As the bass guitar moves into only its second century as an instrument, it is perhaps no surprise that its sonic and technical advances are coupled intrinsically with the each new development in music itself. Thus half a century of jazz, rock, funk and more recently electronic music have all been defined in some way by the role of the bass; the trouble is how to approach this barrage of styles, taking the best bits from each, without losing your own identity?
One bassist who has moulded his own style from this myriad of possibilities is Matthew Garrison, son of Jimmy Garrison, who famously accompanied the saxophone colossus John Coltrane as his only bass player. Garrison Jnr is still only 34-years-old, and yet he has a wealth of studio and live experience that has seen him develop from the gritty funk-infused jazz of saxophonist Steve Coleman’s M-Base Collective in the early 1990s, through to world tours with Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin and Herbie Hancock, among a long list of the cream of the world’s jazz and fusion musicians. Garrison’s harmonically agile approach to the bass guitar (notably a signature five-string Fodera tuned EADGC) has now seen him produce two solo albums.
The first eponymously titled disc was roundly hailed as a tour de force of his unique approach to the bass guitar that includes fiery quadruple finger plucks; fast and fluid chordal and single note solos and a deep sense of groove. Featuring a worldly mix of African and Asian scalier ideas, as well as an increasingly recognisable melodic sense that one could immediately identify as his own, he has continued these themes on aptly titled follow up ‘Shapeshifter’; recently released via Matt’s own internet-based Garrison Jazz label. Garrison is extremely passionate about creating his own opportunities setting both a musical agenda and self-financed label as an example for others to follow. On a rare UK appearance in early 2004 on a nationwide tour with drummer, pianist and composer extraordinaire Gary Husband, I hooked up with Matt before their stunning London show. With ‘Shapeshifter’ then in the final stages of production we spoke about some of the things that have helped shape Matt into the player he is today.
A friend who studied at Berkeley at the same time as you said that the first time he heard you, that your playing wasn’t as developed as it is now, but the next time he saw you play you were playing with the most incredible facility and melodically you had made some huge jumps, what happened in between those two periods in your playing?
“Well at first the stuff wasn’t quite ready, so what I did after the first year, I took the summer off and basically, for about two months straight, I practiced every single day like nuts! I was nuts! People were calling me and saying; “What are you doing? Come out and do this and that…” [he speaks in garbled, jabbering tones] “Oh, I blah, blah, blah….! You know? I can’t, I’ve got to practice!” And after that I went back to Berklee and I did everything; I did the big band thing, this band, that band, we went on tour for Berkeley, it was fantastic.”
You have this amazing picking technique – where you use all four fingers – how did you discover and develop this approach?
“Well, I myself saw Victor [Wooten], and I thought what the hell is that? Then I saw Gary Willis, once when I was in Boston, and I was like “Whoa, this guy isn’t doing the old stuff, what’s happening?” And then I heard Dominique Di Piazza on [John McLaughlin’s] ‘Que Alegria’, and what I decided to do was to say well I have these two, (he holds up his index and middle fingers), and I saw what Victor was doing with the thumb thing, so I started using my thumb more often, but then I started thinking, “what about this one?” (He holds up his third right-hand finger). And I slowly started working it in, I wrote down the whole thing, and now it’s officially going to be a book that I am going to release as a DVD as well. In fact it was really funny, just as I started getting used to it, getting comfortable with it, Zawinul called me, so that was a great opportunity to start trying it out.”
Your harmonic sense is very rich, and un-bass like – how did you develop this?
“ I feel like I’m a good “conceptualiser”, when I look at a tune I like to examine it, you know, if it’s a standard or if it’s someone else’s piece of music, whatever it may be, I like to sit there, then work my way around it before I even play this thing, so that’s always been my approach. Then the other side of that is my strong harmonic and melodic content is that I can compose music too. I really tend to approach playing solos and improvisations as if they were something that you are composing on the spot, so I like to think of it in that way. It’s a thing that is built and constructed.”
Do you think there’s an audience for this new generation of virtuoso bass players that have emerged in the last ten years?
“It’s rough, it’s not been easy, but if you can find a well-balanced combination that’s good, but this is my approach, whether it’s successful or not I don’t even care at this point, I’m just trying to make this stuff happen. But just like I make records, I want to be able to do the same thing on stage, I don’t want to come here just to showcase this instrument and do this and that and this, and twirl and this and all this shit! I want it to be in the context of what I grew up with, which was interacting with other musicians, doing beautiful, weird, interesting music, however it is, but it has to be creative.”
Why did you decide to mainly pursue the electric bass, instead of the upright like your father?
“ I basically did some classical studies when I was in Rome, but the main reason why I decided not to do it was because I had to carry this bloody big thing from point A to point B, and point B was way out there! And I was kind of embarrassed because it was this big thing, I was on the train, a black kid in Rome with a bass, and everyone is staring at me, I thought f*** this shit! [Laughs].”
Who’s been your favourite bandleader to play with so far?
“ That’s a tough one, because I’m really starting to dig this one [Gary Husband], it’s been fantastic, such incredible musicians and strange music but Gary’s extremely cool, (laughs). But Herbie was a great opportunity to see how his world works, I really loved working with Zawinul, minus his personality. Steve Coleman was absolutely mind boggling when I started working with him, that really changed things for me, that was about 1993 or 94.”
You’re putting together a tribute to your father, what form is that going to take?
“ Well I kind of got all his music that he wrote together, and what I’d like to do is get various bass player who have been influenced by him, together, such as Dave Holland, I was trying to get Charnet Moffett too in there, and John Patitucci wanted to do a tune as well. It’s kind of hard because there are a lot of guys who want to do it and who’ve been influenced by him, but I want to put them together and make a recording with the various tunes.”
What amps do you use at the moment?
“I have been waiting for years on Nick Epifani to get his thing together and he finally has. He’s created a whole series of power amps and combos, after all these years of just doing speakers and he finally created an amp line, and they are simply incredible!”
When did you first start using Fodera basses?
“ I was in Zawinul’s band in about 1994, and this woman called Danette Albetta used to work with them but Danette is now road managing for Victor Wooten. She approached me and said you should call these guys up [Fodera] they make some incredible instruments, she was like a strange scouting person for them. But they weren’t based too far from where I was living so I think over the next couple of days or weeks I went down there and it just phenomenal because we just talked about everything, measurements and this and that, so my bass is basically like a suit; it’s like me, it is me. So we did something very specific, so from that point on I was just sold. Having had it built and all, the feel of the neck is incredible! It’s like butter, there’s no fighting the instrument, so it’s perfectly measured and balanced and then what I can do is make modifications from time to time and really get closer and closer to what I want. I’ve set up to such a degree that it’s an effortless thing, you don’t have to think about the instrument at all – you just play it. The body is made out of walnut, which I very specifically chose because I had a couple of fretless’ that I heard that they had lying around over the years and they were just incredible. So what I wanted was to have that resonance; it’s a thicker wood so it rings more, the notes stay around some more. I wanted that wood but on a fretted bass, so I was trying to achieve a fretless-thing but on fretted. I’ve also got those really small frets, they are mini-frets, but the wood is primarily walnut, and I think the neck is ash, they make baseball bats out of that stuff; that was Lincoln Goines ideas.”
What other basses do you play?
“I have an old Sadowsky, which I bought when I first came to New York, when I was still living in Rome. I came to New York and I was basically looking for a bass, when I was about fifteen or sixteen, and I happened to run into a friend of my sister, who was a vocalist by the name of Mark Stevens, and he played in a group called The Jamaica Boys. Marcus Miller was the bass player for The Jamaica Boys, so Marcus gave him a bass and he sold me a bass for $200! So what I did was take this instrument to Sadowsky at one point to get it tuned up a bit, and Roger [Sadowsky] looked at it and he went “Where did you get this?” [Laughs] and I though ‘Uh, oh’! But he said, “No, no it’s ok I understand how things go, people buy and sell and all that stuff, but this is the first prototype I built for Marcus Miller, for us to start a proper relationship, with all the electronics in there…” And it’s a really interesting instrument, because the classic sound of Marcus is not even a Sadowsky preamp! It’s something called Stars Guitar, that’s the preamp that is in there, nothing to do with Sadowsky. But on a funny note, Mark Stevens, his sister’s name is Yvette Stevens, you know who that is? It’s Chaka Kahn! It was really interesting, but I knew nothing about all of this stuff, I just bought a $200 bass! I got that bass for peanuts, and some Japanese folks have already approached me about buying for over $10,000.”
Find out more about Matt’s music at www.garrisonjazz.com.
Mike Flynn Text © Mike Flynn