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Tony Grey: Stepping out of the Shadows


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I think composition is the way to find yourself and your voice. Out of nothing, you have to create something, and I think you learn a lot about your instrument and how to play your instrument--soloing and all the rest of it--just by composing.
Tony GreySince graduating from Berklee with honors in 2001, Tony Grey has earned a reputation as one of the most exciting bassists of his generation. His debut solo recording ...Moving (Self Produced, 2004) won enthusiastic reviews and revealed a musician gifted with a very strong sense of melody, and songwriting skills which drew from influences far beyond the parameters of jazz.

As one third of pianist Hiromi Uehara's electrifying trio, Grey has played all over the world to great critical acclaim, and has also found time to play and record with the likes of John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Zakir Hussain and Branford Marsalis.

Now, with his second solo album, Chasing Shadows (Abstract Logix, 2008), Tony Grey is beginning to step out of the shadows and forge an identity as a leader in his own right. This album combines wonderful musicianship with the melodies and harmonies of a real tunesmith. The release of an instructional book for students of bass guitar (something of a lifetime's project) as well as a DVD will, no doubt, reveal some of the thinking behind a technique and playing philosophy which places Grey at the forefront of bass players today.

All About Jazz: Do you have a lot of time to listen to other music for pleasure or are you very much immersed in making your own music?

Tony Grey: I listen to music when I'm looking for inspiration. I don't really listen to much music when I'm not searching for ideas. I don't have time to just sit and listen to music for the fun of it. I do when I'm driving, and that's about it, really. I don't want to be too into what's going on and influenced when I don't want to be influenced. So I'm careful what I listen to and when I listen to it. I just try and keep my mind open.

AAJ: Was there any particular music that inspired you in the making of Chasing Shadows?

TG: My first record was more the influences of all the different styles of music that I was listening to when I was growing up, or music I was into when I was studying—some Indian music, some Middle Eastern stuff that I was listening to. It was a mesh of a lot of different things.

This time I wanted to be more melodic, more grounded compositionally, and have a particular sound throughout the whole record that was gearing towards a larger audience. I just wanted to reach out to as many people as I could and introduce them to what I do.

AAJ: It's certainly a very melodic album, beautifully so; melody is something which is obviously very important for you, isn't it?

TG: Yeah, I love melodies; one of my biggest influences is [composer/pianist] Burt Bacharach. I don't think I've ever sat down and listened to one of his records, but hearing his music just once on the radio or on TV or in a shopping mall or wherever, the melodies always stick in my head.

When I thought about it I was blown away because I don't own any of his records, but I know a lot of his melodies. I just wanted to create something that was memorable where it would be in people's heads even if they weren't listening to it or hadn't heard it for a while. Because that's what really touches me—things that stay with me.

AAJ: Between your first album and this one, it has been about four years. Was that a long four years for you?

TG: The time goes really quickly. In a perfect world, I'd love to be able to do a record a year. A lot of artists who are signed to a big label and have a lot of support can put out a record every year and it's no problem for them. There's a huge gap in my music because I'm not really devoted to my own music; I don't have the time or the money to do it.

AAJ: You've been touring and recording so much as one third of Hiromi's trio that I wonder if this makes it difficult for you to pursue your own music more thoroughly?

TG: Yeah, it does. It makes it really hard because I have to practice her music when she writes it, and then we go on the road, and it's kind of too exhausting touring all the time to do any other kind of music. Then when we get time off, maybe she'll give us some other music to work on so I've been totally absorbed in it and haven't really had a chance to do anything else.

I am grateful and I love it, but now I'm more aware that I want to be more active and start to do my own gigs—start my own career and be a bit more serious about it. So I'm trying to write as much as possible on the road. I used to practice on the road, but now I don't practice at all, I just compose.

AAJ: Does this difficulty in making your own career explain the title of your CD, Chasing Shadows, or is there something else behind that?

Tony GreyTG: Throughout my life I've always had dreams and thought that if I get to do this or get the opportunity to play with that person, then I'll have made it or have arrived at where I always wanted to be. But every time I've achieved something I wanted to do, my goals have always changed. I think that's true of any artist or anybody in life—the dreams are always bigger than the catch. It isn't always what it seems to be when you get there.

I thought being on the road and having a record deal would make you comfortable in your life, allow you to do whatever you wanted to do, but that was not what it was really like for me. I feel like you're always chasing these dreams but actually they don't really exist.

All I've ever wanted to do was just play music and be comfortable and not have to worry about the hunt for it, but it's impossible. I don't think it's a realistic dream. I think the goal is to enjoy your life and just be happy with what you've got, and I just found I was chasing shadows for many years.

AAJ: Have you played any gigs to promote your album?

TG: I had a few gigs in the US and I did a week in Japan and about a week of festivals in Slovakia, and I've done a bunch of clinics to promote it—not as much as I would have liked to. I was always scared to do my own music; even when I was at school, I never put together my own band even though I was writing a lot. I was one of those people who always thought what I was doing wasn't that good, and I didn't want to impose on people because I was kind of shy.

I got myself into a situation where I was offered a good gig. I accepted it and then was freaking out whether I'd be able to pull it off or not. But I got a good reaction and a taste for it. I'm starting to record music for my next record and I really want to make that my priority.

AAJ: What musicians were you using for the live gigs?

TG: I had two groups—I had a quintet with (trumpeter) Elliot Mason and (trombonist) Brad Mason. Elliot was on Chasing Shadows. He plays with Wynton Marsalis and Brad plays with John Mayer. They are great musicians. I was using Obed Calvaire on drums, who has played with Richard Bona and who's very active around New York. I had pianist Oli Rockberger, and that was my quintet.

Then I got offered a gig but they requested a quartet and I got Gregoire Maret the harmonica player and did a bunch of gigs with him. His sound really fit my music. So for any gigs I get now, I'm going to use Greg Maret, Obed, and a new pianist called Romain Collin who played on my first record. We're starting to do more stuff together now; he's more into electronica and is really versatile.

AAJ: So the musicians you were using for live gigs were pretty much the line-up on Chasing Shadows. That must have been quite nice to have those same musicians playing live with you.

TG: Oh, it was great because they have always been my favorite musicians. These guys have emerged as some of the top young jazz musicians in the world today. My goal was to use young guys who inspire me and who I've been hanging around with. To have the opportunity to play with them live was a dream come true. The music really developed live and totally changed. It was really cool to see how it was played live, actually.

AAJ: In what way did it change when it was performed live?

TG: Everything just kind of really opened up. We did some reharmonization of the melodies and I just let everybody do their thing. The musicianship is really strong and I feel that they all have a really strong sense of who they are as musicians. I didn't want to inhibit anyone in any way, so when we were rehearsing I just kept all the sections really open and just let everybody away and develop the sound with it. It was less of a thing where there's a solo and then a solo—there's no one really soloing. Everyone is following everyone else and we just see who wants to take the lead or who wants to drop out, just to see where it goes.

Tony GreyAAJ: So a kind of Joe Zawinul-type philosophy.

TG: Yeah, and sometimes we'd end up playing in a duo or a trio, or someone would play solo. It was really open you know, and if the melodies were strong then we could just lead into a melodic section and take it wherever it would go. It was really nice, man.

AAJ: In Chasing Shadows, pianist Oli Rockberger's sound is quite an important feature of the album and he has a lovely melodic sound. You've played with him for a long time, haven't you?

TG: We've been good friends all the way through Berklee. I was playing in his band and he was doing my thing. The only problem is because we know each other so well, and we know each other's playing so well, it's easy to fall into a trap of being safe.

You know, if you're on stage you can think, "It's not broken, so don't fix it." But that's something that we were both very aware of and we were trying different ways of inspiring each other and bringing in musicians like Gregoire (Maret) and Elliot (Mason) and just trying to mix it up. It was good, man. It was definitely a very self-realizing experience.

AAJ: At Berklee, to what degree are students encouraged to compose music for their instruments as opposed to just learning their instruments.

TG: You know it's interesting , you can do a songwriting major in Berklee, though I don't know much about it, as my major was performance so I was just studying my instrument. But it's interesting what you say because, looking back on it, even my first teacher back in England advised me, "Whatever you do, try and write your own music because at the end of the day that's what you have—that's yours, your voice." But when I went to Berklee, I mean, throughout my four years, nobody ever encouraged me to write a piece of music.

AAJ: That seems odd, no?

TG: At the time, I was absorbed in what they were teaching me and thinking, "OK, that's the way it should be," but looking back on it, I think composition is the way to find yourself and your voice. Out of nothing, you have to create something, and I think you learn a lot about your instrument and how to play your instrument—soloing and all the rest of it—just by composing. Now, looking back on it, when I teach students I always get them to compose, even if it's four bars or four chords to solo over, to try and be creative and express themselves.

It's a real confidence thing as well because a lot of musicians suffer from insecurity. I was a very insecure musician throughout Berklee but after I started composing and getting feedback—good and bad feedback—I started to grow as a musician and grow in my confidence. I think it's really important and I'm surprised I didn't do more at school.

AAJ: Do you think of yourself as a composer first or as a bass guitarist first, and has that balance shifted in your own mind since recording your first and second solo albums?

TG: Well, I love composing and I wish I had opportunity to do it more, but it's interesting because I never really chose to be a bassist; it was an instrument that was given to me and I didn't know what a bass was when I started.

I always played what I loved, which was playing along with melodies. I never really played along with bass lines. Even at Berklee they were teaching you how to solo before they were teaching you how to play bass. When I practice, I am obsessed with harmony and how it works. It's just like a big puzzle to me. It's very logical but at the same time it's very random.

I just see myself as being a musician and I want to understand and create as many ways as possible of playing, whether that's with bass lines or melodies, solos or whatever. I love chords; I love to just play with the piano. I guess that's where the compositions come from. Just finding strange or really beautiful chords—that's my biggest passion.

AAJ: Along the way, you've had two of the greatest guitarists as teachers in John McLaughlin and Mike Stern. It seems almost odd that you ended up playing the bass and not the electric guitar.

TG: Yeah, definitely.

AAJ: John McLaughlin is your uncle. What kind of an influence he has been on you?

TG: He's been a huge influence. His music was always around the house when I was a kid, and my mum was always playing his records. I started playing music when I was 19 or 20 years old, which was late on. There were always guitars around the house because my stepdad played. I remember John gave my mum or somebody a guitar when I was really young, so there was one of his guitars lying around the house.

But because I never really played it, I think my stepdad thought I had no real interest in it, and after I broke my back in a car accident, my step dad bought me a bass to see if I was into that—to play along with him, I guess. When I picked up the bass, the first music that was around and that was interesting to me was John's music.

Tony Grey Tony Grey (l) and Martin Valihora (r)

AAJ: When John McLaughlin would come around to your house and pick up a guitar, did he play Burt Bacharach tunes for you or Bitches Brew?

TG: I don't really remember, but he was in Shakti when I was growing up. He took me to a few of their concerts when I was a little kid. When I was a kid, I didn't care; I was just into football and had no interest in it at all.

When I started getting into him, my dad said I should make a little tape of me playing and send it to him. So I remember I learned how to play a Charlie Parker song which I taped and sent to him, and he invited me down to his house in the south of France and I stayed with him a bit, and that helped prepare me to become a professional musician.

AAJ: Chasing Shadows has a kind of Pat Metheny vibe, particularly in the melodic nature of the tunes. This seems to have something to do with Oli Rockberger's contribution to the album, and Greg Maret as well. Is Pat Metheny an influence on you?

TG: Yeah, I love Pat Metheny; he's a beautiful musician and a beautiful soloist. The thing I love about Pat Metheny is when he solos, the melody is there all the time. He's a strong influence for sure, and it comes through, especially with Oli (Rockberger) and Gregoire (Maret)—that's their school, totally. It's kind of inevitable really.

AAJ: Your early career began as a pop star in Japan. How formative an experience was that, in terms of the music you write today?

TG: I guess quite a lot, actually, because at that time I'd been at Berklee for about a year, maybe a year and a half, and I went to an audition because a drummer friend of mine who was in his last semester was looking for a gig, so I went along with him and they ended up offering me the gig.

Against the advice of my uncle, my family, I took it. I kind of just wanted to go along for the ride. I was still learning the bass. I'd only been playing a couple of years at that point and I thought it would be good experience. It was a great opportunity.

One of the first things I had to do was learn about seventy pop songs, because the band had this hotel gig first just to get used to playing with each other and the label really wanted us to be performers. So they put us in a hotel in the middle of nowhere in Thailand for fifteen weeks or something like that. I think learning all those tunes and then playing them for all those weeks helped me to really learn how to play the bass. The things I learned on that gig were invaluable.

AAJ: That's a good example of the importance of listening to your own voice—doing what is right for you.

TG: I think you have to. I'd rather make a mistake on my own than just play it safe because someone else has been there and done it—that's how you build your character. I had the craziest time in Southeast Asia, met amazing people and was exposed to a culture I don't think I would ever have seen. It's one of the biggest things in my life, the culture; I love it. It's in my heart and it's in my music. I'm glad I did it and I would do it again in a minute.

AAJ: Where did you first meet Hiromi—in Berklee or in Japan?

TG: I met her in Berklee. When I left that band and went back to Berklee, she was there. I remember hearing her in a practice room and being totally freaked out. People were talking about this crazy pianist and when I heard her play I just immediately introduced myself and invited her to play at one of my recitals and it went from there, really.

Tony Grey / HiromiAAJ: It's amazing to observe the reactions of the audience to Hiromi's runs—people gasp in astonishment. How aware are you up on stage of this reaction of the audience to Hiromi's playing?

TG: I always did at Berklee. There are some amazing musicians, but for some reason every time people saw her do something fast or amazing on the piano, they were just blown away by it. You never know why people like certain things, but it still amazes me how easy it is for her to play like that. It's so natural for her.

I think a lot of the people who see her for the first time are amazed at this little Japanese girl—she's a little bit shy, a little bit funny and quirky and all that, and when she plays the piano, she just beats the hell out of it.

AAJ: You say that it seems effortless for Hiromi, but the same could be said for your own bass playing. Do you still practice a lot or feel the need to do so?

TG: Yeah, I practice a lot. When I'm practicing, I don't feel like I'm a million miles away from where I want to be. I can see where I want to be, where I want to end up and how long it's going to take me, and it's a long time. I can see it but I don't hear it—I don't hear my progression.

I'm definitely better than I think I am. So I practice a lot. On a perfect day, I practice four or five hours a day. When I first started, every day would be at least ten hours a day, twelve hours a day. My arms can't take that now—I get tendonitis. Now I have a baby; I'm just lucky if I can sleep four hours a night.

AAJ: The song "One of Those Lives" sounds like it was written with Lionel Louekein mind. Is that the case or did he have a hand in the composition?

TG: Actually it came out of playing with Mike Stern; my goal is to be a great be-bop player, which I'm miles away from being. I love be-bop and I just want to get it, and I think he's an excellent be-bop player. I was playing at his house and he was like, "Oh, let's play some be-bop." He's always asking me about odd time signatures because I'm always playing with Hiromi and always playing odd time signatures.

I started playing these grooves in 5 and 7 and that particular bass line just came out, and when I got home I remembered it and started writing. The melody had an African feel to it and I immediately thought, "I've got to get Lionel (Loueke) to play on this." I definitely wrote it for him after the original bass line came up.

AAJ: In Chasing Shadows, the beginning of the track "Guiding Light" seems reminiscent of a lot of latter-day The Police. Was The Police a band that you dug at all?

TG:Yeah, I love The Police, I love Sting. He's one of my biggest influences. I love his bass playing—perfect bass playing for what he does—and his voice, his melodies and his harmonies, his use of jazz musicians over the pop thing. His influence for me is almost more than Pat Metheny. He uses great musicians to play his songs and he raises the bar. He's definitely one of my biggest influences.

AAJ: You're doing an instructional DVD for Yamaha. How much of a labor of love has it been and how much of a chore?

TG: It started out as a labor of love and just ended up being a chore. I really misunderstood how much work is involved in it. I really do care about practicing and I really do care about growth as a musician, because I started late so I had a lot of catching up to do and I always wanted to be organized and disciplined.

The more I got into music, the more I realized how intense and how connected everything is. So I ended up keeping a diary of everything I ever practiced and everything I ever played, which may seem a bit obsessive, but I was just looking through them and I thought it would make a good book one day.

I met a couple of different publishing companies while I was on the road and Yamaha really wanted to do it, As for the DVD, well, I'd never really tried to express verbally what I was doing and I really wanted to make it authentic, so I bought a lot of instructional DVDs and checked out a lot of instructional books and I hated them all. I hated the way they were either self-indulgent or completely ambiguous. A lot of them were very generic works which anyone could have written, with a picture of a guy you admire on the front.

AAJ: How difficult is for you to express verbally something that you do intuitively, instinctively.?

Tony GreyTG: Really difficult, but if you're practicing you must know what you're practicing and why you're practicing it. It's all about step-by-step. I didn't want to make a beginners' book and then again I didn't want to make an advanced book; I wanted a beginner to be able to pick up this book and be creative and advanced musician to pick up this book and be creative, so it's all about using the tools that you have.

You know, if you're going to practice a scale then why don't you write a melody using that scale? I'm demonstrating different ways to solo and learn your neck. I really wanted to do it justice and I wanted it to be something I could look back on and be proud of. I did that. It's definitely one of the hardest things I ever did. I think it's alright, man.

AAJ: And how is the next album shaping up?

TG: I want to really challenge myself. I want to be more of an individual on this record. I'm going to make an effort to be very different on this next record, but still melodic, and still do my thing. What's different about this next record is that it's going to be live in the studio with no overdubs. It's going to be what it is and something I can really take out on the road.

As a composer, sometimes I over-compose and then when I come to play something live, I'm kind of restricted with what I can play. It's easy to overproduce, to over-compose, so I want to create something that I can easily play live.

AAJ: Is there not a little bit of a danger that if you use the same musicians as on your first two albums you might find yourself struggling to get out of the sound, which it seems you want to do?

TG: Yeah and no, but the thing is, I use so many musicians. Each musician I'm picking is very different. If they were going to improvise without thinking about what they were going to play, they would sound so different from one another. So I'm just going to put these guys together in a room: five very different sounds but one concept. I'm excited about it.

Selected Discography

Tony Grey, Chasing Shadows (Abstract Logix, 2008)
Hiromi's Sonic Bloom, Beyond Standard (Telarc, 2008)
Hiromi's Sonic Bloom, Time Control (Telarc, 2007)
Hiromi, Spiral (Telarc, 2006)
Hiromi, Brain (Telarc, 2004)
John McLaughlin, Industrial Zen (Verve Music Group, 2006)
Various Artists, Mysterious Voyages: A Tribute to Weather Report (ESC Records, 2005)
Tony Grey, ...Moving (tonygrey.com, 2004)
Karyshma, Nearly Home (Shake Chilli, 2003)

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