Sound, Talent, and Perseverance

Chris Trinidad talks with bassist and ActiveBass co-creator, Chris Tarry about solo albums, Vancouver, Metalwood, and, of course, ActiveBass.
I first met Chris Tarry as a first year electric bass student at Capilano College, a jazz studies program located in North Vancouver, BC, Canada. He was onstage, giving a clinic with his group Metalwood and I proceeded to experience an incredibly profound musical moment.

With a 5 string fretless Hozono in hand and an Eden Rig with a flat EQ setting, notes of golden proportions began to fill the theatre. I was experiencing the sound. It was the sound which was to inspire me to look at the electric bass in a different light and to see that it too had its place in creative, improvisational music.

After a few more years of checking out his various gigs and attempting to emulate his sound, I asked our Jazz Studies coordinator if there was room for him on the faculty. Low (no pun intended) and behold, room was made and I was finally able to study with Chris Tarry and learn about his sound first hand.

When I learned of the opportunity to conduct this interview, I jumped at the chance to tell the world of my mentor's accomplishments, his many talents and some of the secrets to his sound. You will also notice through the interview how Chris Tarry is very active and that the reason for his success is that he persevered and made things happen for himself. The world of the profession musician is a tough one, but Chris Tarry is riding the road well.

I caught up with Chris a few days after his band Metalwood, some 5 years in existence, signed a deal with a major record label.

Chris Trinidad: Chris, congratulations to you and Metalwood on being signed to Universal Jazz. Your relationship with a major label will finally put Vancouver, BC, Canada on the map as a city with a vital jazz scene, but more importantly, will hopefully open doors and opportunities for Vancouver based artists involved in jazz.

Chris Tarry: Thanks! Yes, we are very excited about the new record deal for Metalwood. To have a Canadian jazz group recognized on a world wide scale is pretty unique and I hope it does open the doors for other Canadian jazz artists. I feel we do have some of the most talented jazz players on the planet here in this great country!

Chris Trinidad: You and trumpeter/keyboardist Brad Turner formed Metalwood back in 1996. Up until that point, you were enjoying a fairly successful solo career taking the Chris Tarry Group across Canada a number of times. The drummer from that group, Ian Froman is also a member of Metalwood. The saxophonist Mike Murley is often touted as a first call tenor man in the Toronto area. What is it about these players that you and Brad found appealing for this band?

Chris Tarry: First things first, everybody had to be big big hockey fans or else it just couldn't have worked out! Seriously, I had been touring with my group for quite some time and wanted a bit more of an electric groove outlet to offset my band's slight traditional jazz sound. Brad had played with Murley at a local jazz camp and I had been playing with Ian since Berklee. We each wanted to play with the other and decided it would be a very cool sound. When you bring musicians together of that caliber you know it's gonna be good. To be honest thought, we had no idea what it was actually going to sound like. We took a bit of a gamble flying them out to do a record having never played together as a band before! Whew, good thing it worked! As it turned out we won the Juno (Canadian version of the Grammy) for best jazz album that year.

Chris Trinidad: How would you say that everyone's playing in the group has changed or evolved?

Chris Tarry: Because we had done 3 albums on our own to pretty good success before we got this deal we were able to take a good look and listen to the sound of the band and it's development over the last 3 or 4 years before we did this new album. With the first record, because we had never actually played together before, we sounded really loose and it had a very garage band feel. This, I think, was the big appeal behind the first album. As the sound grew we became tighter and started to investigate some of the electronica/drum 'n bass sounds out there today. With the new album we made a conscious effort to capture some of the looseness of the first record and keep some of the intense tightness we had developed over the years. I guess it's a bit of a cross between all three records.

Chris Trinidad: The next Metalwood release, due May 22nd, 2001 is called "the Recline". How has the recent surge of groove-oriented electric jazz by such artists as Medeski, Martin and Wood, Charlie Hunter and John Scofield influenced the writing on this disc?

Chris Tarry: I think all of them have had a tremendous effect on the groove jazz scene. All of the groups you mentioned have managed to cross over into a market previously reserved for large pop oriented acts, bringing more and more listeners to jazz in general. The resurgence in all kinds of jazz has a lot to do with the in roads these groups have made into popular culture.

As far as the writing for the new album I can only speak for myself but I definitely checked out all of them and tried to see where some of my compositional ideas would fit in with that sound. I do, however, think that we have been fortunate as a band to have a great history up until now so we were lucky to be able to draw on a sound that we have developed over a long period of time.

Chris Trinidad: Speaking of John Scofield, he is guesting on a number of tracks on the upcoming album. Tell us about meeting him for the first time and getting to record with a legend.

Chris Tarry: It was amazing! He was such a great guy and so into the music. What really blew me away with all the famous guests that appeared on the record is that they were so into the moment. Everything they had accomplished in their career had no bearing on their personalities or musical focus. They were there to do the best job possible. They reached that level because it's always about the music right from Miles Davis down to Metalwood, period! That was the biggest thing I learned, and that the best guy's are always the nicest!

Chris Trinidad: Also guesting on the disc is former Miles Davis and Sting percussionist Mino Cinelu and DJ Logic, a frequent guest with Medeski, Martin and Wood. How has their playing added to the sound of the original quartet?

Chris Tarry: They were amazing. I was totally blown away by both of them! Mino and DJ are such cats that all we had to do was play our way and watch them magically slide into a sound that seemed to be waiting for them to put their stamp on it. We didn't really have to think about it. They asked questions, read the music, and really wanted to make it about the music and the overall band sound.

Chris Trinidad: You have chosen the electric bass as your voice. What is it about this wonderful instrument that you found so appealing?

Chris Tarry: I am not sure actually. I have always been drawn to it. I think it might be my interest in being a part of a greater whole or band. As the bass player you can affect the direction of the band to such a great degree but it's almost subliminal. Slide in a great reharm here or rhythmic figure there and watch it take shape. It's kinda like being the most accepted back seat driver in history!

Chris Trinidad: Who were some of the players you admired while learning the electric bass?

Chris Tarry: Some of my earliest influences go back to growing up in Calgary, Alberta. There was a bass player there named Dale James (he is actually an ActiveBass member for anyone who wishes to drop him a line). I learned a lot about intensity and time from him. Of course Jaco was a big one. I think Gary Willis is one of the best out there right now, he was a very big influence. As an electric bassist I have tried to learn from and listen to a lot of acoustic players. Dave Holland, Gary Peacock, Charlie Haden, Paul Chambers, and Ron Carter have all been huge influences.

Chris Trinidad: Attending the Berklee School of Music was probably an incredible experience. Take us through what a day down its halls is like.

Chris Tarry: It was a great experience. In fact, as told before here at ActiveBass, I met one of my closest friends and fellow ActiveBass creator Chris Sung on the first day in line during registration!

The great thing about Berklee is that it's a little mini scene onto itself. The best players get called first for various shows, recitals, studio sessions, and upper level ensembles. This type of environment really pushes you to become one of those top call players! Most of the learning takes place at night when you get a chance to play with different musicians from all over the world!

Chris Trinidad: Who were some of the people you have studied with? And what have these people taught you about the bass, music and life?

Chris Tarry: I spent time at Berklee studying with some amazing players. Some of the best stuff I learned was from a great piano teacher named Charlie Banacos. He taught Mike Stern, Jeff Berlin, and a bunch of other famous guys.

Gary Willis and I have become pretty close friends and he has taught me a lot in regards to bass, music, and what to take on the road! I recently had a chance to spend some time with John Patitucci and that was a great experience as well. Some of the most important stuff I learned, I learned while just hanging out with a particular player who I admired. Just talking and picking their brain was always a huge learning experience. I try to do this with students, giving them the chance to just hang out at a gig or whenever possible go shoot a little pool or something.

Chris Trinidad: Who are some of the musicians that you find interesting and listen to these days?

Chris Tarry: I don't listen to many bass players these days so that's an easier question for me! I just bought the new Kurt Rosenwinkel (a great NY based guitarist) and I really dig it! Compositionally, I have been checking out Django Bates, always a lot of Wayne Shorter, some great classic samba stuff, Metallica, the Beatles, and Bill Frisell.

Chris Trinidad: You are also considered to be a first call bassist on sessions here in Vancouver, how did you get into this scene?

Chris Tarry: Well, I guess when I first arrived here in Vancouver, I was getting pretty frustrated not playing. I decided that if I was going to remain sane that I should put together my own band and start at least playing some of my tunes. Once I got out there and started playing with my own thing, various people heard it and liked it. The calls started coming in after that. I tell a lot of students that, put together your own project and it will give you a profile. If people like what they hear, you will get calls for many other things.

Chris Trinidad: What kind of things have you been called upon to do?

Chris Tarry: When I get called to a commercial session it usually involves listening to a MIDI demo of something the producer has worked up but wants the feel of real bass. He or she plays it and wants something similar but with your own interpretation thrown in. There are times when you get a chart of exactly what they want you to play. That's also a nice challenge when you are forced to read it down in the first one or two takes.

Chris Trinidad: What kind of things are expected of getting called to such a session? What kind of gear do you bring?

Chris Tarry: Usually I try and bring a selection of basses. Almost all the time they want to go direct. Because of time constraints there isn't always the luxury of experimenting with different sounds and micing up amps. Generally, you need to have your sound together, be able to read, have good time, and be an easy person to get along with.

Chris Trinidad: You've got a couple of 'bread and butter basses', a 5 string Fodera and a custom built 5 string fretless Hozono that you take to most gigs. You're also endorsing Kinal basses. What is it that you look for in an electric bass?

Chris Tarry: The thing what I look for most is for it to give something back acoustically. The way the strings interact with with the body wood when it's not plugged in can tell you a lot. It's kind of like the difference between new and old strings. If it's acoustically dead then there isn't a pickup in the world that can save it.

Chris Trinidad: How about in a fretless?

Chris Tarry: The same thing except ten times more emphasis on the acoustic qualities.

Chris Trinidad: What kind of outboard gear, amplifiers and cabinets are you into?

Chris Tarry: I have been using Eden amplifiers and speakers for a few years now and really enjoy the flat response all of their equipment gives. I have been using this really cool Line 6 delay pedal lately that I really like. I also use an Alesis Nano Verb for solos and a little ambiance.

Chris Trinidad: In our close knit Vancouver creative music scene, you work with some very interesting people. How has this work as a sideman benefitted your own music?

Chris Tarry: It has influenced my music in such profound ways. So much so that I am doing a new solo album in March called "Of Battles Unknown Mysteries" that is a representation of all the great music I have had the opportunity to play over the past few years. I haven't done a solo album for about five years. This one is going to have some really out improv stuff, some goove stuff, a little big band, some samba stuff, and some solo bass things as well. The music I'm writing is influenced heavily by all the great original compositions I have played over the past ten years.

Chris Trinidad: That's an interesting title! How'd you come up with that?

Chris Tarry: Thanks, I really like the title. The title in some ways describes, for me, the musical process of doing an album or composing a tune. Each time I play one of my compositions with various different musicians it gets interpreted a different way. The feeling of wanting it to sound a certain way, the inner "Battle", is something I have tried to put aside in all my compositions. Jazz is about creating and letting everyone have their say. The "mysteries" in that exploration are where the music lies. Every composition I write turns out differently than I originally heard or conceived it. Aside from feel, form, and basic tune structure I try and give as much leway to all the musicians playing on any given tune.

Chris Trinidad: Who can we expect to see on the album? Rumour also has it that you'll be recording with musicians from both the Vancouver and Toronto scenes!

Chris Tarry: Yes, I am recording with a bunch of people from across this vast nation! Toronto based trumpet player Kevin Turcotte, will be on the album, as well as Toronto musicians Michael Occhipinti, drummer Barry Romberg, and Metalwood sax man Mike Murley. The Vancouver crew will feature guitarist Daryl Jahnke, Metalwood trumpeter Brad Turner, drummer Dylan Van der Schyff, guitarist Ron Samworth, and the list goes on and on! Whew, organizational nightmare!

Chris Trinidad: How do you approach composition? Is it perhaps a case of putting the bass away and sitting at a keyboard plunking ivories until something comes out?

Chris Tarry: It can be. I find I write tunes in many different ways. Tonight I am actually recording some of the solo bass stuff that will appear on the solo album. That really takes me into composition from the bass perspective. Sometimes, I write a melody and put the changes in afterward. Sometimes I get the chords first. Sometimes, it's just a concept and I have to sort it out other ways.

Chris Trinidad: Little do people know, but you are also accomplished in other areas. It appears that these accomplishments have come about to fill a need, that necessity is often the mother of invention. Namely, you are also a web and graphic designer, an inspirational teacher, an astute business person, and a mountain biker. Now, I haven't riden a bike since I was a teenager but maybe you can tell me about how you became accomplished in these other areas.

Chris Tarry: You are so right! Out of complete necessity! As a jazz musician and professional bass player it can be sometimes hard to find the funds to accomplish all the music and ideas one might envision. To do all that I wanted to do I had to find a way to do it cheaper. So, I taught myself web design, photoshop, layout, pre press for CD manufacturing, how to lead a band, how to be a sideman, how to book a tour, and so on. In the early years I did it all myself in order to play my own music and promote my career. These days demands on my time as a sideman, ActiveBass, and a busy Metalwood touring schedule makes it really hard to do it all. I am farming a lot of it out because I can afford to but having those skills has been a large part of getting me where I am today. Of course you still need to practice and get yourself to a high level bass wise or else all the promo and business training in the world will not help!

Chris Trinidad: You're also a faculty member at what is considered to be one of the top jazz schools west of Ontario, Canada. Has teaching influenced your outlook on the electric bass? If so, how?

Chris Tarry: Teaching seems like something I have always done and it has had a huge influence on my playing. I have to get inside what I am doing in order to become a better teacher and this makes me analyze myself and focus on areas in my playing that need improvement. Teaching at Cap and posting lessons on ActiveBass has given me a little bit of press and it's great to have students come out and support you at your gigs and to truly be into the music you're trying to create. I finally decided to put it all down in a book that is, as I am always saying, "almost finished". Actually I am in the third or fourth draft at the moment so I am hoping it will finish it self soon!

Chris Trinidad: Some people around here at ActiveBass don't realize it, but you're actually one of the head honchos! ActiveBass is such a great concept with its ability to facilitate the exchange of knowledge about the electric bass. Where do you hope to see ActiveBass in the next while?

Chris Tarry: Thanks, my cohort and friend Chris Sung and I are very proud of the success of ActiveBass. It is such a great community of players! We are going to keep adding new features and watching it grow. The new is up now and there are plans to expand on all the "Active" websites including the addition of ActiveDrums which is already in the development stages.

Chris Trinidad: And finally, the same question I asked your buddy, Ian Froman. What are your top 10 desert island discs?

Chris Tarry: Wow, hmmm, okay, here goes:
  • Gotta have some Led Zeppelin
  • Joni Mitchell "Shadows and Light"
  • Miles Davis "Miles Smiles"
  • John Coltrane "Crescent"
  • Dave Holland "Triplicate"
  • McCoy Tyner "Supertrios"
  • Jaco Pastorius' first album
  • Anything by the Beatles
  • Herbie Hancock "Maiden Voyage" and anything with Paul Jackson on it.
I would have to leave spot ten open for a last minute final decision!