Ever since Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke and Jeff Berlin redefined the role of electric bass in the 1970s, there's been a multitude of players aiming to expand its reach. But despite its potential as a melodic equal, it's still important for bassists to create a rhythmic foundationeven if this sometimes seems a contradiction in purpose. Few contemporary bassists successfully straddle the line, and far more cross it into excess. Marcus Miller, for example, often makes his bass the primary voice, but despite his clear virtuosity, his music often begins to sound same-y. Sometimes you wish he'd lay back and allow others a stronger voice.
Canadian bassist Alain Caron has proven that he's a clear equal amongst contemporaries including Miller, Matthew Garrison and Victor Wooten. When he first emerged in the early 1980s with Quebecois fusion group UZEB, it was all about chops. But gradually UZEB evolved into a mature band more comfortable with its talents. By the time of Noisy Night (Nova, 1988) and the outstanding swan song, World Tour '90 (Avant-Garde, 1990), the chops may still have been there, but it was clear that they were in service of the music, not the other way around. This was intelligent fusionimpressive but always musical.
Caron's own albums may be as predominantly bass-centric as Miller's, but unlike Miller he's not averse to painting more colourful pictures by giving up center stage. His latest release, 5, makes no bones about Caron's inestimable talent on electric and acoustic bass, but it's as much a showcase for Caron the writer and orchestrator as it is Caron the player. The grooves are as thick as anything Miller has put out, but it's ultimately a far more satisfying listen.
Pastorius' influence is almost impossible to avoid, but Caron has always managed to create his own sound, denser and less top-heavy. He's also comfortable with technology, using the Roland V-bass processor to sound like a bass horn alternative to guitarist Pat Metheny's popular synth tone on the short Metheny-esque opener, "Ocean of Trees. Like Metheny, he proves himself to be a richly lyrical player where the space between the notes is of equal importance.
There's an atmospheric quality to much of Caron's writing that is rooted in Weather Report. But equally, groove predominates, whether on the firm and funky backbeat of the fretless-driven "Double Agent and the fretted string-popping "No Left Turn on Tuesday, or the looser kineticism of "Signal and the balladic "Show of Hands, where a drum loops and electronic percussion gently drive the pulse beneath his melodic fretless lines.
Caron's continued growth means that while he occasionally brings out his formidable chops as he does on the Brecker Brothers-ish "Turkey Loose on the Kit, it's never superfluous, always purposeful. 5 is the kind of album that makes the leader's instrument clear; but unlike recent Miller albums and Avery Sharpe's painfully autocratic Dragon Fly (KJNM, 2005), Caron puts the music front and center, proving that his agenda is more selfless and, consequently, considerably more compelling.
Ocean of Trees; Double Agent; Signal; Ink Illusion; Show of Hands; No Left Turn on Tuesday; Turkey Loose on the Kit; Solitude; Black Paws.
Alain Caron: fretless bass, V-bass, drum loops, keyboards, upright bass; Bob Franceschini: tenor saxophone solo (2); Fran