Shape of Things to Come

February 1, 2005

Matt Garrison is the ultimate underground bass hero. Even though he doesn’t have a record deal, radio play, manager, or membership in a famous band, he has still managed to become the Next Big Thing among bassists. Thumpers worldwide have restrung 5-strings with high C’s to explore Matt’s close-voiced chords and Lydian licks. Of course, the thing that places Garrison in the company of Jaco, Stanley, Marcus, and Wooten is his musical voice: He has an instantly identifiable playing style that includes mega-chops and original techniques, and a highly recognizable writing style that blurs the line between bass, other instruments, and cutting-edge technology. Best of all, the 34-year-old is still growing and experimenting; he’s literally searching for new sonic dimensions, and he’s taking us with him.

Born in New York City on June 2, 1970, Matt Garrison is the son of legendary John Coltrane bassist Jimmy Garrison, who died of lung cancer when Matt was only six. Two years later, his family moved to Rome. Although he didn’t get to know his father well, Matt acknowledges feeling a spiritual connection when he plays bass—something he first did at age 15, inspired by Level 42’s Mark King. Eager to return to the U.S., Garrison accepted an invitation to live with famed jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette’s family and finish high school in upstate New York. Surrounded by elite jazz musicians, his passion for the music ignited, and he began studies with Dave Holland and earned a full scholarship to Boston’s Berklee School of Music. That city’s active music scene led Garrison to stints with Gary Burton and Bob Moses—as well as an invitation from Miles Evans to come to New York to play with the Gil Evans Orchestra.

Settling in Brooklyn in 1993, Matt quickly racked up a wide range of credits that include notable stints with John Scofield, saxophonist Steve Coleman, Joe Zawinul, and John McLaughlin. His landmark 2001 solo debut CD, Matthew Garrison, revealed a Pastorius-like propensity for composing, arranging, and producing on the same level as his bar-raising bass skills, and the bass world has kept an ear cocked ever since. Matt has spent the last three years teaching, appearing at bass events, and hitting Europe with such diverse artists as Dave Liebman, Cyndi Blackman, Pharoah Sanders, Gary Husband, and Herbie Hancock. Finally, last fall he released his full-fledged follow-up, Shapeshifter (available at, a spellbinding blend of boundless bass work, singable melodies, and global grooves, with a heavy dose of electronica and sonic imagination.

How has your playing grown since your solo debut?
More than my playing, which has benefited from experience, I feel I’ve grown sonically as a player and composer by trying to use the technology available to really open up the music. A key was the tours I did with Herbie Hancock, who used a surround system at his shows. I sat with Dave Hampton, the engineer, and asked a lot of questions and took mental notes. That has given me a whole new set of rules when I write—a third dimension of possibilities to expand the music beyond a flat stereo environment. Now when I sit in front of my computer with a song idea, I’m hearing a 3-D placement of parts, not just on the track but for live performance, too. That was my intent with Shapeshifter, but I just scratched the surface; I heard parts at different depths, even though I mixed in stereo. My Emagic Logic Audio software has a surround mix option, and I’m currently re-mixing the tracks that way for live performances, so I’ll probably release a limited-edition surround-mix version of CD as well. And from now on, all of my music will be conceived and presented in that format.

Were you able to explore your sonic concepts on your new DVD, Matt Garrison: Live?
Unfortunately, no. I was still working on the process at the time, and we had some additional sound-syncing problems. What makes the DVD interesting is that it’s music from my first CD re-figured for live performance, with many of the musicians from the CD playing the material together for the first time. My next DVD will definitely be in 5.1 Surround Sound.

How did you record Shapeshifter?
Mostly in sections and layers at my home studio over the last two years, like my first CD. Scott Kinsey and Jim Beard did keyboard tracks, and Gene Lake and Jojo Mayer recorded live drums, at their home studios and then I flew the tracks into my Mac. My software is Logic Audio 6.4.1 and the EXS 24 Virtual Sampler that comes with Logic. I also use Ableton Live 3.0 recording software, Native Instruments Reaktor 4 for digital editing, and Native’s virtual keyboard, Absynth. I recorded my basses through a MOTU 828 FireWire digital audio interface. My board is an old 16-track Mackie 1604VLZ, and I have Mackie HR824 powered studio monitors.

The opening track, “Symbiosis,” as well as “I Can See You Now,” “Exchange,” and “Turn Around,” all feature the moving major chords and Lydian flavor you favored on Matthew Garrison.
And this is the last time, I swear! [Laughs.] It all comes from tunes I practiced with that kind of harmonic movement, like “Giant Steps,” “Inner Urge,” and “Moment’s Notice,” as well as composers who thought that way, such as Mingus and Monk. It allows a fresh approach to improvisation. On the one hand I like that it has become an identifiable part of my musical voice, but on the other hand, hearing how prevalent it was in the material I wrote for both CDs made me pursue the sonic permutations more intently, to get something different going. For example, in parts of “Symbiosis,” my bass is going through the Line 6 Delay Modeler’s reverse out patch. And my solo on “Exchange” is a blend of electronic “noises” and melodic lines I digitally edited with the Reaktor software—that’s the direction I’m really trying to go in, and I’ll be able to do that stuff live. I also wanted to introduce a harder side on this disc, like the distorted power chords at the start of “I Can See You Now,” and in “Symbiosis” and “Life Burning,” which is inspired by bands like Linkin Park.

“Unity” has interesting polyrhythms and overdubbed basses.
The song grew out of the main unison line, which I came up with on bass one day. A bit later, during a show with Herbie, he played a hip rhythm that was in both 6/8 and 4/4, and I instantly latched on to it and we started trading ideas. I took that concept here, where you can feel the groove in different ways, and I spread it out sonically. For example, during my solo, Jojo’s drums are in 6/8 and my bass line is in 4/4, both placed right down the center. To the left, one bass track has a melodic figure, and on the right another is answering with a 13 chord. Then I put my solo in the middle and used a stereo sample-delay plug-in that gradually expands it both left and right. The result is an aural picture of sounds flying everywhere, answering and playing off each other.

When you put together a track, how do you decide what will be played on bass and what will require other instruments?
It’s a combination of a mental picture I get before I begin and what I decide as I go along. My songs usually start with a bass line or melody or chord progression—either in my head or on my bass—and then they build from there. I use bass for the groove and solos, and it can also provide the melody and a chordal track, but I always hear a full orchestration with other instruments and sounds. I use a lot of recurring themes that may be on a keyboard early in a track and restated on bass later on.

“For me it’s not about the volume or the amount of notes coming out. It’s about the intent and the intensity.”

Your four-finger solo technique now seems to be your standard technique in all situations, and you’re using it more musically in uptempo solos, instead of as an effect.
Right—I’ve even been using the technique for two-note grooves. It’s something I adapted from Gary Willis’s three-finger approach, and I honed it during my stints with Zawinul and John McLaughlin. I play a downward thumb pluck and upward plucks with my right-hand index, middle, and ring finger, which are curled underneath; then I mute with the side of my thumb and my left hand. It started as a “flurry” effect before my brain caught up to it, but I always had Art Tatum’s virtuosic flourishes in mind. It’s not so much the Coltrane/Pharoah Sanders/Stanley Clarke sheets-of-sound concept, where they’re screaming on their instruments from their soul. For me it’s not about the volume or the amount of notes coming out; it’s about the intent and the intensity. I want to be able to “scream” over changes.

How did you develop the scraped string sound you use in your solo on “I Told Ya So”?
I got that from Gary Willis. In 2002 we both did a clinic in L.A.; I saw him do it and went, Okay—one more thing to steal from Willis! [Laughs.] I hold my index finger lengthwise right over the string, and then I scratch it with the fingernail, moving toward the bridge. You can get different harmonic overtones depending on where on the string you scratch and what notes you’re fingering; I usually do it back by the bridge with some added distortion for the brightest crunch and overtones. I’ll also scratch rhythmically while dampening the string, to emulate a DJ. It’s another color, like the sitar technique I use on the solo in “Life Burning”: I fret two notes next to each other with my left hand, and then I tap a higher note on the fingerboard with my right index finger and pull off the two fretted notes in one motion.

“Three Tree” highlights your chordal approach and use of a high C string. Is guitar a key influence in that regard?
Not really, beyond the fact that electric bass and guitar are both stringed instruments. Even Herbie said to me, “You probably want to play guitar, too,” and I told him I actually want to get closer to Art Tatum. He thought about it for a minute and it made sense to him. The two reasons I got a C string were so I’d have a range closer to the horn and piano solos I was learning, and because I was listening to John Patitucci, who was the first bassist to play in that C-string range with real knowledge and musicality. But it proved to be even more effective from a chordal standpoint; I was getting tired of playing linear lines, so the chordal option was a nice addition. It enabled me to allude to bass lines, chords, and melodies all at once, when soloing. The goal of “Three Tree” was to have one pure, live track on the CD—just a duet with Arto Tuncboyacian on percussion. I also wanted to use a more traditional I–VI–II–V-type chord movement, which I hadn’t done on my CDs. There’s no melody, just a chord progression and improvisation. [See Lesson].

The ballads “Mirror Image,” “Changing Paths,” and the experimental “ZZAJ 5.1” are departures from your more intense, multi-layered tracks.
“Mirror” is probably my favorite track. It’s a simple meditation to listen to and chill out; I’d like to do more in that direction. The harmony is Eb Lydian to C Lydian; I performed it at Italian Bass Day last year and I tried to incorporate some Oteil-like singing. “Changing Paths” started as me soloing against minor chords moving in major 3rds, and then I added some other harmonies. As for “ZZAJ,” that comes from my years of downtown avant-jazz gigs, which I loved. It’s just my bass manipulated through digital editing and through the Line 6 Delay Modeler.

What light can you shed on your hookup with trumpeter Wallace Roney and Prince?
I met Wallace while we toured with Herbie Hancock, and we clicked right away. He told me that he and his wife, [pianist] Geri Allen, like to listen to my first CD; he asked me if I would do some gigs with him, and also if I would put together some music for him and produce it. I told him I’d be happy to, but that even though I played my electric upright on a few tunes with Herbie, I didn’t really play upright—and he said, play both. So we did a bunch of dates and then he asked me to record his latest album, Prototype, all on an upright that Ron Carter had given him. That was a real challenge; I simply can’t accomplish what I want to on upright, so I just focused on playing in tune and creating a feel and a vibe, which is what Wallace is looking for in his music.

Then, last fall, Wallace got a call from Prince to come to the reopening of Paisley Park in Minneapolis and work on some jazz projects there. Dave Hampton was also involved, having rebuilt the studios at Paisley. Wallace brought me along and we worked on some tracks, and we’re going to go back and do more. I didn’t meet Prince, but I got to tour the facility, which is incredible. We were also videotaped jamming with Prince’s former drummer, Michael Bland, and Prince reportedly saw it and dug it, so what happens next is anyone’s guess.

What current bass players have caught your ear?
There are many. Dominque Di Piazza’s left-hand fingerboard mastery is unparalleled. Oteil Burbridge’s playing and singing hit you right in the heart. Marcus Miller is a given—he’s a genius. Then there are Dave Holland and Edgar Meyer on upright; Linley Marthe, the current bassist with Zawinul; and Anthony Tidd for his jazz-tinged playing and writing in hip-hop. Sonically, a big inspiration for me is Tom Jenkinson, a.k.a. Squarepusher. I’ve seen him perform solo in London clubs, and it’s incredible. He mixes drum-n-bass with samples of jazz giants like the late Elvin Jones; then he’ll pick up his bass and play along and scream at people—and the crowd goes crazy! When it comes to a forward-looking use of jazz, I see Tom and Steve Coleman as leading the way.

How do you see your own future unfolding?
I’m going to continue focusing on my solo career with recordings and live performances, while also maintaining a sideman load. I’d also like to try film composing eventually. Ultimately, I just want to keep growing. You can tell when somebody has stopped growing; you can hear it. There’s nothing wrong with that—maybe they’re cool with where they are—but I don’t want to be in that space yet. I’m going to keep moving ahead; there’s something I have to do here, still. BP

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