Innerviews, music without borders

Matt Garrison
Chosen paths
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2001 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

Matt Garrison

For jazz bassist and composer Matt Garrison, joy, communion and communication are the prime motivators for creating music. That’s why he forsook the vacuous realm of the music business and delivered his debut, self-titled solo CD directly to the people. Recorded, released and marketed independently, the disc is a healthy example an inspired musician taking complete control of his career in the face of a conservative industry climate that emphasizes jazz’s past instead of its future.

Garrison’s decision is one influenced by his upbringing. As the son of legendary Coltrane bassist Jimmy Garrison and renowned dancer and choreographer Roberta Escamilla Garrison, the younger Garrison was infused with the wisdom and genetics of parents at the top of their art forms. Further, he benefited from the experience and advice of some of the most influential jazz musicians in history—his father’s friends and peers who were at the core of his everyday life.

After his father passed away in 1976, Garrison and his family moved from his hometown of New York City to Italy where he began seriously studying piano and bass guitar. He returned to the States in 1988 and lived with his godfather Jack DeJohnette for two years. From there, he attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Following that experience, he went on to play with a veritable who’s who of the jazz community including Gary Burton, Betty Carter, Steve Coleman, John McLaughlin, Joni Mitchell and Joe Zawinul—just to name a few.

After years spent as a sideman, Garrison is now focused on advancing his career as a solo artist. On purely musical terms, he’s already succeeded. His debut as a leader is a wide-reaching affair that seamlessly merges jazz, funk, world musics, atmospherics, and drum and bass rhythms. Compositionally, Garrison manages to be simultaneously avant and accessible. It’s a remarkable feat given the depth and breadth of material presented.

The disc finds Garrison upfront most of the time, with his supple, virtuoso basswork serving multiple roles from melody to rhythm to chordal textures. Accompanying him is a group of leading modern jazz innovators such as Tribal Tech keyboardist Scott Kinsey; former Lost Tribe members including guitarists David Gilmore and Adam Rogers, drummer Ben Perowsky, and saxophonist David Binney; Zawinul Syndicate guitarist and vocalist Amit Chatterjee; and percussionist Arto Tuncboyacian.

In this thought-provoking conversation, Garrison reveals the methods and inspiration behind the disc. He also offers some insights into his fascinating background and philosophies about jazz as a living, breathing art form.

Let's start with the obvious question: Why a solo album now, after all these years?

Well, to put it plainly, I was itching to do this project. Up until about a year-and-a-half ago I simply didn't have the resources, the technology or the knowledge to put the CD together. After the initial learning curve hurdle had been surpassed in terms of working with digital recording, it was just a matter of assembling the compositions and calling the other artists to put their ideas down. I suppose I held back for so long because I didn't want to make a petty statement. I had to learn a lot more about being a musician before I could take on the responsibility of divulging my own ideas. I still have my doubts, but I had to start somewhere.

Several pieces on the album merge diverse musical ideas and genres in a seamless, yet unexpected and surprising way. What was your philosophy as you bridged these seemingly disparate ideas?

I basically had an idea of the sounds and people I wanted on this recording and believe it or not, the merging of sounds and textures just took place on its own. I provided the basic skeleton of a composition and just let the musicians do what they believed was appropriate and what came most natural to them. They made the pieces what they really are. It’s more improvisation than anything else, although they were following guidelines. But we really composed it together as far as I’m concerned. What some define as genres I define as characters. It was an awesome experience just to watch and let the music grow on its own.

Matt Garrison

You also really struck a unique balance between the accessible and the avant on the new album.

I'm in favor of diversity and that is reflected in the compositions. I definitely planned on having several types of sounds and feels, but I didn’t focus too much on whether it would be accessible or not. I suppose the diversity and balance was more to keep my own interest in a composition and the overall CD more than anything. I can easily get bored of too much of the same. It was very hard to finally settle into certain arrangements, but towards the end I just decided to leave things the way they were. I love melody and structure as much as I do freedom. They kind of intertwine naturally, so it was just as natural for this CD to come out the way it did.

Elaborate on your melodic approach.

I try to keep melodic content to a bare minimum—very simple, short phrases. I then add all of the more complex harmonic structures which I’m drawn to underneath, around, and at times, above of those phrases. I’m also very keen on motif development. I’ll have phrases of the same nature, length and quality restated throughout a tune. Once in major then in minor, and then again in some diminished quality and so forth. On a larger scale, I like to restate a melody in the midst of a completely different composition. It helps to keep an ongoing theme and reinforces the overall chosen direction.

Take me through creating a track as intricate as "Family."

It’s basically constructed on the symmetric augmented scale. The tonal center throughout the tune until the end where the solos are is around C. So, my concept is to have a permanent sound or tone that has a specific meaning with a corresponding area on one of my instruments. My five-string has a specific tonal center, so I like to build tunes around it. I found this scale and loved it so much that I wanted to find a way to fit it in, but it sounds kind of "out there." So, what I tried to do was find a way to have that scale work throughout the tune and disguise it with a simple melody. And as I build that scale up, it ends up having three major tonal centers which are major augmented chords. The three tonal centers consist of C major sharp five, E major sharp five and A flat major sharp five. I took melodic fragments and threw them on top of these three tonal sections and adapted them to the actual harmonic structure. That changes the harmony a bit every time. It’s basically about motifs and developing motifs. The same scale and some of those melodic fragments appear during the record several times. The whole idea is about development and growing—just like a family. That’s the objective of the whole recording to some extent—to have a family of ideas and sequence of events that are tied together.

Describe the various spaces you have bass guitar occupying on the disc.

Due to the construction and octave ranges that have been implemented on modern bass guitars, the use and application of the instrument is constantly being reevaluated. I would never limit an instrument to its definition or common use. I used the bass on this first release in practically every way I could think of: chords, melodies, bass parts, rhythm, sounds and solos.

What factors made you go the independent route?

I think one of the primary factors was seeing and learning about the development of my father's career. I saw all the remarkable things he had accomplished as a human being in a very difficult period of time for African-Americans, and was ashamed to see how little it meant to certain folks in the industry. I promised myself I would never be part of such a corrupt system and this CD is my way of making a statement as far as business goes. I will do business on my terms and I will make sure that I am rewarded for my work. On another note, my website was instrumental in my decision to go independent. Over the past couple of years I’ve received literally thousands of e-mails asking when I’d be doing a project of my own. Just based on the sheer quantity of requests, I figured it wouldn’t be so much of a risk after all to invest a good portion of my savings into a CD. I’m proud to say it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.

Expand on the impact the Internet has had on your career.

Absolutely incredible. I mean it has had such an impact that I don’t even know where to start. I bought my first computer in 1994 and now I’m a computer geek. [laughs] I’m at home composing on this thing and I do all my business and finances on it. With the advent of the Internet, I also realized I could do this CD myself and connect directly with the people. So, even if there’s someone behind a desk with a lot of money saying "Can we talk a lot about Jimmy Garrison? We want to shape your career. We want to get you in a goatee and dress you up all nice, because we know if you did that, the people will like you, because there’s a thing to this business, you know." And I say, that’s not true. They like me because they like the music I play and that’s final. That is the final step. I don’t give a shit what anybody says. I put my bass on and they will like it or will not like it. The information is immediate with the Internet. They see you at a show that night and then they’ll e-mail you telling you what they think. Same with this CD. As soon as they get it, they respond. This whole communication thing has driven me.

At any point were you shopping this material?

I only took the first steps of shopping the CD to major labels and saw immediately the inherent flaws of the industry. You know, I have friends that have signed to Blue Note and Verve and they haven’t even sold as many copies as I have independently. That’s because the record label at some point decided that the artist isn’t worth the effort, so they stop pushing the record. It just sits there. And these guys get frustrated because it’s their music. They want it out there, but it’s in these people’s hands. I saw this shit happen over and over again. It would have been an absolute joke for me to do the same. I mean, how stupid could I be, you know? [laughs]

Once the CD was mixed and mastered, time was of the essence in terms of making decisions as to where, when and why this CD would be released. I wasn't really taken seriously and that was the final spark that got me on the independent path. And by independent, I'm referring to every step involved in creating a CD including finances, organization, pre-production, recording, mixing, mastering and marketing. It’s a full-time job, but I’m loving every minute of it.

What's your take on the current jazz industry climate in the United States?

I think it's a puppet show. A lot of greedy, untalented folk out there using up valuable resources. This cripples the financial sustenance of great artists and sets a low standard for music lovers and newer artists alike. On the other hand, I'm really into any type of underground artistic movement which I think is vibrant and powerful. It seems to be in complete reaction to the foolishness that's floating around. There's a lot of great music being made, it's just not being heard as much. I’m hoping that by taking the risk of independency we can expand our voice. There has been much interest from the European side, but unfortunately what they have been offering from a business standpoint is far below the value of this CD. At this point I’m doing too well to want to give up any piece of this project for petty cash. I believe most associations with record labels are more geared to satisfy a musician’s ego than his or her pocket.

You’ve got a lot of former members of Lost Tribe on the disc. To me, they were one of the most under-appreciated bands of the last decade.

Oh, totally man.When I first came to New York City, the hippest guys around were those guys. David Gilmore was still playing with them and that shit blew me away. I had already started to work with Steve Coleman and was getting into his music. Then I’d come back and listen to what those guys were doing. They laid a certain harmonic groundwork that was more approachable and did all this crazy shit underneath. The mastery of each of those musicians is unbelievable. So, I had to have those guys on here. You’ve heard those Adam Rogers guitar solos. I mean, forget it man! [laughs] There were some great solos from Dave Binney too, but I couldn’t use them. He was going too quick! I’m gonna save that for the next record. [laughs] It’s too bad Lost Tribe called it quits last year. You still see the guys hanging out together. They’re always doing gigs with two or three of them at a time with someone else. But there was too much tension over who wanted to do what with the group, so they ended up calling it a day before they got too evil with each other.

You've recently been working with singer-songwriter Joy Askew. How did you hook up with her?

The first time I played with Joy was at a jam session in downtown Manhattan. There was something of a connection immediately and we ended up exchanging info afterwards. We later worked on a Joni Mitchell tribute together which was presented at the Summer Sound Stage in Central Park about one-and-a-half years ago. It's actually thanks to her that I ended up being the bassist for the event.

Do you see any career parallels with Askew in that both of you have worked with major names, but have received relatively little limelight for your own contributions?

I guess to some extent. I see Joy as an incredibly accomplished composer, performer, instrumentalist, producer and the list goes on and on. If one hasn't gotten their fair share of the limelight that would be her. I've gotten as much as I expected I suppose. Up until this first release, no-one has really even considered the fact that I might be a composer. I was just a sideman. You’re in the public eye as long as you're performing with someone great. After that, who knows? So, I don’t even really deserve the same recognition as Joy does. She is serious business and those who don’t take her and her vision seriously are definitely missing out.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of being associated with your father's legacy?

The upside is that people are willing to at least give me a chance right off. The downside is trying to maintain their interest after the initial "Coltrane Legacy" love affair.

What do you think your father would have made of the new album?

I think he would have been very proud and would have loved it. I didn't really know him or his personality too well, but I have the feeling that this type of music is just an extension of what he was doing in his time. It's creative and open and that was his spirit. After all, the fact that I’m here is a sign of two human beings choosing to do things differently and with an open heart to diversity and change. He was a genius and groundbreaking artist, yet highly unappreciated. I wish with all my heart that he could have had more time to sort his life out and show more of what he had to offer. I miss him very much.

You must have some amazing anecdotes from your childhood growing up around so many jazz legends.

Funny enough, I don’t even see it in that light. I’ve been around music and musicians so much that my vivid recollections would have to be of situations completely unassociated with music. One that really stands out though is being in Jack DeJohnette’s basement during one of his infamous jam sessions and having the sensation of leaving my body and seeing the whole thing, including myself sitting on the couch, from another corner in the room. After that experience, I decided to become a musician.

What are some of the broader philosophies you absorbed while living with DeJohnette?

That life and music are a lot simpler than most of us make it out to be. I admire the fact that his approach to music is deeply intellectual and spiritual, yet very childlike. It’s like kids having fun together—very pure and balanced.

What drew you to the electric bass as opposed to the upright?

Believe it or not, the size. When I was in Italy I did just a bit of classical studies and I remember having to carry that baby around to lessons. Those days sealed my fate as an electric bassist! On top of that I'm really into electronics and gadgets and bass guitar is much more geared for that world.

Matt Garrison

What’s your take on the Ken Burns' Jazz series?

It's been creating a huge set of debates here in New York City. I was on the phone with Jack DeJohnette two days ago and we were talking about it for an hour-and-a-half. I like the fact that they did it, but there's way too much information missing. A lot of people have been overlooked. And now, if you go to Tower Records or Virgin Records, you see "Ken Burns Jazz" and "Jazz according to Wynton Marsalis" everywhere. It's so interconnected. It's just more of the same business-wise. It's pretty horrible that so many of these musicians are not around anymore because they never got their fair share.

What did you discuss with DeJohnette?

He respects Wynton Marsalis as a musician who put the hard work into accomplishing what he has. But obviously Jack's point of view doesn't concur with Wynton's. Jack's the kind of musician who'll play anything, anytime, anyhow for the right reasons. That's his take on life—to mix it up. That’s not where Wynton’s coming from. Jack’s main concern was that Burns would put someone in the forefront that was the "representative of jazz" and that’s what happened.

What do you make of the neoclassicist viewpoint on jazz that Marsalis and his cronies subscribe to?

They’re not trying to be innovators in any way. They are people that are rehashing things they feel are necessary for this culture to understand. From that standpoint, I’m proud of what they’re trying to do and stand up for. But the music they personally bring out isn’t anything of any depth or power. I listen to those records and get nothing out of them—even the hipper stuff Wynton does. I saw Wynton and Ken Burns on the Charlie Rose Show and it was really interesting. Those two guys were kissing each other’s asses until they turned blue in the face. It was unbelievable. And to see Wynton in that light really showed you what he’s trying to accomplish. He has to be in the forefront. He’s gotta be the person that says "this is good and this is bad." Ken Burns was basically totally preaching his ignorance regarding jazz and let Wynton have the floor. That was some sad shit to see. So, I’m not keen on the whole thing, but I was grateful to see my dad on the screen.

Contrast your viewpoint on jazz to that offered by the series.

My views are much more simple. As far as I’m concerned, we are all completely and absolutely responsible for jazz being here. It’s a continuous process. There’s nothing that can be attributed to anybody. It’s not about that and never will be. I know we need to focus on and categorize things just like they do in that series—they need to say who’s who, who did what, the blacks were enslaved, the whites had the upper hand, and therefore the blacks had to rise up. That’s fine. But it’s a cycle man. Music is life. There’s nothing else to it. I won’t play with anybody that agrees with the point of view of the series. I’m not into that strict jazz shit. I don’t come from that. My father wasn’t about that. Coltrane wasn’t about that. The people I play with these days are not about that.

Wynton’s peers and a lot of these young kids that subscribe to his thing—I don’t get along with them because the music is closed to them. They consider themselves the true and only creators and I don’t agree with it. It becomes more of a cultural and societal thing than being about music itself. It’s a tug-of-war over who created what. Who the fuck cares? Who is to say who created what? Nobody is any position at any point to do so really. That’s what we learn from the great sages of all time. If we want to talk about the black race and what it has accomplished, we have to think of ourselves way beyond the idea of "this music is us and ours alone." Jazz is an ever-evolving music. It has no boundaries, no limitations, no true definitions. It's a music by the people of the world. Everyone has contributed to it and that's what makes it so flexible and powerful. The moment someone tries to set rules, someone else almost by default attempts to break those rules. It's truly fascinating and I look forward every day to a new development

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Matt Garrison