Guitarist Jimmy Herring laughs when he recalls the first time he jammed with bassist Victor Wooten. His band, the Aquarium Rescue Unit, was sharing a bill with Wooten's Béla Fleck and the Flecktones in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. "I had a 100-watt Marshall amplifier, which is very loud," Herring says. "They invited me to come up on stage, and they all had these in-ear monitors. There were no speakers on stage, so I couldn't hear them, but there I am with this loud amp. The Flecktones were as cutting edge as technology went."
One could argue that Herring is ready for anything you throw at him. After building his reputation with Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit and Jazz is Dead, an instrumental band playing Grateful Dead songs, Herring got the ultimate invitation in 1993 when the Allman Brothers Band invited him to fill in for an out-of-commission Dickey Betts, an opportunity that led to a summer tour with the band in 2000. That gig was followed by a regular spot in Phil Lesh's group, ultimately filling Jerry Garcia's guitar shoes with The Other Ones and The Dead until 2004. Finally, when Widespread Panic needed a permanent replacement for the late Michael Houser in 2006, it was Herring who filled the void.
Through it all, the guitarist has remained soft-spoken and humble, even as projects drew him away from the instrumental, jazz-influenced music he plays on his own.
Growing up, Herring listened to the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the Dixie Dregs, groups that built their foundation without lead vocals. "I was in bands growing up — like 14 or 15 years old — and we loved Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith and the Beatles, but it was impossible to find anybody to sing. Who can sing like Robert Plant?" Herring asks. "My brother, who was a very educated listener, suggested I check out instrumental music. He played me the Dixie Dregs, and it led me to a whole other world of musicianship."
From that point on, Herring devoted himself to studying jazz-fusion guitar virtuosos like John McLaughlin, a passion that persists today. McLaughlin's bassist, Etienne Mbappe, even performs on Herring's Subject to Change. "It's still a pinch-yourself-every-day kind of deal," Herring says of his career and the friends he's made. "People like McLaughlin have been idols to me for so long. Every situation I've walked into — stepping into the gig with Phil Lesh or Widespread Panic — has made me nervous, but there's not always as much demand on your technique, at least not like you're running a marathon. I've never been on stage with McLaughlin; I'd be shocked and horrified and terrified — it would be like playing catch with Greg Maddux, or trying to hit against Randy Johnson."
In both Widespread Panic and his solo work, Herring maintains a minimalist approach to his guitar tone, a habit he picked up from Col. Bruce Hampton during their Aquarium Rescue Unit days. "Bruce's view is that you're pushing a button to get echoes and stuff, and he wants to hear what the musicians sound like themselves without the need of buttons," Herring says. "That's stuck with me pretty much, except for the reverb. It's too important to me to go without. I still play pretty loud though."
Wooten approaches his music with a similar outlook. He emphasizes that the bass is a link between harmony and rhythm, forming a foundation that requires strength but is rarely recognized until it slips.
With his own seven-piece band, however, Wooten gets the chance to expand his regular 10-minute solo portion of a Flecktones' show into a full set of bass-centric grooves. His septet includes a vocalist, two drummers, and three multi-instrumentalists, all of whom play bass as their primary instrument. "There will absolutely be a couple of songs where all of us are playing bass at the same time," Wooten says. "I like to change things up. Really, I'm just trying to find a way of capturing the music I hear in my head."
In September, Wooten released Words and Tones and Swords and Stones, both of which were recorded at his home studio in Nashville (he lives in a log cabin with his wife and four children). The first disc features a female singer on each track, while the latter is an instrumental disc that reworks many of the songs from Words and Tones.
When he's not on stage, in the studio, or at home, Wooten teaches at schools around the world. When he spoke with City Paper last week, he'd just arrived home the night before from giving a seminar at the Berklee College of Music campus in Valencia, Spain. In his classes, he discusses how breathing can help keep a player in the groove, emphasizing that you should "never lose the groove in order to find a note."
"I breathe in sync with the phrasing of what I'm playing," Wooten explains. "Sometimes I may take a breath in the middle of a phrase, sort of like I'm talking, just in a musical conversation with the band."
If that sounds slightly esoteric — even if you're a musician — don't fret too much. Whether you approach seeing Wooten and Herring play together as an instructional lesson or simply as a chance to witness two incredible talents, it's refreshing to know that the pair are as excited about the collaboration as their audiences.
"Guys like us, we just love to play," says Herring. Wooten echoes the sentiment, saying, "Jimmy is just a phenomenal guitarist. It's going to be a great night of music."