Janek Gwizdala: Bigger, Better, Faster, Stronger

There's an old inspirational adage that goes something like this: “The older I get, the less I compare myself to others.
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There's an old inspirational adage that goes something like this: “The older I get, the less I compare myself to others. Therefore the older I get, the happier I am.” The phrase may brim with wisdom, but it doesn’t adequately capture the challenge. Take, for example, a day in the life of Janek Gwizdala: Up by 6 AM, he starts with a couple hours of bass practice, followed by an equally intense tennis workout with one of Roger Federer’s old coaches. Afterward, it’s back home to manage his online educational empire, and then he’s at the bass or piano again until dinnertime. When he finally unwinds with his talented screenwriting wife, Bethany Geaber, it’s bed by 11 so he’s rested for the same routine the next day. It’s the sort of habitual productivity that most of us plan for on January 1, and feel guilty for not achieving sometime around January 15. But for Janek, it’s not just a New Year's resolution. It’s who he is.

The 36-year-old Gwizdala hails from South London, where he showed an early zest for hard work. Mostly home-schooled, he also spent a lot of time away in pursuit of extracurricular activity. “My mom would tell me to try something, and then I’d kind of be on my own,” he remembers. “I learned early that if I wanted to really go after something, I’d have to be regimented and focused in my process.” For example, while most kids might dabble in kayaking for a summer, Gwizdala made the British National Team. That same intensity applied to music. Beginning with classical guitar and drums, Gwizdala was a hardcore practicer from the beginning. He credits his guitar teacher, the late Peter Williams, for setting him on the right path: “He taught me how to practice. It was just the way he talked—the way he demonstrated that in order to do one thing I may really like, I’d have to do a lot of other work first.”

Already developing into an accomplished classical guitarist, Gwizdala still felt drawn to the drums, in part because they seemed like a fun alternative to his fastidious guitar training. It wasn’t until a friend dragged him to a local pub when he was about 16 that he discovered what would become his primary musical tool. It didn’t start that way: “My friend said that I had to hear this bass player,” muses Gwizdala. “I said that I didn’t care about the bass player. I just wanted to know who was on drums. But it just so happened that the bass player was the amazing Laurence Cottle, one of the top guys on the English scene. Long story short, by the following Monday, I had my first bass.”

As luck would have it, Cottle lived near Gwizdala. “Laurence has a presence. I remember all the communication between the musicians, and I immediately thought how cool it looked. Then I got to know him. I remember someone gave me his number, and I was so nervous to call. But he was happy to talk, and he started taking me to all his gigs and sessions. I would record them all and then go home and stay up until 4 AM transcribing. That was my education by example; he taught me how to play, how to stand, and how to interact onstage—what it meant to be a professional musician.”

Now certain he wanted to pursue music as a career, Gwizdala enrolled at England’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music, but it didn’t prove the catalyst he had hoped. “Everyone was away from home for the first time,” remembers Gwizdala. “People didn’t act like they were free to play music. They acted like they were free to get loaded every day.” An encounter with the Brazilian icon Flora Purim at London’s Ronnie Scott set him on a new path. “Flora said, ‘Get out of here. Move to America, go to Berklee, and I’ll introduce you to [drummer] Kenwood Dennard and other great players. Go. You have talent.’” It was in Boston that Gwizdala finally found musicians as serious as he was, but that didn’t mean he was a model student. “I never went to class. I was always gone playing music and jamming. Berklee was all about the network. Almost every gig I do now includes somebody who went there.”

After just three semesters in Boston, Gwizdala joined his peers’ annual migration to New York, thinking, “Why am I spending money on school when I could spend it on rent and be around all my heroes?” After a year-and-a-half living off credit cards, Gwizdala’s tenacious, methodical approach began to pay off. He started doing a few sessions and digging deeper into the city’s mythic Downtown scene. Gigs with Mike Stern, Hiram Bullock, Randy Brecker, Wayne Krantz, and other heavies solidified his reputation as a sideman while also giving him the diverse experience that pushed him deeper into composition and production.

Even though Janek was enjoying an enviable Big Apple career, the relentless grind of the city began to wear on him. A major longterm opportunity to be musical director for pop artist Jem, coupled with his wife’s movie-industry aspirations, found Gwizdala with a one-way ticket to L.A. six years ago. Happy to trade winter and 4 AM last-calls for year-round sunshine and a laid-back vibe, he happily settled into his new Hollywood digs. Blithely enjoying the big pop opportunity, Gwizdala eagerly moved into his life’s next chapter—that is, until said big pop opportunity disintegrated. “I moved out here, and three weeks later the entire thing got canceled. Two years of upcoming work, gone.” Yet, it was this setback that enabled what is perhaps Gwizdala’s most fertile creative period. The practical need to work, alongside a strong commitment to spend more time at home, pushed him to develop new paths to make a living from music. He vowed to record at least one record as a leader per year (he’s already done more) and went headlong into the development of his own bass education website, videobasslessons.tv. Now, with three records on the horizon for 2015 and an all-star playalong series about to launch online, Gwizdala is fast becoming one of the bass world’s most savvy pros.

What would you say to an aspiring bass player who wants to maximize their professional opportunity?

Start writing and recording your own music as soon as possible. I wish I had been an artist before I was a sideman. Obviously, there’s no excuse not to be prepared physically, technically, mentally, and socially. If you’re a dick and people don’t want to be around you, opportunity will never present itself. I definitely suffered from that. When I was young, I would look at all these big famous bass players and think, “Why is this person doing it and not me? I have all these chops!” I’m not that person now, thankfully. For me, success is being happy when I wake up in the morning. I don’t think too many young musicians take that seriously enough, but when you’re responsible for your own happiness, you tend to be a nicer person. And nicer people work.

How critical is that ability to work well with others?

The music business is 10 percent music and 90 percent dealing with other people. I learned it the hard way, but when you’re coming up, the best thing you can do is keep your mouth shut and pay attention. The more your lips are moving, the less you’re learning. When I was in my 20s I had the skill, but I didn’t have the experience. Later on I realized the ability was completely irrelevant, and it was all about time and tone. When you go see Will Lee do a weeknight date at the Bitter End, he walks up, tunes his bass, plugs in, and nails the gig. No weird vibe. Just honesty, experience, and humility.

Was it tough to break into the New York scene?

Well, there basically wasn’t a scene when I got there. I arrived in 2000 and then 9/11 happened, and basically, half the clubs closed and never reopened. Everyone in a big city says, “You should have been here in ’83!” Or, “Man, it really peaked in ’96!” Everyone has the same story, but 9/11 was a cataclysmic event that changed everything. I was lucky because I knew Kenward Dennard from Berklee, and he introduced me to Hiram Bullock. We played on and off until he passed away in 2008. He helped me a lot, just because when you play with someone like him, it gives you sort of instant credibility. It’s crazy how many little gigs I had to do that may have paid next-to-nothing, but that led to big opportunities. When you’re young, you should say yes to everything. You never know.

At what point did you begin to feel like you were developing your own voice?

For the first few years in New York, I had no idea what my voice was, but I was actively trying to find it. I was writing all of my ideas down. I knew from an early point that I wanted to be a leader and an artist. I mean, you can look at Nathan East’s career and think, Well, why can’t I do what he does? I mean, he’s the best sideman in the business and one of the coolest, happiest people you’ll ever meet. But first off, there’s a very small group of people operating on that level, and second, I’m just not wired that way. I learned more making my first record than I did playing a ton of gigs. It gave me the confidence that putting a band together, booking time in a studio, and all the rest is something I can do. And now I feel the same way, but I think my voice has changed, too. Back then, it was a lot of notes.

You became associated with a certain style and approach that became prominent in modern jazz, playing with a C string and low action. Could you perceive that?

There was a group of us in New York influenced by the scene around Fodera. Nobody ever thought about it as being some kind of trend; it just felt natural, the way people influence each other on a scene. Like, when people started playing fusion in the ’70s, none of them sat around and said, “Let’s fuse rock beats with jazz harmony.” It just happened.

And how has your instrumental approach changed since then?

It all started when I spent a day with John Patitucci. He handed me a bass that had been built for him and it had high action. He said, “Try this—they just sent it to me, and I love it!” So I pick it up, and it’s just clack, clack, clack. I could barely play the thing. Then he grabs it and plays some amazing shit. That got me. I thought, what have you been doing for 15 years? So now every three or four weeks I raise my action a fraction of a millimeter. And now I’ve been kicking myself that I didn’t do it sooner, that I didn’t play with a bigger tone and stay more open-minded.

How has raising your action affected your approach?

It’s increased my sonic range. I’ve got the FM band, the AM band, the intergalactic band, and everything in between. I always say I’m just a musician that happens to play bass. Whether I’m playing guitar, piano, bass, or trumpet, I hope that my note choice, feel, and melodic voice is what you hear. Pedals, on the other hand, really do inspire me to play differently.

When did the pedal obsession start?

I’ve always said that I’m not a gear guy. Honestly, I don’t know much about the pedals and how they work. But I have a ton of fun messing around with my sound. When I moved out to the West Coast and started to make a little money, I saw pedals as a relatively inexpensive path toward inspiration and fun.

It seems that moving to California opened up a new perspective.

Oh man, having a high quality of life means so much, especially as you get older. Spending time with my wife and being at home is important. But still, I moved here not with the intention necessarily of being an L.A. guy. In New York there’s this intensity to the scene because it’s relatively easy to get around and clubs are close together. Here, going out and hitting a jam or seeing a friend play or whatever is a major time commitment. You just don’t bump into people you know in L.A.

Do you miss that competitive New York vibe?

A little, but there’s still an intensity here ... it just shares space with other things. In New York sometimes it felt like all you wanted to do was ’shed and go see music. Here, we could jam for three hours or go surfing. A lot of the players in Los Angeles don’t have that same intensity that New York just sort of naturally breeds. There are obviously amazing players here, like [drummer] Peter Erskine, who I’ve recorded and toured with. It’s not that there isn’t a hustle, it just happens at a different speed. In L.A., everybody has their own little vibe going on, so you just don’t end up seeing people as much. In New York you basically need the community to survive.

How do the people you play with affect your music?

I’ve always written for the specific humans in my bands. I don’t compose with instruments in mind, but players I can trust to bring their voice to the project. I’m so much more excited by the studio nowadays. Recordings are the things that live on and are remembered. Now I want to do something different on every record. I definitely have a melodic style that’s a consistent thread throughout, but I try to alter the sonic shape of the band each time I do a new recording. Like, the next record to come out is this totally improvised thing I did in a little house on a frozen lake in Sweden. Then the next project might be a super arranged thing. Sometimes I want to hear tunes, other times I just think, Screw it, let’s hear what this band can do.

How does your audience react to the big differences between records?

A lot of people decide what they want your next record to sound like long before you’ve made it! They’ve fallen in love with something I did in the past, and now they expect more of the same. A huge part of my audience is driven by the virtuosity, but I get just as much out of playing tunes on a P-Bass. But people don’t want to hear roots and 5ths. It’s the YouTube culture.

How did you become so deeply involved in online education?

I saw the potential of the internet from the beginning. I remember when MySpace came out, and thought, This is a huge opportunity for musicians. And I had a website in 2003. Still, I didn’t figure out how to monetize it until I got with my friend [saxophonist] Bob Reynolds, who was working on his own lesson and practice site. He told me to do a membership site, and by 2010 I was up and running with videobasslessons.tv. Now that it’s been going on for a while, there’s over 350 lessons to choose from. I’ll give members a choice of five or six topics, they’ll vote, and that becomes the basis for a new 12- week course. It’s all structured, and there’s a ton of interactivity.

Does it help you stay connected to your fans?

Absolutely. I encourage my students—or anyone really—to write to me. I’m here. I even have “office hours” every Monday, from 2 to 4. We have a forum on the site, so I’ll get in there and answer every single question I possibly can. I encourage people to upload their own videos of the lessons so I can comment. Barring meeting someone or doing a Skype lesson, it’s as close as I can get to my fans, and the reach is global. My schedule is too hectic and inconsistent to teach privately, but now for the price of an hour with me they can go to the site and get a year’s worth of content.

Would you say that the site has enabled you to sustain your career?

It’s given me the opportunity to say no to things. It’s raised the level of music I play because I have the resources to choose what I want to do. I don’t have to go on tour just for the money. Plus, I think I learn more from each lesson than any of my students. Every time I shoot a video, I am forced to confront something that I thought I had together, but know I need to work on. And I’ll take the solution I found and share it with my viewers. Bring them into the process. That’s what the site is—it’s a window into my process. If you aspire to do something similar to what I do, this is the inside look. It’s how I got here.

INFO

LISTEN

Solo albumsMotion Picture [2014]; Theatre by the Sea [2013]; It Only Happens Once [2012]; The Space In Between [2010]; Live at the 55Bar [2007]; Mystery to Me [2004].
As a sideman Bob Reynolds, Somewhere In Between [2013], A Live Life [2011]; V.V. Brown, Live from the Apple Store, SoHo [2010, Capitol]; Nick Vayenas, Synesthesia [2008, World Culture]; Mike Phillips, Uncommon Denominator [2005, Hidden Beach]; Freeland, Now & Them [2003, EMI]; Ronny Jordan, At Last [2003, Sony]

EQUIP

Basses Fodera Janek Gwizdala Signature Imperial (33" scale, tuned EADGC); Fender American Standard Precision Bass (with original tapewound nylon strings); Fender Japan Medium Scale Aerodyne Jazz Bass (32" scale); ’72 Fender Musicmaster Bass (30" scale); Mayones Jabba custom 5-string
Strings Dunlop Super Bright Steel custom set (.032, .045, .065, .085, .105, with a .130 B)
Amps Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 with two Aguilar SL 112 cabinets
Effects TC Electronic RPT-1 Nova Repeater, Ditto Looper, and PolyTune Mini; Boss OC-2 Octave (from Japan); DOD FX32 Meat Box
Recording Noble Bass Preamp + DI

GWIZ SHOW

Janek Gwizdala’s Style is marked by sweeping Melodic solos that develop and build in intensity, grooves that percolate with a post- Pastorius presence, chords rendered with the clarity to convey compelling voicings, and best of all, heartfelt compositions that don’t sound like they were written on bass (or any particular instrument). Example 1 shows the main A and B section melodies of “Erdnase,” from 2013’s Theatre by the Sea. Although Janek played his signature Fodera 5, the music is presented an octave lower and tabbed for 4-string bass. He offers, “The melody came first, and I harmonized it using a practice routine I had with the V chord in 1st inversion [3rd in the bass] going to the tonic minor chord. The B section retains that motion somewhat, in bar 9 and in bar 12, where the F in Db/F hints at a tritone substitution going to the Emaj7.”

Example 2 has the main groove of “Randroid,” also from Theatre, played as shown, on Janek’s 5-string. For the opening, in bar 1, Janek starts up the octave before coming down to bass range at 0:31, as presented in bar 2. He plucks the lower, pitched notes with his thumb and the upper, ghosted notes with his middle finger, all while palm-muting near the bridge. “The groove started as an idea in my loop pedal and the ghost-notes act as a percussion part in the conversation between my thumb and middle finger. The feel is square in the pocket.”

Finally, Ex. 3 is the main melody of “Jamestown,” from 2014’s Motion Picture, also played on 5-string. Listen for how the basic chord changes help set up bar 7’s Bbm(maj7) as an ear-grabbing moment. “The melody is laid back, but you should experiment by playing it with your own interpretation and feel,” says Gwizdala. Visit bassplayer.com site for Janek’s exclusive, in-depth video lessons on all three examples. —Chris Jisi

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