The prolific Victor Wooten has never been concerned with categories or genres. During his lengthy career, he's obliterated conventional wisdom about the bass guitar's role and capabilities. Wooten has excelled at expanding its role as a lead instrument without neglecting its traditional accompaniment aspects. He's equally gifted as a bandleader, songwriter, and arranger. Wooten's skills even extend into writing (2008's The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music) and technology (he co-designed and created his trademark instrument, the "Yin Yang" bass, forged from two different pieces of naturally finished wood).
Wooten is fearless as a performer, and often deliberately outrageous in terms of song choices and instrumental options. He'll play a selection from the Great American Songbook on a headless or fretless bass, then do a rock piece on an acoustic. While best known for the key role he's played alongside his brother Roy "Future Man" Wooten in shaping Béla Fleck and the Flecktones' rhythmic destiny since their beginnings in 1988, Wooten's had numerous other high points. These range from regular collaborations with his other brothers (he's the youngest of the five) to sessions with Chris Howe, and the bands Bass Extremes, Vital Tech Tones and SMV (in which he teams up with fellow bass stalwarts Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller).
With the Flecktones currently on extended hiatus, Wooten's newest venture includes co-headlining a tour with The Jimmy Herring Band and his own six-piece ensemble. Besides his customary basses and cello, Wooten's also playing guitar and even occasionally adding vocals. This week he releases two new albums via his own Vix label. Words & Tones spotlights his work with a corps of female vocalists, while Sword and Stone offers instrumental versions of several numbers from Words & Tones. On top of producing, engineering and mixing the sessions, which were mainly done at Nashville's Vix Mix Studios, Wooten reworks and changes arrangements on Sword and Stone. The album's configurations range from solo (a remarkable mélange of bass lines culled into the standout piece "Merlin") and duet (Wooten dueling with percussionist J.D. Blair on "Say Word") to the showcase finale "Keep It Low," which blends contributions from 14 bassists, plus Wooten's vocals, and a guest spot from Roy on cajón.
Unfortunately, Words & Tones isn't nearly as compelling as Sword and Stone, despite the presence of several dynamic singers. Saundra Williams, Divinity Roxx, Claudette Sierra, Me'shell Ndegeocello (also featured on bass on "Get It Right"), Cheryl Morse and Krystal Peterson have commanding voices (as does another special guest, Joey Kibble from Take 6). But their leads can't make songs like "Love Is My Favorite Word" or "I Can't Make You Love Me" anything other than nicely performed generic material that at best might get late-night airplay on an edgy urban radio station's "Quiet Storm" segment. Still, Wooten regularly injects a fiery bass solo, or some other instrumentalist (trumpeter Rod McGaha on "Get It Right," for instance) provides enough musical punch to salvage things.
While Sword and Stone proves more intriguing than its vocal counterpart, Words & Tones does have its standout moments. Saundra Williams' "Brooklyn" and Peterson's "A Woman's Strength" possess enough ardor and flash to overcome well-intentioned but disposable lyrics. But despite lyric weaknesses and a lack of thematic variety, Victor Wooten's backdrops, plus above average contributions from several exceptional musicians, make both Words & Tones and Sword and Stone good, if at times inconsistent, productions.