CD Review: Victor Wooten, Soul Circus

A “musicians’ musician” is one known primarily as a virtuoso sideplayer rather than an artist in his or her own right. Though such players are usually not household names, major stars utilize their services, and less gifted musicians – especially those who play the same instrument – hold such individuals in awe.

Among electric bassists Victor Wooten stands at the top of the musicians’ musician pantheon. He’s had a substantial career as an artist, but among music fans he remains best known for his work with Bela Fleck. There may be several reasons for this, but one is the mixed focus of his previous solo work. While the musicianship is never less than stellar, some of the work has been too smooth-jazz for many tastes, while at other times Wooten gets into an 80s pop vibe that has needed more hookier songwriting to pull off.

It’s a pleasure to report that, taken a whole, his new CD is his best work yet. Like a lot of virtuoso solo work, it’s complex and self-referential, but it’s almost never self-indulgent, and it boasts solid songwriting, a modern, accessible sound, and smoothly integrated contributions from various guest artists.

“Victa” is the type of personal statement that will be very familiar to rap fans, introducing the artist and his attitude. “Prayer,” one of the disc’s very best tracks, has a simple but tasty hook that sticks in the mind; the different time signatures in verse and chorus somehow add to the grooviness. The highly rhythmic “Natives,” another top track, features Native American Grammy-winner Bill Miller on vocals, flute and percussion.

A jazzy instrumental cover of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love” is followed by the fun and funky “Stay,” whose verse is in 11/8 time. You might not be able to march to it, but you sure could dance to it. “On and On” features the vocals of guest Saundra Williams, whose extreme laid-backitude works better in the background than in front; the song has a pretty chorus, but more powerful lead vocals would have improved it. (The draggy rap by Arrested Development’s Speech, who makes more inspired contributions elsewhere on the album, seems dropped in from nowhere). “Cell Phone” is gimmicky fun, committedly a rap song and featuring cell phone rings actually integrated into the music in an unusually intelligent and pleasurable use of such sound effects.

The title track has a rich soul groove (and if you’ve never heard vocal “slap bass” here’s your chance). “Higher Law” is just so-so, but it’s always interesting to see an all-around player like Wooten (aided by older brother, guitarist Regi) take on rock. In contrast, “Ari’s Eyes” is that rarity, a soft ballad explicitly inspired by the artist’s child that’s not cloyingly sweet. Maybe that’s because it’s mostly instrumental. Normally, hearing someone sing about how much they love their kid just makes me want to retch.

This CD won’t induce any such feelings. Without blatantly showing off (except in the funky ode “Bass Tribute”), Wooten and his team – which includes numerous other members of his preteternaturally talented clan – inject enough variety to satisfy many tastes, while maintaining enough of an overall vision to make the CD hang together well. You could listen carefully and follow the notes and lyrics on the website – that would increase your appreciation of the album – or you could just put it on in your car and hit the highway, or put it on at home and seduce your music-loving lover. Your choice.

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[Cross-published at Blogcritics.]