Vail Johnson

Long-time Kenny G bottom man tells FBPO his story about being a sideman, as well as a dynamic and energetic leader

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
August 3, 2009

Vail Johnson has been making his living as a bass player since graduating from high school in Seattle in the late ’70s.  After developing his chops doing tons of club dates (ten years worth at five nights a week), Vail moved to LA and began a long career with Kenny G.  He has also performed with Herbie Hancock, Stevie Nicks and many other high profile musicians.  Vail has just released his fourth solo CD, “Come Together,” a collection of Beatles tunes.

FBPO: You’ve been with Kenny G for quite some time now.  How did you get the gig and how long have you had it?

VJ: I’ve been playing with Kenny since June of 1986. The Playboy Jazz festival was my first gig with him. We just played that gig last month, marking 23 years with The G man. I met Kenny’s percussionist, Tony Gable, in early 1986 while putting together a pop project called “Boy Next Door.” Tony is also a graphic designer, so I enlisted his services to design a logo for the project. He came to see me play at a blues bar in Seattle and mentioned me to Kenny. Kenny came down to that same place and afterwards asked me to do some sessions for him. That led to an invitation to join the band — after ten solid years of clubs and Holiday Inns! It goes to show, never give up and always do your best; you never know who’s listening!

FBPO: How would you describe the music?  Is it sort of smooth jazz with some funk and pop, and maybe a little R&B?  Do you ever get to play any…you know … “real jazz” on the gig?  

VJ: Kenny has always described his music as R&B instrumental. My music is more funk-oriented, but R&B is the main category, I think. We play some great latin music in the set now. In fact, the latest CD is all latin music. We used to do stuff like ’Round Midnight off the “Classics in the Key of G” CD. I learned to play upright bass during that period.

FBPO: How far did you go with the upright? Do you ever play it any more?

VJ: I played it for only one year and became tired of the effect it had on my electric playing. It made the electric feel too sensitive and ‘small’ and since the electric is how I make my living, I gave up on the upright.

FBPO: Kenny seems to like to feature you a lot, allowing you to take lots of solos.  That must be a lot of fun for you.

VJ: Kenny always supports the band doing their “thing.” He is very “hands-off” with regard to the actual playing. His approach is one that leads him to choose players that already play what he likes. That way, he can just let them play, rather than trying to direct them in any particular direction. There are rare occasions where he offers suggestions, but he really trusts his musicians to do their jobs. We are basically “self-policed.” There’s no strict music director, either. We all work together naturally and have a great sense of collaboration. I usually give cues to the band during performances, as most of the solo sections are open.

FBPO: What else have you done musically that people may not know?

VJ: I played a summer tour with Herbie Hancock. I’ve also played with Whitney Houston, Paula Abdul, Stevie Nicks, etc., etc. — CDs and albums. I’m really a rock player that got type-cast in the R&B genre. I’d love to do a high energy rock tour!

FBPO: Tell me about Come Together.  Where did the concept come from?

VJ: This was actually Kenny’s idea. I was searching for a direction for my next solo CD and he said that he thought I would sound good doing something like Eleanor Rigby on bass. It morphed into an all Beatles CD after a while. The Beatles were my first major musical influence, so it was an absolute pleasure to record the music. The toughest part was paring it down to 12 songs. There were way too many great songs to choose from!

FBPO: How about your other recordings?

VJ: The first 3 solo CDs were mainly funk/R&B instrumental, though I did a few vocal tunes, as well. Most of the emphasis was on just having fun and “blowing.” Come Together was recorded with a commercial use in mind.

FBPO: How about your new website? What’s that all about?

VJ: The site is called I created it in response to the demand for sessions where the client is far away, sometimes even overseas. Producers, musicians… really anyone with a computer DAW-based (digital audio workstation) recording system can send me a mix of their song (without bass, of course!) and I will craft a bass track to fit their needs. Afterwards, I’ll send it back to them over the Internet or on a CD. It will be the same high quality audio as if recorded in a great big studio with Pro Tools HD, only cheaper because I can do it at my home studio or even on the road, as long as I bring a portable Pro Tools rig with me. Ahh, the beauty of the Digital World!

FBPO: What do you like to do that’s not necessarily musically-oriented?

VJ: I am a motorcycle enthusiast/addict of the highest order. I used to be involved in a variety of athletic endeavors until my knees, hip and back finally complained too much! Basketball, football, wrestling, bicycle racing, track & field and lacrosse have all taken their toll with numerous injuries. I am lucky to have a day where I can just walk half normally. Oh well, it was fun for a very long time! Clearly, I should have taken up golf twenty years ago! I play chess every chance I get, online, if I can’t get a live opponent.

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