Wooten and Herring musically mismatched, perfectly paired
Guitarist Jimmy Herring and bassist Victor Wooten are like a couple of runaways on a wild adventure. Both are working with respective namesake bands while their primary gigs are on hiatus, and in both cases, Herring and Wooten are using the opportunity to expand their already considerable talents.
The Victor Wooten Band and the Jimmy Herring Band join forces Wednesday night at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston.
Wooten comes armed with not one but two records. “Words and Tones” is a funky, R&B-leaning collection of songs showcasing female singers, a departure from the instrumental work Wooten is best known for as a member of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. “Sword and Stone” (move those s’s around in the album titles and you get a sense of the wordplay Wooten enjoys on the vocal album) is an instrumental outing, but still not in the vein of a banjo-fueled Flecktones project. Some songs appear on both releases but typically emphasize different textures in their different settings.
Herring, who joined Widespread Panic in 2006 after stints with the Allman Brothers Band, Phil Lesh and Friends, and the Dead, took advantage of a break in Panic’s touring schedule to make “Subject to Change Without Notice” (which does feature a cameo from Bela Fleck on banjo).
Herring is once again going an instrumental route, but unlike his 2008 jazz-rock solo debut, “Lifeboat,” the new album focuses on melody, or songs that the guitarist calls “vocal-ish.”
“I just love Jeff Beck and Derek Trucks, how they can make the guitar behave like a singer. It’s in the phrasings and knowing where to take a breath,” Herring explains from a recent tour stop.
But Herring wasn’t keen on “singing” one kind of song. “Subject to Change Without Notice” is a grab bag with such tunes as the Gypsy jazz number “Red Wing Special,” the lofty, majestic grooves of a song called “Aberdeen,” and inventive covers of the Beatles’ “Within You, Without You,” Jimmy McGriff’s soul-jazz bit “Miss Poopie,” and Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Hope,” which Herring transforms from its original two-minute mantra into a nearly seven-minute spiritual ascension.
“We didn’t intend to make each song a different style, but the people I worked with, we’ve been playing music together for a long time, and we don’t tend to think about labels,” Herring says. “We’ll just say, ‘Let’s play this,’ and if it’s funky or bluesy, it doesn’t matter. It comes down to whether it’s music we like or music we don’t like.”
Drummer Jeff Sipe, whom Herring worked with in the Aquarium Rescue Unit, bassist Neal Fountain, and keyboard player Matt Slocum join Herring on the road as well as anchor the new album, which features many guests.
Herring, who turned 50 this year, says that no matter how far out he and his bandmates can take a song, it all comes back to the quality of the tune.
“When I was growing up, pop music was the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Those songs were crafted incredibly well. You couldn’t have a hit back then if the song wasn’t really well crafted,” he says.
Speaking of craft, Herring marvels at Wooten’s work, enthusing about all of the little surprises tucked into the bassist’s songs.
“I was listening to a song of his and heard a slide player, but I couldn’t figure out who it was. When I asked him he said, ‘Me.’ Slide bass. That’s new to me,” Herring says.
Wooten plays all sorts of bass guitars on his new records and on stage. His seven-piece band has four certified bassists. But don’t expect a low-end blowout when the group performs at the Wilbur, as everyone also multi-tasks on different instruments. Wooten himself will also be playing guitars and cello. The musicians even change their instruments mid-song.
That fluidity is also part of Wooten’s two records. On the vocal record, Wooten says he let the various singers come up with a lot of the lyrical content that ended up attached to his melodies and rhythms.
“I enjoy performing with a vocalist and just always liked the sound of female vocals. The voice is the greatest thing to accompany. I was really interested here in letting the singers add their ideas to my melodies,” he explains.
Thus, “Words and Tones” has a poetic quality, ranging from Saundra Williams’s dreamy ode to Brooklyn to Divinity Roxx’s harder-edged gospel on “Say Word.”
The virtuoso instrumentalist gives credit to one of his brothers for sparking the idea of exploring the multiplicity of meanings within words and how the Arthurian legend is symbolic of finding hidden meanings.
“Pulling the sword out of the stone is like pulling meaning out of sounds we utter, and there are so many words and meanings within words themselves. Simplicity is simple city. Musically and naturally are music ally and nature ally,” Wooten says.
And for a short time this fall, two musical progressives who don’t necessarily sound very much alike seem like natural allies on the road.