Words & Images by: Andrew Bruss
At its core, the Masters
Camp at Sea is a world-class musical fantasy camp embedded within
a top shelf music
festival that takes place aboard a Caribbean cruise. An all-star lineup of elite musicians
on the jam circuit came
together to teach a class of several dozen amateur musicians the finer points of speaking
the language of music from
within the confines of an on-board disco sixteen decks above the Atlantic Ocean and
Jam Cruise has been hosting the
party on the high seas for eleven years now, but
months prior to departure, the
wizards behind the curtain over at event organizers Cloud 9 Adventures announced they were
teaming up with Full
Moon Resort to bring their Music Masters Camp onboard the MSC Divina. As instructors, the
lineup consisted of
Victor Wooten from Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (bass), Butch Trucks from The Allman
Brothers Band (drums),
Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars (drums and guitar) as well as
the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s
Kofi Burbridge on keys and Col. Bruce Hampton belting it out into the microphone.
Some of these guys have a history together while others had never shared the stage, let
alone teaching duties. Trucks
and Hampton’s personal and professional relationship goes back decades. Burbridge’s
brother, Oteil, plays bass with
Trucks in The Allman Brothers Band, and Trucks nephew, Derek, drops jaws playing slide
guitar with his wife, Susan
Tedeschi, while Kofi backs them on keyboards.
Throughout the course of the five-day program, my fellow students and I had the life
changing experience of
learning not instrumental technique, but musical communication. Additionally, my
participation in this program as
both student and reporter placed my editor and I in a unique situation that allowed us to
be at the forefront of the
breaking news that both Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes were leaving The Allman Brothers
All of our musical masters had something to bring to the table but it became clear early
on that Victor Wooten was
the defacto leader of the crew. Trucks teamed up with the Dickinson boys for a Roots Rock
Revival program at Full
Moon Resort, but Wooten has a history as an articulate and passionate educator the others
lacked. A few years back
Wooten released a book called The Music Lesson that details his life-changing artistic
growth as a result of his friend
“Michael,” whose exploits are hard to believe. Real or not, the lessons in the book have
been known to change the
way musicians see their craft and the messages in the book were apparent in his teachings
on the ship. When I asked
Wooten if Michael was real, he replied, “Michael would say, ‘does it matter?”
The curriculum was divided between lectures and participatory ensemble work. The lectures
superjams that rivaled whatever was taking place on the main stage down on the pool deck.
Faculty spoke about
music’s essence as a language made up of so much more than notes, chords and scales.
Wooten noted that he’s
made a habit of asking people every chance he gets what music means to them. Answers
ranged from life to love,
therapy, fun and so on. One answer he never receives, he said, is scales or modes. While
learning to play music, the
student often focuses on the technical aspects of education but from Wooten’s perspective,
he made clear that
understanding music as an emotional language is far more important.
For the first ensemble session, I wound up on stage with Luther Dickinson, Butch Trucks
and my fellow classmates on
keys, bass and sax. Then there was 10-year old Brandon Niederauer playing guitar with me.
His Les Paul looked
oversized strapped to his body and while he was the youngest student in the program, he
was also the most
talented. By the time this kid’s fingers are done growing, Derek Trucks better watch out.
The instructors told us to start out by jamming on a groove and not to play any lead lines
or solos. After a few
minutes they told us to stop. Wooten would ask one student what the other was playing,
only to be answered with a
blank stare. He’d continue asking my fellow students what the guy next to him was playing
and none of us had
answers. “You weren’t listening to each other,” he noted. The first lesson of this jam was
the importance of listening.
We took it from the top and the student body concurred that on the second jam, we sounded
a lot better now that we
were paying closer attention to each other.
Other lessons we learned through ensemble work was the importance of silence. While
supporting a bandmate on a
solo, sometimes the best thing to do is just stop playing to draw attention to how great
the guy or gal taking the lead
is. We learned that a solo is a lot like a conversation and it should start with a
question and end with a definitive
statement. At first, the solos we took were heavy on noodling and lacked structure. After
being told to frame them
like a conversation, the solos took on a stronger sense of narrative that was instantly
Col. Bruce gave a talk about the music business but Butch Trucks was the one who shook the
jam circuit upside down
from behind the microphone. Trucks told the class that Eric Clapton loves Derek Trucks
like a son, but will never
include him in his backing band ever again. Butch explained that at certain points,
Derek’s solos elicited a greater
audience response than any Clapton got and Slowhand doesn’t like being upstaged. Everyone
laughed and then
Butch added that Derek would be leaving The Allman Brothers Band at the end of the year.
While this seemed like a
side note to the story he was telling about Clapton, the reporter in me knows when he’s
hearing breaking news.
Butch had just opened a whole can of worms and I wasn’t the only person in the room with
his recorder rolling.
As shocked as I was, the look on the face of Kofi Burbridge said it all. Seeing as Kofi
plays keys in Tedeschi Trucks
Band, the act Derek is presumably leaving ABB to pursue full-time, I told Kofi that I
could tell he was shocked with
Butch and asked if it was supposed to stay a secret. “My face gave it away huh?” he said.
He was indeed shocked but
likely more so than anyone else in the room. Burbridge said that it was news to him as
I instantly went on the hunt for JamBase editor Scotty Bernstein, a repeat Jam Cruise
offender who was on board to
provide JamBase Nation with a daily recap of what you were missing if you weren’t on the
boat. With serendipitous
timing, Scotty had shown up at the ship’s disco (aka, our classroom) to hear the masters
get into the groove. He
asked if I had an exact quote, which I didn’t, so I approached Butch to get a better idea
of what the story was. Trucks
shared some thoughts on the situation before adding that our impromptu chat was
essentially off the record.
After JamBase contacted the group’s publicist, it became clear we only had half the story.
The next day while Warren
Haynes was performing on the pool deck, we got word that he too was leaving the band at
the end of the year.
JamBase published Haynes and Trucks’s statements and within minutes everyone from Rolling
Stone to The Wall
Street Journal had picked up on the story.
While to the outside world, the news was the most important thing to come from the Masters
at Sea program, the
students saw it as nothing but one of many wild comments the 66-year old drummer made.
More than anything Trucks said, Victor Wooten’s playing stood out above all else, but not
for the reason you would
expect. Wooten’s use of slap bass, two-handed fret hammering and harmonics have
established him as one of the
most technically proficient bassists in the world and on a boat that included George
Porter Jr., Bootsy Collins and Les
Claypool, Wooten’s skills reigned supreme. However, what he played in class was extremely
reserved. The bassist
spoke at great length about ego and a concept called “musical courtesy.” Ego, he
explained, leads to musicians
getting on stage, looking to show off their chops, and diving into solos that lead nowhere
and say nothing. As for
musical courtesy, he told us with words and demonstrated with his playing that while
another band mate is taking a
solo, you should take the foot off the gas and let them shine. At the end of a solo,
rather than go right back into the
riffs, a lot of times the courteous thing to do is simply not play and let other
performers enjoy the spotlight.
We all knew what Wooten was capable of, but it simply didn’t have a place in a classroom
where students were
learning to leave their ego at the door and the Master practiced what he preached. Later
that evening, Wooten was
invited to join Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe to jam out on a tune and again, rather than
going slap-crazy, he played
the notes that fit the groove perfectly. Before exiting the stage he made a point of
shaking the hand of every single
member of the band and thanking him for the opportunity to play during their set.
On the last night of the cruise, the Masters were supposed to conduct a superjam on the
Pool Deck’s main stage for
everyone on the boat to enjoy. Kofi pulled me aside earlier in the day and told me to
bring my guitar “just in case.”
He’d invited a few of his students to jam but made them understand it was no sure thing.
About an hour before their
set was supposed to start, I met Kofi backstage when he told me that they were going to
need a lot of help and to get
my guitar. That’s when a stagehand told us the set was off and they were taking the stage
apart. Conditions were just
too rough for the 1 a.m. performance.
I had been invited to play on stage with some of the greats and flipping that switch in my
mind off was a tough pill to
swallow. That’s when I got to thinking about what I learned from Luther. Dickinson cut his
teeth with North
Mississippi Allstars but has been a member of The Black Crowes and spent time on the road
and in the studio with
Robert Randolph as part of The Word. He spoke a great deal about musical confidence and
the need to have faith in
yourself. Col. Bruce, he said, taught him to get out there and play the same for ten
or ten thousand. A phrase he
repeated over and over again was, “fake it till you make it.”
With the port in Miami hours away, the last performance of the cruise was taking place in
the Jam Room on one of the
lower decks. Anders Osborne’s drummer, Eric Bolivar, was hosting from behind his drums and
he had Eric Krasno
(guitar) from both Lettuce and Soulive on stage, as well as Robert Walter, a Greyboy
Allstars alum whose current
band, 20th Congress, had played on the pool deck hours before. This time around I did not
have an invitation to jam
but Luther had instilled in me the importance of having confidence and I was intent on
playing on stage with the
pros, one way or another.
I got my apple green Les Paul from my stateroom and worked my way to the front row of the
crowd and kept pointing
at an amp that wasn’t being used. Eventually I was asked if I wanted to get on stage with
an “are you serious?” tone
and I jumped at the opportunity. This would be the final exam of my Masters course, a
chance to utilize everything
I’d learned when the stakes were at their highest.
The first thing I did was take Luther’s advice and not care about the size of the crowd.
After I’d tuned the audience
out, I started listening. Everyone had huddled around the drum kit to discuss the next
move when we decided to jam
on a funky blues in the key of D sharp.
After the drums and bass started, Krasno kicked in with a funky riff that got things going
and I decided to pull from
one of Victor’s lessons and appreciate the space between notes. I listened to what was
going on before I got in the
proverbial pool, but rather than dive in head first, I put my toes into the water and
waded my way in.
My role went from playing a single muted chord to dishing out a rapid rhythm lick that
broke one of my strings
before I had a chance to take a solo. After Walter and Krasno both had a chance to show
off their chops, I got a
glance from Kraz that said, “it’s your turn.” With five strings and a stockpile of fresh
lessons in mind, I kicked into a
short solo that did just what I’d learned it should: told a story with a start, middle and
While I got to live out my fantasy as a life long musician, you didn’t have to be an
experienced player to learn a great
deal during Masters at Sea. The core message of this program was that music is a language
and any language exists
to communicate an idea. Instruments may be tools to help us accomplish this task, but even
without them we can
still get the point across. Some students had a greater vocabulary than others, but
whether you were on the boat or
you’re behind the screen reading this, the most important thing I learned is that every
one of us has something
special to say. We just have to have faith in ourselves to say it.