Track by Track: Janek Gwizdala Talks “Theatre by the Sea”
Janek Gwizdala is staying ahead of his goal of putting out an album every year with the release of Theatre by the Sea. His third record in 18 months, the album features nine tracks of the bassist’s own compositions and lush arrangements performed by a host of heavyweight musicians including Peter Erskine, Mike Stern, Randy Brecker and more.
Gwizdala wrote melodies by imagining them with a specific musician’s talent, which brings a solidarity to each track and the album as a whole.
“There’s a really great upside where you get a personal performance of something that you really intended for a specific person,” he explained, “but if that person can’t make it, that’s the one downside of writing strictly for each individual musician.”
Besides his musical compatriots, he drew inspiration from his life and one of his favorite hobbies: magic.
“Theatre by the Sea is where I got married. It’s literally a little, tiny theatre by the sea in Rhode Island, and that’s where my wife first went to acting classes when she was three or four years old. That’s where we had the reception for our wedding, and that’s what inspired the title.”
“I’m big time into magic, and that’s where a lot of the stuff for this album came from,” he continued. “It was touring with Jojo Mayer the drummer, who is a master magician, that really got me into that. I’m a total geek when it comes down to it, and I like playing cards.”
Theatre by the Sea is available now on iTunes and Bandcamp, where you can name your own price for it – even free – which the bassist gladly offers. “To me, it’s more important that the music be heard than to sit there gathering virtual dust.”
Track 1: Erdnase
I’m not sure that anyone is really sure how to pronounce that, whether it’s “Erd-nase” or “Erd-nass”. It’s kind of a made up name of a guy who wrote a book called “The Expert at the Card Table.” I’m really into magic and sleight of hand and things like that, so there are a lot of magic themes in this record. Erdnase kind of literally wrote the book on how to cheat at the card table and how to manipulate cards. Nobody really knows who he is. There’s a Wikipedia page for him and lots of people have lots of different theories. I have a copy of the book that’s a small pocketbook, and I carry it everywhere.
In writing that tune, I wanted something that was really intimate and not the full-blown, huge production like on some of these tracks with all the extra parts. It’s really just me playing the melody, which is the only time I do that on the entire record, and Lizzy Loeb singing as well. I thought the bass and the vocal was just a great combination. It’s actually not the most simple thing in the world because it’s 7-7-15 in the form in terms of the bars, but I wanted to write something that was melodic and didn’t make you feel uncomfortable in terms of the form being odd.
I came up with the melody first, and that dictated the form. I don’t sit around thinking, “Oh, I want to write a tune that has 7 bars in the A section and 15 bars in the B section.” It was the chord changes and the melody coming together. I thought it was a cool track to open with and get people’s feet wet in terms of what the rest of the album is all about.
Track 2: España
It’s what the Spanish call Spain. There’s a Mexican rock band called Mana, and they are the most successful, selling-est Spanish-speaking band of all time with probably eighty or ninety million records sold or something. These guys all came to the 55 Bar in New York to check out a Mike Stern gig I was doing. I met them afterwards, and we’ve been really close friends ever since. I wanted to use Sergio, the guitar player, because he has an amazing nylon-string guitar sound. Between Lizzy’s influence of being half Spanish and living half the year in Spain and Sergio on the album, that’s kind of where that tune came from.
Track 3: Portugal
This one is a sadder story, even though it’s quite a happy tune. I had some very bad news that a Portuguese piano player friend of mine, Bernardo Sassetti, had passed away. It was very tragic; He fell off a cliff while taking photographs. He was very young and had a family. It was really sad. I just stopped what I was doing, and this song came to me. He was a really happy person, as well, so I wanted to write something like that that was bright and upbeat and happy.
Mike Stern is one of the most warming, happy, and positive people I know, so immediately his voice on the guitar came to me like, “Okay, I want to write this for Mike.” And again, I thought it would be a great combination with Lizzy with the vocals.
Track 4: Randroid
Randy [Brecker] has this alter ego called the “Randroid” where he kind of half sings, half raps on some of his records. I’ve done a lot of touring with Randy over the years, and I’ve been a part of Randy Brecker and I’ve been a part of the Randroid Experience. Because I’ve been playing with Randy quite a bit over the past year, I wanted to write something for him. I wanted to include him on this project, and “Randroid” is what came out.
Track 5: Once I Knew
It’s the longest track on the record, but not intentionally. Again, this was the melody dictating the tune. I kept it really, really simple and not too complex. I could have gone a million different places with it, but I decided to stay fairly diatonic throughout the composition process with that one. What I really wanted to capture to open that tune was something that Stern does on every show before he plays a ballad. He plays these beautiful chords and then melodic swells over top of it. I’ve never heard him do that on a record before, so I really wanted to capture that. I thought between him and Bob Franceschini, who is one of the great ballad players, it was a perfect combination of melodicists to work on the tune with me.
Track 6: Fooling Houdini
There’s a fantastic magician and now author by the name of Alex Stone and he wrote an amazing book called “Fooling Houdini”. I wrote this tune with that in mind. I wanted this big, rich brass sound to play the melody, and the combination of bass trumpet and Elliot Mason is fairly incredible. I like to work with a lot of the same guys, but the albums have all been really different. It’s a great challenge to write different music and have different sounds using similar guys.
Track 7: Theatre by the Sea
It’s the title track, but it ends up being the shortest track on the album. It was more of a melody thing for me than it was about soloing and arranging all this stuff. It kind of started the entire process of the album.
Track 8: The Goshman
There was a sleight of hand master named Albert Goshman. There’s a move called the “Goshman Pinch” and it took me about six months to do, just working on it every single day until it was flawless. It’s something I still have to practice today, just as much as the bass. Goshman is really complicated, and as an anti-complication song I wrote one of the simplest tunes I’ve ever written to put on the record.
Track 9: The Chicago Opener
There’s a magic trick that has two names. First is “The Chicago Opener”, named after a magician from Chicago that would use it to open his routine, and the other name is “Red Hot Mama”. And I kind of didn’t think my wife would be too cool with “Red Hot Mama” begin on the record. So I kind of went with the irony of “The Opener” being the closer.
Also, it’s maybe a look into what I’ll be doing next on the next album. All of my records have been quite a departure from one to the next and I think I still have a few more things to say in this vein. I have a few more melodies and a few more ideas with these similar musicians, so I might put out a “Theatre by the Sea Part 2” or something, though I wouldn’t call it that. It might just be an extension of this rather than a complete left turn.