Studio Visit appears first in print, in Sunday editions of The News-Gazette. Here, Melissa Merli visits with bassist Larry Gray. In the June 3 newspaper, we'll have a visit with pianist Dan Pierson.
Q: Are you still the first-call studio musician in Chicago for the double bass?
A: That's hard to say these days, but I'm still working a lot in Chicago. There's not the amount of studio work that there used to be. I work at the Jazz Showcase a lot.
Q: Do you play at the Green Mill, too?
A: I just played there two weeks ago with the John Moulder Quintet, with (seven-time Grammy Award-winning drummer) Paul Wertico.
Q: When did you join the University of Illinois music faculty?
A: In 2007.
Q: Are you glad you did?
A: Totally. I love it here. It's great. I've learned a lot, and I enjoy interacting with the students and passing along what I've learned. I really like the environment here.
Q: You have a really interesting musical history. You started playing accordion when you were 5 and then guitar ...
A: Basically I was a guitarist in the early days, after dropping the accordion pretty quickly. I got with the flute in high school in order to legitimize myself and play in ensembles. When I went to school — when I was 20 — that's when I really found my voice with the bass. I also went on to study a lot of piano and cello as well.
Q: You also compose and arrange. Do you do both classical and jazz?
A: I like to think of it as just music. Most of my music involves some aspect of improvisation. I don't write strictly classical pieces.
Q: Are you still playing with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago?
A: Not any longer. The Civic Orchestra was a training ground for the Chicago Symphony, and I subbed a lot with it. The Civic Orchestra was a great place to learn: You worked with the same conductors as did the Chicago Symphony: Georg Solti, Carlo Maria Giulini ... and in sectional bass, I worked with Joseph Guastafeste, the longtime principal bassist of the Chicago Symphony.
Q: Isn't it unusual for someone of your professional caliber to start on your primary instrument when you're 20?
A: I think not as much as you might surmise. I can think of a few (bassist) examples who are quite renowned — Scott LaFaro, Gene Perla. Certainly, my path was a bit unique, especially with the cello. I went back to school and got my bachelor's and master's in performance in cello and gained a lot of experience on that instrument at a really late age. When I got with the bass, I was 20. Within a year, I was working with some big names. That whole period between age 20 and 30, I had good opportunities to play jazz and record. At the same time, I was really immersed in studying.
Q: Who are some of the big names you've played with?
A: I was in Ramsey Lewis' touring group for 11 years, from 1998 to 2010. We were on five continents. I'm still playing with Larry Coryell. I just went with him to Tbilisi in the former Soviet Union — we played at a festival there. Some other notables I've played and toured with are Joe Williams, the jazz singer, and Clark Terry, Monty Alexa, Frank Wess. McCoy Tyner was a real highlight. Benny Golson — I've been playing with him a lot recently. I'm playing (May 23) with Bobby Irving in Chicago, the music of Miles Davis, featuring trumpeter Wallace Roney. Irving was in Miles Davis' group for about five years, when Miles had his comeback.
Q: Tell me about the music your jazz sextet played at The Iron Post a few weeks ago.
A: That music, mostly if not all, had been recorded on various CDs of mine. I have five CDs I've made, so the compositions are from those but rearranged for that group, who really reinvented the music.
Editor's note: For more on Gray, visit http://www.larrygraymusic.com/.