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Gary Willis: Something to Say

By Published: October 23, 2007
AAJ: Can I quote you on that? It's not going to be professional suicide for you?

GW: It's the truth. What's great about the internet is that it's killing the record industry [laughs]. I'm not sure what's replacing it is the answer but it's better for a lot more people who would have been way worse off with the old system.

AAJ: I checked out some of your teaching videos on YouTube, and although I'm a non-musician, even I felt I could understand what you were saying and I sensed that you are really a natural teacher. Is teaching something that you feel drawn to or does it just help to pay the rent?

GW: I've always enjoyed teaching. Part of the reason is I'd never had a teacher on bass so I had to experiment and figure out for myself how to get from point A to point B so I think I can communicate that pretty well to people. This is not handed down, second-hand information.

It's not something that I consider beneath me because there are some people who can play but they don't have a clue how to communicate ideas. I enjoy that moment when the light bulb comes on in the student's head.

AAJ: What was it about the electric bass that seduced you, say over the electric guitar?

GW: I don't know if it was the instrument so much, I mean my parents needed a bassist (laughs) so I got a bass when I was thirteen. I used to listen to music through my dad's left hand—he played piano—and it was such a groove the way he used to play the bass on his left hand, it seemed to drive the music, it seemed to be responsible for the momentum of the music so I learned to listen to music from that end.

Gary Willis

The other part of it is in my second or third year in college, I had to pay back a loan to stay in school, they wouldn't continue with the loan, so I had a Les Paul and a P-Bass and I had to sell one of them and what I based the decision on is that I would play in the same bands on bass and guitar, playing guitar it wouldn't matter how well I played if the rhythm section wasn't happening the music didn't feel right, didn't feel like it was reaching its potential. And when I played in the same band on bass it worked. I had the instinct there to make the music go where it should.

AAJ: You were never seduced by the acoustic bass, was that simply a question of preferring red-heads to brunettes?

GW: No. Physically it's a way, way different animal. I had to study classical upright so I'm familiar with what it is, but my physical approach to the instrument is completely opposite of what it takes physically to get a sound out of that big, huge box because I play very light with my right hand. I like the way it functions sometimes and I feel like I'm able to function like an acoustic when I want to, but really I'm not drawn to acoustic bass at all.

AAJ: Many years ago in a music shop in Belfast there was an angry sign which read "NO SMOKE ON THE BLOODY WATER OR YOU RE OUT ON YOUR EAR! —this was in the days before Belfast was tourist-friendly. What riffs did you play to death when you were learning?

GW: I don't know, I got a guitar when I was fifteen, the only bass I knew was on the radio and that wasn't challenging me so I learned a lot of fingerboard information on the left hand for about seven or eight years. I totally missed the rock bands; I missed all your stereotype guitar-based experiences.

AAJ: I'm going to throw a few names of bass players at you and if you have something to say then go ahead, if not no worries. First up, Scott LaFaro.

GW: I'm really not that familiar with that much of LaFaro, I'm a huge fan of Bill Evans though so I may have been influenced a lot without knowing it.

AAJ: Larry Graham.

GW: He was the father of slap bass. I used to slap a lot. I was interested in being this chameleon when I first moved to Los Angeles. because I had all this opportunity to play studios and I thought I should do it so I explored slap bass a lot but eventually I was drawn to the fretless just for what I want to say on the instrument, go down that path, stay on that path.

AAJ: Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen.

GW: [Laughs] I remember listening to this record of him and Oscar Peterson, I listened to it to death. It was kind of early in my jazz understanding and my ear just wasn't good enough to keep up. I was amazed when I couldn't put two notes together of what he was doing.

AAJ: I know you're a fan of Rocco Prestia.

GW: Oh yeah, a huge influence. To me he's a really creative improvisational musician; within the same tune, over the same chord progressions he'll come up with a different groove for every solo. I like the amount of energy he provides. I think he's a huge influence for me.

AAJ: I saw Tower of Power for the first time ever at the end of 2006 and they were just amazing, so much energy!

GW: Was it Garibaldi on drums?

AAJ: Yeah, it was.

GW: Oh, so the real thing.

GaryAAJ: Yeah, they make Maceo Parker and even latter-day James Brown sound labored by comparison. What about Jaco Pastorius?

GW: You can't deny his influence, you can't deny his personality and I had to learn what he was doing but my attitude towards influences is that you have to go through them and a lot of people stop when they get to Jaco and don't go any further.

I'm not trying to say I've gone further, but I adopt what people are doing and understand it and get inside of it deeply in order to choose my own identity. A lot of people go to the surface of what he's done and get that in their fingers but they don't really get inside it and go through it.

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