Bassist Gary Willis who co-founded Tribal Tech is undoubtedly one of the most prolific bass players of this generation. For his upcoming record “Retro”, Gary Willis returns to his jazz roots. His new trio features the incredible Gergo Borlai on drums and the acclaimed Catalan pianist Albert Bover on keyboards. A mix of vintage Jazz with the energetic twist that Willis always brings as well as a melodic side that has been seen in smaller doses throughout his career. Known for his solo records and co-leading the legendary group Tribal Tech, Willis’ jazz roots can be traced back to the days of playing with Wayne Shorter, Hubert Laws, Joe Diorio and more. I got to interview Willis from his home in Barcelona
Neal Shaw:“Retro” is very different from “Actual Fiction”. What were your feelings walking away from “Actual Fiction”, and what inspired the change in musical direction?
Gary Willis: I think going for a change in direction is a natural instinct in order to feel creative. It just makes sense that if you continue doing the same thing or using the same process, you can’t expect it to feel as creative – or at least it’s going to require a lot more effort to explore avenues of creativity within a specific direction. Compared to “Actual Fiction”, yeah, it’s definitely different, but the reality is that this is something I’ve had in mind to do for a long time. It’s just that the timing and opportunity to do it happened to follow a very different project.
NS: How did you come to begin playing with Albert Bover and Gergo Borlai?
GW: I played some concerts with Albert not long after I moving to Barcelona. So I had it in mind to do something with him but I wasn’t sold on the sonics of acoustic piano and fretless electric. Actually he was the one who suggested that we try adding rhodes to the mix. Then a few years ago, my promoter friend Miklos Mester organized a concert with Scott Kinsey, myself and Gergo in Budapest and the musical hook-up there was immediately obvious. Then, to mine and Barcelona’s good fortune, Gergo moved here late 2011 and I immediately scheduled some studio time to get this thing started.
NS: Were the songs on “Retro” well-rehearsed before heading into the studio?
GW: Well rehearsed, I suppose, is a relative term. Albert and I got together a couple of times and then the three of us rehearsed a few times so we were able to get familiar enough with the material. We were still kind of exploring it when we recorded, but exploring is the nature of improvisation so hopefully we struck a balance between knowing what’s going to happen and finding surprises here and there.
NS: What is your composition process like? Do you write on your bass or use any kind of computer software?
GW: By any means necessary – that’s my process. I pretty much never use the bass to write – it’s always software, Logic. Composing using software let’s me do the dirty work of chasing down and eliminating every dead-end idea instead of subjecting good musicians to the half-cooked ones that occur to me. It won’t guarantee success but at least allows me to keep my compositional failures private.
NS: You’ve studied improvisation at The University of North Texas, and worked beside greats including Dennis Chambers, Allan Holdsworth, and Wayne Shorter. Are there any invaluable techniques or strategies you’ve acquired and incorporate in your own arranging and playing?
GW: If I had to reduce it to a strategy or technique would be this: always make sure that you are the worst musician in whatever musical situation you find yourself. Then, if you have any interest in learning or improving, it will happen. I was very fortunate to be tolerated by the people at those schools and the artists you mentioned.
NS: There are several standards on the album. What was the selection process for these songs? Are any of them special to you?
GW: Yeah, it’s the first time I’ve recorded other people’s music. The selection process was about choosing themes that I felt I could bring something personal to the way they’re interpreted. Of course, they’re all special but allow me put it this way: one way or another, if they don’t sound like they’re special to me after you listen to them, then I’ve failed. So it’s one thing to sit here and say yes, this one or that one is special to me but if it’s something you don’t recognize when you hear it, then it really doesn’t matter at all what I have to say about them.
NS: What equipment did you use on the album?
GW: For example, normally Gergo can be found playing a huge 3 floor-tom kit, but for this recording he played (and got a lot out of) a simple jazz kit – 18 bass drum – 1 floor tom – one rack tom. Me, it was just the bass. Albert had to expand his responsibilities a little by handling the left-hand bass whenever I was soloing.
NS: The album has a very live feel to it. You can hear interaction between the musicians. What was the recording process like? Were you all set up in the same room?
GW: Gergo was set up in the studio while Albert and I were in the control room, but we made sure we all had eye-contact for navigating the arrangements. But yeah, that was our intention, to feature the interaction the best we could – to just go in and play like it was a gig. (although we hadn’t done any gigs at that point)
NS: Many articles compare you to Jaco Pastorius, claiming you picked up where he left off. How do you feel about the comparison?
GW: Where is this article? Can I get my hands on it? OK, sorry – couldn’t resist. Of course, it’s a huge honor and always will be. But I’m often reminded that articles are written by human beings and sometimes it’s human nature to reduce commentary to the path of least resistance, pointing out the most glaring similarities. It takes a little more effort and curiosity to go beyond the surface to explore differences, even big ones. If I haven’t done enough to inspire that kind of effort, then all I can do is keep trying. Like I’ve said before, Jaco’s well-deserved legacy casts a huge shadow. However, it is nice to get some sun every once in a while.
NS: You currently live in Barcelona. What is the music scene like there? Do you play regularly there, or teach when you’re not on the road?
GW: I pretty much think of the whole world as a scene – I mean, we’re all so much more connected now – It’s not so geographic anymore. For myself, about twenty years ago I came to stop looking at where I lived as the sole outlet for what I wanted to do musically so I’m not sure I could tell you what the scene is like. I do teach at a couple of conservatories here and do online masterclasses and lessons when I can. I know it’s a vibrant city with a lot more going on than I take advantage of – but nobody’s invented the 36 hour day, yet, right?
NS: Songs on the album like Disconnectivity and Move boast incredible bass solos. How much of these solos were improvised?
GW: Thanks – everything’s improvised. Of course, I reserve the right to use any available technology to correct or eliminate things would bother me (forever) or distract from the recording but, for an example, if you compare the YouTube version of Change Agent to the studio version, you’ll find it’s pretty much how I play. Like I always say, it’s like a language and in a language you’ll find yourself using the same words every day, every hour. Hopefully, the context of the conversation or in this case the environment of a concert or recording inspires you to combine those words and phrases into something that fits and feels unique for that situation.
NS: You are a musician that is constantly growing and learning, and your music varies in styles and influences. What inspires you to evolve musically?
GW: Thanks, that’s a very generous thing to say about anyone – hopefully we’re all a work in progress. In a way, it’s human nature to resist change – we find an experience we like and tend to go to great lengths in order to repeat that experience. For me, that experience is the sense of discovery, the sense of finding something new in how to express myself. Sometimes, that comes from the technological side which I’m still very much interested in. Other times, it’s just me and the instrument and trying to find new ways to overcome the limitations of expression that we all encounter. This setting, playing in an electric-jazz trio was something I was doing over 30 years ago. So that part isn’t new, but instead of looking at it as nostalgia, I think what gives me this sense of discovery is that now, so many years later, there’s a life of experiences that I hope find their way into the music and give it a depth of expression that I wasn’t able to bring to it back then.
NS: What’s next musically for you? Is this trio going to hit the road?
GW: Of course, we’re working hard make that happen. The immediate future for me is a Tribal Tech tour of Asia and possibly Europe this summer. But we’re looking at getting my trio out there this summer in Europe and hopefully the US this fall. Keeping my fingers crossed.
Thanks a lot for your time and music Gary, We wish you best of luck with your new project.