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Janek Gwizdala

The boss of the bass guitar

It was an illicit Sunday lunchtime visit to a pub in Croydon that changed Janek Gwizdala’s life. He was only sixteen but the idea of seeing one of his favourite drummers, Ian Thomas, at close quarters appealed to Gwizdala, who at the time was a promising young drummer himself.

Within a few minutes of the band starting up, however, Gwizdala was having other ideas. Drumming was out. The place in the British kayaking team that he’d trained so hard and travelled so widely to maintain was about to be jettisoned, and the dedication that would see Gwizdala become the bass guitar hero of our times was about to begin.

The next day, he went out and bought a bass. A couple of weeks later he went on the Wavendon Summer School, run by Sir John Dankworth and Dame Cleo Laine at their Northampton home-cum-arts centre, and a couple of weeks after that he was playing his first gig on bass, in a wine cellar at London Bridge, on his way to acquiring a CV that includes work with Brazilian superstars Airto Moreira & Flora Purim, jazz guitarists Mike Stern and Pat Metheny, and Steve Winwood, to name but a few.

“And it’s all Laurence Cottle’s fault,” laughs Gwizdala down the line from Los Angeles as he prepares for the tour that brings him to Edinburgh and Glasgow this week. “I loved Ian Thomas’s drumming but I watched and listened to Laurence playing the bass guitar and quite apart from the amazing things he played, he seemed to be having so much fun. Looking back, it seemed like he and Ian were speaking to each other without actually talking. I thought: so, these guys get to do this every day? Wow. I wanna do that.”

It turned out that Cottle, who numbers Eric Clapton, Sting and Glasgow’s own jazz guitar great Jim Mullen as past clients, lived round the corner from Gwizdala, who grew up in Mitcham, Surrey. He refused to give the youngster lessons but let him accompany him to all his gigs for the next two years before Gwizdala enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music.

Having been home schooled by his mother – his father’s family are Polish, hence the Polish name – Gwizdala didn’t quite fit into an educational institution, although part-time lessons at Merton Music Foundation had given him a solid grounding in classical guitar and led to him playing piano in the big band as well as playing drums. He lasted a year at RAM and then having passed the Berklee School of Music in Boston’s European auditions, he lasted three terms there before deciding that he really wanted to be in New York.

“I arrived just before 9/11 and after that, a hard place to establish yourself became even tougher with a lot of clubs closing down,” he says. “But there’s no doubt the New York environment makes you work harder at your art, even if it can be character building just to survive.”

He did more than survive. He’s had umpteen offers of work from the rock business but he keeps busy with his own projects and getting calls from jazz players such as the aforementioned Stern and saxophonist Bob Reynolds, a friend from Berklee days, who returns the compliment of Gwizdala working on his albums by joining the band Gwizdala brings to Scotland. The band also includes Gary Husband, well known as a drummer with Jack Bruce and Allan Holdsworth but featuring here on keyboards, which he plays equally well, and another Merton connection in young drummer Louie Palmer.

“I don’t know if Louie’s played much in Scotland but he’s hot,” says Gwizdala. “In fact, when he arrived at Merton Music Foundation he could already play brilliantly and he was about ten at the time. The rest of us will probably end up hating him because he makes us feel old. But you guys will love him. He’s seriously worth coming to hear just by himself.”

From The Herald, March 29, 2012.

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