Blue Basso: An Interview with Charlie Wooton
Charlie Wooton’s new album, Blue Basso, has several themes. First and foremost, it’s a blues record, though not strictly traditional. Second, it’s a bit of an homage to his legendary bass, which graces the cover. Finally, it carries the spirit of one of his heroes, Jaco Pastorius.
A former member of The Royal Southern Brotherhood, Wooton’s music is steeped in the southern soul. He picked his closest fellow New Orleans musicians for the projected including guitarist Daniel Groover, drummer Jermal Watson, keyboardist Keiko Kamaki, and vocalist Arsène DeLay. It also features special guests Sonny Landreth, Anders Osborne, Doug Wimbish, Eric McFadden, and Damon Fowler.
Did you grow up in New Orleans?
I grew up about two hours from here in Lafayette and it’s a little bit different scene. You have to go through the Atchafalaya Basin Swamp to get there and back before we had motor vehicles, that was a huge obstacle [that created a cultural difference].
I moved to L.A. when I was 20, then I lived in Atlanta for a bunch of years. I’ve been living in New Orleans since 2010. I love it – I’ll never leave New Orleans. As a musician and an artist that appreciates community and culture, it’s a vastly different place to live than anywhere else in the United States. It’s very European.
I keep thinking about that. It’s a big cultural mixing pot, but so are a lot of cities. What separates New Orleans from other cities?
A lot of things. Geography is one of them. You’ve got to remember that the two main ports before airplanes were New York City and New Orleans. People don’t realize there’s a big Jewish community, an Irish community, a lot of Vietnamese people, and so on. I think once the river wasn’t the [main mode of transportation] and you had highways, people still only have a few ways to get out of the city. Even with the media the way it is, people don’t really know what’s going on here. My friends and family say the culture is disappearing, but I say, “Yeah, but not as fast as everywhere else.” I think it’s changing here more than it’s disappearing.
How did Blue Basso come about?
My manager Rueben Williams said, “Make me a bluesy record – as bluesy as you can be.” Me, Daniel Groover, and Jermal Watson went to a studio and a day and a half later came out with eleven rhythm tracks. They were killer, just tons of pocket. I had Keiko put keys on it and brought it to Arsène. I said, “I’ve got a challenge for you. You need to write words and melodies to this music.” She knocked it out of the park. The third song on the album called “I Don’t Know” was originally an instrumental. I didn’t even give it to her. She just heard it and said, “That’s the biggest challenge. Let me write for that one.” She kills it. I can’t say enough good things about her. If you listen to “One Night,” that’s a real vocal performance. That’s a vocalist. That’s someone who pays attention to the melody.
Daniel Groover, who wrote, mixed, and helped to produce it is the silent glue of this whole record. He’s been my musical partner for going on 13 years. I do almost everything with him. He’s versatile like I am, but this album is specifically headed toward the blues.
I say this not to offend the blues traditionalists, but the issue I have with the blues is… Look, I grew up in Lafayette playing blues. It’s completely different than Mississippi and Chicago and Texas. You can’t do blues history without Ray Charles. One of the tunes, “Tell Me A Story” with Sonny Landreth, has a Ray Charles groove on it. That’s blues! But you go to these blues festivals and they’re playing all one-four-five shuffles. It has to evolve.
I see this album as an evolution of blues. “Reflections” has a bass line that is the first measure of [Marvin Gaye’s] “What’s Going On.” I just repeat it over and over. That was on purpose. It gives you something familiar to recognize but still feels fresh. “One Night” is a 6/8 slow blues in a major key. It’s not a typical one-four-five blues. Anders Osborne played on that and killed it. He said, “Oh, it’s just an old R&B groove.” That’s right – rhythm and blues.
In the first interview I had for this record, someone asked me “How did you get Anders to slow down and play so sweet?” I said, “I didn’t get him to do anything.” I called all these guys to do their thing. I let them listen to the music and asked what they felt comfortable – or uncomfortable – doing. I would prefer to show [players] in a light where they haven’t been seen.
I think that’s the sign of a good bandleader – just letting the players do their thing.
I love taking credit for producing records when I hire the guys that know what to do. [laughs] I’ll be the first one to boost, but I’ll also be the first one to tell you I have the best team. I’ve been producing records, too, and I love it. For me, it’s like finding the bass when you’re 14. You find it and you want to discover every nuance of the instrument. That’s how producing is for me now. I love it. I especially like it when I produce a record and get to hire the musicians. I hire Keiko for everything and I don’t have to tell her anything. She and I are telepathic now. And this is the most important thing: we have fun.
I feel like your album has a lot of joy and fun in it, especially for being a blues record.
The purpose of the blues is to recognize the pain, call it out, and move on. I never thought of the blues as being sad. It’s somewhere I can go to heal, you know?
How did Doug Wimbish get on the record?
Well, Eric McFadden is on the album, too. He started hanging out in New Orleans and then Doug Wimbish ended up coming around with him. I just went up to him and introduced myself. I asked him to play with me at Jazz Fest for a tiny gig; he just loves to play. That gig we played together changed our relationship and it just kind of grew.
The tune he played on was originally called “Gospel Jaco.” I wrote this Jaco-esque bass line over some gospel changes. It was the last thing I had to do for the record. I sent it to Doug and said, “Put bass all over this. I’ll figure it out when you send it back.” Sometimes I’ll send guys recordings with nothing on it and make them solo over the whole thing. Then I’ll find the part where they’re relaxed and not thinking about it, then move it over to the solo.
Doug sent it back and said, “I didn’t really know what to do. I just put some wah rhythm on it.” Then Keiko went and wrote a melody to it. After that, we mixed the two basses to where you don’t know who’s doing what. There’s Doug’s high stuff, but he’s also doing a lot in the background to make it bubble.
When it came to the song name, it came from Doug Belote. We were at the studio outside of Lafayette and he called me the “Cajun Jaco.” I thought, man, I’m gonna call this song “Cajun Jaco.” A lot of French and Cajun spellings use “eaux” for the “o” sound, so I said “Let’s make it ‘Jaceaux,'” and everyone laughed. It stuck.
What led you into Jaco fandom?
Picking up a bass in ’84. My brother put on a Weather Report album and said, “If you’re going to bass, listen to him.” I didn’t get it right then, but when he passed I remember my mom told me the news. I had four older brothers that all left home around the same time. I got mad depression and Jaco was a part of that journey. I never really thought about this until now, but I would say he was my friend through that time. He was what I latched onto when all the noise in the house left. Quiet sucks when you’ve been used to noise for fifteen years of your life. I really dived into it. I picked up the bass just like everyone else that heard him and said, “…What?”
For me, it wasn’t the technique. My mom had those big, old Sony speakers. I would put them side by side like headphones and lay down between them. It felt like his tone was hovering right in front of my face, especially on tracks like on “A Remark You Made.” I would just go into the tone. My mom would flip the light on and say my whole body was levitating. So I went and ripped the frets out of my bass and filled the holes with wood putty. I had a fretless bass through high school.
I think about Jaco a lot. I’ve got fourteen years on him now. I met Felix and Julius, and I met Ingrid. She was really sweet to me. I’ve got a magnet off of Jaco’s fridge on my fridge [that she gave me]. I went to his house that he got for the twins and Ingrid, and she hadn’t changed a thing. The piano was there, all his awards, his record collection that was mostly classical, the jam box he listened to the Weather Report tapes on… I was there for eight hours, and I just felt like he was there.
Tell me about your bass that the record is named after.
When I was a teenager, I was listening to Weather Report, Grover Washington, Spyro Gyra, Al Jarreau, Miles Davis… It was a lot of jazz. This was back in the day when it was fusion. We didn’t have this thing called “smooth jazz.” Radio screwed that up.
Spyro Gyra came through town, but it was at a club and I was too young to go. My brothers all went and when they came home, they were all talking about the bass player, Kim Stone. They said, “Man, he played this thing called ‘Bob Goes to the Store’ and he played this killer solo.” They got his autograph for me and told me he stole the show. When you’re 15 and your brothers are talking this guy up, well, he just becomes one of your idols.
Long story short, I met him in Los Angeles and he wouldn’t give me lessons, but he let me come over and jam all the time. That was his way. He wanted to sell this bass and I didn’t have any money. After weeks of him bringing the price down, it got down to $200. He had just put some pickups in it and wanted to recoup that. He said, “Give me $200 for the pickups and you can have the bass.” I think he just would rather me have it than it go anywhere else. That was in 1993 and I haven’t really played any other instruments since then. It’s my main axe. It’s got a Warmoth body. The neck was Warmoth, but it had an air pocket in it and blew up. He went to the Bass Shop and got a new neck. It was a four-string, but the neck was a five-string, so now the strings are really tight together. The parts are by ESP and the pickups are EMG, so nothing matches. There’s not another bass like it. I just love that bass. It sings like no other.
Your album is on Wild Heart Records, which is Samantha Fish’s label, right?
Yeah. Samantha and I go way back to our Royal Southern Brotherhood days. She was also on Ruf Records. [Drummer] Yonrico Scott and I played on her first record. She came to Europe and opened for us when she was like 23. Rico and I played with her the whole time. I watched her go through the trials and tribulations a young lady does, and she didn’t let any of that stop her. She just kept on trucking. Samantha Fish deserves everything she has. If there are any haters out there, they need to look at themselves. Especially if they’re male musicians because she probably worked harder than you did to get where she is. That’s why I’m on Wild Heart Records.
You know, as a bass player, you’ve got [big names like] Victor Wooten, Richard Bona, Sting… But you know I’m a player. You don’t have a lot of people believing in people like me. Rueben, my manager, understands me. I have a great lawyer who totally gets me. Samantha and her team get me. They didn’t listen to any of the tracks. I turned them in and said, “This is the record.” That takes a lot of confidence in an artist.