Janek Gwizdala’s February foray to New York City for two gigs at the 55 Bar with guitarist Mike Stern and drummer Kim Thompson left an open evening in-between, so what better way to fill it then to hold an Aguilar and Fodera-sponsored clinic at Aguilar’s Artist Loft on West 24th Street? The L.A.-based, British-born bassist brought Stern and drummer Cliff Almond along for a wide-ranging, two-hour, talk-and-play session that was premium in both content and sound—thanks to acoustics consultant Al Fierstein, whose clinic space design has given Aguilar one of the Big Apple’s best-sounding rooms. The trio began with Gwizdala’s reflective ballad, “Once I Knew,” from his most recent CD, Theatre by the Sea. Fittingly, the first audience question was about the components of improvisation beyond theory. This led to a lengthy discourse, with welcome contributions from Stern and Almond, who also pitched in when Janek took an online question about writing drum parts (the clinic was streamed live). The improvisation thread lingered over the next few questions, with Janek citing George Benson’s Weekend in L.A. as one of his key early influences—followed by his dead-on demonstration of Benson’s bop-enriched, scat-’n’-solo style.
The topic turned to transcribing and practice, with both Gwizdala and Almond recounting road tales of Stern’s unwavering commitment to shedding in every spare moment. An audience member spoke about having the good fortune to study with the late, great John Coltrane bassist, Jimmy Garrison, and how Garrison revealed that upon witnessing Scott LaFaro’s virtuostic style he decided to develop a less-is-more approach of his own. Stern echoed a similar story about his friend, the late guitar giant Jim Hall, who, after moving to N.Y. and encountering Benson and Pat Martino, forged his trademark understated style. Stern stressed, “Sometimes what you can’t do defines your voice as much as what you can do.” A Facebook question about how many rehearsals Janek typically has with a band before a gig led to smiles all around, as this unit was playing together for the first time. Proving that was no hinderance, they promptly burned through their second tune, Stern’s “Coupe De Ville” (from his 2009 CD, Big Neighborhood), which is based on the changes of the 1936 standard, “There Is No Greater Love.”
Gear was the next subject on tap, with Janek delving into his Fodera 5-string, Aguilar rig, and Aguilar and other effects pedals. The topic stretched to tone production through technique when Stern asked Gwizdala about his right-hand approach, derived from early classical guitar studies. Janek explained that he uses a combination of “rest stroke,” where the fingers remain straight when plucking the strings and come to rest on the adjacent string, and “free stroke,” where the fingers are curled when plucking, and then move over the adjacent string. Further tone inquiries led the three to jam on a slow 12/8 R&B groove, followed by Janek illustrating his straightahead walking style, which included plucking over the the fingerboard and using percussive, ghosted upbeats to help shorten the notes and stay truer to an upright sound. Music as a career was the final topic, as Janek revealed the guidance he had coming up from the great London session bassist, Laurence Cottle. With the clock at 8:53, it was time for a closing performance. Stern’s cajun-spiced bass-and-guitar head, “Tipitina’s” (from his 1999 CD, Play) made for a tasty end to a satisfying, slow-cooked clinic.