Janek Gwizdala: Cooking Up A Little Bass Magic

Ian Patterson BY

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I think that having any modicum of virtuosity in your playing comes with a huge responsibility not to use it all the time
—Janek Gwizdala
Virtuosity is not something innate but is rather the result of years of dedication to one's instrument. English-born, Los Angeles-based electric bassist/composer Janek Gwizdala certainly qualifies as a virtuoso but he's the first to acknowledge that the learning—and the practice—never ends. Gwizdala knows that great technical ability, however, doesn't automatically equate with great music, and his seven recordings as a leader to date are testament to his drive to put the tune before ego-driven displays of dazzling chops.

Gwizdala's CDTheatre By The Sea (Self Produced, 2013) brings together an impressive array of musicians in service of the bassist's highly melodic tunes. Trumpeter Randy Brecker, guitarist Mike Stern, trumpeter/trombonist Elliot Mason, drummer Peter Erskine, pianist Alan Pasqua and vocalist Lizzy Loeb are part of a stellar cast that Gwizdala wrote the music especially for. It's an accessible and beautifully relaxed session that covers broad stylistic terrain, from wordless ballad to funk grooves and the flavors of the Mediterranean.

Gwizdala's lyricism as a bassist and a writer is central to the music and he shows the musicality that made him one of the most in-demand bassists in New York for the ten years he spent there. For the past six years Gwizdala has made Los Angeles his home. The move from the jazz capital of the world to LA was a question of lifestyle; for Gwizdala, lifestyle, physical well-being and maintaining a positive attitude towards life are essential to succeed in the business of making music—music that lasts.

All About Jazz Although you are renowned as a virtuosos bassist, the music on Theatre By The Sea, like all your albums, focuses on melody and songwriting; would you say that's what you're most interested in as a musician?

Janek Gwizdala I think I'm most interested in the long term and what lasts in music. If you think back to the 1700's—although they unfortunately didn't have any hi-tech recording devices back then—there must have been virtuoso musicians, and incredible performances, but what lives on from that is melody and composition. Even when you look back as far as recorded music goes, I think it's the writing that lives on through other people's interpretations, rather than some crazy solo or virtuosic chops within the music. I think that having any modicum of virtuosity in your playing comes with a huge responsibility not to use it all the time.

AAJ: The most notable bit of soloing on Theatre By The Sea , on the composition "Erdnase" evokes guitarist Pat Metheny's lyricism; is Metheny an influence on you?

JG: Pat is a huge influence on me. I've transcribed many of his solos and listened to almost everything he's ever recorded in great depth. I've found myself having to refrain from listening to him for the past few years to make sure the influence on my playing and my music isn't overwhelming.

AAJ: Have you ever played with Metheny?

JG: I did work with Pat once for a radio show back in 2007, and I couldn't sleep afterwards. I would just lay there at night with my eyes wide open thinking about the feeling of his time. Being in a room with him, playing with him that close, it was definitely a life changing experience, and something I think about on a regular basis when it comes to motivation to work on time, sound, and melody.

AAJ: In general, are you chiefly inspired by other bassists, or by any musicians/songwriters?

JG:Enter the album name hereI'm rarely inspired by other bassists and am conscious of not over-listening to them, even when I'm a huge fan. Jaco [Pastorius] would be an obvious example for instance. I was so into Jaco, and still am of course, how could you not be with that infectious sound, time feel, and lyricism? But for 10 years I've hardly listened to his music at all, specifically because it's such a huge part of my life and a massive influence on me. There are just way too many bass players who cannot leave that style alone, and end up stunting their growth as a unique voice when such a huge influence hangs over them on a daily basis. It really doesn't matter what genre of music you're into, or who your hero is. I pick Jaco because he's such a huge influence on the world of music in general.

AAJ: It's amazing how influential he still is given his relatively short life?

JG: Absolutely. He helped shape modern music with a relatively small number of recordings, and he had a tragically short life. I marvel at this constantly and I'm always reminded of how important his compositional contribution to the world has been. I aspire to make similar contributions through my writing more so than my playing.

AAJ: Do what degree are you self taught?

JG: Well, after the initial influences of my classical guitar teacher Peter Woodings when I was a teenager, and then the mentorship of [bassist] Laurence Cottle when I first picked up the bass, a large chunk of the work has been done on my own. I think this is a similar story for most musicians that make a career of what they do and there's really no way around it. A teacher can't teach you taste or opinion. Those are things you find on your own. They help shape your voice and your sound, and they inspire you to fill your practice routine with relevant material.

AAJ: Coming back to Theatre By The Sea, Lizzy Loeb's wordless vocals are just gorgeous on this album; what can you tell us about her?

JG:Well, first of all she's one of, if not the greatest singer I've ever worked with. There's a touch and timbre to her voice that is completely unique. Her song writing is world class, and her guitar playing, not just comping, is incredible—though she doesn't play too often. Her ability to listen and create in any situation is completely natural and the fact that she has an instantly recognizable voice and style cements her place in music history. She can succeed at anything she wants.

AAJ: That's high praise indeed, especially as you've also played and recorded with singer Gretchen Parlato, who is another huge talent.

JG: Yeah, Gretchen is another kick-ass singer and again has a unique sound and vibe to what she does. I think, like with any musician that I'm drawn to, it's never instrument specific. It's the fact that a musician like Gretchen brings this unique angle to the music regardless of the fact that she's a singer. She could play the bassoon for all I care. It's about the person and the emotion and not so much about the instrument they choose to express themselves with. And I'm just not a good lyricist. I'm working on it and there are some plans for albums with words in the pipeline, but it's going to be a while before I feel comfortable releasing material like that.

AAJ: That answers a couple of questions. A lot of your compositions and your playing have a sung quality; is that something you're consciously aiming for or is it subconscious?

JG: I'm heavily influenced by a lot of singers, there's no doubt about that. I think it's probably the most expressive instrument we have simply because it's the one that's most closely connected to our brains where all the musical ideas are coming from. Along with all the Pat Metheny transcriptions and [saxophonist] Michael Brecker solos I've worked on, there are dozens of sung melodies that I've transcribed and learned to play on the bass.

AAJ: Can you give an example or two of singers whose songs you've transcribed?

JG: I've worked on everything from Chaka Khan and Otis Redding, to Kelly Clarkson and Kay Perry. Good melodies and good singers are gold when it comes to finding material to assimilate into my playing.

AAJ: You sing when you play and some musicians like pianist Keith Jarrett are renowned for it, though many others do too; how important is that aspect of your music?

JG: It's about phrasing to me and having that connection between the brain and the instrument. I'm always striving to get the bass as closely connected to my brain as to my voice. So using some form of vocalization when I play is essential to the makeup of my music.

AAJ: Guitarist Mike Stern plays beautifully on "Portugal" and "Once I Knew," and it's maybe a side of him that we don't hear too often; you've played with Mike over the years, what are his qualities as a musician that attract you to him?

JG: First and foremost, he's one of the kindest human beings I've ever met. I think that's the thing that attracts me to him as a musician the most. He's melodic, lyrical, soulful and he's full of the blues, as well as the obvious major jazz and rock elements of his playing. He is beautifully crazy.

AAJ: He seems like one of the nicest guys you could ever meet, is he always that sweet?

JG: He really is. No matter what crazy stuff is going on, or who's doing what, the underlying message he projects is one of kindness. He's compassionate, loving, open, caring, and kind. I can't think of many other things you need in a human being. Always with a smile on his face, always with a guitar in his hand, and always ready to listen or talk. When you add in the fact that he's a musician on that level... the story tells itself.

AAJ: Other notable musicians on Theatre By The Sea include trumpeter Randy Brecker, drummer Peter Erskine, trumpeter/trombonist Elliott Mason, pianist Alan Pasqua and saxophonist Bob Franceschini; are these people you play with regularly?

JG: Well, now that I live in Los Angeles I don't get to play with most of those guys on a daily basis, but I have worked with them all a bunch over the past decade or so. Alan [Pasqua} and Peter {Erskine] are in LA so I see and work with those guys the most right now I guess. But I will make an excuse to perform with any of those guys anytime it's possible. They all hold such incredible talents and positive energy and respect for the music that they're a joy to be around.

AAJ: Do you have such a thing as a regular working band?

JG: Not right now. It's been a while actually, not since I lived in NYC. But I am planning more touring for each record I release which will hopefully put the musicians from the recordings on the road and form a working band for at least a short period of time.

AAJ: Everybody is so busy in New York. I wonder if it's difficult to get the people you want on a recording? Does the availability of musicians dictate the recording dates of your CDs or do you go with whoever is available?

JG: The guys are definitely busy. I'm in the process of planning a record date in February for a new album and it's a bit of a challenge to get all the cats I want in town at the same time. I will wait for some people and then if it's really looking like not working out I might shelve the idea and try something a little more realistic.

AAJ: You spent a long time in New York, which a lot of jazz musicians consider as the only place to live and work; what prompted you to move to Los Angeles?

JG: I'm almost 6 years in L.A. now, although I did spend a decade living in New York City. Musically speaking I think there's no other place like New York on the planet and certainly nowhere you can make that much progress in music on a daily basis. But the older I get the higher the quality of life I like to enjoy and California offers me something on a human level that is right for me at this point in my life.

AAJ: What do you think of the music scene in the UK? Do you keep tabs on what's going on?

JG: I don't keep up to date with the UK, but the few things I do hear from old friends and new musicians asking my advice aren't the most positive things I've heard.

AAJ: Like what, for example?

JG: I hear that a lot of people's attitude is not positive the majority of the time when it comes to discussing life as a musician living in the UK. It's expensive, there is minimal support for the arts, and audiences are waning. At the same time, I also think there isn't an excuse for not being successful. Either you have something new and unique that people want to hear, or else perhaps you're complaining about the music scene being tough in London because you're doing the same thing you've done for 15 years, and are spending no time innovating.

But it doesn't matter where you live you have the responsibility to put in the work to reach your goals. No city in the world hands them to you on a plate and if you commit to being a musician there are things you have to do and that you can't complain about.

AAJ: Yeah, that correlation between hard work and reaching your goals is true of any walk of life. You come across as a very positive person; how do you deal with negative experiences, musically speaking?

JG: Negative experiences are just a learning experience in dealing with other human beings. You can make what you want out of them and I try and choose to make them into positive learning experiences rather than let them get the better of me. You can control nothing but your response to a negative situation. Getting as angry or as negative as someone around you just promotes more negative energy. Choosing not to engage, or to offer help rather than abuse, is generally a really good place to start. I also take great care in who I choose to work with musically. You can't always predict how a situation is going to turn out but you can have a pretty good idea by working with people you have good relationships with and people you genuinely enjoy being around.

AAJ: Janek, another thing that stands out on Theatre By The Sea is how much room all the musicians have to solo; does this spirit of generosity come from bad experiences on stage in other people's band or from good experiences?

JG: It comes from writing this music for specific musicians. Once the melodies have been played, this is just the beginning of the picture I've formed in my mind about what possibilities may lie in the music. Giving people space to improvise is an essential part of the project and it's the reason I call upon those specific voices to play my music.

AAJ: When I met you at the The Sligo Jazz Project 2013 you told me about a rather unique plan you had to tour abroad, by renting yourself and your tunes out to anybody who wished to play with you; how did this idea come about and what stage is this idea at?

JG: Well, it's called the One Night Stand World Tour, and it's about to launch just before Christmas. I'm going to have a website with music to three of my tunes posted on it, a set of instructions and a contact button for people who want to be involved. The concept is to do four three-week tours in 2014 in Europe, South America, Asia, and the US, with a possibility of a few one-offs in other locations should they be possible. I'll travel alone and audition musicians via YouTube by having them make a video of one of my songs.

The musicians, from all over the world then become a band member, the booking agent, and the promoter for the show in their town. I hope that these people are fans of my music and will get something out of performing it with me, just as I will get something great out of meeting incredible musicians from all over the world, and widening my audience over the course of the year without having to travel the globe with a band from the US. I got the idea from cats like [saxophonist] Sonny Stitt who almost never had a band and would use a pickup trio in each city or country.

AAJ: It sounds like a real adventure with the potential for some memorable moments.

JG:I'm sure there will be some incredible stories from this project. I plan to film lots of it for a documentary and write a book about it throughout the process. It could be a total disaster or a rip roaring success. But who knows until I try? I'm really looking forward to it and to meeting all these people around the world. I'm very optimistic about the outcome."

AAJ: You are a firm believer in the connection between lifestyle and the progress you make on your instrument. It seems like such simple logic but it's something that is rarely talked about; could you expand a little on your philosophy?

JG: That's a great question and I wish it was a topic brought up more often. Lifestyle has everything to do with my state of mind as a human being. We have human needs from our first day to our last and listening to our bodies and providing those needs should come a long way before practicing scales or listening to records.

AAJ: How does that relate to touring? Do you have a specific coping strategy or routine?

JG: I can't burn the candle at both ends on the road and not expect consequences, especially as I'm in my mid-thirties now and that stuff has way more of an effect on me than it did 15 years ago. I'm currently on tour in Europe with [keyboardist] George Whitty and [drummer] Tom Brechtlein and as I was flying out for the tour I started listening to my body. It was telling me no sugar, sweets, desert or alcohol for the entire two weeks I'm gone.

We're spending a lot of time in Germany which is home to some great beer and there's always plenty of amazing European chocolate around. But being away from my daily routine of playing tennis and being in the gym at home I needed to make some dietary changes on this tour to make sure I didn't come home overweight, out of shape, and potentially depressed as a result.

This is just the way my body works and we're all different of course. But there are some basic things we can all do better as human beings that will allow us to do so much more with our music, or whichever creative path we might have chosen. I play tennis for two hours a day on average and mix in some sessions in the gym alongside that. Doing that early in the day really opens up my mind and makes me far more able to work hard on music and feel good about sitting still for so long with my instrument. I've been able to play tennis on the road here in Germany and Austria and I bring my tennis bag wherever I'm touring.

AAJ: Taking care of the body and mind is important but it's also ever more necessary for musicians to be able to take care of business these days and for many musicians it's a daunting task. You have published a book called You're A Musician, Now What? (BookBaby, 2012) Could you describe the main components of this self-help guide?

JG: The book is the story of going from not having next month's rent—despite being on the cover of magazines, having equipment thrown at me from every direction and being what some might consider successful as a musician—to making a six-figure income in less than ten months. I tell the story of how I started to leverage the internet and all it has to offer in order to grow my fan base, produce new music, and tour the world as an artist without having to get a day job to do it.

AAJ: A lot of musicians who, like yourself, studied at Berklee say that the best thing about the education was what they learned through playing with other students; was that the case for you?

JG: Yes. By far the most crucial thing I experienced at Berklee was the opportunity to create a network of musicians that I'm still working with to this day. Playing every day with them, being motivated by the other students, and basically being kicked in the ass to keep improving.

AAJ: For many young jazz musicians from all over the world Berklee is something of a rite of passage, but of course not everyone can afford to go to Boston to study. What advice would you give to musicians who are serious about leaning their craft but aren't sure about how to go about it?

JG: I was fortunate enough to get a small scholarship to go to Berklee and that helped a lot. But the main focus is on what a young musician thinks they might want out of music. If they have a passion such as jazz for instance, then the choices are pretty clear to me. Move to New York City at all costs and put in the hard work it takes to achieve the goal.

AAJ: Simple enough advice...

JG: It's a simple question to ask yourself but a mammoth task admittedly on the other side of the answer should you say "Yes, this is what I want to do." Geography is different for all genres of music; Nashville is well known for its Country music scene and New York for Jazz. But with the internet it's not hard to locate the center of any musical culture in the world. And if you have the talent, the patience, and the will to work hard, you will succeed. Of that there is no doubt.

AAJ: How much do you use the internet as a tool for learning and improving your craft?

JG: I use the internet to learn every day of my life, looking for inspiration by discovering new sounds on YouTube. I'm using Google as my best friend and biggest educator on a daily basis. There is a wealth of information out there that is hard to comprehend and the more we can utilize it the better.

AAJ: Janek, you spend a lot of your time touring and the road all over the world throws up some strange situations; what's the strangest gig you've played?

JG:Enter the album name here When I look back on it, the strangest gig I've played might be the first gig I ever played as a bassist. I knew nothing and could hardly play, but I could read music. It was in a vine vault in London, right by the river, and we opened the real book on page one and kept reading until the gig was over. I think we go to letter P if I remember right. There have of course been many weird and wonderful experiences along the way but I think they will have to end up in a book at some point.

AAJ: What are your upcoming plans? What does 2014 hold for you?

JG: Aside from the One Night Stand World Tour I have a packed schedule for 2014. I'll be playing more with Tom Brechtlein and George Whitty in the trio we're currently on tour with. I'll be in the studio recording and releasing at least one new solo album, if not two. There will be shows with [drummer] Morgan Agren and [guitarist] Alex Gunia to promote a trio project recorded in Sweden in early 2013 set for release in early 2014 plus several projects that I can't talk about yet that will be lots of fun to part of and are all launching in 2014.

AAJ: Could you ever imagine yourself doing anything else? If you did switch careers, what lessons you have learned from playing music could you carry with you to the new day job?

JG: I'm a huge fan of magic and of cooking. I try to do as much of both whenever I can and would love to pursue them both more at some point. I think the most important thing is being open-minded and having fun doing whatever you do. Building a process to learn and create would come a close second.

Photo Credit

Page 1: Courtesy of Janek Gwizdala

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