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One might be forgiven for thinking that bassist extraordinaire Gary Willis has the titles of the first two songs on Actual Fiction the wrong way round. "Cartoon Fetish is a slightly frantic drum 'n' bass rave with a Prodigy-like bullishness that would be ideal to rock a party and rattle your neighbors' windows. The wonderfully titled "Smells Like a Party is an irresistible piece of head-bobbing funk of the type Prince cooks up, and would make a great soundtrack for a cartoon.
Whatever the titles, the music on Actual Fiction certainly transports the listener to some interesting places. "PodCast starts life as a gently trippy number which Willis turns on its head with a prodigious solo, ably supported by David Gomez on drums. Willis employs spacey effects quite liberally throughout the album, though when the music is reduced to drums and bass and stripped of these layers the bass really rips.
Willis' bass playing is pretty staggering throughout Actual Fiction, no more so than on the beautiful slow number "Say Never, where the bass lines are as smooth and rich as hot chocolate and as ethereal as a walk in the clouds. Willis takes the solo up to racing speed but without disturbing the chill-out ambience of a track which has the feel of Joni Mitchell's title tune from Hejira (Asylum, 1976).
The great bassist Jaco Pastorius graced Mitchell's album and his spirit is infused in no small measure through much of the music on Actual Fiction. Willis' playing on "Eye Candy recalls vividly Pastorius on Weather Report's Black Market (Columbia/Legacy, 1976), and his style in general owes much to the hugely influential Pennsylvania-born bassist. It is also fair to say that Willis' playing on this album hails from the same planet as Pastorius: not of this world.
Impressive, too, is the way Willis subtly shifts the mood of a song by altering the weight and pace of the rhythm as on "Take Me to Your Leader, where the intensity rises and falls in large, slow-building waves. The contribution of drummers David Gomez and Kirk Covington is considerable, and it is easy to forget that there is ever only one other musician accompanying Willis.
There is much to enjoy on Actual Fiction: strong compositions which sound radically different from each other, smoking funk riffs, a lot of energy and quite marvelous bass playing. Following the excellent Slaughterhouse 3 (Abstract Logix, 2007) it appears that Willis is in a rich vein of form. Here, Gary Willis has crafted an adventurous album and a very fine one at that.
Track Listing: Cartoon Fetish; Smells Like a Party; PodCast; Say Never; Eye Candy; Take Me to Your Leader; Mean Streak; If Only It Could Talk; Tio Loco; Based on a True Story.
Personnel: Gary Willis: electric bass, sound effects, "everything else"; David Gomez: drums (3, 7); Kirk Covington: drums (1, 2, 5, 9, 10).
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.