As co-founder, with guitarist Scott Henderson, of now-defunct fusion group Tribal Tech, bassist Gary Willis has never been averse to technology. By the time the group released its eponymous fourth album in 1991, there were times when it was nearly impossible to tell who was doing what. With the exception of drummers Kirk Covington (ex-Tribal Tech) and David Gomez on seven of its ten tracks, Willis goes it completely alone on Actual Fiction, an album of monster chops, penetrating grooves, samples and quirky electronic textures that demonstrates just how much one person can do with the aid of the latest technologyand a fertile imagination.
Those expecting bass-heavy predominance on Actual Fiction will be right. But much like Jeff Berlin, whose Lumpy Jazz (M.A.J., 2004) was an album that also placed the bass front and center, Willis' ability to combine monstrous technique with surprising musicality makes Actual Fiction an album, for more than just bassists. Lumpy Jazz was still a group effort, however, whereas Willis creates layers of sound using samples, drum programming, synthesizers and more. Call it Nu Fusion, if you will.
The hyper-frenetic "Cartoon Fetish opens the disc, all processed bass, kinetic beats, shift-on-a-dime tempo changes and sci-fi electronics. "Smells Like a Party, with Willis' wah bass in the upper register, settles things downa bitbut it's still a collage of ideas, despite possessing a deeper groove. "Podcast continues the trend, with assorted voices speaking over each other and over a largely rhythmic pulse that breaks into a brief but greasy funk line, as the track evolves into an up-tempo workout for Willis' harmonized bass before returning to the near-cacophony of the intro.
It's not all about strange sounds, hyper grooves and rapid beats, however. "Say Never is a lyrical ballad where Willis creates a rich, orchestral set of changes that leave him space to solo with clear melodic intent. "Take Me to Your Leader suggests how an updated Weather Report might sound, Willis extracting the most out of its five-minute vamp. "Mean Streak is the closest thing to conventional fusion, a high energy workout with a defined theme, changes and a lightning fast bass solo that's a high point of the disc.
Just as Jimi Hendrix made his guitar speak on "Still Raining, Still Dreaming, from Electric Ladyland (MCA, 1968), Willis makes his bass talk on the appropriately titled "If It Could Talk, but this time over a pulsating electric groove that's a studio concoction the late guitar icon could never have imagined, much less achieved.
For those who have problems with the idea of technology married to improvisation, a clear berth should be steered around Actual Fiction. But for those who argue that artificial borders shouldn't be placed on the imagination, and that the studio is now an instrument as legit as any conventional one, Willis' album is a powerful vindication.
Personnel: Gary Willis: electric bass, sound effects, "everything else"; David Gomez: drums (3, 7); Kirk Covington: drums (1, 2, 5, 9, 10).