“IT’S IMPORTANT, ESPECIALLY IF YOU’RE VERY DEDICATED TO YOUR MUSIC AND YOUR instrument, to have something totally unrelated to bass playing to fill some of your time.” Janek Gwizdala knows a lot about filling time—he’s a multi-tasker who just can’t sit still. When he’s not working out, hanging out, or running his online bass school, Gwizdala is always practicing something: bass, sleight-of-hand card tricks, or tennis.
“I’m a tennis fanatic,” Gwizdala tells me on a break from teaching at the Sligo Jazz Project Workshop in Ireland. “I practice tennis more than I do the bass right now, and it’s an amazing distraction that not only trains my mind to perform completely different tasks than I’m used to, but it energizes me to work even harder on my music.” How did Gwizdala become a driving force on the modern bass scene? Practice, playing, practice, and more playing.
“I think the most I was ever able to play in one day was around 12 hours. Pajamas—only stopping to eat—and having complete focus on the goal of becoming a better musician.” Some of the early practice staples for Gwizdala were exercises from Hanon: The Virtuoso Pianist In Sixty Exercises. The Hanon book has been criticized over the years by classical piano teachers as being excessively technical, but Gwizdala certainly found his way around the bass by slogging through the material. “I tend to use whatever I can’t execute on my instrument to populate my practice routine when it comes to maintaining and building my technique,” he says.
Example 1 shows the first and most famous of the Hanon piano exercises. The pattern sounds and feels like a bass line as it moves through the diatonic modes of the C major scale. Example2 is the descending pattern that complements Ex. 1. To master these exercises, work out the fingerings slowly at first. There are several ways to finger the patterns on the bass: using only two strings, playing across three strings, moving up the D and G strings, or starting on the 8th-fret C on the E string. Once you have mastered the scale pattern in C, move it through all 12 keys.
Says Gwizdala, “One of the big steps forward in my development on a technical level was when I realized I’d only been playing the ascending aspects of all the Hanon exercises. As soon as I put in the rest of the work that was sitting right in front of me in the book [the descending exercises], I expanded my ability in a big way.”
Example 3 demonstrates the pattern from Hanon Exercise No. 20. The line starts on the 3rd of the C major triad (the note E), moves up the arpeggio, then down a scale pattern to the next arpeggio. Example 4 is the descending pattern that complements Ex. 3. For more about arpeggios from the bottom up and from the top down, see my previous two Woodshed columns in the September and October ’13 issues.
Is Gwizdala’s killer technique what makes him a great bass player? On first listen to his music, one is struck by the grooves, melodies, and lush harmonies. It’s not only his rapid-fire prestidigitation that mesmerizes the minds and ears of his fans. Says Gwizdala, “I was at some point blown away by sheer instrumental virtuosity, but what stays with me longer is melody, composition, and storytelling within someone’s music. It’s very flattering for someone to be inspired by me instrumentally, but for the most part it’s the musical aspect of what I do that is the thing that keeps people’s interest in the long term.”
A beautiful example of Gwizdala’s melodic composing and playing style is heard on “Erdnase” [Janek Gwizdala, Theater by the Sea, CD Baby, 2013]. Example 5 shows the flowing bass melody, which rides atop Peter Erskine’s subtle brush playing over a carpet of leading-tone cadences (for example, the G/B has a dominant sound that leads into the C minor chord). In classical music, this type of chord progression is described as an imperfect authentic cadence. The composition keeps moving through several key centers, never coming to rest until the last two measures of the B section.
The song title “Erdnase” belies Gwizdala’s penchant for close-up card magic. S.W. Erdnase is the pseudonym of the unknown author of the 1902 card magic book The Expert at the Card Table. Gwizdala’s bass technique reflects a magician’s attitude: give the audience what they want, and surprise them with some twists and turns that they never see coming.
Gwizdala is obviously not thinking theory or technique when he’s playing. He transmits a feeling of singing through his instrument, and he does often sing along when soloing. “The main thing in the long run, when you’re inspired by someone, is to be sure it’s for the music and not the instrument. The older I get, the more important that becomes to me.”
As a fitness freak, magician, tennis bum, and virtuoso bassist, Gwizdala juggles everything to stay in the moment with an optimal flow. “Mental and physical health are so often overlooked in the world of music, and I don’t think there’s anything more key to success and happiness than those elements.”
Janek Gwizdala and John Goldsby recently spent a week teaching together at the Sligo Jazz Project Summer Workshop in Sligo, Ireland. For videos of some of the proceedings, check out the Sligo Jazz Project YouTube channel: youtube.com/sligojazz.