How about this as an idea for a biopic. Born in Poole, Dorset, our subject moves to Canada at the age of five after his jazz-loving father – a professional boxer from Yorkshire – decides to seek better prospects for his young family in Toronto. He starts guitar lessons at 15, gets heavily into Led Zeppelin and the Floyd, but also has an ear for his dad’s jazz collection (Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, Sinatra). He undertakes three years of musical studies at Toronto’s Humber College of Music during which time, in addition to learning the subtleties of reharmonization, upper structure triads and pentatonic harmony, he also frequents Toronto’s jazz clubs where he checks out the likes of Zoot Sims, Barney Kessell, Herb Ellis, Red Norvo, Al Cohn and James Moody, often backed up by excellent house rhythm sections. Upon graduating he feels drawn to London, so he ups sticks, rocks up, meets the people, does the jam sessions, records a couple of albums and before you know it is working his ass off as Roy Ayers’ guitarist of choice. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Tony Smith.
Currently dividing his time between his own project Tony Smith & Co and his touring work with the king of the vibes, Smith’s star is very much in the ascendant right now. Just back from a month’s tour with Roy, in May the guitarist will be launching his new album “Loyalty” with gigs at the 606 and Soho’s Pizza Express Jazz Club (see www.tonysmithguitar.com for details). Following two solo albums on the Jazzizit label, “Big Cat” (1995) and “The Runner” (1997), plus an album of more soul-based material co-written with singer Ola Onabule (“Backlands”, released in 2003), the new album represents a serious raising of the bar in the Smith discography. It follows on quite naturally from the more overtly live feel that the guitarist was aiming for on “The Runner” which, unlike the prolonged gestation period of the debut, was recorded in just two days at the BBC. In addition to recognizing that his best moments as a guitarist are in a live environment (“I think it’s a prerequisite for me now”), rather than endless overdubbing followed by needless tinkering, with Loyalty Smith sees a particular line of development beginning to emerge in his music.
“I found myself doing more and more really hard-edged funk gigs, especially with Roy. The idea that I was going to play jazz with acoustic bass was getting further and further away – and the idea of playing more funk was getting more attractive. I think I pushed it in that electric / fusion thing. It just seemed a natural development. I seem to be getting more of a response, and further with my band, being more electric and hard-edged.”
Featuring a selection of London’s finest – Jason Rebello, Jerry Brown, Troy Miller and Dean Mark included – there’s an absolute consanguinity of mind and unity of purpose in terms of the direction in which Smith is pushing the music on “Loyalty”. On working with Rebello, he comments: “What I love about playing with Jason is that he completely understands where I’m coming from, completely understands what fusion is all about.” His thoughts on playing with the ace pianist could easily have been made about the group dynamic as a whole; lead by Smith’s dynamic soloing and in-the-pocket comping, the playing throughout the album is uniformly excellent.
Asked what he considers the single most important thing he’s learnt from playing with Roy, Smith answers in a heartbeat: ‘Absolutely to play the way I’m playing.” And it’s this self-belief in what he’s doing – the energy and the honesty of it – that has ensured he’s never baulked at using the ‘f’ word when it comes to describing his music. The guitarist professes to have “released myself from the burden of judging. I’ll let other people put me in whatever hole they want to put me in. You could drive yourself crazy if you worried about being pigeonholed.” But if the equation jazz + rock energy = fusion holds up for the guitarist, he turns pale at the thought of anyone laying the smooth jazz tag on him. “All you have to do is listen to a smooth jazz record and then put Loyalty on. Smooth jazz is, by and large, energyless and programmed. I think smooth jazz hijacked this kind of fusion, ironed it out, sucked all the blood out of it and put it in a jar, and sold it to people who don’t know what music is.”
Perhaps because Humber College was envisaged on a much smaller, more intimate scale than the likes of Berklee – thus perhaps avoiding the hothouse, competitive environment of its US counterpart – the guitarist managed to forge a very recognizable signature sound early on in his career, a sound which he identifies as “coming from the blues. I love jazz guitar players – and that’s my approach intellectually regarding the notes that I choose – but the blues brought the guitar to life in a way that other genres don’t. I’m really talking specifically about the guitar here, because I do think that it sounds great when you’re bending notes and with a bit of dirt on it. The Muddy Waters blues sound: to me that really speaks. I just like that kind of sound and want to bring that out of the guitar. I’m quite aggressive with it. For me the guitar comes to life with that bending of strings – there’s a physicality to the thing.”
Courtsey: Jazzwise Magazine – April 2006; Used with Permission from Tony Smith Management
In form of a resume since my last feature on Gary for Abstract Logix, I have explored his latest release for Alternity Records, “A Meeting Of Spirits”, celebrating the seminal music of John McLaughlin and his future recording plans with Force Majeure. Unfortunately there was a little sad news as I learned of Gary’s potential decision to leave his duties as drummer of Level 42, although hopefully he will be undertaking the band’s forthcoming dates in the coming months. So, it would be fair to warn the more conservative critics amongst us of the sincerity of Gary’s intentions for 2007 as he pushes the boundaries of creativity further, diversifying into a variety of new musical incarnations and spheres..
SLT: Please explain a little about “A Meeting Of Spirits”, your beautifully constructed solo piano album celebrating the music of John McLaughlin, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti. How did you select the material and did your recent experience of collaborating with John McLaughlin on “Industrial Zen” have an impact on your approach to his work?
GH: The work on John’s “Industrial Zen” album sessions took place well after I had started all the writing for my “A Meeting Of Spirits” album, so no, the Zen sessions didn’t affect what transpired on the album. I worked in a very similar fashion and approach to that featured on another dedicational album of mine – in fact this album’s predecessor (“The Things I See – Interpretations Of The Music Of Allan Holdsworth”) where I handpicked a fair amount of old and new favourites and used them as a springboard for a lot of personal musical exploration and adventure. Therefore both of these albums feature a fairly significant share of fresh, original composition of my own. And this was the whole point. In fact there was a good balance, I feel, between certain selections that were almost entirely new, (based on a strong essence of an original), and versions of things that housed a lot of original elements. Also, (just as it was with the first Holdsworth material one) this was a project I chose to do fundamentally and rather simply to say a huge thank you – to express love and strong acknowledgement for all the inspiration over the years. Both John and Allan have been hugely significant influences in the way I write and play myself today, and I’m really proud of both these records and glad I saw them through because these were both a whole lot of work!! Big, big work. But I love work! Particularly when it inherently carries a strong and heartfelt personal message to artists of this stature. There’s not much more I can say beyond that, since the message is really entirely just in the music. It’s a fact, anyway, the cover version approach has been done to death, and that really wasn’t my intention or motivation anyway. The strong personal input was, and the title of the album kind of reflects that – “A Meeting Of Spirits” – a special journey highlighting this little realm where my work meets his, in dedication and with love.
SLT: What are your thoughts and reflections on the 2006 Level 42 “Retroglide” tour? I attended the RAH concert in October and there was an overwhelming audience response throughout the entire evening.
GH: Oh well there was a pretty strong reaction to just about all those shows. I think it’s a testament to how driven everyone is and quite honestly how strong the show is. I mean, music to me .. you have to TESTIFY!!! Otherwise don’t bother going onstage, you know? It’s a mission to me, every time, no matter what kind of music I’m playing or with whoever I’m playing with. The Level 42 line-up of the last few recent years I actually felt was the best ever, in so far as those I have been involved with anyway. Everyone on that stage delivered. You know, Mark’s a driving force anyway and of course that’s infectious too. Nobody slacks on that stage, so I kind of think it’s inevitable audiences for sure really pick up on that, especially in a live concert setting, and especially in these times being bombarded by so much mediocrity – not being able to hardly find any music on TV other than the endless stream of soap stars trying their luck as singers, or doped-out looking, totally forgettable and totally derivative indie bands by the dozen etc. etc. Oh man, how boring and tiresome. The 42 performances, to my mind have been a good kick in the balls reminding everyone how it should be. That’s my feeling on it, straight ahead.
On the most recent tour the band featured Mike Lindup back in the fold, on Fender piano and prophet, and he really did great. It’s HIS gig you know, and he was really on good form playing fresh stuff every night. Nathan King is Mark’s brother (on guitar) and is a really talented musician. Sean Freeman (on tenor) is also a cracking young musician and beautiful, beautiful guy. I probably did the best yet on this tour as a drummer in the whole thing. A kind of Jazz / Funk style, as such, was never my strong point or forte in the beginning but I always enjoyed listening to people who can play very well in that way. So it was always a great challenge for me to do it well, and I’ve been working very hard in all the tours through the years just trying to be better and better at playing that way, and in summary, I think I only became happier with the way I’d been playing the music since around the band’s “Live At The Apollo” DVD time onwards. That one was good for me, plus the improvement I feel I’ve monitored in the performances and recordings since then.
SLT: Tell me about your musical diary for 2007.. I gather that on 20th January you are playing with Allan Holdsworth at the NAMM show in LA and some further Level 42 dates have just been announced including the Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta this March.
GH: Well yes I’ll get to play with my old brother Allan Holdsworth again after six years I think it is now! It’ll be nice. I don’t think if it paves the way for too much to happen beyond that, as you know he has his band with Jimmy Johnson and Chad Wackerman so … hmmm. I’d definitely like to do something more with him, but maybe outside of the band format he likes to work in – maybe feature him as a part of something I do perhaps. At this point I don’t know. Actually, Pearl Drums (who I just rejoined) set this up, since Allan is using amplifiers I think named Hughes and Kettner, who are part of Pearl. That’s all really positive since I love Pearl Drums, and since they went to the trouble to want to do that. Thank you Pearl!
Aside from this I have some more recording work and some live playing commitments with John McLaughlin in a new format, (playing keyboards and also perhaps some drums) and probably, and hopefully I’ll perhaps do some more with Mike Stern too. It’s the case though I’ve taken the decision to not carry on in the drum chair for the Level 42 band. This is since I want to adjust things and provide myself with more time. You know I’m a writer and a keyboardist and all this stuff too and there are lots of directions I want to go with that, and that’s a strong part of me that begins yelling out in frustration inside of me if I’m spending a great deal of time on the road as just a drummer. Mark I’m sure in time will find a replacement that suits him of course, but until such time I’ll be honouring the commitments the band has in this new year (including the Jakarta trip as far as I know anyway at this point). It’s been a great pleasure and experience to be involved, always, and y’know I’m already talking with Mark about possibly doing something together at some point – perhaps a joint CD project .. so we’re really not going to cut ties here, that’s for sure.
Beyond that, I’d like to record the Force Majeure band. The live DVD we have Gary Husband’s Force Majeure Live At The Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, will probably disappear shortly, as y’know it just wasn’t looked after properly. That’s tough stuff in this day and age, making pretty adventurous projects and knowing how to get them off the ground a bit without losing your car and your house!! However, we’ve all got to continue and do what we can. The music I am still immensely happy with and proud of actually, and I can hear a fantastic album in my head of slimmed down, more concise versions of all those same compositions, featuring all those great guys again. I’d like to interest a company, because I’d need help – financial and promotional help of course, chiefly. Still, all those guys are in the States, and I think if I go there, produce it with Jim Beard, (the keyboardist in the band), it’s really not outside the realms of possibility. It would be a very, very, very strong album.
SLT: Sounds like an ambition worthwhile pursuing Gary. I look forward to the realisation of all these creative strands! My thanks to Gary Husband for his time in offering this feedback. Up to date information on all Gary’s projects can be found on his official website: www.garyhusband.com
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On the eve of the release of his new album Larger Than Life, we sat down with bassist, improvisor, and composer Gary Willis to discuss his collaborators on the project, his process, and the results.
Q: Given the vast geographic disparity, how did this record come together — were you all in the same room or did you take a more modular approach? What were the advantages of your chosen approach and how did it elevate and enrich the material?
Gary Willis: It did make it difficult…since it turned out to be a five-year thing. I took the opportunity to go to Los Angeles in 2010 because Gergo was going to be there, so he and I and Kinsey got things started. Then in 2011, when Gergo moved into Barcelona, I immediately booked studio time and we spent a day just jamming.
Afterwards for a lot of the songs I’d write things and send them to Kinsey in L.A. and he’d record with [saxophonist] Steve Tavaglione. Then he’d send me things he and Tav did. So there were files going back and forth all the time. So parts of it were like a collaborative improvisation in a way.
As late as last year, I had this tune “Beast Mode,” and I knew the three of us couldn’t get together. But Gergo was going to be in L.A., so I sent a version he and Kinsey could improvise over. As a duo they nailed it in one take and I added my part later…
Before Gergo and I went into the studio to record duo, we booked a rehearsal studio with the intention to prepare some things in advance. Immediately we came up with what became “Vendetta.” After that, we said, “We’re wasting our time here: Let’s do what we do here in the studio – just let it happen live.”
Q: With improvisation being central to this music, how do you see your role as composer and bandleader?
GW: Two of the 4 of the songs that were composed before we recorded them are mine, so those two are “traditional” with melodies and solo sections, etc. The other 8 songs got their start with improvisation so my first role is to determine what should be preserved from what turned out to be several hours of raw, improvised material. One thing I’ve learned from composing this way is that an inspired drum performance is the heart of the whole process. Without question, Gergo’s playing is inspiring throughout. So the main challenge is to make sure that if there’s a part of the music that needs composition, that it lives up to the level of inspiration that Gergo or the group has reached at that moment.
Q: Will you try to re-learn this sort of hybrid material and play it live?
GW: We’re gonna try. It’s cool to go back and check out – to visit what had just happened in the moment and recreate…
Q: I’d be curious to know more about how you see the bass’s role in this music — you aren’t strictly in a supporting capacity, but neither are you out front as a lead instrument the whole time…
GW: To me, music that communicates well is everyone playing with their imagination… you imagine different roles for yourself, sometimes you belong out front, other times it’s a supporting role. That’s the other thing about jamming with Gergo and Kinsey is they have this ability to jam compositionally — it’s not just about soloing…
We haven’t played together that much, but it’s just something that happens when you get the right musicians together. You don’t have to talk about it — actually, the more you discuss, the less in the moment you are when it happens.
The title track started out as a trio jam with me and Gergo and Kinsey where I brought in an initial bass part. It was originally a seventeen-minute thing. Kinsey managed to whittle it down to eight minutes. I found some things he played and turned those into melodies, wrote some myself, and it developed over time into its own thing.
Q: Was the bass the last thing that went down?
GW: On six of them, Gergo and I started out jamming…I’d play melodies there, and some of those became the songs. Other times I’d do kind of a placeholder — knowing it wouldn’t be the final melody, but it would be taking up the space where I knew I wanted to write something like that…
Q: Does being in Barcelona make it easier or harder to make a recording like this? Is it easier to have a global presence being based in Europe?
GW: If this was a traditional studio-based recording with everyone in the same room, playing at the same time then yes it would be a problem. But everyone involved contributed in a way that doesn’t make you think there was any distances or time zones involved.
I stopped thinking geographical a long time ago so I really have no idea if I have a global presence. Living in Europe, I’m sure there are some opportunities that have come my way that wouldn’t have been there if I had stayed in the US.
Q: Tell us about your use of Claudia Bardagí’s wordless vocals throughout the album.
GW: One of the things that defines a melody is its sing-ability. But for me lyrics really confine how well you can identify with a piece of music. Claudia’s singing added a real human quality to the melodies and she was able to keep their abstract nature by not using lyrics.
Q: And the last track was recorded live…
GW: Yeah, we’ve added it as a bonus. It’s a good example of us improvising together. We were invited to play at the 80th birthday celebration of Joe Zawinul in Budapest, so we worked “Corner Pocket” into Kinsey’s “This Is That”.
Q: The artwork by Rafael Sarmento seems to be a big part of this new project. Did the collaboration with him come before or after the music was cut? What drew you to him?
GW: It happened afterwards. Once all the titles were settled they started to give me a kind of a vague idea about the artwork. At the same time I got introduced to him from a friend of a friend. When I saw his work, there was an immediate connection and we started emailing about it. I explained some of the visuals I was imagining for some of the songs, and he came up with some on his own. As we started working more closely, he gave the whole thing a concrete identity.
Q: Does that mean this is programmatic music? The music definitely has a cinematic quality to it.
GW: I guess it could be… depends on your imagination. I mean the music came first…but that’s how I like listen to music: With my imagination. I want to lead people in that direction, if I get a chance to.
Q: So, what would you say is the common thread connecting these performances, these songs?
GW: The obvious thread is me and Gergo and Kinsey playing but also I’m hopeful that a sense of imagination, a sense of humor and like you said, a cinematic quality can be found throughout.
Gary Willis, Llibert Fortuny and Kirk Covington Fiercely uncompromising with equal allegiance to jazzy improvisation, funky backbeats and sonic experimentation,