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.

AAJ: What's the music scene like in Barcelona?

GW: There are really great musicians but it's not a huge scene. I would venture to say it's pretty much like any other place. There are few outlets to play live.

AAJ: Do you have a regular gig?

GW: No. What I do regularly I teach at a conservatory a couple of days a week, that allows me time to work on my own things , go out on tour and have something to come back home to. It's not really possible to be playing live all the time unless you are touring because when you play locally you're considered a local musician and you're paid like a local musician. That dilutes the impact on your pocket and on the public.

AAJ: Going back to Abstract Fiction, on Actual Fiction you use three bass guitars on some of the tracks like "Cartoon Fetish and "Mean Streak —what was the necessity for this?

GW: They each have the possibility of different sounds so the obvious answer is using the same bass wouldn't have created enough contrast. My main bass is the fretless GWB 1005 and both that and the ATK are outfitted with a pickup which allows me to use the Roland V-Bass system. The V-Bass allows a variety of sounds, in a higher register and more melodic. Then the other four-string bass, the Percussion, that I've strung with low strings allows me to get under my own bass and support that, so it just widens the range of options below and above what I regularly do,

AAJ: One of the basses that you use is described as a "modified P-bass [Fender Precision]; in what way is it modified?

GW: It's unconventionally strung with flatwounds—the B string is 120, so it's a kind of a loose B string, and then I modified it by putting some foam under the bridge to really deaden it up some more, so it sounds ancient. It sits underneath my bass. It doesn't have any bids!

AAJ: To my ear the song "Say Never sounds particularly inspired, what was the genesis of that tune?

GaryGW: It started out as the chord progression which I played on bass, and it may have sat there for a year, a year-and-a-half. Upon returning to it I started playing over it and gradually put it together, layered different things and made it build. I did have this concept of eventually turning the half-time feel into a double-time feel and I worked a lot on that transition, but I didn't want it to feel frantic and I wanted the bass to flow but not have the speed create excitement, just the feeling that you're going somewhere.

AAJ: It works perfectly for me; to me it's the standout track on the album. I'd like to ask you about Llibert Fortuny, who is quite an original and exciting voice. How did you hook up with him?

GW: We met at a jazz club called Jamboree, we played together and we've got some things in common, and so when I brought Kirk [Covington] over to work on Actual Fiction I booked a couple of nights at the Jamboree with Llibert, me and Kirk, and they were kind of eye-opening as far as the territory that we could cover.

What's amazing about Llibert is...[laughs] I hate alto sax, really, just because of the traditional way it's conceived ; I love Charlie Parker, I love Cannonball [Adderley], but past that there hasn't been much that I've enjoyed. The thing is he doesn't play like a saxophonist, he plays like a musician, and especially he's not always looking for opportunities to solo like most sax players. He's always looking for how to compositionally fit into the tune and take the song somewhere. So when we jam we're trying to jam compositionally.

AAJ: So, he doesn't play like a saxophonist, he plays like a musician? Did I hear that right? You're not going to make any friends amongst saxophonists.

GW: Alto players [laughs]. Kirk and I went to North State University, Texas together, and we spent so many hours playing behind these sax players, and it was like a fitness exercise, like, how many choruses could they play consecutively. It was kind of a joke after a while.

AAJ: The band Slaughterhouse 3 recently played the Sizget festival in Budapest. Was that your first gig together and how did it go down?

GW: Technically no, we played some last summer when we had Kirk out to record. It was our first world tour though. It was amazing; a real blast The audience was great. Somebody put a little bit of video up on YouTube and I emailed them trying to get more. I'm hoping there's some available. It was really a fun gig. I'm hoping we can do several Slaughterhouse 3 world tours consecutively, consecutive nights, you know? The last tour was just one.

AAJ: What's your take on YouTube? I've seen your teaching videos and old videos of Tribal Tech. Are you all for having it out there or do you feel this is just another infringement on the author's rights?

GW: I think you have to look at it now as promotion. Everybody, including myself, has jumped through these hoops trying to monetize it and you can't, the only thing you can do is just think that big. If you think that big then the way to use it is as promotion and if you try to monetize it it's just going to fail.

AAJ: You've produced four books on bass guitar instruction, one of which Ultimate Ear Training for Guitar and Bass (Hal Leonard, 1998) caught my attention and I wanted to ask you about the concept of "fingering —fingering sounds that you hear around you, and I wondered if you could explain a little bit about this theory?

GW: It came about as a reaction to how I was forced to experience ear training at university. At university there was a class full of oboists and pianists, and tubas and trombones, so in order to have something in common then ear training is taught, you are told to imagine it on a keyboard which allows everybody to go to a practice room and practice ear training, but it has nothing to do with your personal relationship with your instrument.

The other thing is that a lot of bassists and guitarists are told to try and stay away from patterns but the bass fingerboard is symmetric and you can trust the shapes to always get the sound that you want. So if you relate the shapes to the sound then you'll always be able to visualize what you hear.

GaryAAJ: No matter what that sound is?

GW: Exactly. If you develop the ability to imitate whatever you hear externally then you'll have trained yourself well enough to play whatever you imagine, and that's kind of the ultimate. It's the title I guess.

AAJ: Miles Davis, in one of his last in-depth interviews with Q Magazine in 1986 said that even car crashes sound musical these days. Do you think that Miles was at the fingering business as well then?

GW: The fingering business is based on the instrument and I'm sure Miles was able to play what he imagined. There was really the sense of freedom that I understood that Charlie Parker had. I didn't want to sound like Charlie Parker but you definitely get a sense of freedom—that he could just go and turn and stop and start and play whatever came into his head. It's that sense of freedom that I try to get.

AAJ: As a matter of interest if you don't mind my asking, how do your instructional books sell compared to your CDs?

GW: I think they sell very well and income has been very consistent, because I think the publisher is honest. Record companies? Bigger companies that have been involved in all the CDs I've produced in the past, except for my solo CDs have all some elements of corruption.

AAJ: And except for Abstract Logix you'd have to say as well?

GW: Yeah, except for Abstract Logix and Alchemy, but there has in the past been such an element of corruption that I've made more money from books and basses.

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.

AAJ: Your top three rhythm sections?

GW: I would say Rocco with Garibaldi, Tony Williams and Ron Carter and Jaco [Pastorius] and Alex [Acuna], no, Jaco and Peter [Erskine].

AAJ: The influence of Weather Report in your music over the years is clear; Joe Zawinul once said he reckoned Miles had learned more from him than the other way round, what's your take on Zawinul's influence in the last fifty years?

GW: I think maybe that was one of the reasons they split Weather Report up and decided to put their names in front of what they were doing instead of as an afterthought. Personally I think Zawinul's contribution to Weather Report was way underrated, he was involved in every aspect, obviously the compositions but also in the mixing, he was like the bandleader and I think that part is missing from a lot of people's understanding of what Weather Report was.

AAJ: You've also played with Wayne Shorter, which was about twenty years ago; what was that experience like?

GW: I had the best seat in the house. It was amazing. It was after that gig that I really started seriously composing. It definitely inspired me to start doing it myself.

AAJ: You contributed to the Mysterious Voyage—A Tribute to Weather Report (ESC, 2005) album....

GW: Send me one of those.

AAJ: You didn't get a copy, what? You're kidding?

GW: I emailed the company and he said, "Yeah, I'll send you one, and he never did. Imagine that.

AAJ: I can hardly believe that. Anyway, it was an amazing line-up of musicians and I thought it would make for a tremendous annual tribute festival, something along the lines of Gregg Bendian's Mahavishnu Project tribute, only with a cast of dozens—would a Weather Report fest appeal to you at all?

GW: The concept of it would probably be great for the audience but logistically, and I'm not against celebrating Weather Report as history, but if you look at the reality of it, the travel, the rehearsing and getting to play one or two tunes...[laughs]

AAJ: OK, I guess it would be something for the audience. Thanks for pouring a bucket of cold water on that. Let's talk about the Gary Willis bass produced by Ibanez. It was two years in the making and you have described it as "perfection. What specifically do you love about it?

Gary WillisGW: I love what it has become. When we first put it out there were little things that I took care of that were kind of impossible for a production, factory-made bass to have, and so there are touches I chalked up to my own pickiness, because I require really specific action, and the way that I play puts a lot of demands on how the bass is set up, so I thought these were setup elements and not necessarily manufacturing elements.

But since last year they started making the bass hand-made from beginning to end and prepared all those details. So like I said, the bass is perfect and I'm really honored and absolutely amazed that the bass is off the shelf exactly like I want it.

AAJ: For most people who consider you to be a modern bass icon, it's hard to imagine you developing even more vocabulary as a bassist. Do you think yourself that you've reached a certain limit in your own vocabulary on the bass?

GW: I think different environments inspire a search for your vocabulary and I feel like I've got something to say as a musician. And so for Abstract Fiction—I'm using your new title now—for Actual Fiction, what I spent a lot of time doing was trying to create an environment that would challenge my vocabulary, require different ways of expressing myself and fire me to play differently, challenge me with what I have to say.

As long as I'm interested in exploring those environments and situations that that require a different take on how to play or say something as a musician then I'll always explore. And the way the technology is changing I think it should continue to allow everyone to do that.

This interview is dedicated to Joe Zawinul, who passed away a week after it was conducted. Zawinul, the greatest Austrian composer since Mozart.

Selected Discography

Gary Willis, Actual Fiction (Abstract Logix, 2007)
Gary Willis/Llibert Fortuny/Kirk Covington, Slaughterhouse 3 (Abstract Logix, 2007)
Scott Kinsey, Kinesthetics (Abstract logix, 2006)
Various Artists, Mysterious Voyages—A Tribute to Weather Report (ESC, 2005)
Dennis Chambers, Outbreak (Tone Center, 2002)
Brett Garsed/TJ Hemerich/Gary Willis/Dennis Chambers/Scott Kinsey, Uncle Moe's Space Ranch (Tone Center, 2001)
Tribal Tech, Rocket Science (Zebra Records, 2000)
Tribal Tech, Thick (Bluemoon, 1999)
Gary Willis, Bent (Alchemy Records, 1998)
Allan Holdsworth, None Too Soon (Restless, 1996)
Gary Willis, No Sweat (Alchemy Records, 1996)
Tribal Tech, Reality Check (Bluemoon, 1995)
Brett Garsed/TJ Helmerich, Exempt (Legato, 1994)
Various Artists, Guitar Tribute to the Beatles: Come Together (NYC, 1993)
Tribal Tech, Face First (Bluemoon, 1993)
Tribal Tech, Illicit (Bluemoon, 1992)
Tribal Tech, Nomad (Relativity, 1990)
Joe Diorio/Robben Ford, Minor Elegance( MGI, 1990)
Jeff Richman, People like Us (MGI, 1989)
Tribal Tech, Dr. Hee (Passport, 1987)
Wayne Shorter, Phantom Navigator (Columbia, 1987)
Tribal Tech, Spears (Passport, 1985)
Allan Holdsworth, Metal Fatigue (Enigma, 1985)
Brett Garsed/TJ Helmerich, Quid Pro Quo (Legato, 1992)
Jeff Richman, Himalaya (Passport, 1985)

Photo Credits
Top and Bottom Photos: Courtesy of Gary Willis

Center Photo: Carles Roches, courtesy of Gary Willis

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