Brown and George Clinton funkateer Bootsy Collins and Dave Matthews' astral drummer Carter Beauford on his Grammy nominated record Yin-Yang. He also appeared as part of the Jaco Pastorius Big Band on the recent Word Of Mouth Revisited tribute project. In addition to touring with his own band, Wooten's currently working on the follow-up to Yin-Yang.

Even when he's not in a studio or on stage, Wooten finds a way to incorporate music into the situation. He started his Bass Camp at Montgomery Bell State Park in Burns, Tennessee because he "was able to see how spending time with nature was making me a better person and better musician. So I started a Bass/Nature Camp so that I could share some of these ideas with others." He took classes to learn survival skills, including how to live off the land, how to track animals and how to make fire with sticks or rocks. The goal is "to just kind of give yourself over to nature and go into nature with nothing, and strive, and survive and blend with nature. In learning how to do this, a lot of what my teachers were teaching me related so much to music." Wooten's methods prove he has learned his lesson well and he understands his young audience. "We approach bass playing and music by the back door rather than the front door," the bassist says sagely.

Victor Wooten will be performing on Friday, October 3 at the Visulite Theatre. For more info, call the club at 704-358-9200.

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