Acclaimed bassist Victor Wooten performs with BSO
Iconic bassist Victor Wooten performs with the Boston Symphony Orchestra this weekend. Wooten spoke with GBH All things Considered host Arun Rath. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: Sometimes the word virtuoso doesn’t go far enough. Victor Wootton’s relationship with bass runs much deeper. It is safe to say that he is one of a handful of modern performers who have extended the range of the instrument itself. He can play a wide range of bass in a wide variety of styles, besides being a revolutionary performer and composer. He is also a naturalist, author and magician. And now he’s doing something new, performing a concerto for bass and orchestra of his own composition and creating the work with the BSO. I am very happy to welcome the incomparable Victor Wooten. Victor, thank you for taking the time for us.
Victor Wooten: I am honored to be here with you, Arun.
Rath: I am very excited to speak with you – big, big fan. Let’s get right to the point and talk about this concerto. First, you will say the French better than me. Tell us the name and what inspired it.
Wooten: I can barely say the name. This is “La LecciÃ³n Tres” – the third lesson. Many years ago I wrote a song called The Lesson based on a book I released the same day called The music lesson. But I wrote a song to go with the book, and now it’s like the third version of that song. It was originally a solo bass song, no other instruments. But now we have almost every possible instrument with the best musicians playing them. So I’m really excited to play the third version, “La LecciÃ³n Tres”.
Rath: For people who don’t know The music lesson, your book was an independent thing that you published yourself and kind of took off, right? I mean, I feel like musicians everything I would know about this book.
Wooten: You are right, and I was surprised that you knew that. I first released it myself, but then a guitarist who worked for a big company, Penguin Books, saw it and said, ‘wow, did you release it yourself? Our company must shut it down. So I took it, and it came out a year and a half or two years after it came out, with a bigger company. And now it’s a bit surprising. It’s not even surprising, Arun. It’s totally surprising how many people have turned to this book, as well as colleges and universities and places like this.
Rath: It’s awesome. And that’s number three, so are there two more bass concertos?
Wooten: No, but there are two other versions of this song, “The Lesson”. So I first put it on one of my records called Palm Mystery, which had the solo version of that song, the first version of “The Lesson”. And then after the book came out, I pulled out an audio version of the book, for you to enjoy. But I marked the book with music, like a movie. And on that version of the audiobook, at the very end, there was the second version of “The Lesson”, where my good friend Bela Fleck was playing the banjo, Howard Levy on the harmonica, there was a keyboardist. And so it was kind of like a jazz band or a more modern band. In my head, it was the second version of “The Lesson”, and now this one with the Boston Symphony is the third version.
Rath: I have heard concertos for other electric or amplified instruments, but are there other concertos for bass? How do you start?
Wooten: It’s a good question. How do you start? This is probably the hardest part. Luckily I had what is called MIDI, which are basically bogus instruments that a computer will play. Nothing can replace a real instrument, a real violin or a real oboe or cello. But MIDI instruments at least allow you to hear an idea right away. So I started with the song “The Lesson”, and I just put that melody into a MIDI instrument, and then I let the music talk to me and kind of tell me where it wanted to go.
Rath: People may be more familiar with your work with the Flecktones and then with your own band as well. But classical music isn’t new to you either. Tell us where you see this piece falling into the tradition?
Wooten: Well, there are styles of music the same way there are races of people or different types of food. But we are really talking about the same thing. Music is made up of the same notes, different instruments, and the instrument is just a way of expressing oneself. When it comes to music, I express myself best with an electric bass guitar. The instrument is played by the musician. So if the musician likes jazz, classical, or polka, you should be able to play it with your instrument in the same way that you should be able to sing it with your voice. You know, for me, I used to listen to classical music when I was a kid. First, it was only the Looney Tunes cartoons, Bugs Bunny, that got me to join the orchestra in sixth grade, and I started playing the cello. So I never really strayed from the classic. But it’s over the last few years that I’ve really had the opportunity to peek inside and step in the door, playing with real symphonies, not just symphonies from the high school or college. This is the real thing. So I’m honored to be here, but still feel a bit like a stranger. So I get nervous, which is funny.
Rath: It’s interesting. Classical music in America doesn’t necessarily reflect America’s diversity, but looking at this bill we have our own world-class Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by Thomas Wilkins. He is an African-American conductor, who performs music by you, Duke Ellington, and one of my favorite English composers, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, who despite this very English name was an Englishman from African origin. And the virtuoso solo is you. I mean, as a person of color saying that, I’m super excited. But I’m just wondering, as an African American in particular, what are your feelings about all of this?
Wooten: I feel good. There are always mixed feelings. For me the fact that we have to talk – and don’t get me wrong I’m so happy to talk about the fact that I’m an African American, the conductor, Maestro Wilkins, my friend, is an African-American – but it’s sad to me that 400 years later we still have to talk about it, we’re not just Americans. Because diversity has existed in America from the beginning before we were a country. But the same way we say, we haven’t celebrated our diversity, our country hasn’t fully celebrated our diversity as it should. So I’m happy to play a role, even a small one, which will hopefully turn into a bigger victory for our country.
Because an orchestra is made up of different instruments, and we know that the orchestra is better because the instruments are different, right? If you showed up and there were 100 flautists on stage and nothing else, you might be disappointed. It might sound good, and probably, but we know it’s better because of the diversity of the orchestra. I believe our country is the same when we celebrate the fact that we are different, which makes us the same. So I’m happy to be a part of it, and hopefully we’ll get to where it’s just what it is, not something that we have to talk about as something different.
Rath: Well, we’re so glad to have you here, and have you make this music here. Victor Wooten, it was great talking to you. I have to say as a fan dating back to the 80s let me also thank you for all the great art.
Wooten: Wow. Looks like you know a lot about music. What instrument do you play?
Rath: Oh, I’m an old trumpeter.
Wooten: Let’s go. I knew it was in there. I can hear it in your voice. Arun, thank you very much for inviting me to your show.
Rath: This is Victor Wooten, composer, bassist, general Renaissance Man. He will perform his concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra this weekend.