Bass Musician Magazine Featuring Matthew Garrison / December 2010 Issue
Bass Musician Magazine Featuring Matthew Garrison by Kilian Duarte –
It was a beautiful cloudless day in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I had awoken to a cool 60-degree morning, which had turned into a 90-degree day by 2 PM when I left to go record the interview. Welcome to New England. I was supposed to go to Brooklyn to go visit my old teacher, but by a stroke of luck my famous sensei Matthew Garrison happened to be gigging that day at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge. He was doing a show with modern guitar phenom Wayne Krantz and drummer Cliff Almond.
It was to be a night where the audience attending would experience the future of jazz, as well as one of the most forward thinking and technically gifted bassists of his generation. As I sat down in the patio area of the Charles Hotel, in the heart of the Harvard University campus, I met up with and got to share a great time with my friend, as well as one of the bass world’s true giants.
Matthew Garrison was born June 2, 1970 in New York. Here he spent the first eight years of his life immersed in a community of musicians, dancers, visual artists and poets. After the death of his father Jimmy Garrison (John Coltrane’s bassist), his family relocated to Rome, Italy where he began to study piano and bass guitar.
In 1988 Matthew returned to the United States and lived with his godfather Jack Dejohnette for two years. Here he studied intensively with both Dejohnette and bassist Dave Holland.
In 1989 Matthew received a full scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music. Here he began his professional career with the likes of Gary Burton, Bob Moses, Betty Carter, Mike Gibbs and Lyle Mays to mention a few. Matthew moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1994 and has performed and recorded with artists such as Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Joni Mitchell, Steve Coleman, Pat Metheny, John Mclaughlin, The Gil Evans Orchestra, John Scofield, Chaka Khan, The Saturday Night Live Band and most recently the legendary Whitney Houston.
In 1998 Matthew founded Garrison Jazz Productions through which he currently produces, promotes and markets his music. He has begun to expand and gradually release new music and live performances through the medium and is on the cusp of an extensive online music lesson and performance database to be accessed by members at musiccenter.garrisonjazz.com. He was an associate professor at Berklee until 2008 under which time I studied under his guidance.
[Kilian] Though primarily known for your work in improvised musical settings, what was it like working in a pop music setting like Whitney Houston’s band? [Matthew] It was interesting, and in some ways it was harder. When you compare it to jazz and improvised styles, I had two bass playing jobs instead of one with Whitney. The first was to play the physical bass guitar, with the strings and the wood, in that context, as well as keyboard bass. Which in a way is easier than bass in that, when you hit the note, you can program the attack to be consistent. Electric bass, in her world, has to be even and consistent all the time as well. So you can imagine the focus it takes to make sure that every single note sounds the same. Both Whitney and the musical director can definitely hear it. You either have this electronic background provided by the keys or you have to support the whole band with electric bass, which to me was a bit scary, but it was fun and a good experience.”
[Kilian] What is the process like of auditioning, and once you have gotten the gig, preparing for a major tour of a large caliber? [Matthew] The people organizing it are very serious about it, and are trying to make sure they have the right people and the right chemistry first of all. There is a certain amount of mental preparation in that you have to shed all your issues and have an air of professionalism very similar to a corporate setting in seriousness. They are not interested in your problems, and have to make sure that the act is going to take place. The show has to go on, and you can be replaced in a heartbeat, so that’s the psychological side of it.
Musically, as in the case with Whitney’s band, I did not end up auditioning for it. During my time teaching at Berklee, around the summer of 2008, I was called to tour with an Italian singer. This resulted in two-year collaboration with the project. During that time I recommended and brought in drummer Mike Baker, who happens to also be Whitney’s Musical Director, to play with the band. Because of our shared touring experience, he felt my abilities were solid enough to be brought in for Whitney’s band, and that’s how that came about.”
[Kilian] You have had the privilege of touring with some monster musicians over the years, and big names. What is the key, if any, to keeping things relaxed and personable the majority of the non-playing tour day? [Matthew] Well there are two ways. The first is to avoid people sometimes (laughs). Or balance it out. I tend to avoid situations where you are potentially going to interact and bond because sometimes it’s not that important. But it all depends on the people and the context. What ends up happening sometimes on tours is similar to what occurs in school. For example, everybody’s there, then when the semester begins. This group, and this group, and this group of people start to form, and it becomes slightly disjunctive. But you go and do your class, or performance, or whatever you are attempting. Same thing happens on tour. People start to go with their cliques or buddies. It can be a bit annoying, but I am also one to extend myself in a sociable manner in order to facilitate the process. It’s a good question, because this is one of the factors that can make or break you being on a tour. So I find keeping to myself at times usually works best.
[Kilian] What do you look for in a bass? You are known for your wonderful sounding custom model from Fodera. But is there ever a chance we’d catch Matt Garrison rocking a Musicman Stingray or a Gibson EBO on a gig? Ha-ha [Matthew] Hey man, if the occasion calls for it, I think I would be more than glad to do that. I believe that my association with Fodera is strong enough and has been there long enough that it would not be compromised if I had to pick up a specific bass for a gig. I would do it for sonic and musical reasons; so, it’s always a possibility.
[Kilian] Could you tell us a bit about your quartet? Apart from obviously possessing great chops, what brings you to call these musicians for the job? [Matthew] I’ve called them because of their personalities, and their ability to create and empathize with how I envision making music, which is really important. I have been thinking about it, and I would like to extend what I do to other musicians. Just have younger guys come in, which sometimes is amazing, just having people that can bring a different perspective. But I also like choosing people whose style I know well. Chops…I don’t really care about that much, especially when it comes to keyboard and piano players. I need to know that they have a very strong sense of harmonic direction, and they understand where “I”am going harmonically. I look for them to fit within that context, and improvise within that context comfortably, which is critical. I look for them to have the ability to accompany me when I play lead. I need them to be multi-functional. As far as drummers go, they have to be able to play everything that’s critical, and then the rest I am pretty open-minded about. Occasionally, we will bring in a guest here and there. The songs are based on many of my computer-based compositions, so I luckily have the freedom to change arrangements when I want to.
[Kilian] There seems to be a great love, yet an occasional professional stigma at times for bass players who think outside the box. How have you found the traits of having a voice and style to be both beneficial and detrimental? [Matthew] A good example is the Whitney tour. I am aware of my own capacity to have a conceptual thing that works for me, and also works for listeners. The problem is, how do I transport that voice into that context. You quickly realize that in those situations, your voice does not matter, and as far as securing a gig, that can be very important. The bright side of it is accepting it and enjoying it, especially when you are getting paid well and they are taking care of you. Then it does not matter to have a voice, just do your thing and be a pro. That being understood, I was excited to play with this mega diva who is a legendary woman with an incredible voice. The beneficial side is that for the most part, when people contact me to do a collaborative project, they are calling me to bring in something very specific, making sure it’s not bland or generic. I don’t come there to represent any kind of generic sound; they call me to do what I do with respect to that context.
[Kilian] As an educator, as well as a gigging musician, what are a few of the most common questions and challenges students present to you? [Matthew] Well there was this one kid, his name was Kilian Duarte, he was a big pain in the neck (laughs), just kidding…back to the question. The hardest aspect is when I am presented with a student who is not clear on what they want their future to be. And you know, sometimes that’s the hardest part. It wasn’t always clear to me not being a clairvoyant, (laughs) where was I going to go…where is this going to take me?” It was apparent that some students would have a harder time than others, because it takes a lot of effort and insight. If people want quick answer, or a quick solution, it’s already a disaster. And sometimes the hardest part is to explain to people how difficult it can be and how much time it takes, and effort. There will be some terrible times financially, but there will also be some great times financially. There can be some really bad moments psychologically and mentally, but there are also those wonderful moments. The problem is explaining that to people who want the quick answer. You can tell that for some people, it will not pan out. But it can be a good thing once reality sets in…other doors can open to other life possibilities and paths.
[Kilian] When our time together at Berklee was drawing to a close, I was in a Pink Floyd tribute band, and you were about to go and do a Pink Floyd project as well. How was your experience of getting down with your rock and roll side? [Matthew] I loved it man. I come from the generation prior to the IPods and Cd’s, even cassettes since I grew up on vinyl. We listened to pretty much everything in my household. I remember growing up I originally wanted to be a pop bassist. I grew up listening to the Beatles, Coltrane, Miles Davis, Hendrix, and Pink Floyd, you name it. Records were always spinning so I love it all.
[Kilian] What are some cool trends you see coming up in the bass world, and some you might want to see less of? [Matthew] I see a lot of bass players taking more responsibility, taking charge of their musical destinies, and composing more as well. I believe bass players are great composers; they really fit that mold and that idea. Bassists also realize what their function is. That moveable root ads another function to the chord that’s on top. When you build it up, it ads another direction, color, and sound, and you realize the power you have. Then you can crystallize it into something cool. In terms of bad stuff, I don’t really see anything, but if it’s out there it will weed itself out.
[Kilian] You are known for your love of Ableton Live and getting unconventional/radical sounds to come out in your art. What are some cool new things and gear in the production/recording world that are getting you stoked? [Matthew] Oh man, SOFTWARE! What is happening with software is unbelievable. It continues to develop and continues to stretch. People who are not necessarily programmers or engineers now have ways of customizing and designing the software for their own needs which they then share with other people. As recently as 5 years ago, it was very difficult to find specific programs or patches for specific problems and sounds. Now it’s just unbelievable, you can find 100 software devices to fix and find the one thing you needed. This is great because it is no longer centralized or regimented by specific company’s guidelines. The other thing I find cool is the tactile interface being pushed by companies such as Apple and Microsoft, ways to manipulate what’s already inside the hardware and software. Whether its touch screens or infrared, Wi-Fi or midi, its just mind boggling to me. It’s a shame more musicians don’t embrace this technology.
[Kilian] What is your current effects rig, and why did you come to choose these pedals? [Matthew] I’ve been using one Line 6 delay pedal for years, the green one, though I am always on the hunt for new things. I am also using this RAT distortion pedal. I recently got a Steve Vai Bad Horsie Wah Pedal, which is cool with distortion, but does cut out a bit of the low end. I’m also using a volume pedal.
[Kilian] Should a bass player wanting to do sideman work for a living consider hiring a manager/agent, or just rely on building the right connections? [Matthew] I would say both. It also is relative to what level you are trying to achieve. I have always been active in my career in terms of booking and promotion aside from management, especially when I started out. Booking the gigs though used to be a lot more stressful in the pre-internet/cell phone age. I used to go into a panic before I would go on tour. (Laughs) [At this point in the interview, Wayne Krantz passed by and we all greeted one another] In the end, take things in stride, but be proactive.
[Kilian] Do you think NY or LA are the places to be, or is it possible to get your career successfully happening elsewhere these days? [Matthew] I don’t know about LA (laughs). I’m just kidding, though I do prefer living in New York, even though it actually is a bit more stressful (laughs). I have a lot of great friends who work out there, but the trend is that East coast people usually move out there, then eventually come back. Each city has its own niches and advantages; LA has more of, well if that still exists, more of a studio-based culture for musicians. But I don’t know, it all depends on what you seek. There could actually be a shift over to the west coast soon though due to its closer proximity to the whole Asian scene. There is an interesting market that is developing over there. There is also enormous potential in Europe. To give you a statistic, in the United States, there are about 60-70 major music festivals that are considered to be the most important and prominent festivals, which if a musician were to make a rounds of them, they could make their living for the year. In Italy alone, where I grew up, there are over 300 festivals. Many of them also cater to the very large jazz audience that is bigger in Europe than in the United States.
[Kilian] What is the key to stay working and getting gigs consistently in music? [Matthew] I think the key is, in the downtime when you cannot work as a sideman for whatever reason (which is where you can potentially be receiving large sums of money), what has worked for me is working on my own projects. What ends up happening is that many times, even though I usually cannot tour with my band, making my records can be in a sense a business card to help promote my work. Also you can resort to teaching, which I did at Berklee, hence how you and I met, as well as getting those sideman projects. You have to think of it in terms of finances as well, because that is reality.
Making your own records is critical, especially if you can make good ones. You do not necessarily need big name musicians; you don’t really need star power. What matters is that the record represents great quality and performance.
[Kilian] On your site you state that, “Bit Torrent is the death of good music being released by GJP”. Have illegal downloader’s proved a huge hassle? Is this what truly motivated the 12 months plan?
We have added a lot of members recently and have included some free content in the fight against this. The good thing now is while we obviously respect privacy, if an IP address is shown to be taking content from the site illegally, we can confront the culprit directly.
[Kilian] What does the near future hold for Matthew Garrison? [Matthew] We have some really cool stuff coming up…as of now, a huge list we are trying to hammer through (laughs). At the top of the list is dedicating this decade towards my solo career more extensively. The past decade or so has been me doing much more sideman work and being in the bass chair for other people much more than myself. Included in that alone is a huge bucket list of cool ideas and concepts.
Educationally, we are going to be expanding aggressively at GJP, to be able to offer premium educational services like when I was a teacher at Berklee. In terms in touring, we are trying to get to the next level. I believe I have finally gotten to the point where I have really figured out how to make music. I know how to play the instrument, and make and play music on the instrument, but I feel that the whole process of composition and recording as well has come full circle, and its been encapsulated. I am also always striving to increase my technical proficiency on my instrument.
Critical to the GJP videos is that we are planning on purchasing an enormous studio space for filming content in Brooklyn. There we can do all the production that needs to happen. As of now its about 7,000 square feet and help build a community at GJP. Make sure to visit at, Please visit musiccenter.garrisonjazz.com/
[Kilian] What has led you to keep Epifani as your amp of choice throughout all these years? [Matthew] We are old friends. Our professional careers both started around the same time and we have been together since. My first amps that I got from him were during my stint with Joe Zawinul, when he was making his first speakers. I have tried a whole bunch of other amps, but the personal relationship allows me to customize the products he presents to me extensively. Which he is fine with on the basis of friendship and that my career has brought him business as well.
[Kilian] Where do you see the direction of the bass guitar heading in the near future? [Matthew] I would like to see the instrument become easier to use. What I mean is to have smarter and more logical design features integrated into the instruments. I believe a step into digital technology on basses could be a potentially cool idea. Also, to think of the instrument in different mechanical aspects, from the design of the tuners to the pre-amp layouts. I’m always asking the question, “why”? And as more people ask why as well, the bass begins to evolve and shift.
Visit online at www.garrisonjazz.com
White shirt photos courtesy of Fortuna Sung