Innerviews, music without borders

Gary Willis
No Borders, No Limits
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1997 Anil Prasad.

When bassist Gary Willis began working on No Sweat, his first solo album, he decided to take a novel approach seen less and less in today's jazz world: he let the spirit of the music guide him. Willis' uncompromising approach is one he's stuck to throughout his main gig with Tribal Tech, the adventurous fusion quartet from California he co-leads with guitarist Scott Henderson. Since the mid-'80s, the group has released seven studio albums of ballsy jazz-rock that proudly spit in the face of fashion.

That same disdain for trends permeates No Sweat. The disc is a fun, no-holds-barred fusion outing that focuses on improvisation, lengthy jams and intricate interaction between the players involved. No Sweat finds drummer Dennis Chambers, saxophonist Steve Tavaglione and Tribal Tech keyboardist Scott Kinsey combining with Willis' supple, yet fiery fretless bass lines. The result is some of the most refreshing instrumental music of recent memory.

When Willis isn't working with Tribal Tech or on his solo career, he can be found serving as a sideman for the likes of legendary players such as Wayne Shorter, Allan Holdsworth and Robben Ford. He's also a teacher, author and avid mountain biker.

This interview explores the making of No Sweat, Willis' evolution as a composer, Tribal Tech's future directions and his opinions on everything from Alanis Morissette to Bill Clinton to Homer Simpson.

Let’s start with the obvious question. Why a solo album now after so many years with Tribal Tech?

Well, I do have a separate identity from Tribal Tech as a musician. I've been able to express pretty much what I've wanted to with that band, but there are a few other things that I enjoy doing in a band context that don't necessarily happen in Tribal Tech. So, this was an opportunity to pursue that. The kind of reputation of that band, although it's pretty versatile, is kind of in-your-face, angst-ridden, intensity, most of the time.


Angst-ridden, is that a good phrase?

You tell me.

Yeah, it’s angry jazz, a lot of times. I enjoy that intensity, but I just feel that there are other kinds of intensity you can do, other sides of musical expression as well, because there's intensity on my record. It's just that it doesn't necessarily come from fusion guitar or whatever. You know, I did turn on a fuzz pedal for about ten seconds, but other than that... [laughter]

Was the decision to do a solo album a major decision for you?

No, not really. It's not that I've quit the band, I've just added to what I'm doing, that's all.

I didn’t mean to imply that you wanted to leave the band. But after so many years in a band, striking out in a solo direction usually signals a major change, be it in focus, mindset or future leanings.

I don't want to be corny, but the title is how the thing turned out. It involved the least hassle of any project I've done, from beginning to end, as far as getting the music together, rehearsing it, and having it come out. It was basically because the tunes were mostly sketches, not full-blown production numbers as we're used to doing in Tribal Tech. There wasn't too much of a preconceived direction that each tune had, so each one kind of developed on its own. We weren't sweating trying to make the tune go where's it's supposed to. We just let it go where it wanted to.

How long have you had these sketches kicking around?

A couple of tunes have maybe been around for a few years—ones that didn't exactly fit the Tribal Tech direction. Others I just went back and wrote in the last year or so, once I found out that I was going to be doing a solo record.

The beginnings of your solo leanings were captured on a track called "Speak" on Tribal Tech’s Reality Check album.

Yeah, I think that was the first guitar-less tune we've ever done. It was just basically trying to take advantage of the instrumentation. I've written the same thing where there's no keyboards—like on "Canine"—so it's a matter of just approaching things differently.

What did Scott Henderson say when you proposed a guitar-less track for a Tribal Tech album?

I gave him parts, and we started working on it, and as far as the melodies that he could play versus what Kinsey could play, he thought it was to our advantage to have a tune that was different-sounding because it had no guitar. So, it wasn't a matter of "No, you can't play," it was more like he learned some of the parts in there, and basically he would have been duplicating what Kinsey could have done on keyboards anyway.

I caught Tribal Tech without Scott Henderson in Montreal several times about a year or so before you recorded this album. Did playing as a guitar-less trio at those gigs influence your decision to make No Sweat at all?

The only thing we were doing then was this tune called "Knothead" that we like to play as a trio. But it just comes back to when I was learning to play jazz at North Texas State. My instincts and the way that I play when there's a keyboard player, as opposed to a guitar player, are different, and the whole sound is different. So, we're talking 15 or 20 years ago, and I learned a lot about playing jazz and harmony in general with keyboard players, but throughout my career I found myself playing with a lot of guitar players. So this was also a chance to do something different.

Did playing with so many guitar players impede your ability to come out as a personality on bass?

Not really, as far as what I've got to say on the instrument. In Tribal Tech, for instance, the role of the bass can swap with Henderson or Kinsey, in case I'm playing a melody or a solo. Obviously, if I was playing in a guitar trio, it would be different. But because of the instrumentation we've maintained over the years, I don't think it's really affected it. By the same token, when you're playing in a guitar trio, for instance, it's far more open, as far as the interaction, as opposed to when keyboards are comping as well behind the guitar. But being up front is not really my priority, you know. It's just a matter of whatever the music demands.

A lot of people have said No Sweat has a '70s fusion vibe.

Yeah, I guess. It depends though. All along, there's been bad fusion—lots of bad fusion—and some good fusion. A lot of the good stuff that I learned and was inspired to pursue came from the 70s: Herbie, Miles and stuff like that.

Were you trying to capture that Miles or Herbie attitude on this album?

Not really. The album is just trying to capture whatever that group of four musicians wanted to do with those tunes. There's some other styles on there that don't necessarily remind you of that era, as well. But there was something about the enthusiasm, back in the 70s. I don't want to sound too retro here. [laughs] To me, that enthusiasm has been missing in a lot of instrumental music in recent decades, because there's a sense of abandon that I like to hear when people play music, whether it's jazz, or rock, or funk, or whatever, of not necessarily holding back to create the perfect take. It's the sense of letting it go when it needs to, and that was definitely happening in the 70s. Once it became a way to make money, with record contracts and radio airplay, in the 80s, people started playing a lot more calculatedly.

The improvisational element of fusion has definitely faded. But I get the feeling there’s a lot of improv on No Sweat.

Yeah, definitely. I've been doing a few different throw-together bands in L.A. with Tavaglione, and he can take it so many different places. It's a treat to get him to do it, just because of the sounds he can bring. He and Kinsey tended to blend pretty well. Except for a few tunes where he's playing sax, they're both playing synthesizers, and you don't get a sense that one guy's playing or one guy's not. They reverse roles and accompany each other really well.

How would you describe the chemistry in the studio overall?

Pretty much like it sounds. Hopefully you can tell from how it sounds that we were having fun. That's Dennis [Chambers] laughing at the beginning of "Knothead," and there were other places where he was laughing where the tune was over, so we couldn't leave it in. Kinsey was screaming into a distorted microphone in "Knothead" that we set up. There's a tune called "’Til The Cows Come Home" where we just pressed record and jammed for 14 minutes, and we had to cut it down just to make it a little bit more presentable. I think it ended up being about 11 minutes. Dennis plays some amazing stuff on that one, as well as everything else. The vibe was very loose. Dennis got into town, we rehearsed maybe four hours one evening, and then we tracked for two-and-a-half days. It was the least stressful recording I've ever done.

That must have been very gratifying.

Yeah. It's easy to get uptight when you're in a situation like that, and it wasn't.

What sort of nastier situations have you encountered in the studio that make you say that?

Well, we've gone through all sorts of versions of hell doing Tribal Tech records, and other recording experiences I've had, and part of it is, when we didn't really have a touring band, Scott and I would demo the tunes, and so in recording and rehearsal, we would try to get the tune to sound like the demo, to achieve what the demo did, and sometimes that was hard. And other times, once we had a touring band, we'd always tour with the music and dial it in and find out where it wants to go and fine-tune it before we go in the studio. So the hassle there is to try to recreate a live, loose performance as if we were in a club, and you get used to these club vibes and then you go into a sterile studio environment. Sometimes it's hard to play in an inspired manner after the luxury of having that communication with an audience. And then there's all kinds of technical things that always come up. Fortunately, none of that happened.

What would you say you learned about yourself when putting this record together?

Yikes! I have no idea.

Did you discover any new skills, ideas or ways of working?

Not really. Gosh, I'm really not that introspective. I don't really think of myself that much. [laughs] That kind of question would require me to take myself a little too seriously.

Do questions like that annoy you?

No, it doesn't annoy me, but people that answer those questions seriously annoy me. [laughs] People who take themselves too seriously annoy me.

I was surprised to learn you do almost all of your composing on a computer.

I've got a Mac and a bunch of modules and performance software, and I think the only tune on No Sweat I wrote on bass was "Hymn." I have limited keyboard chops, but because of the ways you can record into the sequencer you can get around that. What'll set the atmosphere for a tune is the drum groove, so I'll come up with percussion loops or drum loops and work with those a lot to where it sounds like there's a tune there, where it feels like there's something different going on, enough that I'd want to play over it or that it wants something to happen over it. Once that happens, then it's about finding that elusive melody that makes it a tune.

So what did you do before you had all this technology at your disposal?

I didn't write. [laughs] Well, I think I wrote a little bit, but I wasn't really that interested in writing. I think the first thing I bought was a little suitcase Rhodes, and I maybe wrote a little bit on there with a four-track cassette. As soon as I got a Casio CD-5000 and an eight-track sequencer around 1986, I was off and writing.

So, would you say technology has turned you into a composer?

That's a good question. It's definitely turned me into a more selective one, I guess. Living in L.A. when I was, to try to get a band or the band together to rehearse or to hear something that I'd put on paper that I wasn't sure about, the logistics of that would have just been impossible, so I'm not sure how exactly I would have pursued it. The technology just gives you a chance to hear whether something's going to work or not.

Do you find it difficult to write on bass?

Yeah, it's not a harmonic instrument per se, though you can grab some chords here and there, and I do have a six-string just to play some melodies on—a little high register, when I need to find some. But otherwise it doesn't give you the kind of picture—you just can't create the kind of chords that you can on keyboards, obviously. Same thing with guitar.

Do you consider yourself a composer first and a bass player second or vice-versa?

Chronologically, I was a bass player before I was a composer. But I'd be taking myself too seriously again trying to answer the question. [laughs] A slash would be good, as in "bassist/composer."

What was it like to work with Allan Holdsworth on his last album None Too Soon?

It was fun. Because of the constraints of his studio, it wasn't like we were playing with Holdsworth, because he didn't track. He added his stuff later. It was kind of a weird recording process. But it turned out fine as far as what he put on there. Part of it was his constant insistence on his mediocrity—he didn't want to be playing along, or whatever. He says he wouldn't keep anything anyway. The other thing is the size of his studio—it only had room for drums, and then me and keyboards in the control room. There wasn't actually a place to set up guitar for any useful purpose.

What did you mean by Holdworth’s "constant insistence on his mediocrity?"

He has this habit of anytime you bring up his playing in any way, especially when it's a compliment, he'll go on and on and try to quadruple the amount of time you spent complimenting with self-deprecation.

What do you think of the album?

The main problem was, we probably would have gotten a better overall vibe if we had recorded in a studio with an acoustic piano, because that's more where Gordon Beck's coming from. You know, he's an amazing keyboard player, but his whole thing is getting sounds out of a grand piano as opposed to a MIDI instrument. So that was the negative that came out of it, maybe. As a sideman, I didn't envision anything to start out with, you know. I was there to play. I can't really pass judgment on what it could have been, I don't really like to think about it that way.

But what do you think of the end result?

What it is is pretty cool, considering we were tracking without guitar and we were tracking with MIDI instead of a grand piano, which would have left it with a stronger jazz vibe, or a better feeling overall. So if you take into consideration those two factors, I think it came out pretty well.

Okay, it’s game show time. What I’d like to do is toss out a few names and words and get you to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind.


Let's start with Joe Zawinul.

I think he deserves a lot more credit for what he did to change the music scene. He deserves a lot of admiration for still going strong, and pursuing the kind of headstrong direction he's always tried to pursue, especially at his age.

Vinyl records.

I think I threw away my turntable. That was about, maybe five years ago I got rid of it. So, I'm not too enamored with that technology. The only vinyl I hung onto were relics that I had played on, or something like that. I've never been one of these audiophile guys, you know, I just want to hear the notes.

Homer Simpson.

D’oh! [in Homer-like voice] When Tribal Tech tours the States, we watch The Simpsons and Larry Sanders every time we can. We invested in a VCR and a little TV set just to pass the miles. There was a good episode with a casino where Robert Goulet ended up performing in the treehouse. That was a good one. [laughs]

They should really do a Larry Sanders-style, behind-the-scenes look at the music industry.

Well, there's always room for another Spinal Tap.

Now that I think of it, I'm not sure you can outdo Spinal Tap. Rob Reiner pretty much nailed it.

Yeah, that's going to be accurate for generations, probably.

Have you had many Spinal Tap moments in Tribal Tech?

Oh my God. [laughs] There was that time when Spinal Tap's at the airforce base and Jerry Hubbard is walking them through the evening's events as if they're a dinner-dance band. We've played places like that where we have no idea what our agent told the people we were. I mean, he'll tell them that we're whatever they want, you know, just to get us in a place. [laughs] And then the radio coming through the amplifier was priceless too. We played this place in Rochester, I guess it was near a radio station, and we couldn't play a ballad, because if we got soft, you know, it was easy listening time. It was every amp, it wasn't just guitar. It was great. [laughs] We couldn't use any dynamics, we couldn't play soft at all.

The next thing on the list is Jaco Pastorius.

If you listen to him with the compositions and the arrangements and the musicality of Weather Report, versus when he's playing with somebody else in another sideman situation, he does sort of the same things, but they're not used nearly to the effectiveness of the overall package of the compositions that you hear when he's playing with Weather Report. He definitely had an impact on me, but I sort of grew to realize that it was more than just what he was playing. It had to do with the compositions as well as what he was placed in, and how it was used.

The Internet.

I don't know if I've gotten deep enough into it. There's not one specific thing about it that comes to mind. It's got all the potential for tons of great communication and information obviously, but because humans are involved, it's got as much dead weight and problems and wastes of time as humans can bring to it. It's computers, but unfortunately it's a lot more influenced by the mainstream. It’s also a lot more affected by the mundane than it was probably intended to be.

Bill Clinton.

[laughs] I'd have to rip off Dennis Miller who said that Americans are enamored that we actually have a president that can do something, and he was referring to playing the saxophone. [laughs] I thought that was pretty funny. Overall, I'm pretty apolitical, although I was anti-Reagan/Bush. It's one thing to feed the military-industrial complex, but to do it by just borrowing money and pushing up the deficit and claiming it'll trickle down... basically what that does is serve to get re-elected and pushes the problems further down the road.

Alanis Morissette.

I generally have the sound down when I flip through MTV. [laughs] You gotta push that mute button.


It's so broad, probably broader than it needs to be. Unfortunately, it's become a section in a record store in the marketplace—that's pretty much what it means. It has a history of being an art form, but it's got more of a reputation now as just being a certain style of music that fits into a certain record bin at the CD store. There is kind of a revival, or there was for a while, of acoustic instruments playing jazz and I think that's still going on, but not with the sense of, like I said, abandon or exploration or sense of discovery. One of my all-time favorite groups was the late 60s Miles Davis group with Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter] and Ron [Carter] and Tony [Williams], and I don't hear that spark in the current crop of acoustic jazz musicians. I think I heard it maybe on the first Joshua Redman record, but the couple of things I've heard since then were a lot more contrived and less exploratory.

I find it ironic that when Miles died, it seemed rather than move forward with new concepts and ideas, people chose to look back instead and attempt to clone his glory days with tribute bands and records. From what I know about Miles, that’s the last thing he would have wanted.

He lived to define new definitions of himself, so to take any one part, you could say that was Miles, but then when you go three years later you'll hear something completely different. Obviously, once again, there's the commercial part of it. If you dig up the guys in suits playing swing music, that's a lot easier to sell than Miles Live at the Fillmore, and so that particular definition was jumped on to sell records.

It seems to me the greatest tribute one could give the guy is to just get on with it.

Yeah, and not try to go back and relive that, unless it's to explore that deeper, which I haven't heard yet.

What direction will Tribal Tech be taking in the future?

The next record will hopefully be nothing but jams—no compositions. It's evolved from a really composition, structure-based band into total improvisation. We originally didn't write music that was too heavily dependent on how someone was soloing. If somebody had a good night or a bad night, the tune would still come off as a strong tune and as something that worked. More recently, we've just been asserting ourselves as players more and focusing on how we play as opposed to how we write.

I understand you have a fingerboard harmony book about to be released through Hal Leonard.

Yeah. I have to say it's pretty unique, because it's kind of not the traditional way fingerboard harmony or harmony on the bass has been taught, which has always been chord/scale relationships. So, it's really geometric. I mean, the bass neck is really easy to see as symmetric, it's real geometric, so this system takes advantage of that. I haven't seen another system that did that. It discusses how to organize harmony on the neck. It's got a CD. I filled it up completely with 99 examples to play along on four, five or six-string, and basically it has to do with when you're faced with a set of chord changes. You have a choice as to how to play them, and the more informed and organized in the back of your mind the neck is, the more music you can make, and not be restricted to the same old arpeggio or scale-oriented way of organizing harmony. It’s a primer—the basic information you need as far as triads and intervals. So, the level I guess would be upper-beginner to intermediate. A beginner could take this book and go with it.

You've always struck me as a really down-to-earth guy. So why do you have such a bad-ass look on your face in every photo I’ve ever seen of you?

[laughs] Unless I'm busting out laughing, it doesn't look like I'm smiling even when I am. If I emit a grin, it just doesn't come off—the photo doesn't capture it. I've been saying recently, when it comes to photography, I need professional help, I guess. [laughs]