How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
Few electric bassists on the scene today haven't been heavily touched by the influence of the late Jaco Pastorius. Whether directly in style, as in the case of Michael Manring, or less overtly, as in the case of Marcus Miller, Jaco's sound and open approach to the instrument continue to be felt nearly twenty years after his untimely death. While bassist Matthew Garrison, who has developed a strong reputation as sideman for artists including Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin, can't escape Jaco's broader reach, he figures in that small number who are less strictly informed by his style. Shapeshifter places Garrison in an elite group of electric bassists who are truly asserting unique personalities and forging new paths for the instrument.
But as much as Shapeshifter is about virtuoso bass playingand it isit's also about composition and texture. Garrison's view, while clearly rooted in fusion and funk, is also informed by world concerns. "Three Tree," the most naked piece on the disc, teams Garrison with percussionist Arto Tuncboyacian on a Latin romp that demonstrates his broad roots, while "Life Burning" displays hints of Middle Eastern music, albeit with a more fusion-esque rhythmic backdrop. "Exchange" finds the middle ground between India, Africa and more urban concerns.
Garrison is helped along the way by a bevy of guests, including guitarist Adam Rogers, harmonica player Gregoire Maret, keyboard players Scott Kinsey and Jim Beard, and drummer Jojo Mayer. But they are all really just icing on the cake; in addition to his outstanding bass playing, Garrison is responsible for guitar, keyboards, programming and vocals. And for those worried about the vocals getting in the way, rest assured that they are of the wordless variety, used as simply another texture in this rich mix. And while the guests add immeasurably to the dense weave, this is really Garrison's show.
Fusion fans will find much to like in what Garrison does, and there is certainly plenty of high energy and technically wowing bass playing to satisfy those looking for more overt displays of ability. But while Garrison is clearly concerned with asserting the bass as a dominant instrument, much like Jaco before him, it's all about placing it within a more intriguing compositional framework. As impressive as his playing is, it would be less so if the compositions weren't so compelling. On "Changing Paths" he creates a one-man tour-de-force that finds him layering lyrical bass and acoustic guitar solos over a haunting synthesizer pad and drum program that is all about atmosphere and ambience.
Comfortably combining a strong compositional bent and technically challengingbut always musicalbass playing, Shapeshifter has all the elements of a new bass hero in the making.