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Perhaps because he is in such high demand by an A-list of jazz and pop names, Garrison's own output as a leader has been less than prolific, with two studio releases and one live recording up to 2004. The music in Garrison's short but scintillating discography is a cocktail of melody, stirring improvisation and cutting-edge sounds. One of the shining lights of New York's underground scene, Garrison has countered the indifference of mainstream labels and venues by forging his own path; GarrisonJazz Productions was founded in 1998 to produce the bassist's music and to help promote artists with a similarly singular musical vision. This vision of an independent, creative musical hotbed will take another exciting step forward with the forthcoming Brooklyn opening of Garrison's own music venue, which will host both live performances and music production.
Shapeshifter Live 2010 Part 1 (GJP, 2010) captures Garrison solo, armed only with his bass and pre-programmed music. It is an exceptional sonic blast, which flows organically over 50 glorious minutes, blending a host of contemporary rhythms and sci-fi sounds through which Garrison's customary lithe bass improvisations purr and roar. For Garrison, the only category that truly matters is that of creativity and the desire to push the borders of his musical possibilities.
All About Jazz Six or seven years ago, on Shapeshifter (GJP, 2004), you recorded with a bunch of great musicians like keyboardists Scott Kinsey and Jim Beard, drummer Jojo Mayer, percussionist Arto Tuncboyacian and harmonica player Gregoire Maret, but there was one track, "Changing Paths," which featured just you and programming. Do the seeds of Shapeshifter Live 2010 go back to then? Was this a project you'd had in mind a long time?
Matthew Garrison Yeah. There are a lot of things you can do with a band and a lot of things you cannot do. I've been trying to get a bit closer to what it means to use my computer in real time. To be honest, there are really only a few segments in this latest project that indicate that. There's a part in "Exchanges" where I take my hands of the instrumentand that's kind of the motif of this project: trying to step away from the instrument yet still deal with itbecause a lot of the samples that are being manipulated on that particular tune is my bass and it's the same song, but it's being messed with in real time.
Obviously, the improvisation and the exchange between musicians can never be replaced, and that's definitely not my goal or my desire. There are a lot of details in this performance that can uniquely be worked at by myself. Essentially, what I'm doing is taking what I do in the studio and putting it onto a stage. It's almost an exact duplication of what happens in my studio, and that was the main point. A lot of people have come over to my studio, and when they hear what I'm doing they just flip out.
The performance was presented in surround sound, and that in itself was a change in my performance concept. I try to do that with the band sometimeswho's going to be in the surround environment and how that's going to work, how we shift from one musician to the other and the changes in the quadrophonic field or the surround field. These are all elements I'm going to be experiment with in the coming months. It's like going to a movie theater and you hear sounds moving in and around, behind, in front and on top of you. What we're doing is that we're taking all of those elements and we're improvising with that. My bass can be in any part of the room as I move my hands around certain parts of the instrument. There are so many other details that can be covered just operating by myself, and it probably gets the message across clearer because people understand that there are tracks being played behind me while I'm improvising. It doesn't take the focus away from the person in the center, which is myself, obviously, but this is not an ego trip, it's about trying to get to where I want to go.
AAJ: How important a role did your sound engineer play on this recording?
MG: My sound engineer, Warren Brown, is critical. When we work together, sparks fly, man, in the same way that sparks can fly when musicians performing bounce off each other. If you know how to use the new technology, you can create situations which are breathtaking. Warren is tremendous; I'm a bit of a control freak in terms of how hands-on I can be in changing sounds and changing directions of sounds, tempos and so on. I'll tell Warren I need a pedal that can do this or that, and this guy will start building one. The next thing I know, a few months later he comes back with a pedal that will enable me to move my sound in surround sound. He does it not to satisfy my request so much but because he enjoys doing it.
We also use iPhones and iPads to control situations, and we use different types of software. It's a 50-50 situation with Warren; he'll come up with ideas which are just perfectly in balance with what I'm trying to do. He also helps with the recording; once we get to the mixing and mastering, he's there. We make an interesting team, and it's so much fun. There's so much going on that sometimes you don't know if you're doing something different until you're out on stage and people are like: "What the fuck just happened?" [Laughs.] At that point, we know we're going in the right direction because the idea is to do something that has not been done before.
AAJ: So American artists ask too much, and the costs are prohibitive for European promoters these days?
MG: One of the first things you cut out of the equation are air fares and hotels. There's another part to this, which is that a lot of countries, like Germany for example, have a very high rate of taxation on performances, so there's a lot of legal documentation and work permits, and the promoters have to bend over backwards to get an act from overseas. It's understandable. It's all reasonable and it makes sense. Though by default, for someone like myself, this touring is now not a viable option for financing your life, let alone your career. So we're shifting from traveling everywhere to being in a central location where people can come to us, and I can see no better place at this point than New York.
AAJ: You described certain European audiences as jaded. Do you think they are simply spoiled by seeing so many gigs, and that it becomes more difficult for artists to really impress?
MG: I would say probably, yes.
AAJ: Maybe you should look into Asia. There are big audiences here hungry to hear great live music. The Jarasum International Jazz Festival in Korea, for example, has an audience that is 150,000 strong, and the people have the energy and enthusiasm of a rock festival audience. Asia could definitely be a viable option for artists seeking new touring options.
MG: We're doing that; we've started some forays into the Asian market, which has been fantastic. We're getting a really good reception and some very good fees for what we're presenting. We have Hong Kong, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Macau, Australia. I want to make this a regular thing. They're also asking me if I can contact this person or that person, so we're going to turn this into a small booking agency, so that we don't just help ourselves but we help the people who we think deserve proper exposure. The agents want the bigger names to fill their venues, but they're also willing to take the risk to see what's going on. In Europe they don't have time for that, which I just don't get.
I feel that the enthusiasm is here too, but there has to be an exchange between the business, the artist and the person that wants to go and enjoy the music. We're really trying to achieve that, where there's a true exchange. We're going to experiment in as many ways as we can with this venue, and we'll do whatever works. I agree with you about the excitement. Jazz, when it's done right, man, there's no rock 'n' roll concert that can top that shit!
One thing I've noticed over the years is that jazz has got this strange rap for there not being much money in it, but that's one of the biggest crocks of shit I've ever heard of in my life, because I've made a very good living off this thing as have a lot of other people. I was recently on tour with Whitney Houston and there are several occasions where I've made more money playing improvisational music. Maybe festivals like the one you mentioned in Korea will start seeing that and understanding that it's financially viable if you do it in the right way.
MG: There you go, absolutely. There are just so many things that we enjoythat I personally enjoy and that I'd rather not leave out. Sometimes it's too much, but I'd rather have that and try as many things as I can.
AAJ: The opening track, "Life Burning," sounds like a cross between [guitarist] Jimi Hendrix playing that tortured "Star Spangled Banner" he did at Woodstock, and the Prodigy. What's the inspiration behind this track?
MG: Oh yeah, totally. The inspiration was that I was torn up about the bullshit going on in Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan and the problems we had in this country. I kept on seeing these images of people burning. People burning was the image in my head.
AAJ: The CD plays like a continual 50-minute piece of music. Is that how you performed it?
MG: Yeah, we played it as one 55-minute piece. It's always open to modification, and the great thing is that as we get new technology, we can add new elements and really start expanding the way the performance is presented. But it also allows the organic side to come through, and we can interact with the pre- programmed stuff in a very free, improvisational manner.
AAJ: There's a very natural ebb and flow to the music. Was the order of the pieces something that you labored a lot over, and if you played it again in a similar setting, would you play around with the order?
MG: I think the order is pretty important just for the sake of organization. As a performance like that develops, I have to be able to understand what I have to do next. But because it's computer based, it really takes nothing to go in and change the order around even before a show starts.
AAJ: The music is highly urban sounding and highly contemporary and there seems to be a thread of spacey sounds running through the music. Is sci-fi an influence on you?
MG: Oh, totally, man [laughs]. I insist on seeing the really big sci-fi movies at a really good theater. I'm really fond of going with a trio or a quartet, and we play somebody's tune or a standard. I love that, but there's some limitation to that, especially considering all the options we have working with computers, which I've been doing for years. As much as I love the emotional impact that exists between musicians, that can have its own limitations in terms of having to satisfy each other, and I'd rather feel like I'm sitting in the audience sometimes. I'd rather focus more on the sonic presentation of the music. If it's a small jazz club and the audience is one foot away that's great, you just go and play, but if we do a larger performance, then I want to present it almost as if it were a movie. I'd rather focus more on the sonic presentation of the music.
AAJ: You've spent a number of years designing and creating your website. How satisfied are you with where it's at?
MG: I feel right now like the website is too one-dimensional. I present something to you, and then you deal with what's there: you listen to it, you download it or you learn from a little lesson. What we want to do is make certain sections of the website more interactive. I'd like to record a tune, leaving spaces open for solos, and I'll record different musicians doing solos and people will be able to select who they want to hear soloing over that track. A lot of the musicians I've worked with over the years are going to come and help in that process. We want people to enjoy it but to be in control of it too.
AAJ: Apart from all the lessons you offer on your website, from bass playing to composition and improvisation, you also interview musicians and showcase musicians, and the first feature on a musician was on your father [bassist] Jimmy Garrison what have you learned from listening to his playing?
MG: Oh man, that music is so passionate. My experience has probably been more emotional than technical. I tried to see how my father was dealing with his life and how that expressed itself in his music. His bass playing is tremendously deep; I love listening to it, and I'll listen to it anytime. Then I listen to the music and try to understand what they were doing and what it meant to them. The passion for what they were doing was limitless. It's uplifting. That transcends genre, time and race. That's what I've been trying to do as a musician, and I've noticed during my career that, unfortunately, all of those limitations still exist. Personally, I've tried to stay away from things that will limit my expression. I'm not into the whole race thing, and it still exists, man. It's total bullshit. I just want to get to the core of what it means to make music.
AAJ: Your father was the only musician who stayed with (saxophonist) John Coltrane until the very end...
MG: Kicking and screaming, I might add [laughs]. From what I understand, he really tried to get 'Trane to go back.
Matthew Garrison, performing with Human Element at the 2010 New Universe Music Festival
AAJ: That's interesting, because in most histories or biographies of Coltrane, not much space is given to the wilder, avant-garde stuff Coltrane was playing, towards the end. It's almost as Coltrane died after A Love Supreme (Impulse! 1965). Listening to your father playing on those latter records, how do you feel about that music?
MG: 'Trane at that period of timeeven though he had stopped drinking and smoking, he was dropping a lot of acid. Interstellar Space (Impulse! 1974) was a big acid trip, man. When I listen to those records, some of it is kind of hard to deal with, but man, I love it. Some of it is out to lunch, but that was what he had to do and the phase he needed to be in. I think it's just fantastic. I've got almost all of those recordings.
AAJ: Do you feel a significant change in your father's playing on those latter Coltrane records?
MG: Yeah, definitely. I think he was keeping in synch with where Coltrane was going. As experimental as those cats were, [drummer] Elvin [Jones] and [pianist] McCoy [Tyner]they couldn't deal with the weird transgression of the rules that they had imposed. But Coltrane and Jimmy were open to seeing where this was going. What's next? That's the beauty. That's music for me. Forget classification, which doesn't mean shit anymoreit does only to sell music but we all know that it doesn't. It's about: where are we going? What can we do? How can we make this happen? If we have to drop some acid, let's drop some acid. If we have to play to our Lord, let's play to our Lord [laughs].
AAJ: Your father taught at Wesleyan and Bennington colleges. Have you heard much from former students of his as to what kind of a teacher he was?
MG: Completely, man. It's amazing, especially with the advent of MySpace, Facebook and so onthese people are just popping up everywhere. It's incredible to hear some of these stories. I'm going to write them down because, for some of these people, to some degree, they felt like it was a life-changing experience for them.
AAJ: You're something of a musical chameleon, and apart from performing with some of the biggest names in jazz of the last 40 years, you are happy to play in diverse settings like, for example, with Whitney Houston. One guy you've played and recorded with, who is maybe not so well known, at least in America, is [guitarist] Pino Danielle. Amazingly, he only played in America for the first time ever in 2010.
MG: I know. Incredible, huh? The funny thing is he's been here many times, recording and hanging out, but he never did an official performance. For Pino, the conditions have to be right, and everything has to be in place. He's totally justified, and I am the same way. That's probably why it took so long. I love the fact that he did it at the Apollo Theater, because his connection to African-American music is unquestionable, although it ended up being just all Italians in the audience [laughs]. That was quite a night, man. It was crazy. I've never seen the Apollo Theater that crazy. Pino is a fucking legend. He's an icon.
AAJ: In Italy, he's pretty much idolized, as you know.
MG: Oh my God! [Laughs.] I grew up listening to his music because I was in Italy all those years, and I actually met him on the day when he did his first major performance, when there were over 100,000 people. Somehow, I ended up on the stage with these guys. My mum was there, and we met Pino. That was just after his first major release came out, and people went crazy. Then 30 years later, they were going to celebrate that day and I get an e-mail from his management saying he wanted me to play with him at this festival to celebrate the 30th anniversary of that show. You couldn't get any more out to lunch than that. There I was in front of sixty- or seventy-thousand people in Naples, man.
What was interesting was that when I first started playing with him, he was playing with a pick, but he's modified that and started playing just with his fingers because he was really inspired by [guitarist] Jeff Beck's sound. He asked me a lot about my technique as well, so maybe there's a little of my influence in there as well.
AAJ: Winding up here, you have a recording project which will be released one track at a time, over 12 months. What's the thinking behind that?
AAJ: Yeah. Every month there'll be a new tune, and some of them will show up on Shapeshifter Live Part Two. Just as people don't want to be limited to having to download an entire CD of music, I want to be able to put a tune out here, play live there, videotape this, put a tune out there; I want to have that same freedom. I also like the idea that every month I have to put out something fresh, forcing the composer to write music that is new.
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