Interview with Matthew Garrison—Born to the Bass

This interview was first published in 2010. Through the ’90s, bassist Matthew Garrison established a reputation in jazz circles after hitting the road with such high profile bands as Joe Zawinul’s Syndicate, Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, John McLaughlin’s The Heart Of Things, and the John Scofield Group. His remarkable speed and facility on electric 5-string […]

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This interview was first published in 2010.

Through the ’90s, bassist Matthew Garrison established a reputation in jazz circles after hitting the road with such high profile bands as Joe Zawinul’s Syndicate, Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, John McLaughlin’s The Heart Of Things, and the John Scofield Group. His remarkable speed and facility on electric 5-string fretted and fretless basses easily impressed the bass community, but it was Garrison’s sophisticated chordal approach on the instrument that clearly set him apart from other chopsmeisters on the scene.

The son of Jimmy Garrison — longtime bassist with tenor sax legend John Coltrane, and sideman to a host of jazz greats through the ’60s and ’70s — Matthew grew up with the bass as a prominent presence in his life. Born on June 2, 1970, he spent the first six years of his life immersed in a community of musicians, dancers, visual artists, and poets. (His mother Roberta Escamilla Garrison is an accomplished modern dancer with a lengthy list of impressive credits). After the death of his father in 1976, his family relocated to Rome, Italy, where Matthew began to study piano and bass guitar. In 1988, he returned to the United States and lived with his godfather, the great jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette. During that year, he studied intensively with both DeJohnette and bassist Dave Holland. In 1989, he received a full scholarship to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston. There he began his professional career playing with Gary Burton, Bob Moses, Michael Gibbs and Lyle Mays. He moved to New York City in 1994 and was quickly snapped up in succession by the likes of Zawinul, Coleman, McLaughlin and Scofield. (Samples of his fluid liner work and his rich chordal playing can be heard on Zawinul’s My People on Escapade/Zebra and two from McLaughlin — 1998’s The Heart Of Things and the recent Live In Paris, both on Verve).

After touring almost continuously for the past five years, Garrison decided to come off the road at the beginning of 2000 to concentrate on his own music. His self-titled, self-produced solo debut is a powerful statement that boldly puts the bass upfront, highlighting his outstanding skills as composer, arranger, soloist, and accompanist. The CD is available through his website at www.garrisonjazz.com or at the Fodera bass website at www.fodera.com.

Accompanied by such like-minded colleagues as guitarists Adam Rogers and David Gilmore, percussionist/vocalist Arto Tuncboyacian, drummers Ben Perowsky and Gene Lake, Tribal Tech keyboard wiz Scott Kinsey and sitarist Amit Chatterjee, Garrison shows that he is among the most gifted composer-bassists in the post-Jaco era. Whether he’s dishing out bottom-heavy grooves, interweaving intricate melodies with multiple layers of fretted and fretless basses, soloing with uncanny fluidity, or chording pianistically, the bassist delivers heroically on his ambitious first outing. Recorded in a span of eight months in the privacy of his Brooklyn apartment, Matthew Garrison is a mega-manifesto on the art of modern electric bass guitar playing by one of its most gifted practitioners.

Guitar.com: The album sounds HUGE. I’m amazed that you recorded it almost entirely at home.

Matthew Garrison: I’m very proud of it and glad the way it turned out. I recorded about 95 percent of it here in my little apartment. Some of the drum parts were recorded with one microphone. I basically used a G-3 333 Midi Tower, a Korg soundcard 1212io, and an A-DAT, and I recorded everything in a program called Logic Audio. Technically speaking, it was not a very advanced thing. With the equipment you can get these days and for the amount of money, it’s incredible, man. I had available to me up to 32 tracks of audio. So it’s just basically a homemade thing.

Guitar.com: How did you begin this project?

Garrison: Actually, I tried to do this about a year ago with (former McLaughlin keyboardist and bandmate) Jim Beard, (percussionist) Arto Tuncboyacian, and (drummer) Gene Lake. It initially started as a project on my own but then it turned into a group effort. So we made it into a band but then it just kept dragging on and on and I finally decided to do it myself because the main problem with the project before was just trying to get the guys together in the studio at the same time. Impossible. So I bought a couple of pieces of equipment and just started layering things one at a time. I began in January and finished at the end of August.

Guitar.com: Was this project something you were thinking about for a while that finally came to fruition?

Garrison: Yeah, the last couple of years, anyway. And it was a hard decision to make the time for it because I was doing a lot of touring with several different musicians. John Scofield was the last thing I did. But I just wanted to take a break from touring — you know, plane, train, bus, taxi, whatever. You name it, I was in it… all the time. And I just felt like I was wasting my life. I wanted to get this music out, so I took eight months out just to finish the record. And so all the music that was in my head from playing with those guys obviously went into it too. For me, it was one of the most fulfilling things I had ever done. I mean, half of it was done just sitting around at home in my underwear, so that’s satisfying right there. You wake up at three in the morning and record. It was just really loose like that the whole way. And the sound quality is amazing, so it just shows what you can do in the privacy and comfort of your own home.

Guitar.com: All the drum parts were done in your apartment?

Garrison: No, Gene Lake did some of his drum parts at his home, recorded in his basement. I just prepared the parts for him and he did it on his own time. He put it to his digital recording device, then I bounced all those eight tracks of drums to my A-DAT tape and brought them back here to my place, put them into my computer and there it was. That’s Gene’s drum sounds and they sound better than what I recorded at the studio, to tell you the truth. And the interesting thing is, some of the guys never even heard each other on some tunes. It was one of those kind of productions.

Guitar.com: Technologically speaking, you probably couldn’t have done this project five years ago.

Garrison: Some of it probably could not have been done a year ago. Every two or three months there’s an update that makes a huge difference in the way that you can record things digitally — the interface, the drivers, etc. When I finished this record in July or August, there were some things available then that weren’t around when I began the project back in January. So the method of recording changes accordingly with every new update they come out with. It’s that quick.

Guitar.com: What about your own attitude? Would you have had the confidence to record a solo project five years ago?

Garrison: Definitely not. Back then I really wanted to be on the road, I wanted to play with these veteran cats and hear what they were talking about, listen to their ideas about music and life. I wanted to learn from these people. And it was an amazing thing. I just didn’t think of recording anything on my own at that time. My only thought then was to hang with these guys and immerse myself in what they were doing. I really hope to do some more of it in the future, but from a different perspective. But definitely, five years ago was a whole different story.

Guitar.com: I didn’t know you toured with John Scofield.

Garrison: Yeah, we did eight months together. Actually, it was killing. Scofield loved it and we had a great time. He had a lot of work but it just got to be too much for me. I was getting frustrated because I had all of my own music in my head that I wanted to get out. So I just decided to leave the band to work on it, and John was totally cool about it.

Guitar.com: Are you still playing at all with John McLaughlin?

Garrison: No, he’s been doing Shakti (McLaughlin’s Indian fusion band). He calls from time to time and we rap, so there’s contact. But I don’t know what he’s got planned. I want to send him this CD and maybe propose a couple of things because I’m starting on number two already. But no projects in the future that I know of with John.

Guitar.com: You did get some solo space in McLaughlin’s band, both in concert and on record. But the way that you are using the bass on your own project is in a wholly different context.

Garrison: Definitely.

Guitar.com: Not just in terms of carrying all the tunes melodically but also in all the layers of bass going on in each track. I’m sure that’s not something that you could’ve done as a sideman.

Garrison: No, and I almost wish I would’ve had these musical ideas together five years ago. I’m sure it would’ve affected the input I had in those bands I played in. When a bandleader has a sense of your compositional skills and ideas and what not, I think he can relate to you on a different level and you can exchange music also on a very different level. If I had that type of interaction with Joe (Zawinul), for example, it would’ve been a lot stronger. But he probably just figured, ‘Oh, he just plays the bass.’

Guitar.com: Being a composer instantly gives you more prestige?

Garrison: Definitely. I think you get more respect that way. And I think that’s how this new CD is going to help me, by also introducing me as a composer.

Guitar.com: Tell me about the opening song, ‘Family.’

Garrison: The main melody I came up with in about a minute and I recorded that through a first pass. You know how you develop the motif… you expand on the melody and create the next level of it. It’s all based on tension and release, basically. But this song is also based around a particular scale called Augmented Symmetric Diminished, which is really oblique-sounding. It’s based off of a major three tonic system. It’s got that kind of like Star Wars, ‘the-ship’s-floating-by? kind of feel to it. That’s how I describe it to people… the Darth Vader scale. And so, the melody is built on top of that and then I find ways to make it fit within a structure that sounds more diatonic. But then every once in a while you hear that Darth Vader chord, which is what the whole tune is based on. It’s really based on two keys of that scale. So the album is a collection of all these little melodies that I came up with in the past couple of years and I just kind of threw them all in the record in whatever order or fashion. It’s a compositional style that was really inspired by Steve Coleman’s approach to creating music on the spot. Basically, any structure of any one of his tunes can go with any structure from any other one of his tunes. So you get this constant interchange of structures, and you can re-create your music at any given moment, at any given time. It seems random but it’s actually a very structured way of doing it instead of just this free jumble-jamble thing that happens at times with music.

Guitar.com: It sounds like there’s a lot of layered basses on that tune.

Garrison: Yeah, it’s ridiculous. There’s like six bass tracks on this one. And that’s how it is throughout this whole CD. Not only is it doubled here with different basses playing the same parts just to get that different texture or color from each one, but it’s also doubled with certain piano or synth parts… they double the same chords and the same phrase to fatten up the sound. And also I made sure that a lot of the chord structures were played in very specific areas of the keyboard, which is something that I learned from Joe Zawinul. When I was in the Zawinul Syndicate we talked a lot in terms of what octaves you choose and where chords on my bass would blend in well with the keyboards. Because I don’t really like too much high stuff on the keyboards or guitar. I like it when it’s kind of lower register on guitar or middle register on piano, which is really my upper register on the bass. So it blends in nicely.

Guitar.com: What were some of the basses you played on this recording?

Garrison: Mainly these five string basses that Fodera makes for me. They? re actually a signature series. They call them the Matt Garrison Imperial five-string. I use two of those, a newer one which is 34 inches, tuned E A D G C. But you can flip the E string down to a low B with this device call a Hipshot. So for the really low parts I had a combination of flipping the string down to a low B with the Hipshot or if I played it on a four string I would just detune the string. I also used a capo on several tunes, like ‘Duet? with Arto Tuncboyacian. Guys are going to try to figure that tune out and it’ll be like, ‘Wait a minute! Something’s wrong here.’ It’s kind of in a key that has to be played there, so I had to put the capo on.

Guitar.com: Do you have an acoustic bass guitar?

Garrison: No, that’s one thing I don’t have that’s on my wish list. Maybe I’ll get one for the next album. But for that piece with Amit Chatterjee called ‘Manifest Destiny,’ I used a Vektor electric bassette for bowing. It’s like one of those baby basses or more of a stick. But it’s got that acoustic sound. And then I also used my Dad’s bass on a tune called ‘Say What’? I’m kind of walking on that. That tune slows down at the end, as if my father came and pulled the plug on the record and said, ‘Hey man, whatchu doin’ with my bass!’

Guitar.com: So what’s the story with that bass?

Garrison: Oh, man, what a story! Just getting it back was a story in itself. When I lived up at Jack DeJohnette’s house in Woodstock, we started to research where this bass could possibly be. And we ended up finding it through (bassist-educator) Richard Davis, the cat up in Madison. He’s got all these famous basses and he repairs them. I think he’s got Paul Chambers? bass. Anyway, he had this bass of my father’s. According to him, it was found in the basement of the Village Vanguard wrapped up in newspaper. And so he eventually got it through some other people. They wrapped it up and sent it off to him in Wisconsin. So this writer friend of Jack’s, Rafi Zabor, drove out to Madison and brought it back in a U-Haul. We had that bass up at Jack’s for several years. When I went off to Berklee I didn’t bring it with me, and then when I moved down to New York I went to get it from Jack’s. This bass has some serious history, man. And we compared it with pictures and what not. It’s definitely the one.

Guitar.com: Do you have any childhood memories of this instrument?

Garrison: Definitely. We got some pictures. Actually, there’s one on my website. There’s a picture of me and my Dad, and I must be one year old. It’s in that apartment I grew up in way uptown on the West Side. And here it is in my apartment in Brooklyn.

Guitar.com: Talk about Continuum.

Garrison: Dig it.

Guitar.com: The tune ‘Dark Matter’ is quite a trip… like some sci-fi soundtrack.

Garrison: Yeah, I wrote that earlier this year for this project. That end melody I wrote specifically for Scott Kinsey because I had a Tribal Tech record on and I heard him play this phrase that just stuck in my head. And when I wrote this song I immediately pictured him soloing on it.

Guitar.com: That’s another one of those tunes with the layered basses and synth unisons to fatten up the bottom.

Garrison: Yeah, I’m hearing that a lot these days. Of course, Marcus Miller did that a lot on his records. And also Jaco Pastorius. If you listen to some of Jaco’s old records, man, the way they recorded it or mixed and mastered it, where they separate in stereo — some to the left, some to the right — you’ll hear that Jaco is creating these multiple parts that are outrageous. It’s so fat! On one side he uses some effect, on the other side he uses no effect. He plays like an upper register or he’s got a strange octaver or he tunes his bass way up. It’s insane what he did with that, man. So Jaco and Marcus… both those guys inspired me to do layered bass parts.

Guitar.com: Talk about ‘Time,’ the Indian-flavored tune with sitar and very ethereal vocals.

Garrison: That was for Arto (Tuncboyacian). I heard him right away in there doing his vocal thing. The beginning is a little snippet from a sequence I had sitting around for a year. Then I came up with the melody sometime earlier this year, and just kind of put them together. And just started hearing people on top of it. And as I heard them I called them and said, ‘Hey, come on over here and play on this tune.’ The original title was ‘Time Extensions.’ I tend to label my tunes with what happened that particular day and I was thinking of my tax extension. I think it was April 15th. But I ended up changing it to just ‘Time.’

Guitar.com: Why was it important for you to put out this album on your own as opposed to waiting out a record deal?

Garrison: It’s really important to do this thing because we’ve got to give another edge to this whole industry, the way it’s working. It’s rough out there for a lot of musicians, touring-wise. So I’m going to be focusing as much as I can on teaching and presenting clinics and seminars because that’s where the money is, actually. And at the same time, I’m still going to present my music to the record labels and if they want it, great. And if not, I’ll keep on moving and putting it out myself for the fans.

Guitar.com: How do you assess where you’re at as a player?

Garrison: There are some things I’m happy about, there’s more I need to work on. When I feel like I’m at a loss for a statement on stage, that’s when I feel like I gotta get back into some kind of woodshedding mode. And for me, shedding means finding something that I’m interested in sonically and just really exploring it. I’m at a point now where I’m ready to shed again because I’ve been on the computer and phone for the last six, seven months doing the business on this record, so I kind of feel like I’ve been missing out on playing. I mean, putting the music together and then soloing on it and playing the chords is a very creative process for me that I love. But the business end of putting a record out is a whole other challenge.

Guitar.com: Do you tend to shed on things that don’t come easy to you? It sounds like the linear thing comes so easy for you.

Garrison: Yeah, I’m experimenting more with chordal stuff because I’ve found ways for me that really open up the chords more. I’m starting to hear chords more than lines, and now the intervals are getting even wider. I’m starting to make use of open strings and I’m trying to detune the instrument and find other tunings. I’m using capos so that I get these really rich, thick chords. That’s one thing I’m constantly working on. But I’m also interested in a lot of the technological advances that have been taking place with these instruments. I’ve been using this MIDI converter so I can access any device in my studio — not only instruments but faders and automation — from my bass. I’m totally into the digital thing at this point. I’m like a geek. People are calling me these days for advice on how their computers work, how programs work and interact. I’m becoming a techie. A lot of musicians are calling me for help on hooking up A-DATs in conjunction with the computers and whatever. But it’s cool. I have a ball doing that stuff.

Guitar.com: Do you play with all the fingers on your right hand?

Garrison: I use four fingers –the thumb, index, middle and ring. It’s pretty much like an engine but there are also ways of breaking it up and subdividing. Because with four fingers you have to figure out systems to deal with it all. Two reasons — one, because you have to skip strings a lot, so you have to come up with combinations. And number two, your left hand has to now deal with something that it never dealt with before, which is still something that boggles me. Together, the four [right hand] fingers are just way ahead of the left hand.

Guitar.com: They’re feeding a lot more information to the left hand.

Garrison: Yeah, so I gotta find ways to be as fast as I can with the left hand fingers, just to keep up. It’s kind of like a dog chasing its tail.

Guitar.com: Using four fingers is also great for chording and arpeggios to help you get that rich texture you’re going for.

Garrison: Absolutely, because you can get four notes at a time, and five if you use an open string, assuming you have a five-string bass. That’s how you get it to sound so big. It’s great, man. I love exploring the bass. I’m having a ball with it.

Guitar.com: It really sounds like you’re opening up and expanding your voice on the bass.

Garrison: I’m definitely enjoying the experience of music right now. The business thing is another matter. But I feel a lot more comfortable with the instrument. Once I strap it on I feel like, ‘Yeah, this is my stuff!’ you know? You just feel good about it. For me, playing the bass is not a thing of having to fight or think about so much anymore. Basically, it’s like… you reach for it and see what happens. And the feedback that I’ve gotten from people is really helpful. People really appreciate things that happen on the instrument and what different players bring to it. And it just feels great to be a part of that tradition.

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