Shapeshifting with Matt Garrison

One of our generation's pre-eminent bassists is back with a new record, "Shapeshifter" and a live CD/DVD to shift some light on the shape of bass to come!
Are you ready to be redefined yet again by the Bass world? Out now is the latest CD and DVD from one of the generation's pre-eminent bassists, Matthew Garrison. "Shapeshifter" brings with it new melodies and grooves that are sure to inject some life into the Jazz/Fusion genre today. A separate project is the live DVD/CD entitled "Matt Garrison Live", described as a "modern multimedia presentation of high-energy, ultra-contemporary electric jazz - containing mind-boggling performances by an elite assemblage of the world's most creative and exciting musicians, led by Matt Garrison!" Back with us at is Matt to answer some questions and to shift some light on the shape of things to come.

Peter Davyduck: Hi Matthew, thanks again for sharing time with us here at ActiveBass. First off, aside from recording Herbie Hancock's "Future2Future" DVD and tour, Dennis Chamber's "Outbreak", various tours including Europe with Pharoah Sanders and your steady teaching gig... what have you been up to?

Matt Garrison: Family. I'm going to have a son this coming January so I've been very focused on home related issues with my wife Veronika. Of course while I'm home I'm constantly working on new music and different projects which seem to just blossom at every turn. It's a very creative period for me and I'm trying to implement as many musical ideas as possible. The results of this period are going to begin to show with the release of this new material "Shapeshifter" and "Matt Garrison Live".

PD: Oh ya, the new CD "Shapeshifter" and the Live DVD/CD. I'd like to dive right into "Shapeshifter" if you don't mind. To start with, where does that title come from? Or where is it coming from?

Matt: It's kind of a statement of who I am at the moment on several levels. I feel now that I can basically shift gears and move in and across genres mainly because it's what I love doing. Also when composing I tend to deal with shapes, figures, layers, and patterns which I spend hours on end blending, morphing with one another and shifting the entire outcome to yet more blends. It's a very intriguing process of examination and experimentation and I feel the word Shapeshifter kind of sums it all up.

PD: Upon listening to it, the opener "Symbiosis" is reminiscent to me of "Family" in that right away the singable melodies and catchy changes start happening. Going into this project did you consciously think of your debut CD and want to either include a strand of that vibe and continue on from it or did you think of it at all?

Matt: Absolutely. I think I want folks to know that they can now comfortably enjoy an interesting journey with me as I continue to release new material. I'll always try to have a main thread of connection between projects no matter how experimental I get. I want to bring in some seriously developed sonic elements yet hold the attention of who is listening by leaving a small gift of simplicity in the midst of madness.

PD: As that track might make me think of your debut somewhat the rest of the CD quickly shows that you've expanded your territories so to speak. The track "Unity" to me has got some great funk to it and hints of Prince; by the way your web site said you were just recording at Paisley Park?! Care to expand? And in "I Can See You Now" I could swear there's a little Trent Reznor there in the melody line.

Matt: I think I tried to listen to myself more on this recording. Meaning there is always music in our mind's ear, and I really tried to tune into what that music was. I think that's the closest I can personally get to attaining Nirvana - when I'll finally be able to decipher all the sounds that are in my mind in real-time ...

All of "Unity" was built around the solo section. The bass line is in 4/4 half time while the drum parts are in 3/4 double time. A very interesting mix which appears more evidently divided in different parts of the composed sections. I know it has that bass line that recalls Prince but it's kind of an idea that came from one particular live show that I did with Herbie Hancock. We both would kind of start improvised bass lines on different nights and that particular night something similar to "Unity" happened and I wanted to keep that idea, even though it came out a bit different. It was a counter rhythm to what Terri Lyne Carrington was playing and it was just slamming! The unison melody line I constructed a couple of days after 9/11 and hence the track title "Unity". All the rhythms and time signatures may cross each other yet work in perfect synchronicity, something humanity really needs to focus on to avoid a lot of what is going in the world now.

PD: The compositions really feel as though there is even more depth to your writing. Was the first CD a learning curve technically as well as songwriting wise?

Matt Garrison Live - CD+DVD
Matt: Certainly. I'm much more comfortable today as an engineer and producer than ever before. If I look back on the first recording there are hundreds of things I know I could have done better, but at the same instance I like the fact that it's an imprint of what I knew and understood at the time. The cool thing about owning the masters now is that I have the original sessions which I could go in and remix and remaster from head to toe. I'm only planning on doing a surround sound remix.

I'm not sure if I've improved as a songwriter though ... maybe just a little clearer about who I am as a musician. I know I have a lot more in me and I'm fascinated to know where it can take me. I kind of always look back on the material I compose and find it hard to know that I actually did it myself! Music just absolutely amazes me in every way.

PD: Have your frequent tours and the artists with whom you've toured informed many of the songs on "Shapeshifter" and/or your playing?

Matt: By all means. I suppose that's why I like to work with different artists around the world so as to gain a deeper perspective of a totally different approach, to improvising, arranging, band leading, composing, etc... I can say that this latest recording was strongly influenced by working with Herbie Hancock and Meshell Ndege Ocello (we recorded a fantastic project of hers for Verve featuring Kenny Garrett, Jack DeJohnette, Wallace Roney, Cassandra Wilson, myself, Gene Lake, Federico Pena, Mike Cain, Don Byron, Mino Cinelu but it was never released - what an absolute shame that this kind of outrageous and insulting behaviour by major record labels still happens. Music like that should NEVER be held back from listeners!), and listening to and analyzing the works of Squarepusher, Bjork, Nils Petter Molvaer, Andy Milne, Massive Attack, Maria Callas.

PD: "Three Tree" made me think of it as though it's an homage to Jaco's "Donna Lee". Is there something to that? Your tone, albeit very much your own, does have some flavour of Jaco's fretless tone and with just you and Arto playing it makes a beautiful statement.

Matt: Yeah, there's no escape from that sound and relationship to Jaco once you explore the bass + percussion option. It's actually Arto always instigating me to play just duo with him and that's why there will probably always be a track of just me and him on all of my releases. The music is dedicated to a little tiny child that never grew to meet it's parents, my wife Veronika and myself. We buried our little creature in a place in Denmark that had three trees standing over as guardians.

PD: Quickly to Arto Tuncboyacian, wow, he is stellar to watch on the DVD but it is a bit of a disappointment that "Arto's Song" didn't make the companion audio CD. How did you hook up with him and what has his playing brought to the table for you?

Matt: Funny that you should mention the word "table" considering that loves playing just that in the DVD! Arto is one my greatest inspirations in life. He's a master musician, a mysterious intellectual, and really just family to me. The man can hold an entire show on his own and yet he graciously lends his expertise to my simple projects. I feel truly blessed to have a relationship with him as an artist and a human being. There were some technical difficulties with his audio tracks and that's the only reason that track didn't appear on the audio CD. It's more entertaining to see him do his thing anyway as you may have noticed!

PD: On the topic of Arto and percussion and his grooves, yet again through out "Shapeshifter" is the indigenous melodies and grooves that are so prominent on your first CD and are even more so this time around. I've done some work with an artist from L.A. named David Ruis and he's dubbed his style "Indigica" just to explain the relationship of his use of different cultures' native instruments and his use of the Mac and loops and modern electronic elements.Your style seems to be very much like this, would you say it is due in part to the different places you've lived,studied and toured?and is it a more conscious effort or something that just comes through?

Matt: I think it just comes through naturally but is also enhanced by the fact that I have had the opportunity to meet so many incredible and fascinating human beings around the world. I've had some true moments of revelation just driving down a road between villages in India, or watching a traditional dance in a remote town in Sicily, or participating in a jam session in Spain and so on and so forth.

PD: Has your work with (photographer Hajime Watanabe and graphic designer Hitoshi Okazaki) influenced the path of "Shapeshifter" and/or your artistic goals? Again that speaks to me of bringing the ancients to the relevance of today much like playing an Eastern-sounding, symmetric augmented scale with a distorted bass to some killer break beats!

Matt: Great that you should bring that up. I really like what Hajime, Hitoshi and I did together. Hajime had heard my recorded work as well as some live performances and based on that he asked me to put some music together for his website. So the work didn't directly influence Shapeshifter but I guess by watching and listening one can more or less see what I hear when observing the same photos. He showed me the images and I immediately could feel what he was searching for. Hajime's images are absolutely striking as you can see and the way Hitoshi put the whole thing together is just genius.

PD: The last time we talked you had mentioned that you were looking over the "Thesaurus of Scales and Patterns" by Slonimsky and that some of that would probably find its way onto your next recording. Did it? Are you still working from some of that material?

Matt: I've actually developed a few tunes strictly based on some of those scales but they didn't quite fit in the context of this current recording, and believe me I tried to squeeze that information in, but it felt a bit out of place. More coming soon though...

PD: Your approach to chording on "Shapeshifter" is a lot more intense. You had mentioned that you approached your voicings from a pianistic perspective and your chording work on the first CD was great but on the new CD and on the DVD it seems to flow in and out of your lines a lot more freely. Have you been spending more time on incorporating this into your playing?

Matt: Not in particular. It's probably just grown on me and I can now comfortably execute certain ideas a bit more fluidly. Concerning fluidity - to be honest I felt a bit more sloppy on this recording regardless of whether I've grown as a musician or not. I used to be so fixated on tone, and technical precision and on the first recording I focused on doing solos just right. On this recording I just wanted to let go a bit. I did several takes on solos but usually settled on one and just left it without thinking about it so much. I had taken so much time tweaking effects, chopping audio, positioning instruments in the stereo field, arranging, editing etc, that by the time it came to just play I just wanted to get it done as quickly as possible. I like the looseness though. It helps the music breath more...

PD: On to gear now!! According to the Fodera site, your signature Fodera has switched to a 33" scale (much like Anthony Jackson going back to 34" from 36"). Are you finding this has helped tonally and/or physically? And what prompted that?

Matt: Yeah I switched to a 33" inch shortly before finishing my first recording and managed to get it on a couple of tunes. I never even used the 34" on "Shapeshifter". I'm totally in tune with my newer bass now and it just feels right in every way. Smaller body, less weight, always the latest Pope-Fodera electronics, shorter scale so I don't have to reach hard for my lowest note, deeper cutaway for the highest notes. The bass is totally tweaked and monstrous to play! I decided to go for a smaller bass because I'm a small guy!

PD: Visible on the DVD are your Epifani cabinets and pre-amp (and a nice U5, a personal fave). Obviously things are still sounding great on that front. Is the new Ultralight amp series one to watch for?

Matt: Nick's cabinets served a dual purpose during the taping. Of course I used the 2 x 12" as my main cabinet, more than enough push to fill the whole room, but we took it a step further. We actually also setup 4 additional single 12" cabinets around the room through which my bass and the computer generated music was amplified to create a quadrophonic stereo mix. Warren Brown, my good friend and a fantastic engineer, and I have been working on this setup for almost 2 years and we've finally come up with some killin' solutions to presenting all of my performances in the same manner. With the help of Epifani's speakers I can now basically surround my audiences with massive music and bass tone. Also the music doesn't just sit there. I mixed all tracks to move around the room and my bass is also moved by either myself or Warren during the unfolding of a performance. Lots of fun. Epifani's new amp was just the icing on the cake that day. I had the opportunity to test several amplifier and speaker combinations in the weeks leading to the video shoot and I can simply say that the amps are the best sounding pieces of gear I've ever worked with. I'll be honoured to add them to my live and studio arsenal and never have to deal with any other amp again! Simply the best... I'm getting my first official one this October and the wait is just killing me!!!

PD: What are your thoughts on modern trends in bass gear? Amps, cabs, effects, etc...? Are people a little too market/ad driven to buy the latest greatest "studio" gear? Are too many bassists playing in their rooms to not realize what works live? Why do cheap amps have a dozen "features" whereas the great amps seem to keep it clean and simple?

Matt: I'm not sure what the trends are. I've always kind of stuck close to a few folks that I really trusted concerning these topics and I never really got too absorbed in understanding what makes a good amp a good amp. I can tell you what I think sucks based on my experiences as a traveling musician, but that might be a bit cruel.

PD: Back to "Shapeshifter", has your home recording set-up changed since doing your first CD? What platform are you using and do you have any great studio goodies that made recording the latest CD a blast?

Matt: I've minimized my studio and went deeper into the software aspect of recording. Still using one mic for everything, a basic Mackie board for routing analog to a MOTU 828, and added a Logic Control surface. The two pieces of software that literally changed the face of the Live DVD as well as "Shapeshifter" are Live (Ableton), and Reaktor (Native Instruments). Both helped me basically redesign the sound of what I had already recorded. Absolutely fantastic experience to dig into the mysteries of what both programs can do.

PD: About the DVD "Matt Garrison Live". Where did the idea come from to put it out as opposed to a strictly instructional DVD?

Matt: I kind of have a hunch that those who watch the DVD that aren't familiar with my work or haven't seen me in performance will have a curiosity spike. At that point, after the performance DVD is in circulation for some time, I'll release the bass techniques book/DVD, and shortly thereafter a harmony book/DVD. The first of the two education oriented projects, the techniques book, is completed but it must be video taped. That is highly dependent on sales of these 2 current projects "Shapeshifter" and "Matt Garrison Live". If enough resources flow back in I can get right to those projects. So all readers interested in seeing all future projects of mine, please take the time to invest in my company rather than copy and share what I make. It's of the utmost importance when dealing with small record labels such as mine (GJP - GarrisonJazz Productions).

PD: For those who haven't seen it yet, where and when was it recorded?

Matt: In NYC at a studio that I don't want to publicize because they pulled my leg a bit. It was recorded Sunday, December 7th, 2003.

PD: Was the Future2Future recording a bit of an insight into the possibility and feasibility of making it?

Matt: Definitely! After seeing the results of Herbie's DVD I figured why shouldn't I give it a run? Perhaps the presentation isn't as good as Herbie's but we really did the best we could within the financial limitations we had. A huge thank you goes to Carolina Saavedra, Pete Teresi and their crew as well as all engineers and technicians involved in the project. They made the dream come true. Carolina is so detailed, persistent and driven that anyone who works with her knows that they are in the hands of true genius! Her production company is Pefaur Productions and anyone looking to make a DVD of this calibre should certainly give a her a visit - Warren Brown was also instrumental in making the DVD and the new CD. A big thank you goes to him for his patience, expertise and passion for these projects.

PD: Would you mind letting everyone know a little about some of the players involved with the "Matt Garrison Live" DVD?

Matt: Well, it was my absolute honour to have all of these folks involved. If I had more funding I would have included more folks! I tried recording with them before on different occasions at different locations around NY but every recording just didn't cut it sonically. I had a trio with Jojo Mayer and Adam Rogers; a quartet with Gene Lake, Jim Beard and Arto Tuncboyacian; another quartet with David Binney, Jojo Mayer, and Adam Rogers; another one that included Sabina Sciubba but never all together which I was hoping to do at some point. I also never really had the opportunity to play live with Scott Kinsey so it was absolutely fantastic to work with him. Thanks to Warren Brown, Pete Teresi, Carolina Saavedra, and Kenny Dykstra the opportunity finally presented itself. Now, being a band of basically all leaders and top call sideman, you can imagine what fun it was to get all of these folks in one room together all at the same time! All I can say about those musicians is that they gave me the greatest joy in the world by bringing their talent, genius and love for music to that recording session. It's one for the books!

PD: How was the experience for you? Are there any more in the plans?

Matt: It was stressful but also absolutely mind boggling to see how it all fell into place. I had no idea of the amount of work that had to go into the video production portion of the shoot. Really amazing to just walk into the studio and onto a mini movie set. And once again Carolina Saavedra proved her worth in the video editing session. Absolutely incredible to watch her create the layout of the video from start to finish. I will begin some time early next year to put together a second DVD. I've thought of potentially recording it at Prince's Paisley Park Studios, which is tied into my recent visit there with Wallace Roney and Geri Allen.

PD: Now after doing both CDs and a DVD on your own, what's your take on the "Majors"? If it meant a bigger recording/promotional budget would you like to eventually sign with a major label? Has there been any talk of that already?

Matt: I think I may still be in the same spot. I know what this material is worth and I'll never accept any less than what my calculator tells me!

Anyway, the folks in most of those companies have already overlooked me so many times on so many different occasions that I feel insulted by now and wouldn't enjoy the experience of working with them after all. They're also not very nice and tend to want to control people which is something that I really don't take well to. I'm rebellious by nature, and I don't like having a boss. I prefer being my own or sharing ideas with someone that feels the same. I'm also not that much of an egomaniac that I need my picture plastered everywhere at the expense of the value of the music. I want the music and my projects to speak for themselves. I like to trust my customers and know that they will see me through. I want these projects to be built off of the passion and desires of folks just wanting to do things differently. We can't fall into complacency especially when the option to help create something new and exciting is ultimately at all of our fingertips. I for one am taking the risk. If I'm wrong I can only be proven wrong by my fans, friends and customers. It's up to us...

PD: On the topic of recording, so who were you just recording with at Paisley Park? That seems like a sweet gig.

Matt: I can't get into too many details because I was made to sign a non-disclosure agreement but it was fantastic!!!

PD: Do you see any common areas of playing that is lacking in students who come to you or the other faculty at the Collective? What two things, or more, do you like to stress above all else to your students?

Matt: For the most part people that come to me are quite serious about what they're doing, but every once in a while I'll get the occasional young buck who would rather bypass the whole "music thing" and get straight to the chops! That's when I pull out my grave and sombre look and explain what I really do.

I usually don't see them again...

I like to tell students to basically make a clear decision as to what you feel like your destiny is. If you're going to play music professionally you've got to be ready for some serious commitment and you must practice as much as possible. Practice what? Everything and anything that you enjoy about music. Dig into it. Feel it. Taste it. Examine it from every angle and then do everything backwards! Making and learning about music is the deepest, most satisfying experience I've ever had in my life and that's what I want folks to know, feel and attempt. If you want it to be a hobby that's just as fine, just enjoy it through and through.

PD: Further from playing, what are the things that make Matt Garrison content? On "Shapeshifter" there is a tune called "Changing Paths" on which you play guitar. Is there more to that? Did the McLaughlin touring wear off that much on you?

Matt: Actually I wanted Adam Rogers or Gregoire Maret to play something on that tune but the timing didn't work. The next idea was to get a an acoustic bass guitar but that didn't work out either. Couldn't find one that sounded good enough. I had just bought a small acoustic guitar just to play additional melody parts with and one day it kept staring at me while I was listening to that tune trying to figure what do. That little guitar got the better of me...

PD: Aside from the promotion of "Shapeshifter" and "Matt Garrison Live", is there anything on the horizon that we should be watching for?

Matt: I'll finally begin touring with my band, which will have several configurations going from duo to quartet. That will be announced soon. Most of the touring will be in Europe and some in Japan. Nothing scheduled for the US as of yet. There's certainly not a lack of interest from folks out there. It's the booking agents and promoters that I just can't seem to convince! So sorry folks... as long as promoters in your town don't book me I'll never make it out. That's why I've resorted to making DVD's from now on. I'll just bypass the whole system and bring a live show to people's homes instead.

I'm also looking forward to shooting my next DVD that will be much more electronic and experimental. The band will also be smaller. I'll have a multi instrumentalist trio and I'll also set up some solo spots. That DVD will be in 5.1 surround sound.

The 2 instructional projects are high on my agenda as well. Everything has to fall into place first.

I have some more things in the works and I'll post all of it in my FUTURE section at

PD: Thanks again Matt for taking the time to share your thoughts and insights about life and all that is bass. All the best with the new projects and much success!

Matt: Thank you. It's always an honour and a pleasure to work with you Pete, and thank you for helping me spread the message through such a fantastic web site as ActiveBass.

Photo Credits: Veronika Garrison