Alain Caron Live: Cabaret de Montréal Norac Records
Since the break-up of Canadian fusion group UZEB in the early 1990s, the only member to continue evolving in the direction set by the group has been bassist Alain Caron. Outside of his short-lived horn and percussion-centric Wild Unit, guitarist Michel Cusson has chosen to work in the area of television and film scoring, while drummer Paul Brochu has turned to more acoustic work with artists including saxophonist Jean-Pierre Zanella. Caron spent some time in New York, recording/performing with guitarist Leni Stern and touring occasionally with her husband Mike (with whom he still works a few times a year). He also was part of fusion guitarist Frank Gambale's uncharacteristically all-acoustic project Natural High (Wombat, 2006).
But Caron the writer and orchestrator hasn't been quiet over the past fifteen years, releasing a series of well- conceived and warmly-received albums, culminating in 5 (BHM, 2005), his most fully realized combination of groove, chops and composition to date. Live: Cabaret de Montréal captures the latest version of Caron's group performing 5 in its entirety, along with three tracks from earlier records. It teams him up with another UZEB alumnus, keyboardist Jean St-Jacques, whose most remarkable moments are on the Mallekat, a mallet-driven synth that allows him to play the instrument like a vibraphone but trigger a myriad of sampled/synth sounds.
<5> is performed in its original running sequence, the only change being the insertion of the bright and brassy "Slam the Clown," from Rhythm 'n Jazz (Avant-garde, 1995), the episodic and Weather Report-ish "Baby Step," from Call Me Al! (Norac, 2000), and the up-tempo and undeniably funky "D- Code," from Play (Norac, 1997) at various points throughout the concert.
Joining Caron and St-Jacques are keyboardist Francois Blouin, saxophonist David Bellemare and drummer Simon Langlois. As was the case with UZEB, Caron and his band continue to forge ahead with the integration of technology, so seamlessly as not to disturb the organic chemistry of five people interacting on a stage together. And while Caron's writing for 5 incorporates contemporary house rhythms with ambient electronica textures, it's still unequivocally a jazz record, something made even clearer in performance where the solo space is more plentiful.
Montreal has always had one of Canada's more fertile jazz scenes, and Caron's ability to find players at this level is testimony to the city's ability not only to produce major talent but to prevent it from leaving. Bellemare moves at his own pace, but his fiery tenor solos on the dark groove of "Double Agent" and intense "Signal" are two of many highlights of this 110-minute set. Langlois isn't given the same kind of solo space as UZEB's Brochu was, but he's in the pocket with Caron every step of the way. And while St-Jacques' Mallekat is the predominant synth instrument solo-wise, on the rarer occasions where Blouin is given the spotlight he's every bit as engaging.
Still, apart from Caron's flawless consistency, it's St-Jacques who delivers on almost every tune. An accomplished four-mallet player who has a natural feel for texture, he elevates the Mallekat beyond being simply another synth-trigger derived from an acoustic instrument to a legitimate and self-contained voice in its own right.
(L:R): David Bellemare, Simon Langlois, Alain Caron, Francois Blouin, Jean St-Jacques
A masterful and much-lauded player (and an in-demand master class teacher in cities around the world), Caron has continued to hone the fine line between putting his instrument front and center and keeping it an integral part of the rhythm section. His use of the Roland V-Bass processor on tracks including the atmospheric opener, "Ocean of Trees," allows him to adopt a more wind-driven sound, the bass equivalent of guitarist Pat Metheny's horn-like guitar synth tone. Caron's roots may stem from seminal '70s bassists like Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius, but Caron's reach is much broader. He's a masterful fretted bass string popper like Clarke, but on his solo intro to the New Orleans second-line groove of "Black Paw" he's as fleet-fingered a fretless player as Pastorius ever was.
In addition to Caron's command of the bass, he's an equally accomplished writer. While there's plenty of space for improvisation, his pieces are more than mere solo vehicles. The attention paid to the interaction of the instrumentstexturally, harmonically and thematicallyis what gives every tune (and every new project) autonomous longevity. Like the recently released UZEB: The Last Concert, Live: Cabaret de Montréal is an exciting performance, but finds Caron fifteen years older, fifteen years wiser and still delivering on promises made more than a quarter century ago.