Interview - Justin Gray
Justin Gray is a Toronto based bassist, composer, producer, and educator based in Toronto, Canada. His main influences include jazz, Indian classical and world music. Justin co-leads the Toronto based Indo-Jazz ensemble Monsoon, and contemporary jazz ensemble Gray Matter. Justin is also currently on faculty at Humber College, where he leads the Indo-Jazz Collective. In 2010, Justin invented and co-created (with luthier Les Godfrey) the Bass Veena, an instrument designed for Indian Classical and Indo-Jazz music. In 2015 Justin was honoured to receive the 2015 Emerging Jazz Artist Award from the Toronto Arts Foundation.
What are some important musical and other lessons you've learned that you can pass on to aspiring bassists?
One of the most essential lessons I continue to learn everyday is that love and passion for music are the most essential assets to a successful musical career. The time and energy required to continue growing each day as an artist is almost unquantifiable. I have therefore learned that it is essential for me to remain connected to music in this way, as that is how I am able to stay inspired and energized.
The most important musical lesson I have learned, and am reminded of constantly, is that listening is the most essential musical skill for any musician to develop. No matter what the musical context, listening intently always has a positive effect on my playing and helps me to know how to best support the music.
As a bassist, I have learned how important it is to have solid, yet flexible time feel. In every playing situation, I try to always remain open to hearing the collective interpretation of the music, and then judge how to best support it. It is a fine line that exists between confidently laying down the time and being flexible, but it is an essential balance to achieve in order to make sure that the music is always in the pocket. This is especially important when working with a variety of different rhythm sections.
Another lesson I would like to share with aspiring bassists is that is becoming more and more essential to be a versatile musician. I am fortunate to find myself regularly with a variety of artists who play in a wide range of musical styles. This does pose as a challenge, as each style often deserves a lifetime of dedication and focus. I have learned that in order to feel confident in a variety of styles, it is essential to have a rock solid foundation in the fundamental musical skills. These include: a strong sense of rhythm and melody, good listening skills, solid tone, accurate tuning, and a strong sense of form. These skills transfer beyond the confines of any one genre, and when well rooted, the specificities of any styles can be internalized much more naturally. In order to develop these skills, I have learned that it is best to go deep into one genre of music, as once these skills are developed at a subtle level in one musical style, they are much more easily transferable to other musical forms.
What are three of your favourite recordings that you consider essential for any bassist to check out?
Wayne Shorter Quartet "Beyond the Sound Barrier" – John Patitucci shines on this album. His creativity, tone, feel and virtuosity are combined seamlessly as he pushes the boundaries of music along side one of the greatest groups in jazz.
Tommy Flanagan "Overseas" – This album features an absolutely stunning swing feel by Wilbur Little and Elvin Jones.
"The Goat Rodeo Sessions" – This record features some of the most incredible arco playing I have ever heard on bass. Edgar Meyer joins a world-class lineup, who collectively bring these brilliant compositions to life with their endless musicality, pristine tuning and creative interplay.
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones “Live at the Quick” – If you are going to listen to Victor Wooten, this is the record. It features him in a bass role, and features some of the most beautiful grooves and and virtuosic solos on electric bass since Jaco Pastorius.
D’Angelo “Voodoo” – Pino Palladino redefined the R&B pocket with his hip-hop infused grooves on this record.
Robert Glasper “Black Radio” – Derek Hodge has assimilated modern gospel/hip hop bass playing in a modern jazz style. His tone, groove and harmonic sense is incredibly powerful on this album, and this record is one of the best examples of where modern electric bass playing is going in 2015.
Can you share some practice ideas? What should aspiring bassists focus on? What worked/works for you? I realize this is a very broad question that varies with individuals' needs, but I'm looking for some general ideas, and in particular what worked for you.
Long tones with a drone continue to be an extremely valuable upright bass practice for me. My routine includes setting the metronome very slow (40bpm or less), and choosing a pitch to use as a drone for that practice session (I change the tonic each time). I use an electronic tanpura (Indian drone instrument) as my pitch reference.
I will focus on one or two scales per session. I work my way up and down the entire range of the instrument, from the lowest note included in that scale, to the highest. I start with whole notes, and each time I complete the range of the instrument, and feel that I am ready to move on, I increase the rhythmic subdivision. For me it is important to remember that making it up and down the scale is not the only goal, and therefore I frequently stop to isolate harder areas on the neck when needed. This practice routine works out a number of fundamental technical elements including: tuning, time, arco technique, focus, and scale fingerings. I also sometimes do this same routine with pizzicato.
I have also used a similar system to develop a variety of right hand techniques on electric and upright bass. I set the metronome at a slow tempo (often closer to 50-60bpm) and work my way up through the rhythmic subdivisions. I use a variety of articulation, muting and polyrhythmic exercises as the repertoire for this routine. While doing this practice routine, I try to remain focused on my time feel, developing consistency in my attack, and building up endurance by remaining relaxed.
When practicing playing on a tune, I often isolate short harmonic sequences, in order to go deeper into the melodic and harmonic possibilities. It is of course essential to practice bass lines and improvisation on the entire form of a tune, but for me I find I get a much more thorough understanding of the inner voice leading and melodic shapes, when I work on shorter chord sequences. Often, I will use a looping pedal to do this, and work through the form 2 or 4 bars at a time. Sometimes, it will take a few sessions to make it all the way through the piece, at which point I will then either start practicing the entire form.
When practicing groove (whether straight or swing), I like to play along with my favourite recordings, and really focus into the subtleties of their time feel. I try to really get inside inside their articulation, tone, beat placement, and note duration. For this type of work, I just use my ears and improvise along with players I like. For me it is not about copying their exact bass lines, but rather learning to internalize their feel and nuance, so it can become a colour I use in my own playing.
Do you have any advice for overcoming difficulties or obstacles?
Challenges and obstacles can come in so many forms, and everyone on the planet faces new ones each day. I believe that everything in life happens for a reason, and therefore there is always something to be gained from any situation. This philosophy is of course sometimes hard to keep in focus, depending on the depth of the challenge, however regardless of the situation, I have found that when I approach an obstacle with optimism, positive solutions always surface.
Often times, the most natural emotional reactions to obstacles are negative (denial, disappointment, anger). In my experience, these negative emotions only further enhance the obstacles, and are a complete waste of energy. It is not always easy to do, but the sooner that I accept the challenge that is presented to me, and start to search for positive and creative solutions, the sooner I am able to overcome it.
Something that helps me to overcome challenges is to focus on larger goals in my life. These can be artistic, or related to even broader aspects of my life. When my vision is narrow, obstacles appear to be overbearing, however when I am focused on the big picture, I find it easier to put the obstacle in context with the whole, helping to make it seem more manageable.
Do you have any gear advice (specific pickups, strings, amps, etc. and what to look for)?
I think it is essential to note that there is no single piece of gear that is right for everyone. My interest in gear is rooted in my passion for finding tools that can help to further my musical expression. I personally advocate that all bassists should develop a very personal connection with the gear that they use, as the right gear can have a profound effect on your musical process, if used in the right context.
All of my electric basses are custom made by a luthier named Les Godfrey. I found that when I was able to customize how my instrument responds and feels, it opened up a new dimension of expression for me. Whether custom, or standard, it is all about finding an instrument that suits your playing style and tonal preferences.
Electric: I use a Markbass MoMark Bass Head. I match this with a Markbass 2x10 cab for R&B, and a 1x12 cab for Jazz. For electric bass, an amp is like it’s vocal chord. It is essential to find one that is voiced in a way that compliments the instrument. For me Markbass provides the perfect midrange for modern electric basses, while still having rich lows and clear highs to balance the tonal spectrum
Upright: I use a Markbass Mark Acoustic AC101 combo. For upright bass, I think it is essential to find an amp that has the ability to cut the unwanted midrange frequencies out of the pickup signal, while still letting the highs and lows to breathe. It is the midrange frequencies that can really destroy the sound of a good upright bass when amplified.
I use La Bella bass strings on all of my electric basses. I use nickel wound strings on my fretted basses. I use the nylon tape wound strings on my bass veena and fretless basses. The gauge and tension is a really important factor when choosing strings. The strings need to compliment your playing style, and allow you to dig in the way you want to.
Upright – I use a G string (Anima) by the company Velvet. For the E-D I use Pirastro Obligato’s. Every upright bass is very sensitive to strings. I think it is essential to try a variety of strings on each bass, in order to find the right overall tension and let the bass really speak.
I use Radial DI’s on all of my concerts. I am also a huge fan of the Radial Bassbone as a flexible electric bass tone shaping tool, and the Radial PZ pre for upright bass and bass veena. These units are built like tanks, sound transparent, have ground lift switches, and always make sound engineers happy…which is really important.
I use Q-Tuner Pickups on all of my electric basses. These just bring out the sound of my instruments without adding too much colour. I think of pickups like micophones for electric instruments. I prefer to capture the source as neutral as possible, and then let the amp to do the tone shaping (what it was built to do).
I use a fishman full circle pickup on my upright bass. Like strings, different upright basses react completely differently to different pickups. It is all about experimenting until you find the right one for your instrument.
What's coming up for you and how can we follow you (website, social media, etc,)?
In December 2015, I will be travelling back to India, where I will be playing some concerts with the Indo-Jazz ensemble I co-lead, Monsoon. I will also be doing some studying with my teacher there and working on further developing my playing style on the bass veena.
In 2016, I will be touring with a number of world music ensembles throughout the year. I will also be working on a new album, which will feature music I have written for bass veena. If you are interested, I will be performing some of that music in Toronto on February 27th.
Please visit www.Justin-Gray.com to learn more about upcoming concert dates. If you are interested, you can also check out some of my music and videos on my site.
Any other thoughts to pass along?
I have a few final points to share, which I hope will act as gentle reminders to aspiring bassists, and even just musicians in general.
1. To be an artist, it is essential to remain healthy both physically and mentally. Our mind and body combine to create the vehicle that we require in order to share our art, and they are indispensible.
2. Reading music is an essential musical skill, however it must be balanced with ear training and memorization. Make sure to learn tunes by ear as much as by reading, as both skills are essential.
3. Sing all the time. The bass is a tool to unlock the music we hear, and the voice is the most direct connection we all share to that music.
4. Remember that we typically practice for many more hours in our life than we play concerts. As a result it is important to note that the habits we develop while practicing will carry to the stage, and therefore we need to be very conscious of our practicing habits, from both a technical and creative standpoint
5. Play a lot. Play with other people, play concerts. In regards to musical development, there is no substitute to simply playing music with others musicians.
6. The last thing I would like to share is in regards to post secondary musical training. Many young artists are now pursuing musical training (as I did) in post secondary environments. I am a huge supporter of these learning environments, as they offer unparalleled access to training resources, and help an artist to build their own music community. It is however important to remind young artists, that 4 years of school is just the tip of the music iceberg. Music is truly an endless ocean of possibilities, and I see formal musical training environments as places to collect and understand the tools that we will use for a lifetime to come. I would like to remind aspiring young artists that when school is done, the learning has only just started. We learn music by playing music, by writing music and by imagining music. The tools we develop to express music are essential, however without connecting with our own unique musical voices, they will never reach their full potential. During one’s time in a post secondary education environment, it is essential to develop these tools to the highest level, as it is not until they are properly prepared that an artist is ready to successfully traverse the unlimited landscape that is music.