In the decade after Jaco Pastorius's death, the bass guitar has spawned many virtuosic players that have followed his technical high standards, but few have managed to match overall musicianship. In fact, in more recent times, there's been a definite shift back to the acoustic bass, the original undiluted sound that's both reassuring and identifiable, less dependant on the variables of electronics. Gary Willis, despite residing in the former area, is a fretless, electric bassist that transcends the post- Jaco hangover with a rebellious disdain for playing it safe and without simpering to a smooth radio-friendly jazz/funk in favour of some of the most refreshing music since Miles Davis's electric period.
A master technician, Gary's developed his intricate, classically influenced, finger picking style, utilising index, middle and ring fingers in a slow motion balletic display that moves faster but appears slower than less considered players. Tribal Tech, Willis's on and off band, have been flying the almost eternally unfashionable flag of fusion - with post-bop fusion guitarist Scott Henderson for the past 16 years, currently on CD number nine. In a gloriously fast and furious quartet, they've always stuck up two fingers to the coming and going trends of the ever-fickle jazz scene, and instead, built their huge global following on astounding live performances and passionate musicianship. Willis is a modest man who belies his huge talent but the fact that he hasn't become the household name Victor Wooten and Marcus Miller have is perhaps testimony to his resilience and determination to basically play the music he wants to play, based on instincts he began to trust when still at college.
"I got a bass when I was 13, in 1970, do the math (laughs), and I'm from a musical family, so initially I mostly played gospel in a church. I think it was for a couple years I mostly played bass in that role and from what I heard on the radio, was the only sound I could really play at the time. At 15 I got a guitar and started learning the finger board, and started learning about harmony so I played both up until my third year at college and by that point to continue school I had to sell an instrument to pay back a loan. At that juncture or whatever, I realised that my instincts were better suited to bass. I would play in the same band on guitar and the same band on bass and when I played on guitar - it didn't matter how well I played, if the rhythm section didn't have the thing on it, the music didn't do what it should have done! So when I played in the same band and music on bass it felt like it went like it was supposed to, it was those instincts that I paid attention to. I was lucky to go to college and to study music, but I never had a bass teacher. All the places I went afforded me the opportunity to learn to play jazz, and be in ensembles and have the experience of playing with good musicians. I never had someone on my instrument telling me how to get from point A to point B. So my goal all along was just to get better and explore playing opportunities, so it never occurred to make this decision to be a professional, I just explored opportunities to either jam with people and get better or just practice in workshop-type situations or audition or play with players that were much better than me, learn on the job, or whatever. It was just a continual job process of those kind of decisions and never a serious 'OK, what are you going to get, a job, what are you going to do with your life?' type of thing. I consider myself really lucky."
Learning his instrument through an organic process as opposed being fast tracked through a guitar or bass school Willis found that selling his soul to the devil in 'Radio Jingle Hell' as a studio musician was not the path for him. Instead, he taught at the Musicians Institute for six years as the head of the bass diploma course, a satisfying alternative in more ways than one as Gary explained: "Basically, the teaching thing came about from my years in LA - I realised early on that there was an opportunity there to make good money in the studio. Although I was never a great reader, I started to discover a personality trait that in certain bands or in certain situations if I don't like the music that's going on - I'm not a good employee. I mean, I'm not fun to be around! (Laughs.) You know, it's like 'Great tune man!' (Laughs.) So it was a struggle to come to terms with that - and come to terms with the lack of money that it was going to mean. At the same time, I've always enjoyed teaching, and I feel like I do a good job at it. So by doing that, it's allowed me to say no to some gigs that you know, aren't that rewarding musically - and I've never looked down on teaching unlike some people do where they say that those can't play teach. There's probably a bigger majority of people out there who can't teach at all."
Jazz remains close to his heart despite the obvious blues, rock and funk elements that are most prominent on his solo albums and Tribal Tech's two most recent CDs - but as he explained, recognising it's importance is one thing - just repeating what's gone before shows a distinct lack of imagination. "Yeah, I'm a great fan - I love playing it but if you take examples from my CDs and some of the Tribal Tech CDs, there are occasions, like there's one tune on my first CD where I adopt that role of just being the acoustic bass player - you function that way and I like doing it. At the same time, like in Tribal Tech and in my band, I just stubbornly hold and try to embrace a bunch of different styles, so putting that angle on it and allowing it to go other places besides 'OK, we're going to do this category now' is what appeals to me, what's exciting about the possibilities of music. For somebody that would do that they have to authentically hang with the old time style and not just play at it and actually get inside it, so that when it goes places, it's authentic and it means something. So coming from North Texas State I still love to play jazz, the only thing is that public consumption is kind of saturated."
One of the most spectacular aspects of Gary's solo albums is his amazing rapport with one of the world's greatest drummers - Dennis Chambers. He elaborated on his immense talents: "When we did the first CD, I sent him a tape of the music. He got in, like, on a Friday night. We were able to rehearse maybe four hours and then we tracked the entire thing, and he knew everything! He was that prepared - so it was that much easier for the band to get into the tune and taking it somewhere, because it isn't about trying to learn the tune, it's about exploring. I always kid him and say his 'inner-clock' can beat up my 'inner-clock' any day of the week! He's scary! On that tune 'Bent', the stuff he does on the head - where he keeps dropping out and coming back in. Me and Kinsey were mixing it and we would be like (adopts mock frightened face and pretends to bite his nails): 'Uh, I'm scared! Where's the one!' You know! (Laughs.) It was just amazing. Actually, we'd mixed that tune and left it and we were going to come back to it the next morning and print it and we didn't make any changes and printed it and we were on to the next tune when we realised that the studio had been used the night before and someone hadn't plugged in the output for one of the drum channels, that's how good we were at mixing! We didn't notice the toms were gone! Anyway, as a last minute brainstorm, we just print the tom track, we can put it in pro-tools and line it up with the whole track - but listening to that tom track just by itself, I'd never been able to hear it in the tune but he actually goes into this kind of like (sings drum part), like this completely different part from the groove, and I've never been able to recognise it when you isolate it from the drum track - it's like, what tune is that? It's just a couple of beats, he just pulls stuff out of his imagination like I've never heard when I've heard the tune!"
The latest approach he and his Tech-ie pals have - that include the equally masterful talents of keys man Scott Kinsey and drummer Kirk Covington - has been to throw out the American songbook, trash the nouveux noodling of retro Coltrane stylings and just make music that's entirely based in and on the moment. Gary's explanation couldn't have been more straightforward: "We press record, then we go. We've learned to not talk about it you know, because as soon as you start taking about it, discussing the parameters then immediately you start putting boundaries on it even if you don't intend to. So the less you talk about it, the more the actually communication happens musically - about what can happen and where things can go. So the process is that we have cautiously every time so far allocated something like five or six days where we'll do the basic jams. And both times so far - by the end of the third day - we're done. So knock on wood it works, and we still approach these as if they don't have to be the 'be all end all'. Sometimes it's beginning to end exactly what we want - other times we're the tool that captures a moment, captures an organism or something like that, that needs editing, needs something added to it, needs stuff taken away, needs shortening. So we haven't put those constraints on it - 'oh it has to be what we jammed', for us it's a really refreshing compositional tool sometimes, when it needs it. The rest of the time, every time anybody adds something to it or does something to it toward the final thing, it's just constantly evolving and it's always surprising. It's a really fresh approach for us and I think it comes across when people listen to it."
A web designer in his spare time, Gary' has created his own website, garywillis.com, amongst others, and has been computer literate since the early '80s. Despite being a Mac-head since the start, Gary's not entirely convinced computers should be relied upon as an all-powerful tool in the post-jam editing process: "I don't think we've gone that crazy with the editing although we could now that you mention it! (Laughs.) I don't know - we still feel like we're a band and as soon as you start getting that finite that precise as far as making those choices, then it stops being a band and starts being one editor's vision. Which is kind of the whole reason we started doing this jam thing to get away from a composer sitting at a home studio his blinders on having to listen to part of a composition 500 times to get it done. After that you rehearse it, then you tour with it, then you record it, then you over-dub it, then you mix it. So your ability to react to it and your enthusiasm for it and your perspective is history along the way. So if we turn around and we do all this improvising then we chop it up and put it back, and now we're sitting at a computer you know, so we're trying retain the spirit of it. I think there's a first on 'Rocket Science', where towards the end, there's a nice long section where nobody solos, but just like grooves his butt off. It definitely belongs in these tunes and it was fun."
Text © Mike Flynn