It should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid attention to the evolution of New Orleans music in the 21st century that Charlie Wooton is one of the city’s finest bass players. His work in recent years with Royal Southern Brotherhood and then replacing Reggie Scanlan in the New Orleans Suspects helped to keep each of those groups into the top echelon of the city’s touring bands. Wooton has also played with a large assortment of other musicians over the years in genres ranging from zydeco to Brazilian music, while leading his own Charlie Wooton Project with longtime guitarist Daniel Groover.
Wooton’s latest album, Blue Basso, is likely to vault him onto a new level as a bandleader. The record is named after the blue five-string bass given to him by Spyro Gyra’s bassist Kim Stone, but it is also a tribute to Wooton’s deepest influence, Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius. Growing up in Lafayette—studying jazz during the day and playing in zydeco bands at night—Wooton fantasized about playing with Weather Report.
“My dream was to go to L.A. or New York and become a session player for Al Jarreau or Chaka Kahn,” he says. “My dream band would be Weather Report but I’ll settle for Spyro Gyra.” Wooton was a huge fan of Jaco, so much so that he acquired the nickname “the Cajun Jaco.”
On his latest solo album Blue Basso, Wooton pays tribute to Jaco’s influence with a cover of “Come On Come Over” and an instrumental called “Jaceaux.” The album is certain to enhance his career as a leader. Yet Wooton holds back on self-congratulations, saving his praise for the other members of his band—vocalist Arsène DeLay; Groover, who produced the album, drummer Jermal Watson; and keyboardist Keiko Komaki.
“The Charlie Wooton Project—I didn’t really just want to use my name because my band members are incredible,” says Wooton. “This record is not about me. To be honest with you, this record ended up being about Arsène DeLay’s voice. Keiko probably plays the least on it, but in my opinion, she’s the best musician. Jamal sounds wonderful, Daniel is incredible. I like to highlight the people I’m with. Without them I’ve got nothing, there ain’t nobody gonna come just to see a bass player.”
Blue Basso also features several outstanding special guests: bassist Doug Wimbish and guitarists Sonny Landreth, Anders Osborne, Damon Fowler and Eric McFadden all make outstanding contributions.
“Music evolves,” Wooton says of Blue Basso. “And here’s an example of how it evolves from the heart of blues. I grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana playing Cajun/zydeco music. Cajun/zydeco music is blues with accordion and a French accent. New Orleans music is rooted in blues, other than the influences that came from the Caribbean and Europe. They play blues where I come from different than they do in Mississippi. They play it different in Chicago and they play it different in Texas. So this record is a blues record, that in my career, is what I got out of the blues and where it took me.”
Arsène DeLay’s contribution on vocals and lyrics really brings the album to a different level. Her performance on the R&B style “Reflections” is an example of her seemingly limitless talent.
“She put a vocal on top of that guitar and sent it back to me,” says Wooton. “And I was like ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ And we just put the tune together. That’s kind of how we wrote. She wrote all the vocals and melodies to all the songs that you hear. We did the rhythm tracks and sent them to her. She had to write the melodies and the lyrics. She had to fit them into the arrangements.
“She’s the niece of John Boutté and Lillian Boutté. As much as she is New Orleans royalty, she is an independent woman and she doesn’t use that. It helps her, but she wants to speak her voice.”
The great lap steel player Damon Fowler sits in on “I Don’t Know.”
“Jamal the drummer had a hip-hop program on his iPhone,” Wooton explains. “The melody that you hear on the guitar in the second verse, that’s all we had. We had those three notes and a hip hop loop behind it. Jamal said ‘I wanna swing this,’ so we figured out a little A section, a little B section, some jazz chords, put an extra measure right before the solo, a little drum turnaround. Then Damon Fowler came and put some lap steel on it. First we were gonna mix it with the two guitars intertwining and Arsène says ‘Let me have a stab at that one.’ I thought ‘How are you gonna write lyrics to this?’ She came and knocked it out. It was one of my favorites. The hook, that sounds like an R&B hook from the ‘70s.”
Sonny Landreth plays on two tracks, “Front Porch” and “Tell Me a Story.”
“I left Lafayette when I was 20 and Sonny was the hometown hero then, lives in Beau Bridge and goes around the world and plays guitar,” says Wooton. “When he comes home nobody ever sees him. There was this idea that you can’t be a little Cajun boy and be successful. But you don’t have to play Cajun and zydeco music to make a living, which was the perception. I grew up studying jazz and I thought ‘I’m never going to make a living playing this.’ So I didn’t know Sonny back then. I met him when I moved to New Orleans in 2010 and we just got closer and closer and then what happened was my group Zabaduo was going to Japan to play a live magic festival. The promoter called me and said ‘Sonny’s bass player’s not coming.’ So I called Sonny. Sonny was actually scared to hire me because he watched me on YouTube soloing and going crazy. So I told him ‘Sonny I respect you. There’s no way I’m going to show up on your gig not knowing your music.’ It went well. He had other shows in Japan and he took us as a duo to open for him. Last summer he took me to Brazil. I have this other project with Zydefunk where I’m gonna record ‘Congo Square’ and get like 100 drummers in Congo Square, record them there, then go into the studio, ‘cause Sonny Landreth wrote that song, the Nevilles made it famous, have Aaron or Cyril sing it and bring in Sonny. So we started talking about that. That’s the first thing I asked him to do. So that’s how that came about.”
On the first song with Landreth, “Tell Me a Story,” the band cut the rhythm track first. “I wanted to do a Freddie King type of thing,” says Wooton. “Jamal put the Ray Charles kind of rhumba thing going in with the drums. When I’m producing I’m always thinking about how I can add or take away something that still flows but makes the nature of the human body pay attention. So that’s why I put in the extra turnaround the second time. Then we put in a swing section for the solo. We got Sonny to play on it. Arsène in the vocal says ‘those stat cats,’ but it initially was ‘jazz cats.’ I have a video in mind for this. There’s jazz guys playing an early set and they’ve heard about this great guitar player, so they go across the railroad tracks to a blues club to hear this band. They’re jazz guys and they’re snooty saying ‘Ah, blues, but there’s this one guy who’s supposed to be really great.’ So they go in there and they get blown away. In my mind in the video, right before they play, Sonny sees these jazz guys walk in and says ‘Hey let’s show ‘em we can swing too. Then once we do that then let’s go back to the funky fun stuff.’”
The acoustic “Front Porch” is Landreth’s other showcase. “People expect to hear Sonny playing killer slide and I thought ‘No man I’m gonna have Sonny on a resonator playing the most down-home Mississippi blues you ever heard.’ So I’m glad I got him on both because I think people expect to hear him play how he played on ‘Tell Me a Story’ and will enjoy what he did on ‘Front Porch.’
“‘Front Porch” is a very important song on the record. For one thing, it comes after the solo on ‘Tell Me a Story.’ I show you I can pretty much do back flips and acrobatics on the bass, but as a producer I put ‘Front Porch’ after that because as a bass player I just play whole notes there. It’s not about the bass, the bass is doing what the bass is supposed to do on ‘Front Porch,’ which is just support it. That’s a major factor when going to clinics or when kids come to me and ask me ‘How do I get hired?’ You don’t get hired by playing like Jaco Pastorius, you get hired by playing the way I played on ‘Front Porch.’ The bass started out as a support instrument and became more than that. Same thing with the blues. Blues started as an American cultural expression from Mississippi and Louisiana and Alabama from the black race. Now it is dominated by white people who have blues societies. There’s nothing wrong with that, thank God we have those people who keep the music alive. But something has happened where they think ‘Oh if it’s not a shuffle, it’s not blues.’ That’s not okay. Go listen to a Taj Mahal record, talk about eclectic. So this record, there’s a statement behind it that ‘Yes, this is a blues record, but guess what—the music evolves and if you don’t allow it to evolve it’s just gonna get stale.’”
In addition to paying tribute to Jaco, Wooton says he cut “Come On Come Over” “because I could hear Arsène’s voice singing it. We recorded the track as is, like the record and at the end Daniel says ‘If we’re gonna do this we gotta change it.’ He wasn’t happy with it. So I asked him what to do. He said ‘Well we’re in New Orleans where everything gets slowed down, why don’t we just slow it down?’ So Jamal put more of a kind of street beat on it, and then I changed the bass line from a chromatic walkup to more of a reggae feel.”
“Dimenote” is a tour de force for Groover’s fusion-style guitar playing. “Daniel said ‘I’ve got this New Orleans kind of thing but it’s kind of weird, we could put a New Orleans street beat on it.’ The way it starts with Jamal’s groove kind of brings it back to New Orleans a little bit. So that song was really about letting Daniel show off his guitar virtuosity while on the rest of the record he just plays sweet parts.”
The instrumental “Fulton Alley” is another example of Wooton’s interest in jazz fusion.
“We were playing a gig in Fulton Alley by Harrah’s. We were just setting up and I started playing; I’ve probably played a million of those grooves at sound check. It was just me messing around but everybody started to play so we started the show that way. It sounded cool so we decided to keep it. The lick, we play a tune called ‘King Cake’ by Chuck Carbo and I used to play that bass lick coming out of the chorus and Daniel copied it. So we took that lick and just put it in there.”
On “One Night” “I had those changes since ‘97,” muses Wooton. “I had written just the chords on my bass. Arsène came up with the story. You know what I like about what she does on this record is the sings the first verse a little subtle, then the second a little more and on the third one she belts it out. I watched her through the process. She doesn’t just go in and start singing; she maps out the whole tune. Her vocal track is a steady crescendo to the end.”
“One Night” also features Anders Osborne on guitar. “We were at the studio and Eric McFadden had just recorded on ‘Miss You.’ He said ‘Anders lives around the corner. I’m thinking of going over to see him.’ So I texted Anders: Hey man, Eric McFadden just laid down his track on my record. Wanna come lay down yours? Which was my way of saying come play on my record. He hasn’t actually officially said yes yet. He was like ‘I’ll be right there.’ I thought that was easy. He came over, listened to it and said. ‘I took two weeks off from music. Everything. And it’s only been a week and a half but I was digging this trench and I got your text and I thought God this sucks. so I thought do I wanna dig this trench or go give Charlie a guitar track?’ So he took a shower and came over because he didn’t want to dig that ditch anymore. He listened to a couple of things, he played that track and it’s just beautiful, that opening lick. The solo was put on before any vocals. What I do as a producer is when I have guests I just let them play. Sometimes I’ll take the vocal off and say ‘Look I just want you to solo on the whole thing. Just do whatever you want, be sweet, then when it comes to the solo section. go crazy.’ Then I’ll go in and just take stuff out. So Anders probably played a lot more than what you’re hearing.”
The Rolling Stones have come and gone to New Orleans amid much anticipation and confusion, and Wooton adds his two cents with a cover of the Stones’ “Miss You” that closes out Blue Basso.
“I had a band back in my 20s, just a local band, and we used to do that song,” he explains. “If you listen to Sugar Blue’s version you’ll understand where the groove came from. The Stones version is cute, but that bass line I put down, I just like playing that bass line. We were gonna release the song the day the Stones played Jazz Fest, do a little social media thing about it and draw some attention.”
Well, the Stones never played Jazz Fest, but Wooton has drawn attention nonetheless.