Victor Wooten on Woodsongs: An Illuminating Session for Musicians

Hey friends! Today I wanted to talk about an event that I attended back in October 2021 in Lexington, KY, that has stayed with me ever since. It was a combination lecture/performance by Victor Wooten, one of the greatest bass players alive, in my opinion. While I was expecting - and certainly was not disappointed - by the musical offerings, the event turned out to be so much more than I'd hoped for, and it gave me a lot of food for thought.

Victor Wooten's appearance on an episode of Woodsongs: Old Time Radio Hour was a multifaceted event that served as a PR opportunity for his book, "The Spirit of Music: The Lesson Continues," a showcase of his musical prowess, and a career advice session for aspiring musicians. The 50-minute talk, hosted by Michael Jonathan, was densely packed with insights and performances that left a lasting impression on the audience.

Music is Diseased

The central theme of Wooten's discussion was his assertion that "music is diseased." He elaborated on this by highlighting how modern music consumption, primarily through highly compressed mp3 files, fails to deliver the full spectrum of sound and nuance that live performances offer. Wooten argued that this reduction in "vibrations" is further exacerbated by the isolating nature of modern music delivery platforms, such as headphones, which deprive listeners of the communal joy of experiencing music together.

Wooten was particularly critical of music streaming services and music TV platforms. He described streaming services as exploitative, forcing musicians to adapt to unhealthy production and listening norms. Music TV platforms, he lamented, prioritize reality TV programming and advertisements over actual music, recycling a limited selection of top-requested videos. This, he argued, contributes to the impoverishment of the "front porch" music culture, where people once gathered to share and enjoy music communally.

In addition to these primary culprits, Wooten pointed to the degradation of musical education and the unintended consequences of equal opportunity in the digital age. He praised 15-year-old Morgan Gantz, who performed alongside him, for the depth of her music, which he attributed to her family's influence. However, he noted that most children lack such opportunities at home or in school, leading to a generation of musically "malnourished" individuals. Those who do teach themselves often rely on YouTube, which further isolates them.

Wooten also criticized the lowered production costs and the equal opportunity provided by social media, which he believes have led to a focus on marketability over musical talent. In the past, musicians had to be "good" to get a chance to record or be heard on the radio. Today, he argued, they only need to be "marketable," resulting in a glut of music that is less nourishing to the body and soul, akin to GMO food.

Despite these challenges, Wooten offered hope and practical advice for musicians. He emphasized the importance of living full lives, filled with joys and sorrows, to have something meaningful to express through music. He also stressed the need for musicians to communicate these truths to one another, rather than performing in isolation. According to Wooten, communal playing can teach valuable lessons about respect for diversity, togetherness despite differences, and deep empathy.

Amazing Music

The show also featured some excellent music. Michael Jonathan, along with flautists Sharon and Dana, opened the evening with a socially conscious country ballad, "Looking for Love in the World." The song, performed at a medium tempo 4/4, followed a traditional verse-chorus structure, with the flutes providing contrapuntal action in the instrumental bridge.

Wooten performed three pieces: an instrumental rendition of "Amazing Grace," the Flecktones song "Sex In a Park," and "I Saw God." His solo bass rendition of "Amazing Grace" retained the emotionality of the melody while incorporating jazz reharmonizations and tapped harmonics, creating an ethereal tone. "Sex In a Park" featured a metrically modulated B section and showcased Wooten's gospel chops and hip-hop influences. Morgan Gantz joined him on electric guitar, and Wooten's singing had a modern soul touch reminiscent of 90s music.

"I Saw God" was a tour de force, with florid melodic play on the bass, broken chords, and contrapuntal joyrides over an upbeat triple meter beat. Wooten utilized a loop station to record sections and improvise over them, inviting the audience to participate through prescribed lines. His performance was reminiscent of Sting's "Moon Over Bourbon Street," blending speak-singing with full-throated RnB style.

Morgan Gantz also impressed the audience with her cover of Ray Charles' "I Don't Need No Doctor" and an original tune. Her strong shuffle beat, hand-picked chords, and fast riffs were reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix, while her singing style was modern, with a touch of Billie Eilish. Despite her youthful voice, she delivered both pieces with remarkable soul, earning rapturous applause from the audience.

Appalachian? Not Really

I had certainly expected the event to be more in the Appalachian vein, given the location, but I walked away feeling transcendent. While the musical elements presented on this episode did not align with traditional definitions of Appalachian music. the storytelling and communal wisdom embodied in the event were very much in the folk tradition. Such events are essential for inspiring and informing musicians about the state of the industry, providing both guidance and a sense of community.

Victor Wooten's appearance on Woodsongs was a powerful reminder of the challenges and opportunities facing musicians today. His insights into the "disease" afflicting music, coupled with his practical advice and inspiring performances, made for an unforgettable evening that resonated deeply with the audience. As Wooten emphasized, the key to preserving music's essential spirituality lies in living full lives, sharing meaningful experiences, and playing together as a community. What do you think? Is music suffering from a terminal disease, or do you see light at the end of the tunnel? Let me know in the comments below!

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