CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Michael Janisch on Composing Bassists

How the bassist avoids the perils of “overshowing”

Michael Janisch
Michael Janisch (photo: Carl Hyde)

When a bassist is also a bandleader, the results can be a mixed bag. Overzealous solos, too many overdubs, too much bass in general: it’s a fine line between virtuosity and laying it on too thick. Michael Janisch, an American bassist/composer based in London, is aware of the clichés in his lane—and he’s committed to swerving around them.

“Playing with people, [bass players] might get one solo,” he says. “But when it comes to their album, there are five multi-layered basses on one track. And then they take the first solo—and the last solo—and it’s way overkill.” In contrast, “I almost have fewer solos on my own records.”

To refrain from “overshowing the bass,” Janisch often begins writing his compositions for ensemble albums on piano or synthesizer, as he did for 2010’s Purpose Built, 2014’s First Meeting: Live in London Vol. 1, and 2019’s Worlds Collide.

“If you always just [write] from the bassline, I think that starts being obvious when you hear the composition. It’s like, ‘Okay, the bassline starts the tune,’” he says. “Bass-player albums can be a little predictable.”

When Janisch, 41, writes on bass, he toggles between methods to unlock the hidden ideas in each. He plays both bowed and pizzicato upright, and when plugged in, he uses a delay pedal to evoke the sound of a human voice. Often, though, he puts down the bass. “Sometimes it’s inspiring to hear the [Sequential Circuits] Prophet keyboard,” he says. “That sound might draw some melody out of me that I wouldn’t have heard [otherwise].”

He records his compositions with Pro Tools at his London home and brings the demos to his band—which, as of Worlds Collide, includes trumpeter Jason Palmer, alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher, guitarist Rez Abbasi, and drummer Clarence Penn. For especially difficult sections, he often makes a 20-minute loop. This is because, Janisch says, most jazz players thrive on being given clear, unambiguous direction.

“When you’re playing with an orchestra, you don’t have a choice. You have to play what’s written,” he says. “I come from that background as well.” (Prior to making solo records, he played with the TransAtlantic Collective, which featured alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius, trumpeter Quentin Collins, and other heavy hitters.)

While Janisch calls himself “a meticulous prep guy” and “a stickler on the details,” he’s far from opposed to experimentation and happy accidents. His 2015 album Paradigm Shift was stitched together from sessions of warped improvisation. “I played from sun up to sun down [for three days] and I recorded everything,” he says. “The stuff where I ended up really pushing it is the stuff I ended up keeping.” He notes that the results, loosely organized into four movements, are “pretty out there.”

Ultimately, Janisch frees his records from slavish devotion to bass by treating it as just another instrument in the band—not the main attraction. “Sometimes I don’t even write a bassline,” he says. “I just know what the progression is and the bassline changes every night.”

Despite his frequent gripes with bass-centric music, Janisch is quick to sing the praises of bassist/composers like Meshell Ndegeocello, who fuses jazz with hip-hop, soul, and funk. “I think she inspired an entire generation with her first five albums [spanning 1993’s Plantation Lullabies to 2003’s Comfort Woman],” he marvels. “Her groove is so infectious on top of it.” He also lionizes younger bassists Hadrien Feraud and Matt Brewer, as well as legends like Bootsy Collins and Jaco Pastorius.

Janisch mostly stays plugged into his community via Whirlwind Records, a label he owns and operates with a diverse lineup of signees. Since he quit private teaching, which he did for two decades, the label has been his main source of income. But as much as he finds running Whirlwind fulfilling, he often has to set it aside to function as an artist.

“I can’t sign people as fast as I like,” Janisch says. “I’d be totally happy just running the label, but I’d never touch my instrument. If I don’t at least play my bass a couple of times a day, I feel like there’s a part of me that’s disappeared.”

He may question how some play bass as a lead instrument, but his aim is never to negate that role; Janisch could wax about Ray Brown (“You just smile listening to him walk the bass … like he’s singing a song on a hot summer day”), Larry Grenadier (“A poet on the bass”), and Dave Holland (“A huge influence as a composer”) for hours.

“I’m not really into stylists,” he says by way of clarification. “I appreciate people [who] have added their own big stamp to the canon of jazz language.”

Janisch, too, is committed to defining anew what it means to be a bassist and a composer, which often means playing with a light touch—or not at all. “At some point, you don’t want to just play other people’s stuff. You want to see what you can add to it,” he says. “Some people don’t have that urge. I have that urge more than anything.”