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Gary Willis: Something to Say

Ian Patterson By

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Gary WillisSixteen years in Tribal Tech, the most innovative of post-Weather Report fusion bands, confirmed the status of Gary Willis as a modern-day bass icon. Picking up where Jaco Pastorius left off, Willis's explorations are stretching the possibilities of the fretless bass as a lead instrument, as evidenced on two 2007 releases, the storming Slaughterhouse 3 and his third solo album, Actual Fiction—a bass album unlike any other—both on Abstract Logix.

In a revealing interview Willis lends insight into his theory and talks about some of the defining experiences and influences in his career. He also shares his forthright opinions on matters ranging from record companies to YouTube, and from teaching to private eyeing.

Gary Willis spoke to All About Jazz contributor Ian Patterson from his home in Barcelona.

All About Jazz: In recent months you've produced Slaughterhouse 3 with drummer Kirk Covington and saxophonist Llibert Fortuny to great reviews, and more recently your solo effort Actual Fiction, which has also been very well received. I guess you must be pretty happy with the way these two albums have turned out?

Gary Willis: Well, especially since initially there wasn't a record company involved. We just did it and I was going to put it out myself and then Abstract Logix picked it up, so considering how it started it turned out great.

AAJ: You say you hadn't a record company when you started out, I saw a comment posted on YouTube which said: "There should be an ad in the music industry helping Willis! My suggestion: Bass genius, underrated, needs attention, money and respect—record companies welcome. Does that resonate with you at all?

GW: I don't know if I agree with that. The industry has changed quite a bit. There are opportunities for people to put there own stuff out. I don't go around thinking I deserve more respect. I do it because I feel like I have to do it. I love it sometimes, sometimes I hate it. In order to have more respect, more popularity, you have to make what are, for me, compromises in the decisions as to what kind of music you're going to make.

AAJ: Listening to Slaughterhouse 3 and Actual Fiction it doesn't sound like you've made any compromises at all, what sort of compromises do you mean?

GW: Sometimes they are subtle, they're psychological. I remember early on as a player, it was kind of a weird moment, I was taking this solo and I played a couple of easy ideas that were easy to grasp and the audience went crazy, and I didn't feel good about myself because I knew that I wasn't challenging myself as a player, and I recognized that if I played the same thing next time I would probably get the same response. And the next time I played I didn't.

I look at improvisation as something you explore, and personally I wasn't going to settle for just whatever the audience reacted to. It was kind of early on that I started making those decisions.

GaryAAJ: I accidentally stumbled across Gary Willis the visual artist on the web. His paintings are quite stunning in my opinion but what was interesting was an essay referring to his work by David Langsam which said: "It is essential rather than coincidental to say something significant, and to find a new way of saying it. Content and form both have to be potent and radical. This struck me as being totally relevant to creative music and to the music that you've made these last two decades. Would you care to comment on that?

GW: The form is definitely something I experimented more with on Actual Fiction. My first two solo CDs were definitely more traditional jazz forms, in that there was an environment that allowed the musicians to improvise and come back, to and on this I was just improvising in my studio, working on the finished product and I wasn't really concerned with trying to return to those kind of forms.

Here a melody gets stated and then something else happens and then it goes somewhere else and it just continues developing without the restrictions of having to follow back on itself, that's one element that I threw out the window. It was the same thing on Slaughterhouse 3 except that that music is improvised, it's melodic, it's got themes, a lot of themes for jamming-style music, but the forms there are still wide open.

AAJ: On Actual Fiction you use a lot of layering of sounds, programming and sampling and so on and in this sense it really is a solo album, but some folk might say such an approach to making music strips the music of the spontaneity that gives the music its soul.

GW: That's an old journalistic trick, when you say "some people [laughs] I am to disagree with some people? How do you feel?

AAJ: I think the studio these days, in fact for many, many years has been another instrument. I mean, Sydney Bechet, over sixty years ago overdubbed six different instruments, which he played himself on the one album. That technology was there then, so I think if the technology is there then it's absolutely justified and, to be honest, I don't really want to hear an absolute carbon copy of a song in concert.

GW: For me it's using all the tools at your disposal. On Actual Fiction a few of the tunes were inspired by spontaneous jamming and some of the soloing was inspired by spontaneous jamming, so for me working in the studio is just as spontaneous as playing live. You have to approach it that way. Sometimes you have to be like a mad scientist and experiment and in the process of doing that you'll come upon things that have this element of surprise and unexpectedness that is the opposite of peoples' stereotypes about really "produced music.

AAJ: Would it be fair to say then that although on the face of it the approach to Slaughterhouse 3 and Actual Fiction seem to be very different in actual fact the approach is quite similar?

GaryGW: I think what they have in common is that with Slaughterhouse 3 we used what was available, which was a total of one day of studio time and just jammed all this music, we went back and produced a little bit of it, though none of this was to take away from the improvisational part of it. Actual Fiction is mostly just me and my imagination.

AAJ: You've been based in Barcelona for a number of years now, what led you to set up camp there?

GW: I met my wife here. She came to the US for about a year-and-a-half, and then we decided to see what it was like to move here.

AAJ: It's been nine years since your last CD as leader, Bent (Alchemy Records, 1998) and then you produce two great albums back-to-back. Do you think your new environment has played a big role in this wave of creativity?

GW: It definitely has. I was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is a gorgeous place to live but I couldn't really be a musician; I was a web designer, I was a part-time Private Eye...

AAJ: Really? You were a Private Eye?

GW: Yeah, I did some surveillance work for a friend of mine. I ended up turning down some music just to do surveillance—the choices I had to play music in Santa Fe were not that great. Moving here has been great because it's given me the opportunity to be a musician again and focus on music.
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