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Anthony Jackson – Heavyweight Head Charge

An iconic figure in the bass world Anthony Jackson’s reputation as an A-list sideman is founded on four decades of exceptional bass work across a multitude of genres and musical settings. Now after years of waiting he releases his debut solo album, but as I discovered, the bass legend took an unexpected route deep into the music to produce something very special indeed when he finally released his first solo album, Interspirit – a collaboration with Greek bassist/composer Yiorgos Fakanas. We spoke at length about this and about the general state of music – from the studio to the stage – about which Jackson was as erudite and outspoken as ever. Are you pleased with the album?

AJ yes I am – I don’t know what to say beyond that because it’s my first [solo album] Yiorgos has done seven… but yes it was … it was quite an involved labour of love to get it done because the two of us are on the other side of the world from each other because he’s in Athens and I’m back here (in New York). It was quite an enjoyable project. It sounds like a summation of many of the elements of your long career…

AJ Well if you see it that way – I can’t be objective about it, it’s impossible it’s too close, I don’t know what Yiorgos would say about that – I’m not used to it yet it’s all too new. He wrote everything, arranged everything, produced everything and wrote all but one song, And it wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for his suggestion in the first place. I met him in the Fall of 2007 at the end of a tour with Mike Stern, and Athens was our last stop, and we performed in the club that Yiorgos owns. So we got to talking and he made this offer – to do a record with the two of us, it wasn’t a record where he would just produce me, it would be with the two of us with him writing the material – that’s how the seed was planted and it grew quickly after that. You’ve worked with other great European musicians like Petrucciani and Camilo – is there a certain quality that attracts you to work with European players? AJ No, it’s strictly about the music – inevitably where there is a musical bond nationalistic concerns fall away – I never set out to play with musicians from certain backgrounds, I hoped to play with the best people that I could anywhere so I always felt lucky to be travelling a lot and running into people and having a chance to sit down and play with and interact with people from all corners of the musical world. So that’s how that happened I never set out with a plan to play with certain people, albeit a certain style with certain people, things just worked out the way they did and where there was music to be made that was where I gravitated. It’s very simple actually.

Though European classical music and Latin music appeal to you deeply…AJ Yes but not specifically – I love all music I can possibly hear. My first interest in music was classical music from the time I was an infant almost, but as I got older I heard other things and I brought them in as well. So I guess the important point is that where there was music to be played I was always willing and anxious to hear what it is and embrace it. A pan-musical interest. So how did the various elements of this project come together?

AJ Well Yiorgos gave me the parts and recordings – MP3s – and what was interesting was how the music was tightly written melodically but there was clearly an opportunity for me to do the things that I do while playing what he had written also, and he knew that. So the music features his compositional approach, which is widely varying, through numerous styles and was technically very, very demanding. But that gives me a chance to do what I do, which is to take very demanding music, no matter how tightly it’s written and still bring something of myself to it. And with that I spent months working on just what I was going to do while remaining faithful to what he had written. It took time for me to evolve many of the things that I was going to play, playing many of the things that he had written in my own way. I did a lot of the work there, I went back there [to Athens] to actually begin recording, and took a long time there to put down initial tracks and then refine them section by section. Then going back home and listening to them some more and then going back to refine them again and then taking time and then putting them down back here in America on tape. Then we fly the tapes back and forth using computer links until we finally had everything done. But it was a lot of research and it was a lot of study and a lot of refinement on both our parts.

This approach is very labour intensive and goes against the super fast way a lot of music made today – not many people really take this amount of time over things.

AJ Well in a very real sense I think there are people who take this much time – not as much, it’s not really a tradition any more because of monetary concerns – flying people back and forth again and again in order to realise a musical project it isn’t done any more because the funds aren’t there to do it. But we’ve also become, as a group of creative people, as artists, we’ve become very accustomed to the computerised way of doing music, where there is simply less time worrying over the fine details, where somebody actually sits down and writes music, in great detail the way it was done thirty or forty years ago and then back beyond that back into history. A sort of throwaway era when it comes to making records and writing music, there’s still much scope for actually sitting down and learning how to play it but the milieu in which it’s done has changed a great deal, but this is the way I came up and this is what I remember about the music I grew up listening to; this was the way it was done, you site there and you spill your blood on the floor to make it come to make it grow. You beat your head against a wall to make it grow. You do those things – so this is the way that I thought it would go over many, many years over decades, when I finally did do a feature project and the fact that there are two people intimately involved in bringing it to life, two people whose names are on the cover, there’s something unexpected but it has worked out very, very well.

It’s testimony to your belief in your ‘old school’ methods that you pursued this way of working.

AJ Well according to how I was raised in music and as an artist there would have been no other way. If someone had said ‘You can put he parts down here, and we’ll take it from there, thanks you very much! And we’ll send you the finished product’, that wouldn’t have been computable, it was going to have to be a high level, deeply collaborative project which indeed it was. And because of the need for both of us to be involved it took a long time and it took a lot of effort. Of course looking over it now there are many things that I’d like to go back and do again. Ideas begin to flow after it is done, that’s true of any project and there’s nothing more you can do as it’ll be finished at some point. But it’s been an education for me in looking at how ideas do grow by the way, and how they continue to grow. Given the chance as a recording player, as a session player, you have to learn how to think quickly, how to come up with effective ideas as quickly as you can – especially where someone is hoping that you will do more than just play the music on the page, you think quickly. Here where there is a lot more time to do that you really have to balance between getting something in a reasonable time and saying ‘Take it easy! Maybe this whole thing should be done again?’ Because now there are new ideas and now there is an expectation of high standards so let’s start over. A very inefficient and expensive way to make a record but if the people involved are serious about it and know what they are doing, the potential for making a really fine project is there.

Many of the jazz greats like John Coltrane would always be seeking new level of creativity by pushing themselves… AJ Well you are driven by something… that’s deep enough inside and strong enough you don’t consciously think about it that much you just pursue it. The impulse to hold on to it, make it grow and bring it forth goes beyond the planning stage, it’s just there. And it tends to result, if you’re careful and if it is legitimate to begin with, in a project that isn’t thought through too much and isn’t calculated even when so much time has been taken, you wind up lying in bed and dreaming about how things sound and the dream alone is seductive enough to pull you along with it. And that’s what you need to keep something like this fresh and alive with so much detail that has to be pulled out of it. In this case with many of things Yiorgos wrote, some of which were extremely demanding especially to have Yiorgos playing so much of it with a flatpick.

Indeed it sounds like you had to use every ounce of your amazing technique to deliver this music at this level… AJ Well I’m in the unusual situation in making a record in that I’m one of the two co-leaders but I don’t have any solos and that was a challenge. To be certain that I was doing was strong enough to stand on its own without a solo but that’s what I have done in the decades that I have been a performing artist, I used to solo a lot more than I do now, but it’s never been a concept where I say ‘OK you’ve heard me play all night but NOW my solo time is here! Now I’m really going to show you something!’ It’s never been like, my feeling is ‘I’ve been playing all night, haven’t you heard something?’ o this has been a feature in the sense that I have a chance to show if you will, make magic – if I can be so bold as to say that – while still being an accompanist or a more traditional concert artist where somebody is out front playing all night but they are playing something that was written by somebody else, despite that, it’s still their statement. Even if they play every note on the page it was done in a way that nobody else could do it. And their individuality is sort of in the back door; “Well Anthony’s not taking solos…” no but it is there, it is a statement, ‘I am’ nonetheless. That’s one of things that took time to decide just how I was going to step out that way. Using the flatpick which I have always done but not with this much intensity since the days of Al Di Meola and the nine or so albums I did with him. So that alone opened up a whole world of possibilities for how to interpret Yiorgos’ music in a way that was my own, while still making it and treating it like it was his music.

The very definition of Jackson’s low-end artisty in recent times – though sadly it’s ended now – was a very special trio with jazz rock guitar guru Wayne Krantz and Steely Dan drummer Keith Carlock. This incredible trio built up an extraordinary reputation that drew fans from all over the world to an unassuming basment music bar in New York, best known as the legendary 55 Bar. I was lucky enough to see the trio in full flight back in 2007 – those were very special, highly exploratory yet explosive trio gigs, weren't they? AJ I’m glad you got to see Krantz, that was one of the most special gigs I’ve done. I played with Wayne on his first album back in I think 1992, that was where I first met the drummer Dennis Chambers, and they’ve both become very good friends. I think that there was a time when some of my best playing was with Wayne Krantz on that gig. That opened me up quite a bit; you’re never to old, or too experienced or too ambitious to run up against something that reignites the furnace and brings it up to pressure. And that’s what that gig was – so I’m glad you got to hear that – I hope it was one of the very best nights, they were always very good and usually spectacular but I hope you got to hear one of the very good ones. Wayne could throw the spice in the pot with his volume yeah, and often knowing how loud it was sitting right in front of his speaker, I wondered how much people were really able to appreciate the music and also how much they were trying to manage the volume.

He would turn to you and say ‘Play something in F’.. can you explain a bit more about this?

AJ Yes that’s Wayne’s modus operandi that is often the way… in fact that’s a grand art of the way that he manages things live; we’ll play the heads of a piece and then there’ll be a pause and he’ll turn around and he’ll name a key or he’ll count a tempo and name a key like he’ll say “F sharp, right here ‘two, three…‘ and we’d just fall into it. It was always a gas playing with Keith, that’s the only time I got to work with Keith was with Wayne. Those were all fabulous, super special gigs. I miss doing those, Wayne has gone on, he’d been playing at the 55 Bar for ten years, and by the time we got to play there he was looking for a bigger concert, somewhere with a bigger stage and a more formal sound system. And there are really many of those kinds of places, not that catered to that kind of highly improvisational very powerful music. You have a few jazz clubs and you have some rock clubs but what was doing, what we were doing together it needed its own spot that had its own crowd that knew what they were getting into, and a sympathetic management and the opportunity to do pretty much whatever the fuck we wanted to, although people knew what it was, and people came from all over the world to the 55, to hear us. I’m very glad you got to be part of that, I don’t know if that will happen again unless he decides to start playing there on a regular basis there really isn’t another place where you could go in and be that comfortable and were you could count on having a very, very full, enthusiastic and knowledgeable crowd, no sucker club, no place where you go just have a couple of beers but a place where you are there to hear the music, you and a lot of other people.

What are your thoughts on the current state of music today and the negatives and positives of the current status quo?

AJ Well I’m a bit of a purist, the people that I grew up listening to, the great composers and great performers, the people that I played with for as long as I have been a performer have agreed with this point of view. First you have the music then you worry about playing it in a certain place, in a certain way, and let’s say trying to make a living, which of course I knew nothing about in the beginning, none of us does. It really has no effect on inspiration or commitment to making good music, just as when you start playing we are children for the most part, or often, very, very young children, our thoughts are strictly with how it makes us feel to play and to listen. There are no thoughts about ‘where are we going to do this?’, ‘how am I going to manage for the next couple of months, I’ve got these bills…’ that’s not a part of it and that of course is one of the things we use when we’re older to assess how gifted children will do in music. If they can’t live without playing then there’s likely to be a real lifelong commitment there. If you start playing music with an eye towards making a living, ‘well I’m going to start my lessons, and I’m going to buy an instrument, but I just need to think more and more, just what am I going to do with this and how am I going to fit this in with my job? My real job…’ that follows you throughout your life. If you have that kind of early life motivation it never leaves, despite all the need later to think about how you are going to live by doing this, your basic motivation never disappears your heart still races when you hear glorious music, live or on recordings. Your anticipation always grows and becomes white hot and shiny and gleaming when you are about to play, it never goes away and it never diminishes no matter how discouraged you might get about the professional side of it. So my motivation and my interest is unchanged and there’s nothing unusual about that, I’m not discouraged in the least, I will do what it is I do until I’m either physically incapable of doing any more or I simply don’t wake up the next morning. That is a common feel, a common motivation, a common characteristic of motivation and it’s something we don’t even talk about. Of course we are going to play! No matter how bad the gig, how unsatisfactory it might go, as you know sometimes it’s not always glorious music making, sometimes the people are with are less than motivated, sometimes the songs you are playing are less than inspired but that has no effect on the realization that you’re now going to sit down and pick up your instrument and make music, like you’ve done, in my case, the last forty five years. That’s always the special time of day, the special time of life and the reason for being here. So the lousy state of the music business, the discouraging state of the music business which is quite real is still completely separate from the state of music itself.

Art seems to be even more popular in these times of global recession and people seem to have remembered the power and value of music…

AJ Well we would say in America, we would call this a situation that separates the men from the boys. You’re expected to go up there and attempt to sprout wings and fly when you play it’s always been like that, again it isn’t something that is discussed ever. You talk about how disappointing the music business is, certainly the music scene with I suppose since the early to mid 1980s the proliferation of machines, computer controlled machines that have ended the recording business in terms of popular music, it’s just gone, there are no sessions to speak of as far as comparing it to how it was prior to the mid 80s. Most of the major studios have closed, a whole way of life, trying to make good records under the restrictions but at the same time looking at the clock and doing it as quickly and efficiently, all that has disappeared. But for us as players while you look back and just reflect how quickly a way of life ended, totally, gone… and it continues to worsen. Now the main phenomenon I see is the Autotune, the computerized box that brings things that are out of pitch on pitch. You seldom hear singers anymore who are making records without it, and for me I can hear it when it’s working, it’s very sophisticated technology but I can hear when it’s used, it ruins the timbre of a human voice and it’s a constant reminder that we are now making music professionally, or at least a branch of the industry [are], in which people who really don’t have any talent at all are able to make something that can pass as great music by the public. It’s almost impossible to hear a singer nowadays who isn’t using Auto tune. And I was extremely angry for years behind it now it’s simply… I shake my head and I just think well you know, this is period we live in this is what has happened to culture, it has come down to quickly produced, quickly packaged and here you are, this is it. What you are looking for something else? Oh well, we don’t have that any more this is how music is made, this is what it is, and you see people now who are entering the music business without even a serious attempt to be serious and talented, people who wouldn’t have more than made coffee in the reception area are now featured performers, it’s still something I get very angry about but I’ve had to accept it and all you can do in situations like that is maintain your own stuff, it’s what you will do anyway, but try to do it with some sense of accommodation, you can’t walk into a situation pissed off saying if I hear Auto tune I’m going to… you can’t do that. Just remain thankful that there is a place for you to function in this business of music today, as bad as it is, and once that decision has been made, all the old motivation all the old ambitions and all the old standards still apply.

With the right amount great things are still possible though aren’t they?

AJ They are but you will do things on your own these days, there won’t be a giant record company to offer you a contract with an enormous advance and a chance to do nothing else but perform in the studio, to get it together. Now you’ve inevitably got to slip it in between the things you need to make living, increasingly difficult things, but again the motivation is unaffected. The motivation always remains all you have to do now is get a little bit more creative about how you are actually going to do it. But even if it’s done in little bits, a few minutes each day those few minutes are absolutely the same as how all periods of weeks and months doing it as it happened in the past. It doesn’t matter how little you get to play out these days, or in these situations what counts is are you still doing it like you always did, if not more intensively. And for all of us that are still here and for those of us who are attempting to get into the world of music today, that motivation remains the same. If you look will find great music it’s just not as easy and rewarding as it once was. I was listening to a program on the BBC last night and there was a program on record storeowners in London, and like here there are almost none left in London, just a very tiny handful of store where you go in and buy music. And I think it’s only ten, and the interviewer was saying ‘how does it feel to watch everything collapse so much?’ and the guy in the record store said we’re going to have to deal with it, we’re going to try and keep these few stores alive and he was asked ‘why do you even have them now? As everybody buys music online…’ and he said ‘well there are people who still like to go into a store and ask questions, who want to go in and look around and would like buy by just reaching into their pocket pulling out some money and buying and not going through Paypal or using this whole system of going online. They just want to think I’m going to go and buy some records today and just go and do it.’ But I was amazed, just ten stores left in London, one of the major cities on the planet with so many people who are the heirs to so much culture, including music, and this is what it’s come to. So in all areas we are adapting and there’s so much that’s changing and being lost and it’s so difficult to earn a living as a performing artist that you really don’t have a lot of time to cry about it you get your ass up and you go out there and you play like you always did you know that the stakes are higher, now there are fewer places to play, it pays less, there are so many more considerations of just staying alive. Nevertheless you better harness your original motivation or you’ll just quit. As many people have, saying ‘I can’t deal with this, this is ridiculous there’s no chance to do what I always wanted to do, I’m going to find something else to do. You have to maintain the commitment or you’ll fall into that situation and you’ll disappear.

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