Heavy-hitting electric player recounts his London influences, Berklee and making it in NYC!
Janek Gwizdala grew up in south London before moving to the U.S. to study briefly at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Janek left school and moved to New York, where his musical career took off. He has since performed with some of the most influential names in the international music community, including Mike Stern, Randy Brecker, Airto Moreira, Pat Metheny, Flora Purim, Hiram Bullock, Paul Shaffer, Kenwood Dennard, Marcus Miller, Bob James, Billy Cobham, John Patitucci, Eric Johnson, Bob Mintzer, Terri Lyne Carrington, Arturo Sandoval, Danny Gottlieb, Rick Margitza, Lew Soloff, Jeff Lorber, Steve Winwood and many others. Currently, Janek is musical director and bass player for Capitol recording artist V.V Brown.
FBPO: How would you say growing up in London affected you musically?
JG: I think the biggest thing that affected me musically while growing up was the kind of music my mum was listening to in the house and in the car. I’m not sure that had too much to do with London, but it still had a huge influence on me. My mum was into Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Leonard Cohen and a ton of classical music. I think all that music seeped into my subconscious on a daily basis, despite the fact that I was listening to what was on the radio, which was more in the Michael Jackson and Madonna vein.
FBPO: Tell me about your experience at Berklee College of Music. You weren’t there very long.
JG: I have many good memories of Berklee, despite the short amount of time I attended. The focus of my time there was spent playing and meeting people and I rarely concentrated on the structured class system at all. It was an intense period of practicing and playing as much music as I possibly could at all times.
One of the greatest aspects of having been to Berklee has to be the network. I’m still working with all the cats I went there with and will probably continue to do so for the rest of my life. Everywhere I go in the world, I always meet someone from Berklee. It seems there are always opportunities arising from having been a student there and being a part of the Berklee network.
FBPO: What did you encounter when you first arrived in New York? Was it pretty much what you expected?
JG: Well, I was going to NYC on the weekends while studying at Berklee, so I was already starting to get a feel of what the big city was all about. The time I spent there helped me decide to quit Berklee and move to New York full time. When I arrived, I was 21 years old and I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew there were a lot of opportunities and that it wasn’t going to be an overnight transformation from being a student in Boston to being a working musician in NYC.
FBPO: How long did it take until you felt like you were part of the New York scene?
JG: I think with 9/11 happening a year after I arrived, my situation became fairly unique. I had started to connect with the right people and had landed a gig with an artist on Jive Records, which was going to involve arena tours supporting label mates NSYNC and various other big ventures. We were rehearsing a lot in NYC and playing shows every week for several months leading up the release of the album, which was Tuesday, September 11th. That pretty much canceled everything that was planned with that project. We spent a few more months gigging locally before it finally fell apart.
At that time, clubs were closing and not re-opening, tours and recording sessions were being canceled and artists were not being picked up. I had a lot of time to practice, which was a great thing, and I was fortunate to be involved with a couple of really nice recording projects. Those things not only helped me get by financially, but put me in touch with more influential people in the industry.
It was very apparent when I moved to NYC that the dream of being a sideman with all my heroes was pretty unrealistic and that I was at least twenty years too late to work in the studio. So I bought myself a computer and started teaching myself how to use Logic and how to program, while figuring out how to write songs and produce records. I got a big break when Island recording artist Ronny Jordan had me write and produce some songs for an upcoming release. I had already been hanging at some sessions in NYC, just observing what was going on technically, meeting engineers, asking questions and occasionally playing on a song here and there. So when it came time to write and produce on a major recording project, I had already obtained a fair amount of studio experience and was able to do a good job and be professional.
There were also major holes in my knowledge at that time. By being lucky enough to be in control of a situation like that, I was able to observe everything from the inside and figure out a lot of things about working in a high-pressure studio situation. That experience led to many more recording and producing projects, which put me in a position of being able to hire people for sessions instead of being home wondering when the phone was going to ring for me as a sideman.
Throughout my career, I’ve maintained the production and writing side of things, and working in the studio is something I really love to do. I think it’s important when you move anywhere to create your own scene and try to be a part of your own movement in the art form. I think working as a producer, writer and musical director has given me many more opportunities to meet interesting people than just having a sideman attitude and just playing other people’s music without much creative input. I must also say that that is something quite personal to me and was my chosen path. It’s not right for everyone, and some people are immensely happy working as a sideman and I respect that very much. Some of my favorite musicians in the world are sidemen. They are amazing people and incredible players. I just ended up on a path that works for me where I combine different aspects of the industry to make a living and stay happy.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busy these days? Tell me about your current band.
JG: Lately, I’ve been immersed in the final mix session for my latest album as a leader, scheduled for release on October 26th. I’ve also been on the road non-stop this year as musical director for Capitol recording artist VV Brown. We worked since January for nine months straight with only a few weeks off all year. It’s been all-consuming and a departure from being a bandleader, which was my main focus last year.
I’m really looking forward to touring throughout 2011 again as a bandleader to promote my new album, The Space In Between. The band is basically a core quartet, with Jojo Mayer on drums, Tim Miller on guitar and Audun Waage on trumpet. I’ve also got special guests Mike Stern on guitar, Airto on percussion and vocals, Doug Wamble on guitar and vocals, James Valentine from Maroon 5 on guitar and Bob Reynolds from John Mayer’s band on tenor sax. I’m putting together two touring bands for next year, which will include either Jojo Mayer and Tim Miller, or Clarence Penn and Dave Kikoski, with Audun touring throughout the year with me.
FBPO: You’re fortunate to have traveled all over the world playing music. Any favorite places?
JG: I am a huge fan of Japan and am obsessed with the food there. I’m a sucker for most things European as that’s where I’m from. I would love to have a place in the south of Spain where I can get away from the hustle of Los Angeles and New York from time to time.
FBPO: What can we look forward to seeing from Janek Gwizdala in the future?
JG: I hope I can continue to be an artist, a bandleader and generally an honest musician. I like learning from other people the most, so I’m sure you’re going to find me in many different musical situations, trying to learn as much as I possibly can. I hope my own music and my family can be my focus throughout the rest of my career, and I look forward to bringing live shows to all corners of the world as long as I’m physically able to do so.
FBPO: What do you like to do when you’re not immersed in music?
JG: I like to stay in shape, so I try and work out every day when the schedule allows. I go through periods of playing tennis, which is a badass cardio workout! I recently got my arse handed to me by James Valentine from Maroon 5 when we were on tour together this summer. Warning: Don’t play tennis in Georgia with someone who trains every day when it’s midday and 97 degrees. James is a pretty sick player!
My lady’s dad plays golf close to scratch, so I try and keep up with him on the course whenever we’re in her hometown hanging out. It’s actually really nice to switch off from music from time to time and take a total break. A combination of hanging out with my lady, Japanese food, and Top Gear on BBC America … that’s about as relaxing as it gets for me!
See our follow-up video interview with Janek, too!