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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.
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