Tony Grey speaks about his Unknown Angels
Bass, the final frontier. Anyone who has taken a moment to study the low frequencies cannot help but notice a philosophical bent that many of its finest exponents take on. Cats like Victor Wooten, Kai Eckhardt, and Jonas Hellborg are just a few of the players at the vanguard of music introspection—low plains drifters, if you will. With the release of his third album Unknown Angels, Tony Grey continues his foray into the company. Known for his gorgeous tones and textures (not to mention his chops galore backing up the blazing Hiromi Uehara), on Unknown Angels Grey offers up a series of meditative and introspective compositions featuring Indian maestros U.Srinivas and Selvaganesh.
Abstract Logix caught up with him via e-mail to get the down low low down on the new Obliqsound release.
Abstract Logix: This album strikes me as more textural, spacious, and maybe meditative. Simpler, but let’s say no less sophisticated. Was this something you were going for on the release? Not unlike Coltrane’s approach on A Love Supreme or Mclaughlin’s new track To the One. Was this stylistic change a conscious one?
Tony Grey: Well, this last year has been a tough one for many reasons and as always music is like therapy for me. So this loopy sonic meditation sound came out. It all really came about with me just creating loops on my bass, but in a way that almost sounded like a pad. From there I was experimenting with chords and melodies on top. It was never really intended to become tracks for an album—it was just calming for me to play in this way.
AL: Obvious direction aside (specific harmonies/voicings/lines) that Hiromi dictates in Sonic Bloom, do you approach the bass differently in her group as opposed to your own projects? How so?
TG: As a sideman I just try to envision the concept the writer or leader is going for and try to put as much of my personality as possible into what I’m doing. It can be a little tricky sometimes because as writers we all have our own tastes and vision, so it’s always a balance to create something to please the leader and yourself at the same time. I think it’s important to let go of the ego a little and first try to do the job you need to do. Next, where it’s appropriate for the music, you can take liberties to find the moments to express and please yourself within the boundaries.
But in Jazz usually the writer hires musicians based on their sound and personality to give you want you want with limited instruction. Hiromi is very aware of with whom she’s playing and always tries to accommodate the musician’s own personal approach.
When I write for a CD I’m also very aware of whom I want to recreate my vision.
I always create the complete concept I’m going for myself on a sequence, and send the tracks to the musicians for some feedback [as] I don’t want to be over controlling as a leader. I know very much what I want and am looking for but I’m also trying to be open so that everyone in the band can totally have freedom to express themselves fully. And sometimes being open can really help the music take off in an unexpected direction. My band is full of amazing beautiful original creative musicians—they completely get what I’m going for and add so much to any idea I come up with.
AL: What made you want to incorporate your vocals so heavily into the album?
TG: Well for this CD the music was really about making a statement, and vocals really helped convey that message. They aren’t really meant to be the main focus but are kind of like food for thought. I left the message open enough hopefully for the listener to fill in the message with their own thoughts and experiences.
AL: You said in a press release, Why did John McLaughlin help me realize this drastic, extreme shift in my lifestyle? I had very limited contact with him and really had no idea what he did. What was the lifestyle shift that Mclaughlin helped you realize?
TG: What I was trying to say about John McLaughlin was that it’s funny sometimes the twists and turns life throws at you unexpectedly. I was in the army with absolutely no plans or dreams of being a musician. If my step Dad never gave me a bass without any request or provocation, and I hadn’t known John what would I be doing now? It was a series of extreme events that lead me to this place. It was his [Mclaughlin’s] idea I apply for Berklee and move to the US. Unknown Angels is really about the people you encounter in your life that completely change your direction and way of thinking.
AL: Mclaughlin has pointed many times in interviews to the connection his (largely eastern) spiritual practices have to do with him as a person and by proxy his music. Your description of “No More Struggle” on your website seems as though it may be suggestive of such an outlook. Does spirituality inform your music, and if so, can you talk about how?
TG: For me music is completely spiritual. It’s not about technique, advanced complicated time signatures or ambiguous harmonies, all of which are cool and fun, but about expressing yourself as an artist and a human being. If that leads to all the complicated things music has to offer then fine. My goal is to be informed of all the things that make up music, and then to make choices in the best way to relay my message.
AL: The track Out of Something, kind of reminds me of a track by Vinnie Colaiuta, I’m Tweaked. Rhythmically the pulse stays the same but you are doing some unconventional rhythmic shifts. Can you talk about that track and how you think about it, how you conceived of it?
TG: Wow, I love Vinnie Colaiuta—he is so amazing. I had never heard that track but yes, I hear the similarities in the groove.
What I was going for with Out Of Something a rhythm very stable but not obvious. The harmony and melody is a little more active so I wanted a solid groove with a twist.
AL: How is your philosophy with the new one different from say Chasing Shadows ?
TG: Chasing Shadows was a completely different concept but a good reflection of where I was at that point. For Unknown Angels I wanted to do something so different and unexpected to surprise the listener. I love Indian music and I lost that connection with my last CD so I wanted to explore that world a little more. My first CD Moving touched on a few different elements of world music, Indian, Chinese, Greek etc. Chasing Shadows was a very focused sound as is Unknown Angels.
AL: You have talked in the past about how many different ways you have used to compose, melody first, harmony first, groove first, etc. Is there any one in particular that you’ve found most effective, or does it just depend?
TG: When I compose it’s still a mixed bag. Sometimes groove first like in the track Out Of Something. Bass chords were the starting point in the track “Unknown Angels. The loops were the birth of Some Are Saved, Some Are Lost and No More Struggle. Harmony was the starting point in Living Underground, and the track Say What You Mean was written off of the vocal. It just starts from sitting down with a cup of tea and letting come out what comes out.
AL: Do you have any specific goals, ideas or projects you can point to at this point in your journey?
TG: My goals are to really get on the road a little more with my project. These musicians are so expressive and amazing I think it’s a really interesting journey of emotions when we play live. It’s so open everything changes every time we play.
AL: You also started teaching on Skype? Can you talk about that? Due to your own unique journey in music, aside from the above do you have any specific philosophy or approach with regard to teaching?
TG: I have been spending a lot of time writing an instructional book and DVD. This has been a lot of work and I’m very excited about it.
It basically is my own concept and way of practicing which is very focused and a very creative approach. My goal with that is to help the student learn the vocabulary but find their own ways of using it—to help find their own personality and voice.
One thing I hate is where musicians just sound like someone else. Possibilities in music are infinite and everyone should be searching for their own way of doing things. All I want to do is give some direction, tools and methods to help achieve this.
I do teach on Skype, which can be a lot of fun. It’s amazing to me that we can connect all over the world with each other just like that.
AL: Can you talk about U.Srinivas and V.Selvaganesh? What made you want them for the session and how’d you get hooked up? Did you guys track live or did they overdub?
TG: I have loved U.Srinivas and Selvaganesh from the very first time I heard them with Shakti. They are explosive, calm with beauty and so in control of their instruments. When I got to meet them through John McLaughlin I was blown away touched by their humility. They are everything I hope to be as an artist. No ego and such love and devotion for their art. I was so lucky they wanted to be a part of this vision. I flew to Chennai to record with them which was an amazing experience for me. Mahesh Vinayakram is Selvaji’s younger brother is a vocalist who was recommended to me by Selvaji. He is a deeply passionate musician and person and was so thrilled he also took part in the music.
AL: You talked about how in the past you used to sometimes panic in unknown musical situations. What was it that pulled you in the direction of not panicking and allowed you to open up more?
TG: Well I think that music and time happens when you just let go and let it happen. Sometimes there is a tendency with musicians and bands to try and force the issue. It’s important to trust yourself as an artist, leader or sideman to realize you are there for a reason, usually because you are wanted. When you find yourself nervous or in a frame of mind that is pre- planned you can find yourself panicked when someone throws you a curve ball. We are playing improvised music with other musicians that are also improvising. So the thing I learned is to prepare as much as you can, then let go and trust yourself and the musicians around you.
AL: You have talked about how you meticulously document your practice regiment. What benefits have you found in doing this?
TG: I like to document what I work on as it helps me be more efficient with my time. Sometimes I’m on the road or in the studio for a period of time so if I keep a note of what I’m working on or where I’m at I can just continue where I left off. I like to split my practice routine up into 30 minute sessions. I think the brain can only absorb so much information at one time so I put a time limit on it to optimize my study. Also, it helps me cover a lot of different things I work on in a day. It also helps me stay focused knowing exactly what I’m working on and how far I have come with it.
AL: Obligatory gear question: Anything you want to talk about with regard to what you are playing through now? I’ve always loved the tone Fodera players get (seemingly through any rig). Anything new or interesting for you now in the gear world?
TG: I’m loving my Fodera at the moment. It gives me everything I need to express myself. I’m working with Aguilar Amps and effects which are amazing, DR Strings and TC Electronic Effects for my bass and vocals. It’s all really incredible equipment and I feel very lucky.
AL: Who will be in your ensemble for the upcoming dates in NYC?
TG: My band for NYC will include these fantastic musicians and friends:
Romain Collin, Keys
John Shannon, Vocal and Guitar
Gregoire Maret, Harmonica
Dan Brantigan, Trumpet and FX
Obed Calvaire, Drums
AL: Thanks Tony for your time. The record sounds great and I wish you all the success with it. See you soon