Interview with Bassist Alain Caron –
One of the strongest voices on bass today, being equally adept at fretted, fretless, and acoustic, (no easy task) comes to us through the music of Alain Caron. He is able to produce gorgeous melodies on fretless, flawlessly executed, and turn around and execute some vicious slap techniques that are second to none. Add to that his gift for composition, ten albums with his opening band UZEB, and six solo CD’s to date, and you have one seriously complete musician.
Jake: I have to say that beyond your virtuosity as a bassist, I’m also a fan of your compositional skills as well, and on your latest release “Conversations”, you once again show another side of your unique capability as a writer. How did the tracks for this CD come about?
Alain: Long story short, at the beginning of my career, I used to play a lot of upright bass. I was listening to Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson—all those great jazz trios, and I always enjoyed that side of bass playing. After I did some studying, I learned the more you write, the more you learn how to write, and that you need to be inspired as well.
After a while I became interested in the fusion—jazz rock side of music. This genre definitely had an influence on me. My first records were written with that direction in mind, but at the same time I always kept listening to the more traditional side of jazz writing, and I wanted to develop that side of my composing as well.
On Conversations, I thought I was ready to go for it. I wanted to be able to write a composition that was strong within itself, something you could play by yourself at the piano—a composition on a sheet where everything is there, having a very strong harmony that you can improvise upon in a traditional way. That is what I was looking to achieve with this CD. I’m still researching and studying on how to write music and I’m trying to develop new skills and a new language to help write a strong harmony.
Jake: Do you do most of your writing at the piano?
Alain: Yes, although I’m not a great piano player. I’m not able to play my tunes from beginning to end, but, all my writing does happen at the piano. I check things on the piano as I write, and it helps me to hear the harmony I’m considering. To me, it’s the perfect instrument to write on, and arrange on as well. You are able to hear all the voices together.
Jake: The track Solitude, which I believe is from your previous CD, turned out great for the duo setting you employed on Conversations.
Alain: Yes it did. In the past, all of my fusion and jazz-rock records had a lot more arrangement involved, yet I always had it in the back of my mind to have a tune that you could play solo on guitar or piano, and Solitude was one that I had written with that in mind. It worked well under that format, so I decided to record it again using the duo setting I chose for this particular CD.
Jake: Let me give you the opportunity to plug the builder of the acoustic bass guitar you used for this CD, which I thought had a stunning tone to it. (Editors note—also look in the Top Shelf section to see the review of Alain’s Signature F Bass.)
Alain: It’s made here in Canada by a company called MF. They build electric basses and guitars as well. We started working on an acoustic bass guitar years ago. He started with making me an arch top 6 string. The bass I used on the CD is the fifth one he’s made for me, and I have a new one as well.
We found out that a flat top worked best in the studio. That particular model gave us the most low end. I recorded with Piezos under the bridge as well as miking it with a German made mic by a company called Gefell, to help capture the acoustic flavor and tone of the instrument.
Jake: I’d like to bring up a comment that you made quite a while back in Bass Player Magazine, that I believe was a rather insightful. It was stated that somehow after the 70’s, the word fusion had a negative connotation thrust upon it, and your response to that inference was “It’s all fusion”, I believe referring to looking at all music genres, old and new, and how they evolved in terms of that particular phraseology.
Alain: That’s right. When your talking about playing fusion music, most people, especially the jazz critics, still refer to that as the music of the late 70’s and 80’s. The point is, it’s all fusion when you consider all the different influences that are always involved in any music.
When Dizzy Gillespie started using Cuban rhythms and a Cuban rhythm section, that to me was the beginning of fusion. This happened before Miles Davis. Hearing influences from South America, or European classical harmonies being used under a jazz improvisational format is another example of what I’m talking about. The music I hear today, hip-hop, electronic jazz, world music, are yet further examples of this, and even the music I presented on Conversations, to me, is still fusion. It’s just not fusion from the perspective of the 80’s.
We now hear a Middle Eastern approach used in the traditional format, as well as classical harmonies from Norway and Scandinavia. These are concepts I’ve heard recently from a band called EST. They’re part of a lot of great music I hear coming from Europe these days. These players are using a different approach, and this is what I would call the “new fusion”.
Fusion is the best way to approach music right now. With the internet at our disposal, we have access to all types of music from all over the world in a second, such as folk music which we were unable to hear in the past because it was very hard to find. We can hear traditional Indian music or traditional Romanian music.
In my opinion, a good musician will be influenced right away when hearing different and varied musical perspectives from other cultures. If you have an open mind, not only your playing, but your writing as well will be influenced by that. So in essence, it all becomes fusion.
Jake: With the interviews I’ve done so far, I can see that my next question is going to be a recurring one. You definitely have a strong and unique voice as far as soloing goes. Could you touch upon what you’ve worked on, or are working on as far as improvisational studies are concerned?
Alain: A while back I listened to an interview done with Bill Evans in the late 60’s, and he stated, more or less, what I myself will try to convey to you as far as improvisation goes. He stated, as I myself feel to this day, that music is a language, and that is how I approach the music.
To me, notes are vowels—you make words with. Then the grammar of music creates a phrase, and you take these phrases and try to make poetry with it. This is what I’m trying to understand, and to get there, I’ve changed the way I practice music, the way I see scales and arpeggios. To me, these are words, and I continually try to be better at using those words, or that language. After I feel I’ve learned it, I then forget it, and play.
For example, when I speak to you, I don’t spell the words in my head, but I know what they are. I’m trying to understand that approach, and that took me back to square one. I started practicing my scales, and everything I play with that in mind, and my playing opened up a lot more. I analyze everything I play, but when I play, I don’t analyze it. When I’m playing, I’m just trying to speak. At the back of my head I know exactly what I’m playing, but at the same time I’m dealing with and trying to develop the mechanics of playing as well. I compare that to how I speak. My first language is French, and even when I’m talking to you right now, it’s not natural. It’s not natural for me to speak English. But more and more I’m able to think in English, which I was not able to do a few years ago. I always had to translate in my head, and that was very painful. Now, I can compare that approach to music. The more I work at that approach, the more I’m able to speak when I play, and that’s what I center on.
When I started to learn to improvise, I had to go to square one which is first, you play by ear, and you play a lick, and of course you try to play that lick as fast as possible. Then you learn, oh, that lick doesn’t work over that chord, and, what is that chord. It becomes a long process of learning all your licks in all tonalities, and then you get to the point where you start to build your own licks, or your own vocabulary, and to this day I still work on this process, on my language so to speak.
And it’s not just the language you are working on, it’s also developing your technique as well, and this is why I feel we practice scales and the like, it helps to develop our voice. When we have an idea, we want to express it with our instrument, which is our voice, and I believe you need to acknowledge this technique work to help you freely express that idea. I work on this on a daily basis.
Jake: Along those same lines, as far as expanding your approach to the instrument, could you explain how you developed your unique voice on the fretless, which I could pick out in a heartbeat.
Alain: When I first heard Jaco, I was very impressed, and the first thing that came to mind was realizing that I needed to have my own voice to be recognized. I needed to develop a sound of my own. Actually, that process had already started before I heard him. I understood after listening to him that his voice was very strong. It was too inviting, and too tempting to copy that, and I knew I had to avoid it. So I never played a Jaco lick, although I wanted to play them. I wanted to copy that sound so bad because it was so good.
After listening to him, I almost stopped playing electric bass, and I focused on upright bass to get away from that as much as possible, although I was listening to it all the time. Instead of playing his licks, I learned that I needed to understand his language, and now I do know what it is—not completely, because I’m not Jaco. But I understood the process, and then tried very hard to develop my own process.
I was trying to develop my own licks, as well as analyzing all kinds of solos. I tried to analyze John Coltrane’s approach, listening to Giant Steps and Moments Notice, and all his great solos to try to discover what he was playing. At this point, I understand the concept, and then I try to analyze other solos as well. I bought books, and took private lessons with Charlie Banacos in an effort to try to develop a language. I’ve never copied a solo from beginning to end. I try to get ideas out of the solo, and then try to apply it using my language. For example, I haven’t played any of Jacos great licks, but I know how they are made, and how they are built.
Jake: I know you’ve worked hard to get the exposure and the recognition that you’ve received. Being in the “do it yourself” world that we live in these days, as far as an artist goes, what words of wisdom would you pass along to a promising young player looking to make a career in the industry.
Alain:That’s a tough one. To make it today, first and foremost you need a voice, and you need to be more or less special in some capacity as well. You need that voice, and something different to say, or you can pursue the road of being a great backup musician, one that can play like everybody else.
You can aspire to be a great studio musician, although that business is definitely going down. Sessions have become very very rare, as well as record dates and jingles. We’ve also felt the impact of everyone having their own home studio. At one point, I played in the studio almost every day, and now it’s rare that I get called for a record date.
So you can see that you need to know if you have the talent to have a voice. And if you’re clear on that, you have to realize that the record industry has gone down, and continues to go down. I believe in a short while we won’t see CD’s in stores. It will become kind of specialized shops. Most sales will happen on the internet, and you will download the music. This creates the need to be visible on the internet. This is new to me, as well as everyone else—we’re all learning.
It could be hard work, or maybe just plain luck to become visible on the internet mostly because there is so much material out there—a lot of it is very good, and a lot of it is crap as well. So becoming visible and being heard is a big challenge. You need to get as much exposure as possible. You need to get out in the clubs as much as possible, just as we did 20 years ago. Go on the road if your able—send your demo to every record company you can find. You have to spread the word, as well as being lucky enough to be heard by the right people.
You also need to have the ability to connect with your audience. These are the people that will help you earn a living. There’s no magic trick to this. Understand also that in Europe, the arts are supported on a much higher level then we’re seeing here, and you need to be aware of that as well. The commercial music we hear is strictly out there to sell a product. They’re not concerned about preserving or enhancing our musical culture, and that’s a sad scenario. But if you feel you have the calling, even with all these challenges we face, you’ll find a way, as many have.
For more information on Alain Caron, visit www.alaincaron.com