Matthew Garrison: ShapeShifter in motion

Last July, as chronicled in these pages (check the Archives section for August ’14) this writer had the pleasure of spending a weekend at the New Mexico Jazz Festival for a NEA Jazz Masters site visit on drummer Jack DeJohnette‘s Santa Fe residency. Jack’s visit culminated in a Saturday evening concert featuring his bracing trio, with Ravi Coltrane on saxophones and Matthew Garrison on bass. As many of you likely know Matt Garrison is the son of the late bassist Jimmy Garrison, of John Coltrane Quartet fame. A few hours prior to the evening concert I sat down on the exceedingly pleasant veranda of his Santa Fe hotel for a conversation with Garrison for a downbeat.com feature. Below is the complete Matt Garrison conversation, which ranged broadly from the DeJohnette and Ravi Coltrane connection to Matt’s bass guitar conception, to his burgeoning ShapeShifter Lab enterprise in Brooklyn.

Willard Jenkins: You have a long and deep history with Jack DeJohnette.

Matt Garrison
Matt Garrison: Absolutely. It started pretty much when I was born, or thereabouts. Jack knew my dad and they performed together on a few occasions. I grew up on the Upper West Side for a little bit and I think Jack was close by, he and his wife were good friends with my mother and my dad.

Eventually what happened, when my father died Jack basically said to my mother “if you ever need help with the kids, [he’d] be willing to help out.” After my dad died we moved to Italy for ten years – in ’77 (I was 7 years old). By the time I hit the age of 17 I actually was given the choice by the Italian government to become an Italian citizen. But in order to do that I would have had to do one year of military service. So I said ‘ya know what, I think it’s time to get the hell out of here…’ [laughs]. So we were trying to think of places to go and we called Jack up and said ‘Jack, remember that thing you said?’ And he said “cool.” So I had one more year of high school to finish and I finished it up in Woodstock and I lived with Jack’s family for a year and it was amazing.

As far as playing with Jack, is this the first tour that you’ve ever done with Jack?
Yeah. It started this year. We did this one event at the Brooklyn Museum, it was fantastic. Anytime I came to Jack’s house after I’d lived there – because I went to Berklee – but every time I came back to Jack’s place we would jam and he would show me some new stuff, he mostly played piano, but he’d play bass too and I’d try to play some drums and piano… it was amazing. That particular [’97 Brooklyn] event, he basically put it together and then he asked me and Ravi to come to his house and we spent two or three days just going through all this music, and that’s another one of the greatest moments of my life. First of all because I had never played with Ravi, so that was our first opportunity to play together.

Did you know Ravi before?
I think I had met him once before.

So the music that you played in Brooklyn that first time, how has it evolved to what it is now?
I guess now I can play it a little better [chuckles]. From what I can remember we played things like “Countdown”, “Giant Steps,” “ Central Park West,” “Spiral,” and some other really critical compositions of John’s. I think I was like 22 or something, so I knew how to play, I was somewhat versatile, but that was some hard shit to play! And at the time, speaking from my perspective as this has evolved, at the time I was playing more just bass function, meaning mostly playing roots and spelling out the chord changes, but I could also solo over the stuff which I guess was kind of important so that we had opportunities for soloing and going through the form and that kind of thing. It was a lot more basic from my perspective.

Now, over the years I’ve developed certain things where I play a lot of chordal information and I also play a lot of melodic information and the bass stuff, so I’m playing a quite specific role. We made a joke about this – Jack was like ‘hey man, you’re covering a lot of territory there, we don’t really need a piano player, sometimes we don’t need a melodic player… just don’t start asking me for more money.’

In this essentially bass-drums-saxophone setting it’s a challenge because there’s no chording instrument.
Yeah, but that’s where I come in. Another component that I bring to this current version is I use a lot of computer based software to enhance the sound or the textures that we use that I can use onstage. It’s a lot of open textural things that can really fill up – it creates a very dramatic texture off of which we can then create more dramatic textures. Its very, very different from what we initially did 20+ years ago from that standpoint. And of course the music – what’s interesting is that we’re not playing so much original material right now, that might just be because we’re just having too much fun playing these compositions by all these great master musicians. We’ve been playing stuff from Monk, Ornette Coleman, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Duke Ellington… we’re covering a lot of ground. I’m glad that I took the time to learn that material over the years.

Has this unit recorded yet?
We’ve recorded a whole bunch of stuff, but this seems to be one of those projects that kind of needs to be recorded in a live setting. I mean it could work in the studio too.

Jack's trio
Jack DeJohnette Trio at their New Mexico Jazz Festival performance

So why do you feel it’s better live than it would be recorded in the studio? I ask that also because considering the computer technology you’ve brought into the picture it would seem that might be better served in a studio environment.
Yeah, but I’m using it very differently because I’m using it in a way that its fully integrated into the idea of improvisation. So all the tools that I’m using are part of what can happen right now, there’s a lot of flexibility in that sense. Of course the computer stuff can be used in a very structured, thematic way, but that doesn’t work for this project. I’m taking advantage of another side of it and that’s great for me because I get to explore a whole bunch of other things. But the other thing about how this project works better as a live situation is that it tends to be an arc of information, in terms of drama there is a whole story that needs to be told and it undulates, it moves, it comes in and out with dynamics, and then there’s a lot of wide open improvisation in that whatever happens happens and then we go back into some information that people can relate to and when you get feedback from the audience then you start doing things differently.

The audience presence makes a real difference in this trio’s performance?
Absolutely! When we first started we decided very specifically that we open the show with some really out to lunch shit. So you can already tell the audience is like ‘aw shit…’ [laughs], they start looking at their watches, they’re getting a little bit uncomfortable, and then it slowly gets to something that they like, then we take it out to lunch a little bit more, and then they’re like ‘OK, so maybe that’s not so bad.’ There’s a whole series of things happening and we’re observing this, its fun for us to watch. We did a sound check somewhere in France and there was this old couple sitting in front watching us and we were playing like a Monk tune and then a Miles tune and they were happy checking out the sound check. And then I put on one of my weird computer things and they jumped up [laughs] and Jack started laughing, ‘did you see what you just did.’ But then they came back for the show, we saw that specific couple, and they loved it.

So there’s going to be a record from this trio?
I’m sure of it at some point. It should be a compiled set of recordings.

What is your sense of the irony of being on this tour with Ravi Coltrane in terms of both your ancestral lineage?
Well, I think its been long overdue and I don’t think there’s a better situation for it to happen because Jack is kind of like the unifying energy. If I really consider my musical beginnings, he’s it, he’s my sensei. I don’t know if he and Ravi have had the same sense of development but I’m sure they’ve had their moments to work over the years; Ravi has played in Jack’s groups and they’ve done other projects for other folks, and Ravi and I have done other projects, little things here and there.

I was asked to come play with McCoy [Tyner] at some point and I think Ravi was on that, but McCoy wanted me to play acoustic bass and I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to sound like an idiot because that’s not my instrument. Maybe to some degree I should have studied it a little bit more but I put a lot of energy into [bass guitar] and I want that to be the focus. So when you’re playing with those masters and those historical figures, If I would have been allowed to play my instrument I’m sure Ravi and I would have been very comfortable to play some of the music that his father put together, or McCoy’s music. We’ve been invited to play other projects where they want us to play John Coltrane’s music and they want very specific types of things and we’ve both refused because its too sensitive.
Matthew Garrison
Not only is it too sensitive, but here it is the 21st century and you guys have evolved your own way of playing, so I don’t imagine a kind of repertory project appeals to you.
Right, and that’s very much part of why we’ve both avoided those situations. But in this [DeJohnette Trio] context… think about the fact that Jack did play with both of our dads and Jack definitely pushed me to learn that music over the years. When I first got up to his house he said ‘hey man, check this record out, see you later… come back and I’ll give you another one.’

I opened a venue in Brooklyn called ShapeShifter Lab and Ravi has been instrumental in helping the place do well. There was a period where we had this real rinky-dink piano and that’s a problem in New York because if you want some serious cats to play there you’ve gotta have a good piano, so he donated a piano to the space, and he helps in different ways. Now we’re opening up a non-profit side of the business and he’s going to help, he’s already on the board of directors – Jack is going to be involved in that as well.

You mentioned McCoy and your decision to stick with the bass guitar, at what point did you determine to specialize in the bass guitar?
Probably around then [chuckles]. It was much sooner than that. Actually when I was in Italy I did start studying bass. I got my first bass, which was an electric bass, at 14 or 15 and then it was recommended by various Italian musicians that I really had to get some kind of foundation in classical music which could then help me out in my jazz education as well. So then I went and studied a little bit of classical acoustic bass. The main problem that I had with that is that the school was quite far from where I lived and I had to take a train out there and I was this young black man with an afro with an acoustic bass in a big red case and I was on this train in Italy going to the school and you know how Italians are, they like to just stare at people. So I was on this train and people were just staring at me, so when I was 15 I was already getting quite irked by the acoustic bass thing. So that’s one of the first things that kinda got to me, so I said let me stick with [bass guitar], it’s smaller and easier to get around with. And then of course I started listening to cats like Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Jaco and thinking ‘oh my gosh, this thing is like wide open’, and I didn’t necessarily see that opportunity with an acoustic instrument. My tendency has actually been a little bit more towards electricity in general and it just gives you more options.

Now as technology has moved, especially from a software standpoint, its basically a golden age that unfortunately a lot of musicians that deal with improvisations still don’t know. There’s so much that can be done it’s scary. I bought my first computer in 1996 and I’ve never stopped; I’ve been recording and experimenting and trying things out. As technology gets better there’s more things you can do onstage now and it’s much smaller. I have a laptop, a little audio interface, a little pedal, one other pedal, some cables and the bass… and it’s done. The things you can do with just that set-up is sick; and this is just a stereo presentation because I also do surround sound presentations with that, which is a completely different world; I hope we can do that with Jack one day.

Is it your sense that specializing in the bass guitar has opened up more diverse opportunities for you?
Absolutely. If I had studied acoustic bass I think I would have had maybe two or three types of recording and performing options – one in the classical world, one in the more experimental jazz/improvisational world… not many other places to go with that instrument. And also now consider what’s happening with the airlines and how cats like Dave Holland, John Pattitucci, Ron Carter… and what they have to go through. With the electric bass I have a wide array of genres I could tackle which gives me the opportunity to have more financial potential and if you have finances now you have more opportunities to try some more things – going from pop to funk to jazz, and to be able to do them all is an important thing.

Aren’t they making advances in more portable acoustic basses, like Dave Holland’s instrument?
Yes and Dave’s bass sounds incredible.

Talk about Garrison Jazz Productions and your various business enterprises.
Garrison Jazz Productions is slowly being absorbed. Me and my business partner Fortuna Sung, an old high school friend of mine from when I was living in Italy, we met again after many years when I was on tour with Whitney Houston and she was in Tokyo at the same time we talked about this vision that we both had and we decided to just go for it. The first thing we did was we opened a new production company called ShapeShifter Productions and the second one which is called SSP Holdings – which is related to everything involved with music production, management, we have a whole set of items that we take care of there.

ShapeShifter… sounds like there’s some philosophical aspect to that name itself.
Yeah, the idea is definitely why be limited to one thing when you can do many things, and I think maybe in a way my particular history as a human being kind of reflects that – I’ve got parents from two very specific backgrounds, if you want to talk about race that’s part of the equation, if you want to talk about hierarchy and societal positioning of things… my mother is also Jewish, so that adds another component to this thing. I grew up in Italy and I started playing classical, I play jazz, I play funk, I play pop… and so why not?

I made a record which is called “Shapeshifter” and I said look, I’m not going to be stopped by anything or anybody, why should I? You only live once, if you have some ideas put them out. That was the original intention of Garrison Jazz Productions, to just basically create any music I want to, without limitations, I own everything. And that’s how it still stands – I own all publishing, all copyright, and any future options.

Describe ShapeShifter Lab.
ShapeShifter Lab
ShapeShifter Lab 1
Altogether it’s a 4200 square foot location, so it’s quite big. The main space where all the performances take place and all the events is 3600 square feet, which by Brooklyn standards is quite large for the type of music we’re putting on there. Its in Gowanus, near the canal about two blocks up – between Carroll and First, at the bottom of Park Slope. First of all I don’t want to stop musicians from performing at our space because they don’t fit a certain criteria of musical expression. So we pretty much let everyone play there. If you’re really at the beginning of your career we have other things they can do, certain events that are not like an actual professional situation because of course what’s gonna happen if people aren’t known and if they’re not very well informed on their instruments there’s not going to be anybody there, unless they have a party. I curate the space but we do have people that we give them carte blanche to do whatever they want and that’s also been quite incredible because I can’t really have that many ideas and the ones that I do have aren’t necessarily the most successful ones so its also important to bring in some other folks that are basically putting together whatever vision they have. Its been incredible for all of us.

How many nights a week are you open?
Seven, we’re going to try to back that down a bit through the use of the non-profit because its getting a little hard on the staff, which depending upon the events could be up to eight.

Who are some of the people who’ve played there regularly?
Aaron Parks, Andy Milne plays there a lot, Gene Lake with his various projects, David Gilmore – he had his 50th birthday celebration there and we had to send people away there were so many! Ravi plays there pretty frequently; a lot of folks from the avant garde community, Glasper has played there more as a guest but he just recently had his kid’s birthday celebration there, Jason Moran came down… that’s the thing that happens in the space, it feels like a family kind of thing, and it is because its all of us and we’re just doing it. And then when Jack shows up everybody comes down and it’s this big party. In a way it’s this hidden revolution that’s happening. We’re getting press and the folks that do know they get it. You walk in and it’s like a big old open living room, with a little more detail. We do have a bar in there, a beer & wine license.

That’s a full-time pursuit itself, how do you manage to do that and your music?
I have no idea, but it’s working. Going on tour right now like this is a vacation! I have to say that without Fortuna there’s no way in hell this would work because she’s doing a lot of the paperwork. What we’ll be able to do through the non-profit is that we’ll be able to implement a lot of the ideas that we’ve had without the for-profit business always going into our pockets to make these creative ventures a reality. If you really break it down, if we were only to base our business on presenting performances we would already be closed. So everything else that happens at the space – which tends to be rentals, corporate events, weddings, recitals, bar mitzvahs… Now we have a pretty vast clientele coming through the place. So we don’t want to keep taking the resources from the for-profit to then keep the arts alive when it could be done through a non-profit, which is not associated with ShapeShifter Lab itself.

I have some major projects that I need to do that I can do as a for-profit, but others that involve a larger scope of musicians… At the space, the artists come in, they create this cool little hip scene, then some folks around the neighborhood want to poke their heads in and see what’s going on, they love it and now they want to have their parties there, now they want to do this… then you start seeing actors come in and people with a lot of money. We’re already doing everything a non-profit does, but it works. It’s a good development. There’s a lot of educational events going on there. We’re building education into our non-profit side.

I’ll be able to release at least two new projects of mine before the end of the year, and one of those is more of a complete open improv project with various folks that I’ve observed at ShapeShifter Lab that just blew my mind because they were just so out to lunch, but in a really interesting and captivating way; so I want to collaborate with those folks. And then I have a very interesting project where I finally decided to do a fully electronic project, where I’m not even playing the bass; that’s pretty much done – me and a computer and some interesting lighting projections.

Two other projects I have to get done are a big band project with some of my older tunes that I have to rearrange for 18-19 piece big band – we’ve actually performed that several times but I need at least three more charts. The project after that is a fully acoustic project with an acoustic bass guitar – I might even play a bit of acoustic bass and acoustic guitar; that will be some material I still have to write for that project specifically. I’ve got a lot to do.

See the Jack DeJohnette Trio with Matthew Garrison & Ravi Coltrane in action at the Montreal Jazz Festival:

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