Hey, Mr. Bassman, Pt.1

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Slaughterhouse_3Gary Willis: Slaughterhouse 3/Actual Fiction Mr. Willis has brought the electric bass beyond the now historic Pastorius/Vitous frontier and into new sonic territory. The music world has taken note of this with an Ibanez fretless signature bass, three Hal Leonard Willis-penned books, and a reputation the modest Willis endures graciously. The genius of Willis is in his departure from the known Clarke-to-Wooten parameters. Gary Willis’s rather expansive take on what is possible with bass is a minor triumph of evolution. What was required included expatriating from the U.S. and abandoning the traditional industry approach to working with his music. Years of membership in the L.A.-based fusion band Tribal Tech (critically acclaimed though under-appreciated) established Willis as a stellar, creative bassist with a historically savvy yet path-finding style. Absurdly supple fretless runs simultaneously intelligent and impossibly funky are a hallmark of his sound. The disbanding of Tribal Tech left a remarkable 16 year legacy of recordings -- Reality Check is a good one to investigate. Willis went on to record two super solo outings, No Sweat and Bent, on the tiny Alchemy label. These sets, without what is revealed to be the intrusive distraction of Tribal Tech guitarist Scott Henderson’s high-decibel shredding, brought Willis’s playing and compositional skills delightfully to the forefront. More substance, less wanking. In the early part of the new century, Willis married his Spaniard sweetie and moved to Barcelona, embarked upon a music professor’s gig and also moved his creative trajectory a light year or so onward. Willis connected with young, gifted European sax player Llibert Fortuny, and along with former Tribal Tech drummer Kirk Covington released Slaughterhouse 3 on the Abstractlogix label. Blowing sax through electronics, Fortuny unleashes a torrent of sounds on the title piece, alternately becoming lead guitar, keyboard, and anything else he wants or the music requires. Willis anchors it with nasty technofunk bass, Covington thrashes away, and the whole thing takes on a sci-fi robotic noir quality. This segues into the futurecool oblique musings of “Life Story,” Fortuny’s sax settling into more of an identifiable tone initially, then morphing toward electronica, sharing space with rubbery Willis bass while Covington syncopates. Edgy and darker, the music is yet the spawn of what Miles birthed, Zawinul started, and Weather Report reached for, more stripped down and with an uncannily precise abandon. George Jetson would approve: good listening while hurtling through space, commuting to a nearby asteroid. Actual_FictionA year later, in 2007, Willis issued his solo project Actual Fiction, a series of sonic vignettes. Covington returns to share drum duties with David Gomez, “everything else” is done by Willis. Opening with “Cartoon Fetish,” a piece packed with frenzied electronic funk, Covington’s crisp manic drumming, and squelching electronics, Actual Fiction loops and then circuits through the giddy “Smells Like a Party” and “Podcast.” “Say Never” provides an astral mellowness, showcasing Willis’s remarkably agile chops as he seemingly effortlessly flutters and ripples through bass riffs. “Mean Streak” is an intense tour de force with Willis and Gomez rocketing down some audio highway together, making serious trouble on bass and drums. On the exceptionally nasty “If Only It Could Talk” the bass pretty much does just that. This set, like Slaughterhouse 3, fuses (while rendering the term “fusion” thankfully obsolete, or at least hopefully dated) genres in a seamless, uncompromising manner only possible by virtue of Willis walking away from the traditional approach to producing and marketing his music. These are self-produced, home studio-created, and vended primarily via his very substantive website, garywillis.com. Willis combines technogeekism with phenomenal artistry on these recordings that erase the boundaries between jazz, rock, hip-hop, and beyond. His latest project, Triphasic, with Fortuny and Gomez, recently issued Shaman which continues along a path of music that bends the rules and looks toward the future. The writer in me will doubtless be compelled to comment on it soon. But you really are better off just listening to it. - Tali Madden Gary Willis tmadden.jpgMr. Madden escaped New York a few decades ago, and still misses his egg creams. Aside from a brief flirtation with the Desert Southwest, he's been damply ensconced for half his life in Portland, Oregon. The freelance writer has written extensively on blues and jazz for outlets including the late Blues Access magazine, contributed to the MusicHound Blues and Jazz album guides, and produced and programmed jazz broadcasts for public radio. Creeping suspicions abound with him lately that music is ill served written or read about…one is just too far removed from the essential joy of listening. Yet how else might a reader be led to their next fulfilling audio experience? Writers are generally a frustrated, suffering, scattered and twisted lot of misfits. Their perpetual fountain of copy, running the gamut from masturbatory excess to succinct quickies, serves them therapeutically, occasionally even financially, via penny ante compensation. Hopefully there are a few souls sifting through the media detritus in quest of worthy discovery. To that end, let’s hope what Gary Willis has been up to lately might interest you.