Roy Wooten: drummer of invention
January 31, 2007
Probing the expansive mind of Roy Wooten, pairs of conceptual extremes tend to dominate the conversation: Male and female. J.S. Bach and James Brown. Mathematics and art. Past and future.The opposites that occupy the prime real estate in Wooten’s head, and that have been there for better than 20 years, are drums and piano. The two dwell at different ends of the musical spectrum; drums – at least the drum kit typical in American music – is the ultimate rhythm machine, while piano is the melody-maker nonpareil.Wooten has been hitting the drums since he was a kid playing in the Wooten Brothers band, which featured Roy and four of his siblings. And his most prominent role remains as something of a timekeeper. In the much-awarded jazz fusion combo Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, Wooten – who uses the stage name “Future Man” in the group – plays the synthax drumitar, an electronic percussion device of his own invention. From the time he was playing in the Wooten Brothers – a group whose repertoire spanned from James Brown to Dave Brubeck to Creedence Clearwater Revival – a main interest of Wooten’s has been to keep the dance-floor moving. Which means rhythm. Which means drums.But the 49-year-old Wooten has long been interested in melody and harmony, components of music not generally associated much with the drums. His primary influences include Tony Williams and Elvin Jones – drummers, respectively, from the best-known combos of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Wooten’s idols, however, come from the classical music realm as well. On the Flecktones recent tour of Europe, the band visited the Budapest home of composer Béla Bartók (for whom Fleck was named); Wooten called it “the highlight of the trip, seeing what he was working on, the folk music he was working with.” When I spoke with Wooten by phone, he was just getting out of a composition class that he often attends with other musicians and composers in Nashville, where he lives. That morning’s session had focused on Debussy. Some years ago, Wooten heard a Miles Davis observation, that rhythm could give rise to melody. He has subscribed to the notion since.
Wooten’s latest, lesser-known invention is a unique combination of beat and pitch. The RoyEl – named for Wooten himself, whose full given name is Royel Wilfred Wooten, though he usually goes by “Futch” – is a keyboardlike instrument that begins with rhythmic ideas, and turns out melodic passages. Among the features of the RoyEl – which Wooten still refers to as a “wild, ambitious experiment” – is that the keys can differentiate between soft, medium, hard and very hard strokes. Each triggers a different pitch.”It’s a whole new way of discovering rhythm,” said Wooten, who utilized science (the periodic table of the elements) and mathematics (the golden ratio) in devising the RoyEl. “I can hear the notes of the rhythm coming out of the dynamics. With this system I can pull out the melody, or the melody will reveal itself.”It was this Miles Davis concept of fleshing out the melody by listening to the rhythm. It leads to a different kind of polyphony.”Wooten uses the RoyEl sparingly in the Flecktones, a quartet that features his brother, Victor Lemont Wooten, on bass, saxophonist Jeff Coffin and Fleck on banjo. The instrument is vital, however, to Wooten’s current side project, the Black Mozart project. The work is inspired by Joseph Boulogne de Saint-George, a mixed-race, 18th-century composer and director of the Paris Olympique Orchestra. Wooten has assembled an ensemble of young artists – violinists, rappers and others – to play Saint-George’s music and his own compositions, including a double string quartet. Wooten sees the project as a combination of the past, present and future of classical and jazz.”I’m looking at the classical world,” said Wooten, who said the first music in the project may be available on the Internet as soon as this month. “But also picking players from the jazz world so by the time it’s an orchestra, it’s really a cast of characters. Like Duke Ellington, where the players weren’t faceless.”I’m looking to the past for this innovation.”
When Wooten began inventing musical instruments, he wasn’t looking for ways to integrate rhythm and melody, or connect to Bach and Stravinsky. He just wanted to make some noise.Wooten recalls that when his family went to the drive-in diner, the big thing for the five boys was to go for the straws at the snack bar. Biting into the straw, they discovered, would make a crude reed instrument; back home, they could punch a few holes in it and thus vary the notes that could be played.From those raw beginnings came the Wooten Brothers, which began playing clubs in Hawaii. Fortuitously, the three older sons were all drawn to different instruments: Regi to guitar, Rudy to horns, and Roy to drums. “Just one of those cosmic scenarios, where we all had what we liked, and it just fit together,” said Wooten, who began playing in his early teens in clubs in Hawaii, where his late military father, Elijah “Pete” Wooten was stationed at the time. The younger brothers had their instruments dictated by the oldest, Regi, in accordance with the needs of the band. Joseph got keyboards and Victor the bass. But even in those assignments, Wooten sees something cosmic.”With Victor, we needed a bassist – but he did have bass guitar hands. He looks like a bassist,” he said.In 1985, Wooten took apart an electronic Simmons drum and saw the little “piezo” pad, which picked up the beating. What attracted Wooten was not the high technology, but something almost opposite: the idea of truly using his fingers to play.”It was so sensitive I could approach it just with the flesh of my fingers. Just touch it.” he said. “I could use my individual fingers as drumsticks. It would be like hand-drumming, but in a modern sense.”I could play a masculine instrument, but in both a masculine and feminine way, exploring the sensitivity of the hand. And when I went to melody and harmony, I’d have that in my hands. I was seeing the relationship between the drum and the piano.”Wooten was most reluctant to talk about the instrument back then, partly out of fear that people wouldn’t understand it. But a musician friend saw a videotape Wooten had made for himself and forced Wooten to bring his synthax drumitar into the light. “He said, ‘I’ve gotta have that; I’ve gotta play with that.’ He wanted it in his band,” said Wooten. “I couldn’t keep it behind closed doors. But it was still unfinished, wires sticking out. But I could move the dance floor. It had a Hendrix appeal to it, a whole different realm for drums.”
In the late ’80s, Béla Fleck wasn’t exactly in search of the next Hendrix. But he did want musicians who were thinking well outside the box for a one-time gig for the PBS series “Lonesome Pine Specials.” Fleck, who had already helped bring the banjo to a new level in such newgrass bands as New Grass Revival and Strength in Numbers, wanted to form a banjo-led fusion combo for the date. He rounded up Vic Wooten, a preternaturally dexterous bassist who was hired after Fleck auditioned him over the phone, and pianist/harmonica player Howard Levy. The three set out to find a drummer.”Vic would say, ‘That sounds good … but you should hear what my brother is doing,'” said Wooten. Fleck called Roy, but an over-the-phone explanation did not suffice. “So I sent him my videotape. And he still didn’t understand it.”Finally, after the two had a conversation that revealed their shared love for off-kilter time signatures in seven, Fleck convinced Wooten to fly to Louisville, Ky., for a jam session. The jam lasted for hours and convinced all parties that it was something worth pursuing. Béla Fleck & the Flecktones appeared on “Lonesome Pine Specials” and, with the exception of a yearlong hiatus in 2005, have not stopped. The Flecktones – which seamlessly went from a quartet to a trio, after Levy dropped out in the early ’90s, to the current foursome with saxophonist Coffin – have won Grammy Awards for best pop instrumental, best contemporary jazz album and for instrumental composition. They have been fantastically ambitious both as a touring act, and as recording artists; among their 11 albums is 2000’s “Outbound,” featuring guest singers (Shawn Colvin, Yes’ Jon Anderson and others), and 2003’s “Little Worlds,” a three-disc studio set whose guest list sprawls from the best of the jazz world (Branford Marsalis) and the cream of bluegrass (Jerry Douglas, Chris Thile) to tabla players and Irish pipers.Even without adding sounds from India, Ireland and the Caribbean, the Flecktones sport the oddest instrumental lineup. Banjo and saxophone haven’t been natural partners since the swing era; Victor Wooten plays as if he had reinvented the electric bass. Future Man’s drumitar is in a universe of its own. But the group’s track record has dissolved concerns that the Flecktones are simply a novelty.”The millennium was coming up, and we were looking at using the instruments in a new way, how they fit in the times of now,” said Wooten. But Wooten also sees meaningful links to the past. “In Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives, the first thing you see is the banjo. It was the guitar of that era. So I was already hip to the idea of maybe this would bring the banjo all the way around, full circle, back to where Louis Armstrong left it.”As for his own instrument, Wooten says such esteemed drummers as Billy Cobham and Max Roach have offered praise. “If those guys recognize it, I let that legacy speak for itself,” he said. “To me, the legacy is more important than the debate.”The drumitar Wooten plays now is the third one he made. He doesn’t particularly care to be an inventor; he’d rather be a musician and composer. But the sounds he is hearing, the framework he uses for thinking musically, require devices that just don’t exist. Where the drumitar brought him into the future, the RoyEl is intended to complete the journey to the essence of music.”It’s like I’m coming from the outer orbit into the inner Earth,” he said of his latest creation. “And the fundamental thing is the piano. “It’s like George Lucas going backward with his movies.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org