Janek Gwizdala Takes A Collective Approach For his new album, The Union
Can there be any doubt that Janek Gwizdala is the hardest-working man in bass? Sure, there may be in-demand utility anchors with more gigs and sessions, but when it comes down to plying his art and his brand, Janek’s passion, energy, and output are unmatched. He’s arguably the first new-media bass star, with an omnipresence on social media that he has been cultivating since the dawning days of MySpace. The South London, England-born Gwizdala is the very definition of bass entrepreneur, balancing recordings and tours as both a leader and a sideman, an online education empire, vlogs and podcasts, and generally being on the leading edge — whether the discussion is playing concepts, gear, or the bass world’s inner circle. (We won’t go into his gifts as a tennis player and magician.)
For me, the Janek experience began circa-1999 at Berklee College of Music, when I was in Boston to do a story on the famed school for Bass Player. I attended Bruce Gertz’s advanced jazz harmony class and happened to sit next to an engaged student who, in a whisper, explained to me each of Gertz’s complex theories before he finished presenting them. Janek next moved to New York City, where he quickly established himself as an elite member of the new millennium’s Young Guns of the Bass Guitar movement shepherded by Matt Garrison, and marked by 5-string basses with a high C string, fingerstyle technique, and a new level of soloing and chording proficiency. Gigs with Mike Stern, Randy Brecker, Wayne Krantz, and other Gotham heavies followed.
Gwizdala switched coasts for his current home base of Los Angeles in 2010, claiming his space in the city’s burgeoning contemporary jazz movement, yet he somehow remained a presence on the New York and European scenes, as well. Known for working quickly and diligently on his own projects, Janek has already amassed a back catalog of ten albums. For his 11th effort, The Union, Gwizdala has shaken things up, taking on a producer for the first time — none other than one of his musical idols, John Patitucci. It’s part of a new chapter in the life of the 40-year-old, whose summer also included marrying L.A. doubler Chelsea Stevens [www.chelseastevensmusic.com], whom he met at a NAMM Bass Bash.
What led to you to have John Patitucci produce the record?
After ten self-produced albums, I thought, Maybe it’s time for me to get a producer — to have a voice that you trust, that can be objective. I couldn’t think of anyone I trusted more than John, who I’ve known since 2007, and he graciously accepted the role. His support and focus were invaluable. We had a great conversation the night before the recording, in which he talked about how you need to believe wholeheartedly in what it is that you do, and to be completely inside the music, with no external distractions. I’ll admit, when you’re in the studio with one of your heroes, who you grew up listening to, there’s definitely a barrier to break through to play in front of him and be that exposed. But the mode of relaxation John brought to the session, as well as his ability to convey how honest I needed to be whenever I played, not only got me past my initial fear, it ultimately brought out the best in my performances.
Was there a thought about having him play on the record?
At one point it was an option for one of the tracks, but we came up with other ideas that were more suited to the song and the project. I’ve gotten to play with John before, and as much as I would have loved it, it would have been for all the wrong reasons. He was there as the producer. I felt, if you want to play with John, do a record with him and write for it. Don’t try to fix an issue you’re having by using him as a solution.
I can’t help making the connection between John producing and this being a jazz record with electric bass.
That was the concept. I wanted to make an acoustic jazz record with electric bass, and I was certainly aware John has strong feelings about the topic. He and I agree that the electric bass can be a comping instrument in an acoustic jazz setting and make the music swing hard and feel good. Plus, I’ve always loved the sound of the electric bass and the bass notes on an acoustic piano blended together.
The sound of your bass is round and warm, yet dialed in, in all ranges.
That’s what we were going for, and it’s a key part of how I envisioned this record. I recorded at the Bunker Studios in Brooklyn, run by my friend John Davis. John is both a great engineer and a great bassist who plays in JoJo Mayers’ band Nerve. He’s done seven albums with me, and he has my complete trust musically and sonically. So with the two Johns’ input, I was in good hands. I played my Mattisson signature 5-string [tuned EADGC] recorded both direct and through a miked Aguilar AG 500 head and GS 212 cabinet, and we favored the rig sound.
You’ve spoken before about a conversation you had with Patitucci a few years back that changed your entire approach.
That was huge for me. We were hanging out and he handed me his Yamaha semi-hollow 6-string, and the action was so high I could barely get a note out of it. I handed it back to him, and he played it like a violin!
I realized there were some serious technical deficiencies in my playing and a lack of scope and range in my sound. So I started raising my action a quarter-turn [of the trussrod] every six weeks, and I’m getting there. My action still isn’t as high as John’s, but I’ve expanded my technique and touch possibilities by a good 70%, as well as the sounds I can get out of the instrument.
Your hand-right placement seems key, especially when playing jazz.
In general, I use a lot of different right hand placements, and for walking I’m often over the neck. I spent a good deal of time there on this record because we have the acoustic piano. John [Patitucci] was very aware of that throughout the session, and we were constantly working on where the right hand was for the overall production and sound. He could hear things in the speakers that I couldn’t hear in the cans. He’d say, “You’re a little too far up the neck; come back an inch or two. It needs a little more punch.” It was very interesting to have that kind of feedback.
How did you select the ensemble?
I’ve known [pianist] Ruslan [Sirota] since we were at Berklee together, and we’ve been touring a lot with [saxophonist] Bob Reynolds. We have a musical rapport; we’re both inspired by artists like Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, and Michael Brecker. I wrote with his harmonic style in mind. We came up with some of the piano/bass unison ideas for my tunes at soundchecks on the road with Bob. I met [trumpeter] Philip Dizack on a Bob gig in L.A. in 2018, and he blew me away with his playing and his sound. And I’ve known [drummer] Clarence Penn since I lived in New York. We played together with Randy Brecker and did some other projects and recordings. His sound palette is expansive, and the dedication and engagement he brings to a session is incredible. I had hired Clarence and Philip for a gig I did in New York last fall, and I thought, these guys and Ruslan would make a great record. It’s truly a collective effort with this band and the two Johns.
How did you come up with the material, and what was the recording session like?
I had attempted to do a trio record last year that didn’t work out, so I had two or three songs from that. The rest I wrote in the last few months, mostly on piano, which is why the melodies are not so bass-specific, and why there are countermelodies in the left hand, doubled by bass. Once I gave everyone the tunes, I flew to New York in March for a quick rehearsal to see what was working and what wasn’t. Then I came back in June, we rehearsed in John [Patitucci]’s basement the night before, we cut the record live at the Bunker the next day, and I mixed on the third day before flying home to L.A. in the evening.
The record begins with the ambient track “Constance.”
Originally, that was the B section to “Your Secret Lover,” which I had kind of awkwardly crowbarred into the tune because I didn’t think there was enough to the composition. John’s idea was to remove the B section from “Lover” and use it as an insert somewhere on the record by playing it rubato. We did that and the track came out beautifully, so we decided to open with it, because it was a cool way to get listeners into the music. You can go anywhere from an ambient track, up or down. I had a similar situation with “Mi Cieolito,” which was the last song I wrote for the record. I had the 12-bar form, and then I tried to force a B section in, and my wife, who is a great bass player, assured me that it worked perfectly fine as a 12-bar piece, and to leave it be.
On “Tell Me,” you play the melody and take the lone solo; that’s easily the earliest you’ve ever featured yourself on one of your records.
I know! It’s not like me at all. Credit John’s producing again. I didn’t want to play this melody, and I sure didn’t want to blow over the difficult changes I had written. But John believed in it very much because of how I was phrasing the melody. He said, “This is your moment to be featured on a melody.” He also coached me through the solo, reminding me to trust my melodic side, and that I didn’t have to burn through the changes. Most of the tracks have one solo, no track is over five minutes long, and the record is under 40 minutes. It’s like a vinyl Cannonball [Adderley] record from the ’50s — I wanted to capture that spirit.
“Tourbillon” has some subtly shifting time feels.
My concept was to let Phil and Ruslan choose the tempo for their solos. So at the end of the head there’s a slight pause and the new tempo begins. Phil chose to bring the tempo back a bit, and Ruslan pushed it forward a little. The title refers to an addition to a mechanical watch that enables it to keep accurate time no matter what angle the watch is at.
The ballads “End of the Story” and “Your Secret Lover” have a Mike Stern flavor, both in the writing and guitaristic components.
Absolutely, Mike is a huge influence, especially his great ballads, like “Wing and a Prayer,” “What Might Have Been,” “Bird Blue,” and many more. “End of the Story” started as a bass solo piece, with a sort of John Mayer-ish guitar opening and ending. Then I wanted a big, ECM trumpet sound for Philip’s melodies. “Your Secret Lover” is very influenced by the relationship between the bass note and the melody note — the way Mike uses them as a compositional tool — and there’s a hint of Sting in there, too. “Lover” is just me and Clarence playing live, with my accompanying chordal part via my TC Electronic Ditto Looper on some of the track.
“Light Years” has a memorable melody and an interesting bass sound.
I always try to write vocal-like melodies that can be easily sung. As with “Tell Me,” I didn’t want to play the melody, but it wasn’t quite clicking on piano or trumpet, so I tracked the bass line first and I overdubbed the melody and my solo, which is the lone overdub on the record. As for the bass line, I used my Boss OC-2 Octaver — one of the original Japanese-made units — with the [dry sound] level and oct 2 knobs turned off and the oct 1 knob turned all the way up. The fat tone translated well in the mix sitting under Clarence’s kit, which has more of a lighter jazz sound than a heavy fusion sound.
“The Creatures” is the other ambient, rubato track.
That was completely improvised. I was messing around with my effect pedals and using my volume pedal to swell in different sounds, and John [Patitucci] came in to ask me how I was doing it. I figured if he thought what I was doing was hip, let’s roll tape and see what we get. We did one pass, with the guys lightly adding appropriate colors on their instruments. I had three parts going: Lows through the Boss OC-2 Octaver, mids through a Frederic Effects BugCrusher, and highs through a Boss PS-5 Super Shifter.
The title track is rich in dynamics, with an open feeling.
I love using dynamics in writing, like the band dropping out for the piano interlude halfway through the head, or Philip soloing with only Clarence in support. When I write I often think ahead to playing the tune live. How can I write the tune so that we’re not going to get bored playing it night after night? Or, how do I write something that isn’t too restrictive in terms of a lot of notes or the form, so we can keep it loose and stretch out? As for playing open, I got a lot of that from my best teacher at Berklee, Hal Crook, who taught us various ways to play free on the form and other music-opening concepts. Plus, Clarence plays with people like [trumpeter] Dave Douglas and [keyboardist] Uri Caine, who are masters of playing freely within the music.
Let’s discuss your signature Mattisson basses.
I met Anders Mattisson through Henrik Linder at a NAMM show, and in three weeks he built a prototype that is still my main bass three years later. My concept for the instrument is that it have an organic sound but great tone over the full range, which for me is a 5-string with a high C string. I like economy of movement, so I went with a 32″ scale. It has an alder body, which is chambered, an ash neck, and a maple fingerboard with 28 frets — which gives me a high E on the 28th fret of the C string. There’s also a zero-fret for a more consistent sound between fretted and open string notes, and a Hipshot Xtender [detuner] on the E string. The pickups are Aguilar Super Doubles with proprietary electronics; there’s an active/passive switch and a passive tone control. It will come in both a handmade model and a lower-cost standard model. We’re also working on a 4-string signature model.
What advice can you offer to bassists who want to use social media as a career tool?
It’s all about building an audience and keeping them engaged. It starts with having a story, that story being honest, and finding an audience who can relate to your story and how you can help them. If you genuinely want to help others, that’s what translates, that’s what people respond to, and that’s what makes any social-media presence successful. It’s not about the number of followers. So many people have a bloated number, like 400,000 followers, yet when they post a photo it gets 50 likes, so their level of engagement is basically zero. The key is having the highest percentage of your audience engaged.
When it comes to platforms, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat — it’s really a matter of what works for you. But if you’re marketing or selling something, the most important item to have is a traditional mailing list. Having people trust you enough to give you their email address and allow you to send them unsolicited emails with what you’re offering is invaluable, because social-media platforms can be so passive, and people can flick through those and not notice what you’re doing. Give away something of value in return for the potential customers’ email address. That will build your mailing list and be the most valuable thing you have going for you as a business.
The last key is, you have to love the work. Whether it’s practicing bass, growing your Twitter feed, or creating product, you have to be in love with it. The second you don’t love it, you’re bullshitting yourself and your audience. I can’t imagine my life or career without my social-media side. It has literally saved me on many occasions, and it has brought me so much happiness and so many opportunities. -BM
The Union, 2018; Last Minute World Tour 2017, 2017; American Elm, 2016. With Bob Reynolds: Quartet, 2018. With Peter Erskine: Dr. Um, 2016.
Basses Mattisson Series 1 Janek Gwizdala Signature 5-string
Strings “I’m between companies right now and actively looking for the right player–string-maker relationship.”
Amps Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 with two Aguilar GS 112 cabinets
Effects TC Electronic Ditto Looper, TC Electronic RPT-1 Nova Repeater, Electronic Miura Guitars M2 Compessor/Limiter, Boss OC-2 Octaver, Boss PS-5 Super Shifter, Dunlop Volume (X) Mini Pedal, Frederic Effects BugCrusher