Scott Henderson & Tribal Tech: Notes from the Underground

Roughly 15 years ago, just as the jazz ethos was changing the guard and deeming electric instruments marginal or verboten, the decidedly plugged-in guitarist Scott Henderson got together with virtuosic bassist Gary Willis, fresh in town from Texas. The mission: create a new kind of fusion unit, bowing to the deeply embedded influence of Weather Report, while also bowing to Henderson's direct, affective link to his rock roots.

Heading up the aptly named Tribal Tech, they were men with chops, and men out of time, and proud of it. They made a big, intricate sound in small venues, like the modest-yet-historic, defunct jazz club Donte’s, in the world-famous San Fernando Valley, made famous by Frank Zappa’s hit, and, out Burbank way, the breeding ground of Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. The neighborhood is fitting: somewhere between Zappa, Looney Tunes, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Joe Zawinul, Tribal Tech carved out its own little niche in the jazz world. You don’t hear them on the radio, and many jazz critics tend to look the other way, but the band has made it the old-fashioned way: with obstinacy, humor, and an independence born of outsider status.

Cut to 1999, and Tribal Tech, commandeered by Henderson and Willis, along with longtime bandmates, drummer Kirk Covington and keyboardist Scott Kinsey, are hitting the road again, promoting their latest recording, Thick (Zebra). Number nine in the discography, it’s among their best work, and certainly the loosest. Where is it written that “fusion” can’t spring from an improvisational place, without losing either the sturdy groove ethic, jazz instincts, or a love of the funny sounds produced by electronic gadgets?

In its own small way, Thick is one of the year’s more revelatory recordings, in that it dares suggest that the hard-to-define realm of fusion still has creative life surging through its veins, and that a band can survive for years on end, without the help of the usual media support structure.

“I used to think it was bad that we’re an underground band and all that,” Henderson says, “but the truth is that I see what’s going on with shred music versus grunge and all this shit, and how some music is popular this year compared to other years. We’ve been lucky: we’ve been going for fifteen years and we’ve never been popular,” he laughs. “We don’t have to worry about any kind of fad or trends. It’s been the same for us all the time, and it’s gotten a lot better. I feel like this is a dream, to do your own music all over the world.” Willis adds, “if for no other reason, because we get to play what we want to play.”

The latest chapter for the band, which hasn’t had an album out since 1995’s Reality Check, began last summer. The band hunkered down in the in-house studio at the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood, where Henderson and Willis have taught for years. Unlike with previous Tribal Tech albums, chock full of tricky turns, fancy unison lines, and compositions by Henderson and Willis that tended to be elaborate, computer-generated musical schemes, freedom was the operative word this time around. In two days, they had the album finished, with only editing and minor overdubs to add later.

Willis explains that the band “had done eight records with this attitude of ‘OK, you write in your room and I’ll write in mine, and we’ll get together and rehearse the stuff.’ That seemed to wear thin after awhile. We started running into a brick wall, maybe four or five years ago, thinking ‘We’ve got to be able to do something else.'”

When the band got into the studio, they “didn’t talk or have any pre-written music,” Henderson says. “We tried that approach once, and it didn't work, because we were set up in a weird way.” The second time was a charm, and the interactive, improvisational juices flowed. Basically, the process was the realization of an idea that had long been brewing in the band, and that showed up in small pieces on previous Tribal Tech albums. The jam factor has always been a common denominator. As Willis says, “I learned how to jam before I learned how to play jazz or anything else.”

Henderson comments, “This band has been together for eight years now, and we’ve played together so much that jamming is just sort of second nature for us. But it has to be in the right environment. You have to really be able to hear each other very well.”

He points around the practice room, “A room like this is great, but unfortunately, you get onstage sometimes and it’s boomy and you can’t really hear. When we play stages where it’s not the best for jamming, we just play our tunes, but if we get in a club where there's a really nice, dry stage and we can hear each other, we might jam who knows how much?

“Generally, when we do this,” Henderson notes, “whoever starts it, the rest of us are right there. That’s my favorite moment of doing this. When somebody says ‘launch,’ we’re ready to start a jam. We don't know who's going to start it—it’s usually Kinsey. You hear that first note or a riff, and you have no idea what’s going to happen. You might get a rhythm, and then your whole mindset has to immediately go there. What sounds am I going to use, how am I going to play to what he just did? The whole thing starts from there.

“Sometimes it stays there, and sometimes it goes far away from where it started. We did this gig in New York where we started out with this real jazzy kind of swing thing. I don’t know how, but five minutes later, we were playing power chords and Covington was yelling out ‘God save the queen,’ like the Sex Pistols. Things can really depart from where they start.”

Convington breaks in: “Who’s that guy who did the weird standards record, Django Bates? We've been doing things like that for a long time. We’ll do some Frank Sinatra a la death metal, in a jam.” Gonzo comics or post-modernist envelope-pushers? You decide.

This spring, the band convened in the Valley Center, a popular rehearsal space compound, to basically learn the album before going out on tour. Brought together in a practice room, the band’s special combination of seriousness and rock-like pranksterism emerges. Song titles like “Party at Kinsey’s,” “Sheik of Encino,” and “Clinic Troll”— a satire of the music clinic world—tip us off to a certain smart-alecky humor in the band. Astute (or spaced-out) listeners will notice the hidden track, one minute after the last track listed: dubbed “The Moons of Parthesius,” it's a hilarious parody of sententious art rock, replete with Keith Emersonian glissandi and wanky, feckless guitar noodling.

Kinsey reports, “Scott’s really a master at bad guitar.” Covington chimes in, “And I’m a master of bad fills.”

“It’s just a bad jam that got even worse,” Henderson explains. “You know, when you’re jamming in a club, or especially in a rehearsal, someone does something that everyone else thinks is dumb and it kind of ruins the jam. Then you figure, well, let’s just make it dumber, as dumb as we can. That’s something that we have to be kind of careful about, because we're all pretty much into comedy.”

In a sense, Tribal Tech can afford to be cocky and comical, because they lord over a genre of which they are both kings and subjects. Beneath the antics, though, are musicians with something serious to say, and formidable technical prowess.

Each player in the foursome holds his own. Willis has been widely hailed as one of the last great heroes on the electric fretless bass, extending the Jaco Pastorius legacy with ideas all his own: a snippet of his muscular virtuosity can be heard on “Slick,” from the new album. Henderson has been a staple of the versatile, jazz-rock-blues guitar scene, as a player, teacher, and composer, for nearly 20 years. After moving to Los Angeles from his native south Florida, he joined Chick Corea’s first Elektric Band, and played with Jean-Luc Ponty, and on a recent trio recording with Steve Smith and Victor Wooten. Covington, a legend-in-the-making, met Willis while both were at North Texas State and joined Tribal Tech in 1991, at the same time as Kinsey. For his part, Kinsey is one of the more intriguing and underrated of synthesists around, who recently worked with Kurt Rosenwinkel and on Tim Hagans' electro-acoustic be-hop record, Imagination/Animation.

The link to Weather Report continues, in their loose, organically experimental approach to keyboard timbres, their improvisational moxie, and subtle sense of harmonic motion. There have been close encounters of the bondmate kind, too: Henderson played with an early incarnation of Zawinul’s post-Report aggregate; Willis played with Wayne Shorter’s first band as a leader after the band’s demise; Covington did a tour last year with the Zawinul Syndicate; and Kinsey’s style shows an obvious kindred spirit with the Zawinul touch.

Thick’s creative agenda may be the beginning of a series of albums created on the fly, and polished later. Willis feels that “it just boils down to the idea that the less you write, the more the personality of the band comes out. In the beginning, we didn’t have any consistent kind of band members, on the first records. So we kind of hid behind the writing. The personality didn’t really come out.”

“Especially mine,” Henderson adds, “because I’m a rocker. It was strange that, when I finally got signed to a record deal, I was in a jazz group. We were really trying to do jazz. I felt that I really wrote myself out of the picture in terms of what I really do, which is to rock. I really like to rock out. You can hear how the real me is coming out more lately, because we’re just playing.

Before, it was just a matter of nailing the parts, and then you’d get some soloing over changes. Itwas very structured, so you didn’t get personalities from the players as much as you do a personality from the composer.”

Ensemble personality is something that drips off of the new album, and it relates back to the urge to whip something up out of thin air, a concept out of a modal jam. Henderson comments, “Wayne Shorter was saying something in an article that really struck me, that ‘with the greatest freedom comes the greatest responsibility.’ If that isn’t the truest statement. When you’re playing written tunes, it’s real easy to go on auto-pilot. But when you’re jamming, you realize that every single note you play could ruin this thing. What you’re playing is going to affect everybody’s vibe and they you. You feel like you’re on the wire every single minute, with every note you play.”

Gear Box

Scott Henderson:

Axe: Suhr “Scott Henderson model” guitar

Amp: Custom Audio foot controller

Strings: D’Addario

Gary Willis:

Axe: Ibanez Willis signature fretless

Amp: Eden WT 800 head with 410XLT and 210XLT cabinets

Effects: Lexicon MPX1 with R1 foot controller

Listening Pleasures

Scott Henderson:

Jeff Beck Who Else! (Epic)

Albert King The Ultimate Collection (Rhino)

Gary Willis:

Parliament Greatest Hits (Polygram)

Herbie Hancock The New Standard (Verve)

Originally published in July/August 1999

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