Feature | Learning From The Masters On Jam Cruise 12

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 Caribbean Sea.

Jam Cruise has been hosting the best 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 Band.

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 incorporated faculty 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 recognizable.

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 well.

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 people 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 ending.

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.