Victor Wooten & Steve Bailey: Older, Wiser, Bigger, Badder

Bass Extremes Returns with S’Low Down

Victor Wooten & Steve Bailey: Older, Wiser, Bigger, Badder

Bass Extremes Returns with S’Low Down

“I have to follow that?!” an incredulous Steve Bailey asked into his mic, as waves of audience laughter rolled across the cavernous Sony Hall in midtown Manhattan. This was Bailey’s response to Victor Wooten’s solo, in which he plucked, slapped, and tapped a dizzying cascade of polyrhythms and deep-from-the-soul melodies while also sending his bass over his shoulder and back around, and then tossing it up in the air and spinning himself 360 degrees before the instrument settled back down. Bailey, of course, rose to the challenge on his 6-string fretless fingerboard, issuing a polyphony of melodies, slides, harmonics, and chords that sounded like an orchestra with the bass section jamming. In other words, it was just another night at a Bass Extremes show; a blend of mind-bending musicianship and sharp-tounged humor—on this August Saturday rounded out by the combustible Derrico Watson on drums.

The most extreme show in bass is back as Wooten and Bailey have released S’Low Down [Vix Records, 2022]. It’s the duo’s first BE recording in 20 years and one that marks their 30th Anniversary with new perspectives and new guests. The latter include Bootsy Collins, Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, John Patitucci, Oteil Burbridge, Billy Sheehan, Joe Dart, Edgar Meyer, Susan Hagen, Linda May Han Oh, Mike Pope, Whit Browne, and Tool’s Justin Chancellor, with drummer Greg Bissonette playing a vital role in the support and creation of the music. Well before their current string of tours we had a chance to Zoom with Bailey and Wooten to get a peak behind the curtain of their landmark ten-track effort, and then reconnect after their Gotham show.

How did the project come together?

SB: We’d been talking about it for awhile and I had taken a sabbatical from Berklee in 2018 with two goals: to do my Carolina album and to get together with Vic and Greg [Bissonette] to start making some music for a Bass Extremes album. We blocked out six days after Thanksgiving 2018 at my Myrtle Beach studio.

VW: We realized it was coming up on 30 years since the first book/CD package [Bass Extremes, CPP Media 1993—out of print] so it seemed fitting to put something out marking the occasion. Our first goal was to bring back Greg. From there the idea was to start as a trio but to make the record sound bigger by bringing in other bassists and musicians—many of whom we met over the years of doing Bass Extremes albums, tours, camps, and events.

What was the writing process like?

SB: We were in the studio the first three days before Greg arrived, but we hadn’t written together since Just Add Water in 2001. We each had a couple of ideas, and unlike the first CD, where we had one day to write eight songs, we had more time. Plus technology has leaped forward since then, and we both have our studios and studio chops together, so our writing process has evolved, as well. It’s funny because I can literally hear where I went to take a nap or went surfing and left Vic to do his thing. It was like tag team or relay writing—hand off the baton.

VW: We did a lot of that and once Greg got here we did some trio playing. So we were each functioning as composer, player, engineer, and producer. We have a lot of trust in each other. I know I’m going to be happily surprised at what I hear from Steve. Plus we’re both open to change and we can be honest with each other.

How do you guys reflect on the beginning of Bass Extremes?

VW: When we first started it was new. Two bassists might play together in a band, like Ron Carter or Stanley Clarke had, but just two basses and drums and that is the band? That seemed pretty extreme. It began around 1989, when I first met Steve at a photo shoot for ADA amps in San Francisco and soon after when we first played together at a NAMM show. We got together and had no talk-through, no rehearsal, we just played, and it was blowing people away. Steve came up with the name; that’s how his brain works.

SW: What I recall was we were each given 30 minutes to play at that NAMM show, and I said, “Hey, if we combine our time we’ll get a whole hour.” “Sunny” was our first song, and Bass Extremes was born. Later I remember convincing the guys at CCP Belwin/Warner Bros. to do the book/CD project. One big lesson I learned is whenever you have this great idea and you pitch it and there’s silence on the other end of the phone, it doesn’t mean that they’re so in awe that they’re speechless. It means that they’re thinking of a polite way to tell you you’re crazy! And that’s basically what they told me by saying they couldn’t fund it the way we wanted it funded. We dragged them into it and it became their top selling bass product. We didn’t make a record, we made an instructional book, but I remember thinking at the time, Man, these are real songs, people would probably buy this as a record.

Let’s discuss the title of the album, with its multiple meanings.

VW: Bootsy got the pun of low down and slow down, and he refers to it on the opening track. As for the latter half, this record represents us 30 years later. When you’re young, you’re expected to be active and play fast, but hopefully when you’re older and wiser you learn to say more with less. That’s where the title and approach to the album comes from for me. We wanted to show the difference from our first project, where we played all the parts at once, in real time. We’re not as concerned with technique and chops anymore. We’re happy to overdub and feature other players to make the music better. It’s an evolution.

SB: For most musicians—and I include myself here—you spend the first part of your career proving that you can play, and trying to innovate and get your music out there. What this album typifies for me is I’ve been there and done that. Now it’s like what Lee Sklar always says, What’s the least amount we can bring to the music and still make it work, and make it better? At the same time, this is still a Bass Extremes record. There are some technically challenging parts in the music but a lot of it is more subtle. Like using harmonics and sustained notes in a way that enables me to accomplish in two notes what would have taken me ten notes back in the day. It makes me realize, yeah, I have learned something in 30 years!

What basses did you play on the album?

SB: I played only my main fretless [Warwick Steve Bailey Masterbuilt Custom Shop 6-string fretless] recorded direct in my home and portable studios.

VW: I played my main Fodera Yin Yang 4-string with EMG pickups, another with Seymour Duncan pickups, one I keep at Steve’s office at Berklee, and one strung as a tenor bass. All recorded direct.

Let’s talk tracks, starting with the opener “Ready Set Slow,” featuring Bootsy in an MC role.

VW: The track was basically put together from alternate takes of “Shrimp & Gritz,” from Steve’s Carolina album; it’s the track where he had me do my bass-and-beatbox approach.

SB: The ironic part is it’s the first song on S’Low Down but the last one we considered including. We had all the other tracks done and as I listened to the alternate takes of “Shrimp & Gritz” the idea of getting Bootsy on this new creation evolved. At first it was let’s take a few words of Bootsy that we had in the can but it ended with Vic calling him, and he graciously responded right away and sent some great new spoken lines.

“Homebass” is an historic who’s who of bass collaborations.

SB: That started with an idea I had for a funky tune that went into swing. I wrote out a road map with the number of bars and a few rhythmic hits, no pitches, and I gave it to Greg. He’s so musical, he hears a song in his head and comes up with parts, sections, and accents. There are at least four songs on the album that started with Greg’s ideas and then we put pitches to his parts. Anyway, from there I asked Vic to send the drum track to Marcus Miller with the instructions that the funky A section was his and the swing B section was for Ron Carter. He picked the key and wrote the melody. We knew it would be historic in that the two have never recorded together, and we knew they’d come up with something great. Indeed, once we got Marcus’s amazing contribution I took the train from Boston to New York City, to record Ron, writing him a basic chart on the way with some tonal suggestions. While I was setting up, Ron dissected the part and called me over to suggest some improvements—schooling me in the kindest way! From there we brought John Patitucci in to solo over Ron’s portion. Like all of us, Ron is a hero to him and he said participating in the track was one of his major musical events of his career.

VW: This was maybe the only track where Steve and I were the last ones to play on it. We had to put our voices on it to make it a Bass Extremes track, and I made a couple of edits to the arrangement. But I love that it features other people more than us; it fits the concept of the record. Let’s just make some good music, and we have a bigger team to draw from this time.

Bissonette, Bailey & Wooten

“Chrome Addict” has several interesting ingredients, including the use of bass instruments of all sorts.

VW: The title comes from the song being based on the chromatic scale. It’s a scale that’s not taught and used as much but it’s the easiest, hippest scale to play because it sounds both “in” and “out.” Often when you dig something in a song or solo there’s chromaticism involved.

SB: There are chromatic scales hidden all over the place, ascending, descending, backwards, and forwards. I did a chromatic bass line for Vic’s solo and he harmonized it, so I told him he had to do the same for my solo and I had to sit and learn what he came up with because it was hard to blow over!

VW: The A section has one of the most beautiful melodies Steve has ever written. It needed chords and when I think of bass chords I think of Oteil [Burbridge]. He asked if we wanted any particular changes but we were smart enough to leave that up to him for the most part.

SB: The use of bass intruments started with getting Howard Levy on bass harmonic because it’s more extreme than harmonica [laughs]. Then we asked Jeff Coffin to play bass flute and bass clarinet, and he said, “Bèla [Fleck ] would kill on this, on bass banjo,” so we sent the track to him, as well. Also, Susan Hagen adds some extreme upright bass using col legno technique, which is striking the strings with the wood part of the bow.

VW: I found a harmonic slide that Steve did earlier in the song and I reversed it and put it in at the very end.

Marcus Miller performing with Bass Extremes

“Messed That Up” is a big band extravaganza, with Mike Stern on bass!

VW: That started with a fairly detailed drum chart written by Steve, with hits and a big band shout chorus. Before he played, Greg was reading through the chart and sightsinging it, and we thought, This sounds so cool, we’ve we’ve got to record him. And that’s where the melody came from, putting pitches to his vocal. At one point he read something wrong and said, “Oh, messed that up,” in perfect tempo, and that’s where we took the title from. Then while we were on tour together in 2020 we wanted more, so we set Greg up in the dressing room of a west coast gig and told him to sing and say whatever he wanted. If you listen with headphones you’ll hear his crazy commentary throughout.

SB: The Mike Stern part happened at one of Vic’s last camps before the pandemic. I asked him if he’d be into playing bass on album, he said, “No, I don’t play bass and I definitely ain’t playing your fretless.” I knew I had him hooked with the second part of his answer, and I asked the students if anyone had a fretted 6-string. I got one and plugged him in, started the loop of Greg’s part, and said, Play whatever you want in A. He began playing and you could see a big smile on his face four bars in! Later I found these gems he came up with that were key to the structure of the piece, so he got a writing credit. For the horns, I sent the track to [trumpter/arranger] Matt White, who had arranged Bass Extreme songs for big band in the past, and he overdubbed the killer brass parts and took a solo.

“Ping Pong” offers the chance to hear Edgar Meyer walk, among other cool moments.

VW: That’s probably the record’s most completely written song, by Steve and I, before Greg got to Myrtle Beach and added his drums. I took one of Steve’s Warwick Triumph Electric Uprights and came up with a melody. I thought Edgar would sound great on it, so I brought him into my studio and indeed he made it his own, bowing the melody and walking behind Steve’s solo. The title is a nod to our love of playing ping pong; we added musical ping pong, which you can hear clearly if you listen with headphones.

SB: Greg came up with a few different beats for the song, including quoting the Time’s “777-9311,” written by Prince, which has programmed drums based on a groove that David Garibaldi originally came up with.

“Oh Tell Billy” features Oteil Burbridge, Billy Sheehan, and Linda May Han Oh, and a bridge that is arguably a Bass Extremes highpoint harmonically.

SB: That section came together nicely, especially with the voice-leading from Oteil, who is a chordal master. This was a tune Vic and I tag-team wrote and he came up with the title pun. I came up with the melody and didn’t realize it was an uneven 10-bar phrase until later. from there, Greg created a cool shuffle beat that feels like 4/4 even though it’s not. Then I sent Billy the track and he played along and added his feature at the end. It was a contrast to the mellow part we had written so it was a fun challenge to work it in. Later we added Linda’s amazing rubato intro on upright.

VW: I was thinking the Allman Brothers when I wrote my part. Also, Steve and I often like to quote other songs at the end of our tracks, and we did that here in keeping with the puzzle vibe of the music and the album cover.

I’m hearing the same kind of thing in the two-feel jazzer “Patchwork.”

SB: That started with me writing a bebop head to a second line-type drum loop I found. And yes, part of the head and the bridge contain the rhythms of famous bebop heads but with different notes. I also worked in some chromatic melodies and chord movement.

VW: Steve and I did our parts first and then calling in John [Patitucci] was a no brainer. He adds the soloing vocabulary that we don’t have.

“Silent Night in Tunisia” is one of the very best of your many years of annual Christmas mash-ups for the Berklee Bass Department, and it features Joe Dart.

SB: Because we were doing the writing sessions for the record in November, and we had Greg there, we figured we might as well work on the Berklee Christmas tune for that year. We finished it at Berklee, adding Whit Browne and Mike Pope from the faculty and getting Joe Dart to contribute a mean eight-bar groove solo that he did in one take. When this album was coming together it seemed to make sense to add this song because it fit so well conceptually, musically, and sonically.

VW: Steve’s clever arrangement, with a lot of quoted songs fit the puzzle theme of the record, and Joe’s contribution was too happening not to have on a Bass Extremes album. The only update we made was to remaster the track.

Your Berklee Zoom webinars, which were so crucial to the sanity of bassists during the pandemic, is where a lot of us first saw you collaborate with Justin Chancellor, who plays an eye-opening role on “Just-in Time.”

SB: The song started with Greg talking about the grooves on Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain,” Bernard Purdie’s shuffle feel, and Jeff Porcaro’s beat on Toto’s “Roseanna.” He came up with his own take on those, we recorded it top to bottom, and then wrote the song around it. I took a piece of the beat and sent it to Justin, who loves to be challenged, and what he sent back was so good—his tone, note lengths, and the overall attitude—that Vic and I realized we had to rebuild the tune around what Justin did. Then Vic made it much better with his editing and mixing process.

VW: This was a challenging track to mix because I was working on it at home and it sounded too weak. So I listened to a lot of Tool to get the vibe. I moved Steve’s melody around, removed some of my parts to get out of the way, boosted the kick and snare, and tried to make sure you could hear Justin’s pick-played bass line.

The trio ballad “S’Low Down” ends matters on a fitting note given the title, theme, and arc of the record.

SB: We wanted to close with a song by the original BE trio and as you say, what better way to end a record called S’Low Down than with a ballad? The song started with my asking Greg to play a jazz waltz with brushes, but I also told him, Every now and then throw in something startling. He did, which meant to later having to learn some serious polyrthms. Anyway, I wrote some chords and melodic guide tones over his track and when Vic came in to work on the song I left for awhile. As usual, when I came back and he was playing this beautiful melody that I never would have thought of.

VW: I picked up my tenor bass for the melody, and hearing Greg on brushes and Steve’s long, sustained bass notes took me to a space where I literally go with whatever comes into my head. I don’t know the key or the chord changes, I just let the music move me. I like to play what I’m hearing without judgement and before I judge if the notes are right, I keep recording and see where it takes me. Then I may go back and judge and make fixes. Also, Steve and Greg’s time was so together, with the subdivisions clearly laid out that I was able to play way behind the beat. This is my favorite track on the album because it’s not what you’d expect from Bass Extremes.

Where do you see Bass Extremes going from here?

SB: Well, we’ve been touring for a good part of 2022, dealing with all the “almost” post Covid things. It has been an amazing year. But, if you had asked the same question 30 years ago, I would have had the same answer as now: Who Knows? For all the “S’Lowing Down” that we talk about, things sure are moving fast. Taking this music out live, people don’t really know what to expect. It seems they leave the shows—with vinyl, CDs, shirts, and hats in hand—musically fulfilled. Thankfully they’re not thinking that it was two bassists and a drummer, for them it was a musical experience.

VW: Our plan is to keep creating and having fun. We’re enjoying touring and playing in front of people. We have tons of music from over the years, so we can change our set list every night, if we choose. Also, our list of bass playing friends keeps growing. So, Bass Extremes will hopefully have many more projects in the future. Stay tuned. –BM

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Chris Jisi   By: Chris Jisi

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