[19 May 2008]
If Victor Wooten were a food, he would be a Cheese Ball. Not only for its literal meaning, but also because, one, he is ostensibly made of corn, yet extraordinary after consumption, two, his most prominent musical avenues, like the Cheese Ball, originated in New Orleans, and three, his music is savory and seductive, addicting because of its apparent ease, yet distinct immortality.
But Wooten’s cheesiness is predominantly individual. As a member of Béla Fleck’s panoply, the Flecktones, Wooten is an engaging and perfectly complimentary virtuoso to the banjo maestro, Jeff Coffin’s prolific saxophone, and brother Roy Wooten’s technologically innovative percussion. As a frequent guest soloist with the Dave Matthews Band and other jam band staples, Wooten is versatile and transcendent, often extending his host ensemble’s sound to a higher musical dimension. But, unfortunately, as a solo artist and lyricist, he skews towards the cliché and archaic.
For example, on his last release, Soul Circus, he sang “My name is Victa / I play like a playa play” along to the umpteenth funk track, “Victa” (yes, he coolly misspells his name for effect), and attempted to celebrate the revered bass players of the past in “Bass Tribute”, singing “Jaco Pastorius / I tip my hat to you”. It’s a sincere effort, but one that makes listeners roll their eyes nonetheless. The album cover itself, a literal reflection of Wooten’s paranormal abilities, illustrated Victor as Vishnu: an excessively-limbed, Photoshoped circus-freak playing bass.
His latest effort, Palmystery, continues the portrayal of Wooten as supernatural bass freak, as the music is a continuation his funk, jazz, and improvisational prowess. But Wooten’s youthful cheese and exuberance are earnest, and the album is a sympathetic and eclectic collection of his musical brilliance.
The opening track, “2 Timers”, recalls Wooten’s work with the Flecktones and also collaborations with drummer Carter Beauford, namely “Zenergy”, though with greater free form soloing and instrumental scope. Like much of his music, this track runs wild with time signatures, though a casual listen would miss such detail. Other tracks like “Flex” and “Song for My Father” also wreak controlled rhythmic havoc on the listener and expose the listener to Wooten’s arsenal of styles and techniques. Eventually, one must obligingly conform to believing a preternatural explanation for his playing, because his fingers move as if they were a 90-piece orchestra and Wooten their conductor.
Other tracks, like “Campo” and “I Saw God”, encompass multiethnic genres and timbres. Like a competitive race, no one genre or style is able to entirely outrun the others on the album, and so what remains is a diverse and balanced effort. The latter track finds Wooten in story-telling mode, backed by South-African polyrhythm, aiming to provoke religious conversation and re-thinking.
Wooten also shows his supreme adroitness on “The Lesson”. The track is at once ethereal and yet harmonically and rhythmically assertive, hinting at his increasingly famous solo rendition of “Amazing Grace”. On “Left, Right, & Center”, Wooten’s adventurous playing leads him to eventually double guitarist Mike Stern’s blazing solo.
Wooten’s tendency in the past has been to saturate his solo albums with tangential jazz pieces and funk tunes containing saccharine and stale lyrics. Fortunately, Palmystery, despite its contrived name, is a departure from the clichéd lyrics and grooves of albums past, and is instead a deep exploration of Wooten’s musical talent, tendencies, and tastes. We may safely say that Wooten’s musicianship and technical genius cannot go overlooked, and that they inevitably manifest into melodic, rhythmic, harmonically complex, and texturally diverse works that leave the listener transfixed, ready for more.