Chris Tarry: New Challenges, New Influences, New York

Paul Olson By

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Some people, especially ones who were big Metalwood fans, ask me, 'how do you make a living playing fusion?' Thats an easy question. You dont! And why would you want to?
Chris TarryWhy would a very successful musician throw his career away to become just another bassist in New York City?

Well, Chris Tarry didn't exactly throw his career away. But the Calgary-born, Vancouver-based Tarry was certainly one of the most celebrated bassists in Canada. As a solo artist and one-fourth of the fusion super group Metalwood, Tarry was a serious presence on the Canadian jazz scene and a winner of two Juno Awards (that's the Canadian Grammy, mind you).

And when Tarry moved to New York in 2003, he didn't change his name—his name and experience came with him. He couldn't exactly be just another bassist, either; Tarry's reputation came from his mastery of the electric bass, not the acoustic. While the jazz of the 1970s seemed crammed with electric bassists—Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius come immediately to mind, of course—Tarry is the only electric bassist to have really emerged in the last twenty years in jazz. His technical expertise and understanding of how electric bass can actually work in jazz are indisputable.

Still, Tarry took a great risk relocating to New York, where there are no dearth of great players; certainly, he wasn't the known quantity he was north of the border. But Tarry was, and is, more than a great player. He's a fine writer, and he brought his tunes with him. Today he's one of the workingest sidemen in New York, playing in multiple genres, and has a steady, working band. I spoke with Tarry about his excellent 2006 CD Sorry to Be Strange, which at the time was his most recent album (the brand-new, out-this-minute second recording from the Chris Tarry Group, Almost Certainly Dreaming is just as good as Sorry and further establishes this band as one of the best working today.), the move to New York, the secrets of playing electric bass in jazz music, and a good deal more. The affable, good-humored Tarry is, incidentally, the only person I've spoken to who can use the word "gazillions and make it sound hip.

Chapter Index
  1. The Chris Tarry Group and Making a Band Record
  2. Hooking Up With Musicians in New York and Making a Record Sound Like a Bazillion Dollars
  3. Sorry to Be Strange: Tunes
  4. More Tunes on Sorry and the Luxury of Having a Steady Group
  5. Making Little Films and iPod Eclecticism
  6. Project 33 and Being an Electric Bassist
  7. Moving to New York: a Good Idea? and Metalwood: Definitely Dead?

The Chris Tarry Group and Making a Band Record

All About JazzFirst, let's talk about Sorry to Be Strange, your most recent CD and the first, I think, since you became a New Yorker.

This is your first record since the 2003 Project 33 recording, which seems like a sort of unique one-off project. Sorry to Be Strange is a quintet set by a very sympathetic and very together group of New Yorkers—plus you and saxman Kelly Jefferson. It's very much a band recording, unlike, say, your movie-for-the-ears Of Battles Unknown Mysteries (Maximum Jazz) from 2001, which had a rotating cast of a couple different groups and several configurations of players. Certainly, this is not a "listen-to-me-I'm-the-bass-player album. I can always hear you, but you're not acting as the star here, and you haven't exactly boosted your instrument in the mix. So what kind of record did you set out to make? Were you eager to make a really band-ish sort of record?

Chris Tarry: Yeah. I kind of put this band together—with the exception of Kelly Jefferson, who lives in Toronto—when I moved to New York about five years ago. We had started playing, and I had some tunes, and it just sort of evolved that way. I really wanted to capture the band. Like you said, I'd never really done a band record. I was always involved in other people's bands, but when it came time to do my own record, I always wanted to involve all the people that I was playing with as a sideman.


So this is the first chance I had to do a real band record. And my least favorite records in the world are [laughing] bassist records.

AAJ: No, those sometimes don't age very well.

CT: Especially the ones that are about, "Look, here's all the crazy things I can do on this instrument that was never designed for people to do this stuff on in the first place! That's why I think the strongest element should always be the tune. It'll go well if you have a good tune. If people enjoyed playing the music, and the music inspired everybody; to me, that's the best thing. I save all those highfalutin' bass tricks for some crazy gig out there that would actually require that. For my money, I want to listen to records that are, one, kind of eclectic, and two, full of great tunes.

So I'm really psyched to have made a band record, and I'm glad you hear it that way. That's definitely what I was going for.

AAJ: You did this record with some great New York City players: guitarist Pete McCann, drummer Dan Weiss and pianist Jon Cowherd. And Kelly Jefferson, who I think is very underrated south of the Canadian border. Tell me how you ended up with these guys and what they add to the music.

CT: Dan and I had been playing a little bit together when I first came to New York, and I've always loved playing with him. I think he's definitely one of the top drummers of his generation—just a terrific musician. I was playing with Pete McCann in the Mahavishnu Project, and he got me into that band. You know, I pretty much met all these guys the first week I moved to New York. Well, John Cowherd I didn't meet until later. But I've done a lot of playing with him in different situations.

And Kelly has always had this sound that I always like. He was on my last record, he was on this record, and he'll be on my next one as well. He just has this sound that's so flowing and lyrical, and it's a big sound. I just love the way he plays the melodies. And he went to school with Dan and all these guys at the Manhattan School of Music, so everybody knows each other. That's a big thing for me; we have a great time just hanging out.

So I'd played with everyone in different situations in other people's bands, and I love what they do. So I just tried to create a framework where they could do what they do.

AAJ: And some great tunes for them to do it on.

CT: Well, thanks. I keep writing and keep writing, and hopefully it matures over the years. I think since I moved to New York, my writing has gotten a little more New York—whatever that might be. It's definitely an inspiring place to be writing.


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