This month I had the privilege of seeing the Louisville Ballet perform with my idol of the bass guitar, Victor Wooten, at the first annual "FREEFORM `99." Wooten has been rated as the #1 bassist in the world today by Bass Player magazine on more than one occasion, not to mention numerous other polls. The performance took place at the Iroquois Amphitheater. The idea for this annual event is to support the arts in Louisville by combining the visual arts and music in one event. Improvisation is a heavily used element in the show, and it really gives the performers (dancers and musicians) a chance to be creative and demonstrate their capabilities.
The morning before the show, Wooten gave a jazz master class at the University of Louisville's School of Music. He demonstrated many of his techniques of hammering, harmonics, slapping and playing his famous melodies/ basslines at the same time. The class was open to the public, and Wooten encouraged the group of eager bassists to plug in and play with him for a personal lesson. I had the honor of interviewing him following this master class. Here is what he has to say ...
LMN: "This is Louisville's first running of the FREEFORM festival; have you performed in many events such as this? Are you excited about being the prototype for this annual event?"
Victor Wooten (VW): "I am very excited about being the prototype for it, hopefully we will can start it off in a good place. I have worked with dancers, but most of the time they are street dancers that I have done a lot of work with. I haven't done much, or anything that I can remember with ballet."
LMN: "Did you find it difficult?"
VW: "Actually, I didn't. I was very happy and I think it has a lot to do with the quality of the dancers. They can feel the music, they know how to go, where I'm going, and they know how to tell me where they want to go. I think that we can follow each other very well. They are communicating through dance and I am communicating through music."
LMN: "Do you think this sort of festival is going to be the key to integrating jazz into mainstream?"
VW: "It may be one of the keys, but I hope people will realize that it's all music, the same way we are all people. There is as much similarity as there are differences, especially in music. We are all using the same twelve notes."
LMN: "You use the metaphor of it (music) being a language..."
VW: "Anything that is a way of communicating is a language. So I'm hoping that more people will get into collaborating this way. There are people doing it. Like Marcellous playing with Yo-Yo Mann, different things like that ... So people are starting to get into things like this and I'm glad of it."
LMN: "What kind of impact do you think that this type of event is going to have on the local Arts scene in general?"
VW: "I hope that it will help open up the minds of people in general, and [they will] not just resist this. A show that has a quote/ unquote `jazz bassist' or a `funk bassist' or whatever can perform with ballet, and they can improvise and make music together [that] will hopefully make people realize that they can do the same thing."
LMN: "What do you think needs to be done preserve the music education in public schools?"
VW: "I think first that we just need to keep the music in the schools, that's a start! People know that having arts in school will be helpful to them in every other area. People who learn how to improvise, who learn how to dance, who learn how to express their being, move their body... it's just going to make them into better people. They'll be more open, instead of just always having to be told how to think or told what to think. They'll learn how to use their minds. Who knows, maybe that's why they want to take it out of the schools."
LMN: "What other instruments do you play?"
VW: "Mostly stringed instruments; cello, violin, guitar. But I play drums, things like that. I don't play any wind instruments. Not yet..."
LMN: "What about your Univox? How did you get a hold of it?
VW: "That was my first bass. When I was young, my parents were just looking for something that was small enough for me to play, and they found that. It was still taller than I was when I got it!" (It is the bass he is holding on the cover of the album, What Did He Say?)
LMN: "How old is that bass?"
VW: "1969, maybe? Something like that."
LMN: "What about performing, do you prefer to play as a solo artist or with (Bela Fleck and ...) the Flecktones?
VW: "I prefer both. Both of them have their place. I prefer playing solo because I can take it exactly where I want to take it without having to worry about maybe throwing off another musician. But playing with other musicians, you are all working together, so I don't have to push as hard...They both have their place. Sometimes you like to hang out with your friends, sometimes you want to be by yourself. It would be hard to answer the question, `what do you like better?' I like them both."
LMN: "What is the craziest thing that has ever happened on the road or on-stage?"
VW: "I almost knocked myself out one time when I was swinging the bass around. I was really sweaty, so normally when I swing the bass around my neck, the strap spins around with it, but this night it was sticky and it just stuck to me and the bass wound up and choked me. The bass caught me and hit me real hard in the side of the neck, and I just blacked out on my feet. That was pretty funny. This was actually in Nashville, Tennessee in front of a home crowd, that's where I live. At this big outdoor festival, all my friends were out there and everything. But like any mistake, I just plowed through it."
LMN: "Has there ever been a monumental point in your career where you have been totally satisfied with where your talents have taken you thus far?"
VW: "I don't think there has ever been a place where I haven't been satisfied. It is because I started so young. I've been playing out in clubs since I was about five. When you are really young like that, I don't think that you have those kinds of hang-ups like we do when we are adults like `oh, I should be better' or that we are not where we are supposed to be."
LMN: "What about your Grammy?"
VW: "The Grammy is cool. I appreciate it, but my main goal is not `what do you think about what I am doing.' That's not what I really look at."
LMN: "So the public acceptance wasn't a big factor?"
VW: "It is a big factor, but it's not the main factor. It felt great to win those Grammies, it's amazing. But, more so is my own assessment of myself. How am I doing, and I am doing what it is that I want to do. I am reaching my goals, even though I still have more. I am satisfied with where I am, but that doesn't stop me from pushing further. I have always been that way."
LMN: "Do you consider yourself to be your biggest critic?"
VW: "Yes, but not overly critical. I don't beat myself up. But if I'm messing up stuff, I am the first to know. (The same goes for his good licks)... I won't change from being myself just because someone else doesn't like this part of me ... I have to produce what is honestly me. And I learned how to do that at a young age and I am trying to continue on that path."
LMN: "All right, last question: Not to make your head swell or anything, but do you know that you're the best bass player in the world?"
VW: "Um, yes, but so are you. It's like what I said earlier. I can't play the way you can, you know what I mean? I can't play exactly the way you play, I can only produce the same notes. And in my mind, everybody is the best, the best at being them. No one can play the bass the way I play it and I know that. But I also know that I can't play the bass the way anybody else can play it."
LMN: "Who are your current idols?"
VW: "Some of my same ones: (names) But there's some newer guys that I'm loving (names). There's a bunch of guys, Matthew Garrison, who's the newer guy who's coming out."
LMN: "Have you thought about doing any shows with them?"
VW: "Yeah, oh, yeah, it's going to happen."
LMN: "You don't see them as competition?"
VW: "Competition? No, no, it's like, am I afraid of you because you're a male? It's all working together. I wouldn't learn the same way if these guys weren't around. That's ego talking. Imagine if I was the only bass player on the planet. That really wouldn't be as much fun as it sounds. It's these other guys pushing the envelope, too, that makes it more fun. I wouldn't be the bass player than I am without these guys. If some guys didn't play as good as they do, I wouldn't play as good as I do. If I didn't have someone standing next to me kicking my butt some nights, I wouldn't get better as fast. I wouldn't grow as fast if you weren't around. We need that. If we can quiet the ego down and see what there is to gain from it all, then we would enjoy what we call competition. It's just a great experience and a chance to learn. So, no, I welcome the chance to play with others. That's why I like to get guys up on stage to play. Not to show them, `Hey, I'm better than you,' but because, hey, here's a chance for all of us to learn. It's great."
LMN: "Thank you very much."
VW: "Thank you."
I would to give a special thanks to Staci Roark and the Louisville Ballet for arranging this interview with Mr. Wooten for me; and of course I would like to Wooten himself for his time and courtesy.
Onto the show... An eager crowd awaited the opening of the first annual FREEFORM `99, an event organized by the Louisville Ballet. Members of the Ballet initiated the festivities with an impressive dance routine. Red and black garments donned the performers, and these colors swirled about the stage like a kaleidoscope as the dancers moved expressively to the music. Their precision was impeccable. They moved with enough grace to make a spectator think they were weightless! The performance was truly exceptional, and the crowd showed their pride to have one of the most talented companies of dancers in the nation, right here in Louisville.
A set from Victor Wooten and his band followed, and the crowd was treated to some of the best jazz/funk basslines in the land. Many of the tracks from the new double CD, Yin-Yang, were played, in addition to some tunes from his two earlier disks.
Finally, Wooten and the ballet dancers collaborated in an improvisational set of music and dance. This was the real magic. The group shattered the notion that music and dance of such varying styles cannot be combined into something very harmonious. A very big thanks goes to the Ballet dancers for their performance, along with Victor Wooten for his.
If you play bass guitar, in any genre, I suggest purchasing one of his releases. You will be truly amazed at the speed, melodies, overdubs and overall "groove" of his work. You may be thoroughly depressed for a while if you cannot duplicate some of his licks, but it is well worth the heartache!
This first running of FREEFORM was a huge success, and I would highly recommend to anyone to be in attendance next year for the event. Thanks again to the Louisville Ballet for creating this event for Louisville to enjoy.