Josh Ginsburg: Intent
I've been playing with bassist Josh Ginsburg off and on for about a decade. I always liked his healthy, muscular sound on the upright double bass, and his approach to soloing stuck me as virtuosic without sacrificing the bottom of the instrument. He's appeared on three of my recordings, including the soon to be released trio CD on the Steeplechase label. He's busy as a sideman, but he is also now showing interest in becoming a bandleader. I got to be a musical part of his first CD as a leader. Ginsburg is doing a Kickstarter fund drive to help complete the CD, and in this interview he talks about that, as well as how got started as a bassist and a composer.
GC: Tell me about your background. What are you earliest musical memories? What started you on the road to becoming a professional musician?
JG: I'm from Baltimore, from inside the beltway, unlike some other people we know. I remember listening to mix tapes my brother made of just pop music when I was very young. Music seemed so special; my parents didn't listen to much music at the time. Then I remember in middle school a high school band came and played, and I was completely entranced for the whole concert. I had some piano lessons when I was very young, but that didn't go very well. Then I started playing saxophone in middle school. Then one day, my brother brought home an electric bass for me to play he was learning guitar. I started playing the stuff that was popular in Baltimore/DC, mostly punk rock and go-go, kind of a strange combination actually. But I was also listening to jazz; my brother had a little bit of a collection. I remember listening to Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) through the door while I was lying in bed. Also, my next- door neighbor was a big jazz fan; he and my father would sometimes take us to the Left Bank to hear live jazz. I remember hearing Lewis Nash and just staring at his hands for the whole show. In high school, I wanted to play saxophone in the jazz band, but my director found out I played electric bass, and he needed a bassist. So he handed me this plywood bass with steel strings like 6 inches off the fingerboard and said, "Play this." Many band directors don't know anything about string instruments, so I developed a lot of bad habits I later had to unlearn.
Soon after that, I started working a little around town. I guess I had a decent ear, and of course it's easier to work as a bassist. And that's when I really started catching the jazz bug. I learned a lot from the guys I was playing with.
I remember one time, a trumpet player took me to a club on Pennsylvania Ave when I was probably 15 or 16. Pennsylvania Ave had been Baltimore's 52nd street, lined with clubs that had jazz and other live music. By this time though it was pretty rough, though it still had this crazy viberidiculously swinging organ trios and customers dressed in bright colored suitsI remember him telling me, "Don't tell your parents I took you here."
GC: Can you talk about some important learning experiences on the bandstand?
JG: Well I'm always learning on the bandstand, every time I play. Maybe it's a chord substitution, or a rhythm the drummer plays, or something like that. But the most important overall things I learned early on from playing in Baltimore at the coffee shops, restaurant, and so forth. I was really just playing by ear at that point.
So then one day we played a concert in front of a real audience for the first time. And the trumpet player started playing a ballad, and there was no pianist, and I spaced on the changes, and things just went pretty badly. And wow, that trumpet player was pissedhe was pretty old schooland he cursed me out! And that's when I started to realize that I needed to really get it together, really come to terms with that everything I play actually is of consequence. I think once you are on that road it changes your whole perspective. In many ways, that is still my goal today, to make sure everything I play is full of intent.
I do a lot of workshops in schools and sometimes I feel like some students suffer from this, the school environment is so sheltered, it's easy to just float through everything and think that's ok. And of course it is complicated music; jazz is improvised and should be creative, sometimes you even want it to be vague! But I think that experience actually helped meit was a wake up call.
GC: How did you develop your technique? Did you always have a natural feel for the bass?
JG: I think what helped me at first was that I didn't know the bass was so difficult. The reality is the double bass is an insanely hard instrument to masteror even just play simply onbut I think, at least for me, it was good to not know that. Because you automatically put up these walls of what you can and cannot do on the instrument. But one way or another you will eventually have to deal with the technical issues of the instrument.
Until recently, almost all my technique came from just transcribing and playing and just trying to figure out ways to play things I liked, and make it sound right to my ear. It was not very formal, which I think has both advantages and disadvantages. I recently went back to school and am studying with John Patitucci, which has really been helpful with a more concrete technical approach.
GC: I didn't know you were are composer until recently. How long have you been composing and what inspires you?
JG: I've been writing for a long time, at least 10-12 years. I am very critical of my composing, so I haven't performed the music very often. But I have seen a growth in the writing over time. I'm really happy with most of the music I've been writing lately. Perhaps I've found my voice, so to speak. I'm inspired by a lot of jazz , obviously, but also other music; a lot of music from other countries and also some modern classical music. I feel like I'm finally at the point where I've absorbed enough of my influences where I can just write something and let the music go where it goes, and not try to force it to go somewhere. Or at least keep the forcing to a minimum.
GC: So what's happening with the new CD?
JG: The CD sounds great, you really played your butt off. It also features Eli Degibri on saxophones and Rudy Royston on drums. Eli is really amazing, I love his sound, [and] it's big and dark but still modern sounding. Rudy is also amazing, aside from just being a total badass, he has a really wide dynamic range and shapes the music outside of what is written on the paper, which is so important for this music. I think we really got to some good places, musically speaking.
I still need to get it mixed, mastered, printed, artwork etc. It will be coming out in January on Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records, which is a musician-run label that will arrange for worldwide distribution and publicity. Unlike most other labels, I will have full ownership of everything, which is nice.
GC: What is Kickstarter and what made you want to try it?
JG: Kickstarter is website that provides a way to crowd-fund artistic or other creative projects. You send an application for your project, and if they approve it, they give you a page where you present your idea and anyone can go on and pledge money to help make it happen.
Every pledge also receives a gift; I have tried to make sure all the gifts are really worthwile. A lot of the lower pledges are essentially just a pre-order of the CD, either a download or a signed CD. Then at higher levels I have different thing; I am going to write extended liner notes so the "non-expert" listener can really get a sense of what we are doing, I imagine it like the director's commentary on a DVD. Or, I also have an option where I will send out some favorite, but less well-known, songs to people through iTunes, along with something about the artists, or the songs, or just what I like about it.
I'm hoping to use the Kickstarter not just as a way to raise money, but as a way to let the audience inside to see how the creative process works. I think that's really important now that the record companies are pretty much out of the picture. And I think people are a little starved for understanding for that type of thing. There is so little information and so much misinformation for the general public about the arts and especially jazz.
GC: How can my readers donate to your project?
JG: Just go to [Kickstarter]. There is a video you can watch, which has some short music clips. And all the various gifts and pledge levels are listed. You do have to sign up for an Amazon accountif you don't already have oneto pledge, unfortunately there is no way around that.
The final date for the Kickstarter is October 9, and the funding is all-or- nothing. So everyone, please check it out!
GC: Any cool musical events coming up?
JG: The main thing I'd like people to know about is the CD release concertsJanuary 12 at the Jazz Gallery and January 14 at An Die Musik in Baltimore. Both are really great venues and we are going to be smoking!
GC: How has family life changed you music and or your musical goals?
JG: Well, before family, music was always the highest priority, which seems like a good thing, and maybe it is for a period. You know, endlessly obsessing over the craft. But at some point I think you can start to lose perspective. I think if you accept the idea that music is supposed to communicate something, which I do, then at some point you have to start living life and come down to earth. And definitely for me, the kids have forced me to do that. [laughs] Nothing says down to earth like changing a few diapers! And then just seeing kids grow up is so amazing, you really start to see what we are all made of.
So I really enjoy family life and get a lot out of it. I went back to school to get my masters because I could see doing more teaching, which would allow me to travel a bit less. Where at one time that seemed completely insane, I just wanted to play all the time.