Playing life, not notes
AWARD -WINNING American bassist Victor Wooten introduced his masterclass with an improv solo performance. The rhythm of jazz and bluegrass bass filled this writer’s room for the first 20 minutes. The music fulfilled the atmosphere of a physical live performance despite watching through a laptop screen.
After his solo performance, Mr. Wooten set the instrument aside and began to liken playing music to talking freely.
“I want to be able to play music that free, whether it’s good or not, is not important. What’s important is when I play, is it me?,” Mr. Wooten said in an evening Zoom session on Feb. 20.
“[When] you pay attention to what I’m saying, you don’t really pay attention to whether my voice sounds good or not, because what I’m saying becomes more important,” he added.
For the entire hour and a half, Mr. Wooten discussed playing not only the bass, but what it means to play and share music.
Born in September 1964, Victor Wooten grew up with parents who worked in the Air Force. He was the youngest of five sons who all grew up playing music in the Wooten Brothers Band.
Mr. Wooten has been the bassist for jazz and bluegrass band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones since 1988, and a member of the band bass guitar group SMV. He has also played bass for the metal band Nitro since 2017. He is the founder of independent record label Vix Records. Mr. Wootten is a five-time Grammy award winner including Best Pop Instrumental Performance in 1996 for the song “The Sinister Minister.”
GETTING INTO THE GROOVE
As the session continued, Mr. Wooten shifted from his stool to facing the camera beside a white board. He wrote down the 10 essential elements: notes; rhythm; technique; articulation (playing the notes shorter or longer); variety of feeling, phrasing; use of tone; dynamics or energy; space; and listening.
For half an hour, he discussed the importance of all elements. He stressed that music theory focuses solely on notes, and that playing music uses all the elements.
“When you put all of this together, what you get is the groove,” he said. “You can play the right notes, but with the wrong feel, it won’t groove.”
He recalled a story by American pianist Herbie Hancock who played the wrong chord during a performance with jazz musician Miles Davis. “[Miles] Davis did not care about it. But responded to it,” Mr. Wooten said.
“Getting every piece right is not the goal. It is getting the message across,” he said. “My music is better when I make mistakes. Embrace your mistakes, maybe even celebrate your mistakes. But in every case, go with them.”
Mr. Wooten asked the class participants: What is music to you?
The participants flooded the chat box to complete the statement, “Music is —” with the words such as “life,” “language,” “expression,” and “lifesaver.”
At this point, the award-winning bassist stressed that learning and playing music is beyond getting boxed with the technicalities. He observed that no participant answered that music was about notes or any instrument.
Mr. Wooten made an analogy of how instruments and music theory are like the tools used to fix a car. The tools are available, however it “belongs in the trunk” and are applicable when needed.
“As soon as we pick up the instrument we think, ‘Music is my bass.’ No. Those are tools,” Mr. Wooten said. “We should be playing life. We should be communicating. We should be playing expression.
“Don’t mistake the tools for music. Our goal is to play music, not the tools,” he concluded.
Hosted by the US Embassy in the Philippines, the Philippine International Jazz Festival, and Crossover Online Radio, the virtual masterclass was held in celebration of Philippine National Arts Month and US Black History Month.
“When you put all of this together, what you get is the groove,” said bassist Victor Wooten. “You can play the right notes, but with the wrong feel, it won’t groove.”