Palmystery by Victor Wooten – reviewed by Chris Mann




Bassist extraordinaire Victor Lemonte Wooten was already learning bass riffs from his oldest brother Regi at age 3 and at age 5 he was performing professionally with the Wooten Brothers Band. While still on the West Coast, the band opened for high-profile acts of the ‘70s like Curtis Mayfield and War. 

By the early ’80s, after the family had already settled in Newport News, Virginia, the brothers became mainstays at Busch Gardens theme park in nearby Williamsburg, making numerous connections with musicians in Nashville and New York. 

In 1988 he moved to Nashville, where he worked with singer Jonell Mosser and met banjo ace Béla Fleck. A year later, Fleck assembled Victor, his brother Roy and harmonica-playing keyboardist Howard Levy to perform with him, and the Flecktones were born. After three highly successful albums, Levy left the Flecktones in 1993, and the band’s new trio format enabled Victor to develop the skills that turned him into a bass hero of Pastorian proportions and helped earn the band their first Grammy award. 

Victor set his sights on a solo career, first forming Bass Extremes with fellow bassman Steve Bailey, and finally releasing his critically-acclaimed solo debut, “A Show of Hands”, in 1996. Soon after, Wooten took his solo show on the road with drummer J.D. Blair. 

Wooten won two Nashville Music Awards for Bassist of the Year and is the only three-time winner of Bass Player magazine’s Bass Player of the Year award. He has been the bassist of choice for Branford Marsalis, Mike Stern, Bruce Hornsby, Chick Corea, Dave Matthews, Prince, Gov’t Mule, Susan Tedeschi, Vital Tech Tones and the Jaco Pastorius Word Of Mouth Big Band. 

This, his sixth solo album is his first release for the Heads Up label.  It’s time for me to catch up with the music of a player who I’ve heard way too little of until now… 

The upbeat and brassy opener 2 Timers has shades of Yellowjackets with a touch of Weather Report’s “Sportin’ Life” in there too.  The keyboards and tongue-in-cheek reggae bounce leave a smile on your face.  Harmonica, trumpet, sax and the bass all fight it out – the result’s not as anarchic as I’ve made it sound and this is a grower…   We get our first taste of Eastern vocal stylings on the flying Cambo.  This is vocalising rather than singing, but it’s not jazzy scatting – it’s more abstract than that.  Only a rhythm section this tight could allow a keyboard solo this precise to be laid down or the deft percussion/bass question-and-answer which follows.  I find this dazzling and uplifting in equal measure. 

The joyous half-spoken I Saw God has an uplifting African feel from the bouncy rhythm and chant background vocals.  Here the musicianship, impressive though it is, takes second place to the thought-provoking lyrics.  I’ve found it impossible not to sing along with this one.  Exploring the melodic possibilities of the bass, The Lesson has a simple percussion and handclap backing.  It has some dark moments and takes on a flamenco-like intensity.  It’s really very striking. 

Left, Right & Center is a strutting jazz-rock workout with a surprising ‘live’ vibe.  Mike Stern’s trademark guitar sound is evident throughout, as is Neal Evans great Hammond B3 and some tough on-the-beat, off-the-beat drumming from no less than three drummers.  The frantic, 32nd note slap fest towards the end of the song is, let me tell you, very pleasing for a Mark King/Level 42 fan such as I.  The mood subsides in the ethereal intro to Sifu, which features a newsreel clip and what sounds like an Arabic call to prayer.  The message hits harder each time the clip is looped again.  The pleading guitar ups the tension.  The bass sound flits between a Stanley Clarke sound and a Brian Bromberg sound – which in itself is a blast but it’s the central message that stays with me. 

Miss U is a spirited gospel-tinged stomper with glorious chorus vocals and a country-rock style guitar searing over the top.  What a great live number this must be!  It has boundless energy, a strong hook and a hand-clapping good time vibe.  Fantastic!  I’m in jazz-funk heaven with Flex.  This high-speed bass workout delivers funk for funk’s sake.  Fans of Metro’s “Grapevine” CD will lap this up.  I love the Rhodes solo on here and the jangly guitar solo – which maybe shouldn’t work, but it does.  If someone were to ask “why do guys play bass like that?”, the answer would be simple: “Because they can”.  I’m breathless. 

Time for some blues.  Enjoy the B3 and the Pastorius-style fretless on The Gospel.  The layers of indistinct vocals, the muted trumpet and baritone sax conspire to produce an oppressive atmosphere.  It’s as though a high-tech band were playing a work song someplace in the deep south of the USA in the 1920’s or 1930’s.  Strangely, a thread of optimism runs through it.  In this contrast there is pure artistry.  It’s dancing shoes on and all smiles for Horace Silver’s lovely Song For My Father, with its crisp rimshots and funky bass on the verse.  Loving Karl Denson’s tenor sax solo and the way the funk line veers off into a walking jazz line then back into bass, guitar and Rhodes solos.  One thing’s for sure – you won’t sleep while this is playing. 

I love the optimism of the pretty Happy Song where the bass carries the strong melody line.  It’s accompanied by more tight drumming and some nice rhythm guitar – then it breaks out into some high-register bass soloing.  Up the top end, Wooten gets a sound that I’ve not heard anyplace else.  I love it.  The dreamy country-fied Us 2 would make a great piece of film music.  The string instruments on here almost talk, they are so expressive, and the uncluttered percussion allows those voices out.  This is very soulful, and Keb’ Mo’s guitar brings so very much to this music.  It’s a great closer and a very straightforward musical statement. 

Where do I start?  With a confession – that this is the first Victor Wooten CD I have heard.  Everything I’ve read, and certainly what I hear on this CD, makes me want to hear more.  This is music that truly takes you on a journey, and no doubt is exploring the same themes as his book “The Music Lesson” which will be published in the USA on the same day that this CD is released. 

Bass players will love this album, so will drummers, guitar players, producers and anyone who wants to hear the musical equivalent of a high-wire act.  This is dazzling.  As always, when Victor Wooten releases a new album, he will be touring extensively in 2008.  I urge you to hear this CD then try to experience this energy first-hand. 




More about Victor:


More about the album:


And the book:


Heads Up International HUCD 3135  Producer – Victor Wooten