Gary Willis: Reflections of an Iconoclast

March 19, 2013
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THIRTY YEARS into a forward-reaching career filled with musical and technical innovation, Gary Willis is finally looking back. And that’s a good thing. First, Willis reunited with his Tribal Tech-mates Scott Henderson, Scott Kinsey, and Kirk Covington in 2012 to record X, the title marking the band’s tenth effort and first in a dozen years. The long layoff only raised the heat of the quartet’s fusion torchbearing flame, as the ten-track CD combusts via a combination of jam-induced spontaneous composition and post-production writing and arranging enhancements. Next, Willis—who had been hard-wired to his last two electronica projects, Triphasic and Slaughterhouse—decided to break free of his computer chains and release an organic trio record. The aptly titled Retro is a real-time revelation. Budapest-born drummer Gergo Borlai and Catalan keyboardist Albert Bover (on Rhodes) join Gary for five heartfelt covers and five exploratory originals that thrust his fretless 5-string into its most exposed, intimate setting yet. Last, Willis is making his long-overdue first appearance on the cover of Bass Player, an irony not lost on the soft-spoken bassist with the notorious dry wit. “Well, there goes my cult status,” he muttered, adjusting his ever-present cap. “And my ‘Talent Deserving Wider Recognition’ poll placements.”

Gary Willis was born in Longview, Texas, on March 2, 1957. He tried the family piano and guitar before his parents presented him with an electric bass for his 13th birthday. His father played gospel-style piano in church, and Gary soon joined him on bass. “It was key in my development, because through my dad’s left hand I learned how the bass and music moved.” Drawn to instrumentals on the radio by the likes of Tower Of Power, War, the Crusaders, the Headhunters, and the Allman Brothers Band, Willis picked up the guitar again to gain more harmonic language. He kept both instruments in his sphere while soaking up the bass influences of Rocco Prestia, Paul Jackson, and Jaco Pastorius. He notes, “They inspired a concept where I would try to get the smallest subdivision of any groove happening in my right hand and then choose whether to play notes or dead-notes in my left hand.” Upon entering North Texas State University in 1978, he abandoned guitar to focus solely on bass, realizing it enabled him to have a bigger influence on the music. There, he added the influences of Miles Davis and Bill Evans, while also playing in local Dallas fusion bands.

Willis moved to Los Angeles in 1982 with a working bassist mentality, leading to stints with Phil Upchurch and later Wayne Shorter. Upon meeting Scott Henderson and forming Tribal Tech in 1984, however, his focus turned to his own artistic pursuits. The result was a stage and studio “research lab” where Gary would develop and apply ideas that have since been widely adapted by two generations of bassists across the globe. These include a three-finger right hand plucking technique utilizing the thumb, index, and middle fingers in closed (two strings at a time) or open (three or more strings) position, with the palm incorporated as a mute; a system that divides the neck into two fingering positions; turning up the amp and using a lighter touch to get a better tone and more range and control of dynamics; and the “Willis Ramp,” a raised piece of wood under the strings between the neck and the pickup that keeps the right hand relaxed by preventing it from working too hard, as well as providing an anchor for the thumb. Then there are the stylistic elements, in which Willis has advanced not only the harmonic and rhythmic language of bass soloing and grooving, but also improvised grooves that engage the soloist while retaining a deep pocket.

We reached out to Gary at his home base in Barcelona, Spain—where he teaches bass, composition, arranging, and jazz ensemble a couple of days a week at the nearby Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya—to ask him about Retro, X, and his iconic career.

Was Retro a deliberate change of direction for you, coming off several production-dominated efforts?

Change of pace was a factor, because heavy production projects can become tedious. But more so, it was good timing with personnel. I had been playing with Albert here in Barcelona; he’s an amazing acoustic pianist and someone I made a mental note to do a project with. I had also worked with Gergo, who is an incredibly creative drummer, and when he moved to Barcelona I jumped at the opportunity to get the three of us in the studio. I had a list of tunes I’d been wanting to record for over 20 years, and this was finally the right combination. Performing live, I felt the fretless electric bass and acoustic piano didn’t blend particularly well, so I asked Albert to play Rhodes on the CD, and he was game—plus, it fit the retro, ’70s vibe I wanted to embrace. Th e stripped-down setting really enabled us to focus on the interpretation of the material and how we play together. I definitely feel it’s the most personal album I’ve recorded.

“Change Agent,” “Move,” and your cover of Bill Evans’ “We Will Meet Again” mine straightahead trio territory.

Those tunes are all about the interplay and improvisation. They have simple melodies and minimal arrangements, which allows us to explore and create excitement. “Change Agent” is a modal tune I wrote five years ago based on a series of unrelated minor chords. “We Will Meet Again” is a song I’ve always liked playing because it’s so open. Sometimes when I write, I’ll just try to discover chord progressions, and that’s pretty much what “Move” was—a progression I liked playing over that took me out of my comfort zone. Albert embellished it into a melody, and from there we take off and see where it goes.

“Old School” and “Disconnectivity” bring the funk and fusion side of the trio’s sound.

I wrote “Old School” a couple of weeks before the session, and I was lucky to discover it, because I was looking for something that balanced the rest of the material. It purposely has a Herbie Hancock Headhunters feel that we put our own twist on. “Disconnectivity” I wrote over 25 years ago after hearing a trio with [Oregon saxophonist] Paul McCandless that had no harmony instruments. During the solos one member would improvise while the other two played linear lines. So that’s how I composed the tune: Every melody note is harmonized by just two other notes. Here, Albert plays two notes and I play the other. Then when we solo, it’s over a mix of those notes or the chords they imply. We also cover a McCandless tune: Oregon’s “Amaryllis” [Crossing, ECM, 1984]. I originally programmed it for classical guitar to use in master classes years ago, and I updated it here as a nice vehicle to explore a melodic way of playing.

The rest of your covers—the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” Milton Nascimento’s “Tarde,” and the standard “For All We Know”—are all ballads, the last two without any solos.

“Norwegian Wood” is actually adapted from Bob Belden’s arrangement for Herbie Hancock [The New Standard, Verve, 1996], but without the modulations. “For All We Know” is based on Donny Hathaway’s version, which connected with me. It’s just me on bass and programmed keyboards; I state the melody and get out, which adds to the intimacy. Wayne Shorter’s version of “Tarde” with Milton [Native Dancer, Columbia, 1974] is another song I’ve felt connected with ever since I learned it while playing with Wayne in the ’80s. We shared a bill in South America with Milton, and Wayne joined him on the song to recreate his famous solo, which was electrifying to see. That led me to play Wayne’s solo here as part of the melody, which felt more eloquent then taking a solo.

Can you offer any insight into interpreting vocal tunes on fretless?

For me, whenever I play any melody, I try to approach it like a vocalist and “sing” it. That’s the main reason I stay away from slides and heavy vibrato on fretless. I just don’t hear it, because it’s not something you do naturally with your voice. In truth, there’s a narrow amount of vocal music I like. I’ve always preferred instrumental music, because without lyrics the interpretation isn’t as defined. That said, it’s really all about what communicates to me, like Donny Hathaway’s performance on “For All We Know.” To get anywhere near his level of expression is my goal. The same with “Tarde.” I have no idea what the lyrics are saying, but Milton reaches me and inspires me to have something to say. Except in his case, I realized vocalists have the ability to sing a note and make it become louder, which you can’t really do on fretless. So I shifted the tune to 3/4 to shorten the hanging vocal phrases, and it put a different spin on the song.

How did you first arrive at fretless and then discover it was your voice?

Around 1980, I was playing in jazz ensembles at North Texas State with my maple-neck P-Bass, and the sound wasn’t close to emulating an upright, which I’d been forced to study but realized wasn’t for me. I tried lowering the action to the point of buzzing, but that only got me strange looks. So I saved up and bought a ’65 Jazz Bass to convert to fretless. Unable to find anyone to do the job, I did it myself choosing an epoxy and some HO-scale model-train wood for the fret slots. I played that and my fretted bass when I moved to L.A. a couple years later, and gradually, as I began turning down gigs that didn’t fit what I saw as my musical direction, the fretless came to the forefront. It’s a lot more expressive to me; things can happen after the initial attack, and there’s a bigger range of subtleties and drama that can be coaxed out of it compared to a fretted. During the period that I was moving toward fretless exclusively, I was learning more about the construction side of basses, which enabled me to go further down the path to getting my own sound.

Let’s talk about Tribal Tech reforming to record X. What was the path that led you there?

After our last tour in 2000, which was the most fun we ever had, our label went out of business. I got married and moved to Spain and everyone fell into their own projects, so there wasn’t a sense of urgency to get back together, although discussions about doing a studio project continued. Finally the talks intensified, we came up with a budget, Shrapnel stepped in, and we were able to record for three days at Kinsey’s studio in L.A. Now you can say we’re all the way back, having booked a tour of Asia in March.

The CD sounds like a combination of the band’s earlier writing-dominated days and later jam-for-material method.

We had the luxury of taking a lot more time after we jammed to compose and arrange where needed. We left “Corn Butter” pretty much as we played it in the studio, and we each took three of the remaining nine jams home with the responsibility of creating the arrangements, whether that meant editing out sections or adding new sections. My three were “Anthem,” “Time Lapse,” and “Let’s Get Swung.” For “Anthem” I pretty much wrote a whole new song around the onechord guitar solo from the jam.

How did you get the upright sound on “Let’s Get Swung,” and what’s the bass sound on “Ask Me a Question”?

“Swung” is the upright patch on my Roland VB-99, which I edited a bit; you can control body size and reverb in the body. That tune was pretty close to how we jammed it. Henderson improvised most of the melodies, but he didn’t like the effects sound he had, so I went back and harmonized each note, almost like a sax-section soli in a big band. For “Ask,” which was Kinsey’s tune, Henderson broke out his sitar sound, so I was looking for something different. I used an Ibanez EWB205WNE 5-string acoustic bass guitar with the B and E strings tuned down to A and D, and I only played on those two strings.

How do you reflect on Tribal Tech 29 years later? Are you able to put it in context with other post-Bitches Brew bands?

I remember at our very first rehearsal, Henderson had a tune in E, which we might play on the Asia tour. I was new to L.A. and trying to be a chameleon, so I started slapping on it. After the song, Scott said, “You know, you don’t have to do that.” I knew instantly I was in the right place. We started out as a heavily-composed band so the music wouldn’t depend on interaction, because we didn’t have a regular working group; we were hiring musicians. Kirk and Kinsey joined for the fifth album, and we began the long journey to eventually not writing at all and just letting our personalities dictate what the music was. Looking back, we shut it down right before the internet and social media really took off . We might have been able to see it through and grow our audience if we had hung in a few more years and taken advantage, but we’re back now.

As for our standing, it’s not for me to say. I really appreciate those who hold us in high regard. I see that people play our music and learn their instruments and how to play together in a similar way as we do, so I suppose I can acknowledge that we’ve contributed to the language of the genre.

Similarly, having brought so much to the instrument, do you hear your influence in other bassists?

Listening specifically to other bass players is just not something I have the time or inclination to do; my only real interest in the instrument is what I can say with it. However, as a teacher giving lessons, and through my webcasts and clinics, I’m aware that bassists want to know what I’m doing. Th e recognition aspect is very flattering, but it’s not a topic I’ve ever been comfortable focusing on. What I am proud of is seeing how widely adapted the Ramp has become— especially because the initial reaction, even in Bass Player interviews, was people criticizing it and calling it a crutch.

You’ve always been outspoken about the music business and piracy.

You can find research to back up any opinion you want to adopt. Some surveys claim those who pirate spend more money on DVDs and CDs than those who don’t. My approach is, when you make a CD, you have the initial responsibility to promote it—but then you have to let go of trying to control what happens to it, in a zen way. Otherwise you’re asking for disappointment. Because it could go viral having nothing to do with your efforts, or it could suffer in anonymity without it being your fault, either. What has happened in the internet age is the public is inundated with mediocrity or worse, as well as the occasional jewel, but how are you going to find it? If record labels did anything good, they were a filter, for better or worse, that protected the public from mediocrity. Now there’s no filter. And it’s a dilemma I’m faced with on the teaching side, as well. What can you tell a student who asks about making a career in the music business when it’s so precarious right now?

You seem firmly settled in Europe.

I like the lifestyle here; jazz is considerably more accepted, and getting around is much easier, so people can go out and hear music or travel to take lessons. In the U.S. you’re dealing with driving distances and drinking ages, plus jazz is just not part of the culture as it is here. Also, the reality of healthcare as a freelance musician in the U.S. is that an illness or even an emergency room visit can bankrupt you. Here, for better or worse, I have the right to get sick without it destroying my financial well-being.

What’s ahead for you?

Beyond the Tribal Tech Asia tour in March, we’re checking out the possibility of Europe and U.S. shows. The Retro trio is looking at European dates this spring and possibly the U.S. in the fall. And I have a new duo recording project underway with Gergo that’s more on the electronic, sequenced side. I feel fortunate to be able to do what I want musically, and to have found a balance between spending time working on my art and just being a normal person, which allows me to come back to music refreshed.

GARRISON ON GARY

Gary Willis’ far-reaching impact on bassists ranges from Aerosmith vet Tom Hamilton to Dirty Loops’ Henrik Linder. Gary’s friend and fellow bass force Matt Garrison says, “Gary Willis has been a true inspiration, and the kind of model musician I’ve aspired to be over the years: He’s a genius composer, a master technician on his instrument, an inventor of new pizzicato techniques, and a researcher dedicated to expanding the possibilities of the bass guitar through the implementation and application of new devices. Also, his deep knowledge and application of harmonic concepts and extraordinary sense of melody make him an artist of devastating impact. Not to mention his ever-evolving growth as an artist—he’s not afraid to tackle new ways of creating and performing music and expressing those concepts in a modern and forward-thinking way. Willis is and always will be one of my favorite musicians on earth!”

INFO

LISTEN

Retro [Abstract Logix, 2013]; Tribal Tech, X [Tone Center, 2012]; Triphasic, Shaman [Universal Spain, 2009]; Slaughterhouse, Vol. 3 [Abstract Logix, 2007]; Actual Fiction [Abstract Logix, 2007]

EQUIP

Basses Ibanez GWB1005 (with Roland GK-3B pickup on back), Ibanez GWB35 “The newest version of the 1005 has a rosewood-with-finish fingerboard, which my original Ibanez prototype had. I used it on Retro.”
Strings D’Addario EXL 165 Nickel Wounds, .045, .065, .085, .105, .135
Amps Aguilar DB 751 head with two Aguilar GS 112 cabs
Effects Roland GR-55 Guitar Synth, Roland VB-99, TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb (with two signature Tone Prints), Xotic Effects X-Blender
Recording Retro & X Direct out of Roland VB-99 or via Retrospec Juice Box preamp to TC Electronic Studio Konnect 48

Retro Glide

On both Retro and X, Gary Willis and his fretless 5 are front and center in his familiar, fertile role as melody maker, groove improvisor, and conversational soloist—X factor indeed. Example 1 occurs at the 2:42 mark of “Change Agent” from Retro, during Gary’s solo, halfway through four measures of Ebm11. It’s at this point that he first locks in on a motif that bounces off the Eb tonic (bar 1 and beat one of bar 2) and then the Bb 5th (bar 2). From there, he continues to develop the idea over the ensuing four measures of F#m11, initially pivoting off the 7th (E) and 4th (B) in bar 3, and then running a series of threenote ascending phrases consisting largely of 4ths for the next two measures (the open G in bar 5 was meant to be a ghost-note). He concludes in bar 6 by upping the intensity via sextuplets heavy on chromatics. Offers Willis, “I look at music abstractly, like throwing colors on a canvas. Here I’m reacting to what I just played, and one idea shapes the next. I use 4ths frequently to create angularity, but you run out of room fast, so I switched to chromatics to maintain the energy.”

Example 2 shows eight measures of the melody of “Amaryllis” (at 0:23), Gary’s lyrical Oregon cover on Retro. He notes, “Paul McCandless played the melody on oboe, and it’s a challenge to achieve that kind of sustain on bass. You need to pluck the stings with just the right intensity—not too hard or too soft—to get that envelope. Hand placement is also key; I plucked right before the fingerboard, if not over it.”

Turning to X, Ex. 3 starts 0:35 into “Got Faith ’N Phat,” providing a snapshot of Gary’s groove improvisation process. The pickup and bars 1 and 2 are essentially a long fill, leading into the verse at bar 3. There, Willis starts a groove based around the repetition of the C’s in three different octaves—four if you count his high-C grabs in the last two bars. “By definition, grooving is repeating. So with a big enough groove vocabulary, you can react to and vary your own ideas in ways that avoid being predictable, while still repeating enough of the figures that make it sound like it’s grooving. The larger your vocabulary, the more options you’ll have. For me, this tune is an extreme example of not settling into a symmetric pattern while still repeating and developing ideas.”

Finally, Ex. 4 features a more static, repeated ostinato first heard at 2:04 of “Working Blue.” Dig how Gary doesn’t really arrive and sit on the tonic until beat four of bar 2. He relates, “This line happened in the jam and came to my hands quickly. I wanted a defined bass figure. Years of having to come up with bass lines enables me to imagine all sorts of variations over a one-chord vamp.”

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