Though the bass guitar is not the tool of choice for flashy musicians, the few masters of its solo performance have won great devotion from fans of the instrument. Known for his masterful slap technique and expansive musical vocabulary, Victor Wooten may be the best electric bassist since Jaco Pastorius, who redefined the instrument’s possibilities in the 1970s. His performance last Saturday for a packed house at Yoshi’s in Oakland was as funky as they come.
Wooten’s greatest claim to fame is his tenure with the band Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, led by banjoist Bela Fleck. The inventive group occupies an unfamiliar spot between rock, funk and jazz fusion. The band announced its hiatus in 2012, and Wooten has since been touring the country in a wide range of formats. His eclectic repertoire includes jazz standards, R&B classics and original compositions, some of them so spontaneous that they go without names. All of his music is delivered with a healthy dose of skillful improvisation.
Wooten is currently playing in a duet with drummer J.D. Blair, who has worked with an impressive list of country and pop musicians. Many of the songs from their set came from Wooten’s solo albums featuring Blair, such as the 1997 disc “What Did He Say.” The two are a natural fit, with Victor layering the melodies and funky basslines over J.D.’s solid rhythmic foundation. As good as they are together, the two also know how to get out of each other’s way, creating a dynamic performance that weaves between solos and group improvisation. Victor seems intent on disproving the conventional wisdom that a bassist and a drummer cannot maintain an audience’s interest for an hour and a half.
Drummer J.D. Blair’s performance was nothing if not eclectic, as he seemed content to play anything but the drumset. He nearly stole the show with a barrage of strange sounds and comical remarks. He held one drum stick up to his mouth and struck it with the other, modulating the pitch and tone by the shape of his mouth and the location of his strike. He impersonated various voices and vocalized jazz standards on odd syllables, such as the barely-discernable “Summertime” and “Take the A Train.” At one point, he proudly announced to the audience that he was picking sounds at random from his sampler, unable to recall to which ones had been programmed in years before. The audience erupted in laughter as he accidentally sampled an anonymous woman’s sassy diatribe. “Number 37!” he exclaimed with great satisfaction as a randomly-chosen electronic drum sequence matched up with Victor’s bass groove. Somehow, all of these shenanigans amounted to interesting music, or at least quality entertainment. A member of the audience even requested that he reprise sample number 37, to which Blair proudly complied.
In the end, this fooling around did nothing to distract from the obvious skill of the two musicians. When Blair decided to play his drums, he showcased great emotional range, pounding out everything from driving rock beats to nuanced brush patterns. Victor shows no signs of aging, his technique as sharp and his grooves as fresh as ever. He even showed his more sensitive side with Jaco-esque harmonics and a cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” performed with his signature looper. After all these years of performance, Victor Wooten and J.D. Blair are still a sight, or perhaps a sound, to behold.
Contact Blaine Rister at blaine ‘at’ stanford.edu.