Vintage, 368 pages, $16
Wise improvising musicians sometimes impart wisdom by informing you that you already have that wisdom. They are used to creating a musical work without revision, and so they are comfortable with the notion that an answer can precede a question. The saxophonist Wayne Shorter, for example, once told me that a better question than “What has life taught you?” is “What can you teach life?”
Victor L. Wooten is this sort of musician. A founding member of the jazz-bluegrass group Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, he is a superb bassist, a high practitioner of technique, tone, and feel. Over the past few decades, he has also been known as an educator, starting (with his wife, Holly) the Victor Wooten Center for Music and Nature camp in Tennessee. He is also a writer. His first book, The Music Lesson, published in 2006, is narrated by a young bass player at a creative impasse — skilled, but easily frustrated, and more easily impressed. He wakes from a nap to find a tall man in his living room. The man’s name is Michael. Eventually, we learn that the student’s name is Victor. Michael will become Victor’s mentor in music.
Victor didn’t invite Michael. Or did he? “I teach nothing,” Michael proclaims in that book’s early pages, “because there is nothing to be taught. You already know everything you need to know, but you asked me to come, so here I am.” Still, the core of The Music Lesson proceeds systematically. Michael breaks down music into 10 elements, which serve as the basis for each chapter. These include notes (which he finds “overrated”), dynamics, and phrasing, but also space — the space between the notes — and listening.
The book’s sequel, The Spirit of Music, is a kind of action-adventure fable involving Victor, Michael, and a number of other friends and teachers. There is Ali, a former minister from a “small African village” where he learned from an elite group called the Elders of Higher Learning; Seiko, a drummer from Japan who turned away from Taiko drumming to learn rock and roll; Uncle Clyde, who chose to live under a bridge in Nashville “to do his work undetected and unnoticed”; and Victor’s student, Jonathan, with whom Victor spends a few good pages early in the book breaking down Willie Weeks’ bass solo on “Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything),” from the Donny Hathaway live album.
Victor and his friends aren’t necessarily all virtuosos. What they have in common is that they perceive, feel, and communicate through music. They are in tune with what Ali defines as a more African than European attitude toward playing music, prioritizing the why of it before the what of it. “Anyone can play ‘cause everyone have Music inside,” Ali explains to Victor, “but with the Elders, you must show your calling before they take you further. If they accept you — if Music accept you — then you learn true power.”
Here is the premise: Music — always capitalized and given feminine pronouns, and understood as a living entity — is sick and may be dying.
Of what? Wooten doesn’t really specify. This is not that kind of book. What kind of book is it? It’s a bit like Carlos Castaneda’s shamanist tales, a bit like tween fiction, a bit like websites on, say, sonic healing through principles of sacred geometry and, at its best, an enactment of epiphanies told in the ping-pong dialogue of its predecessor.
Victor and his crew travel from Virginia to Nashville, evading and finally facing down a sinister force of silent enemies called the Phasers. The Phasers wear dark glasses and dark suits and have the power to render music inaudible, in the manner of noise-canceling headphones. In one of many mini-lessons throughout the book, Michael remarks that “music brings people together, not only to feel, but to agree on what we feel.” This is why the Phasers must destroy it.
But the Phasers must be working for someone, right? Or perhaps they represent a system or process. Capitalism? Digitization? Algorithms?
Again, this is not that kind of book, because Wooten is not that kind of writer. Mostly (but not entirely) directed toward musicians, it’s a book that stands happily against traditional music pedagogy and canned notions of achievement. This is to its great credit. Your happiness as a reader will depend on how open you are to insights that recognize no coincidences, some of them from the crystal-indigo-rainbow file, as well as proposed, though not explained, secret-knowledge theories. If the metafictional Victor Wooten tends toward these theories, Ali tends toward them even more: For instance, he explains that a guitar is female because of its “head, neck, curves, slim waist, and a womb in the middle where vibrations grow” — and therefore, Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” is about his guitar. Or that the sixth note of the solfège scale is “la,” and the sixth note of the C major scale is A — so a-la — Allah!
Your enjoyment of the book may also depend on how wary you are when told that a cherished belief system is under secret attack, and around the phrases “real musicians” — but presumably Willie Weeks is among the good guys, as is Hendrix, and Wooten’s real-life cohort, and the visiting faculty at his music camps, who tend, like Wooten, to fall along the jazz-country-virtuoso spectrum. By the logic of this book, a lot of music made without “real” instruments — a lot of the music in the world right now, and some of the best — may start to look suspect. That’s too bad. Wooten is an includer, not a delimiter; he’s better at holistic teaching than veiled polemic.