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Alain Caron

 

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Global Bass Magazineís
Cover Story with

Alain Caron

 

 

ďCall Me AlĒ

It stands halfway between the world of acoustic standup bass and electric bass; the world of the fretless bass. Many very accomplished fretted bass players have not and will not even venture there. It is an exacting and unforgiving discipline, one that demands absolute command and knowledge of the fingerboard.

With the fretted bass, there is the forgiveness of the distance between two frets. Play anywhere within that area and you can be pretty well assured of a presentable note. With fretless, however, even half the distance of the width of your smallest finger is more than enough to miss the mark entirely.

There are those however, that seem to be able to dance across that smooth fingerboard like acrobats on a tightrope, churning flurries of notes of perfect intonation. We think of names like Gary Willis, Jaco Pastorius, Michael Manring, and of course the name of Alain Caron always comes up.

Compound this skill with the fact that Alain plays a 6 string with no position markers on the fingerboard or on the top of the neck with his chosen style of music, an advanced hybrid of jazz and rock, and the mind reels.  Talk about the ultimate balancing job!

This monthís Global Bass Cover Story takes a look at a gentlemen that many have called the finest fretless player alive. We look at his unassuming beginnings, where he falls by happenstance into the world of bass, on through his decade with Jazz Giants UZEB and to his 4 solo albums to date, including his most recent, ĎCALL ME ALí.

 

Global Bass:  Weíll begin by asking you about the album title, ĎCALL ME ALí. It seems a very friendly way of putting people at ease.

Alain:  Well, it isÖ For the past 20 years or so I have been travelling outside of Quebec. I have been dealing largely with non-French speaking people. Germany, Italy, Japan, whatever. I realized that this name was kinda hard to pronounce. 

GB:  The English version of ĎAlainí is ĎAllení?

Al:   Yes, exactly. So I started to say to people that were having problems pronouncing my name to just ďcall me Al, that it would be fineĒ. 

GB:  A lot of male teenagers take on a musical instrument to meet girls, but this usually doesnít kick in until 15 or 16. You were at this at the much earlier age of 11. What was the impetus at such an early age?

Al:  I actually started to play guitar when I was about 6 or so, and then when I was around 9 years old I asked my parents if I could play drums. They bought me a drum set and I started to bang on them a little bit. Obviously, it was making a lot of noise in the house! I was still playing guitar and singing when a contest came to the small town where I lived.

I won this contest and the backup band asked me to join them and play with them a couple nights a week. That was actually a trio, a keyboard player playing bass on the keyboard and a drummer. Well, it was actually a duet with a singer. They actually had asked me to join as a guitarist. This keyboardist was an ex-bass player. He had a great Fender Jazz bass and on a couple of the tunes, he wanted to play the accordion. He taught me now to play the bass on a couple tunes here and there.

So during the summer one of my sisters was playing in a more professional band. Her bass player left the band so they said, ďOkay we will replace him with you for the summerĒ.

When the fall came, I asked my parents if I could stay in the band and go on the road. I was 14 years old.

GB:  And they said Ďyesí!?

Al:  They said Ďyesí.

GB:  I know in Quebec the bars are open quite late, but still, how does a 14-year-old get into a bar?


 

GB:  I am surprised your parents gave you the ĎO.K.í

Al:  Well, I was very very serious for my age. My parents are great people and I made them realize that I wanted to play music for the rest of my life. The only way for me to do this was for them to let me go. But I was very very serious. I mean, I had fun, I was laughing all the time and I was not a nerd just sitting in his basement. I was very sociable.

On the other hand, I was very organized about my music. I knew what I wanted to do.

GB: This bass that the keyboardist loaned you at the time, was it a fretted instrument?

Al:  Yeah, it was a very nice Jazz Bass, it was a `60 or a `59, it was a very nice bass. This bass I wanted to have for my own, but it ended up stolen. Terrible.

GB:  Perhaps you can gain some solace in that chances are the bass has long since moved on to an actual player and not just a thief, and is now in the hands of someone who doesnít even know it was stolen.

Al:  Exactly, probably sitting somewhere in someoneís basement.

GB:  So what prompted you to look to fretless bass?


Al:  Actually, when I started to play in this band when I was fourteen, a bass player sold me a fretless Lancer bass. I think it was Japanese made, I am not sure.

GB:  Did it have fret markers on it?

Al:  No, it had an ebony fingerboard and a little round neck. I used to play that and really enjoyed it. But I kept playing the Fender fretted as well. Obviously when Jaco came along and modified the Fender bass, then I modified mine.

GB:  At this early stage in your career, did you find the demands of a fretless intimidating?

Al:  No because I started to listen to upright players like Ray Brown when I was 14 years old. To me it was the closest to being an upright bass. To me already it was a different instrument. Same function but two different voices.

It is similar to the cello except for the Arco, with which you can do a Crescendo. This is something you cannot do on the bass because of the finger style. Other than that, all the other perimeters of expression are there. To me the fretless bass is a lot more expressive instrument than the fretted.

GB:  You met Michael Cusson in 1977. He was in a band already?

They were playing every Monday night in a club in town. So I went to see them. Jean Ste. Jacques at that time was playing drums and he was an incredible drummer! I really liked the way they played so I told them I would like to play with them. ĎYou are right in my ball park because you play standards but you are also open to new music like Miles Davis, Weather Report, Chick Corea.í  Jazz musicians but playing with rock sounds.

GB:  Were people already looking at you, were you already at that early age, drawing the attention of crowds and players, saying that you had something special?

Al:  Yeah, people always told me this. You know, itís weird, when I was touring in the Top 40 band, all the guys in the band would tell me ďYouíre crazy, you practice ALL the time! Youíre too good for this kind of music. Stop practicing and come and have a beer with us!!Ē

I kept telling them ďNoĒ, because I didnít want to spend my life in a Top 40 band. I wanted already to play Jazz and to play in the studio. As I was saying earlier, I was so serious, I had a vision of where I wanted to be. I wanted to travel the world playing my music.

GB:  Quebec has many Superstars, artists phenomenally successful there but virtually unknown beyond the borders of that province. However UZEB and you as an individual managed to transcend that barrier. You are taken seriously not just in Canada, but also right round the world.

Al:  Because we had no lyrics. We had the international language (of music). For Quebec artists, the barrier is the language. I donít want to talk politics, but Quebec is an island in North America. Itís like an isolated country.

GB:  But you are absolutely right about the music itself being that universal language.

Al:  Thatís right. We knew it from the beginning, that it would be hard. We would reach a smaller percentage of the audience on radio and TV so it would take longer to get where we wanted to be. But we knew we had the potential to be an international band. So right at the beginning, we decided to compare our level of playing to an international level, not on a national level. That is very different.

When you come from a small city even in Quebec, you can become very big, very fast, but you are not necessarily at an international level. We have always compared ourselves, our sound, our playing to other bands worldwide.

GB:  It would be devastating to be a star in your own country, then to move beyond your boarders only to find you just couldnít make the grade.

Al:  Thatís why we stayed humble then, and I am still. Worldwide the level is pretty high.

GB:  When people call you Ďthe hottest bass playerí, do you feel uncomfortable?


Al:  Well, itís no contest. Itís not like sports, youíre not racing. You can claim technically it is this or this or this, but at the end, itís all a matter of taste. Itís like poetry. You cannot be the best poet on the planet. You cannot say that. Although you can be the best for one person or a group of persons.

Jaco Pastorius was rated the best (bass) player in the world, although I know many musicians who never liked the way he played. As long as one person says youíre the best, you are. To them. It can be very encouraging.

GB:  Ten albums during the life of UZEB, over 10 years, that is quite a body of work! At that point, was the end of the band a natural winding down of the Ďmachineí?

Al:  We felt, especially Michael and I, if we wanted to keep developing individually we had to go by ourselves. UZEB was a great band, but a great band means concessions. If we would write a tune together, we would at some point have to agree upon whether it was going to be this chord or that chord.

We learned so much with this band, even down to mixing a record. We had to agree all the time, which was great. It was the main reason this band had that sound. Because of the internal agreements.

Michael is an incredible composer and an incredible musician, at some point he felt, and I too, we felt that we had to be 100% of ourselves. Individually.

It was the hardest decision to make because UZEB was right at its most successful. But on the other hand it was not hard, because we knew that we still had a long time in front of us to play as individuals.

GB:  Do you from time to time get pressure from anyone to reform the band or even do a reunion tour?

Al:  Every hour!  (laughs).  All the time. We get offers to do tours for a lot of money but we decided not to do it because we wanted to develop ourselves and be recognized individually.

I knew this would take a long time. Now we are getting there.

GB:  And you never know what the future will bring. Who knows what you might choose to do 10, 15 years from now?
Even at that time, just doing it for the sheer fun of it.

Al: Itís not impossible, we havenít closed the door. The last concert we did was in 1992.

GB:  Moving on to the equipment you use for that distinctive sound you have.  You own 20 plus basses, is that correct? (Alain is a strong spokesman and endorser of F Basses (Furlanetto Basses of Hamilton, Canada. They build world class boutique basses.)

Al:  Ahhh, from time to time, itís around that. Iíve been working with F Basses for a long time, so George (Furlanetto) keeps making instruments for me, he keeps sending me newer and newer versions with new details. So I ended up with quite a few basses here.

 

GB:  It seems to me that you and George have managed to work out the perfect endorsement deal because when one thinks of Alain Caron, one thinks of Furlanetto. I live not too far from where they are built and when I go into the shop and I see these basses, I think of Alain Caron. This is a perfect symbiosis between artist and instrument.

Al:  Actually I was just on the phone about 10 minutes ago with George planning a few things. Definitely, we have the perfect agreement. I always want to stay with them because of the character we have developed. It is weird to find a builder where we even agree upon the final sound! What I like in a sound, George likes too. We kinda grew together. We developed our ears and knowledge together. Always in the same direction and on the same path.

GB:  How did you meet originally?

Al:  He came to Montreal, called me, and said he had a great instrument for me. I tried it and said ďYeahĒ, but I also told him right away what I didnít like. He said, ďOh, I didnít see that, but youíre right!Ē.

Itís been like this for almost 14 years.

GB:  Do you have anything special done, for example, to the pickups?

Al:  Oh my God, yes! I donít know how many versions of pickups we have tried. Now we also working with Seymour Duncan and I will actually be endorsing their pickups. I have been working with George and the technicians at Seymour Duncan for the past four years.

So you have the option of Georgeís pickup or Seymour pickups. But more and more George will be using Seymour Duncan pickups. He doesnít have the time to wind pickups manually.

GB:  Many of the videos of you in concert have you playing an F Bass with a midi pickup affixed to the bass. Is this the Yamaha B1-D pickup?

Al:  Yes, this is what I have now, although I am not playing that live anymore, but I have it in my studio.

GB: Why do you not use it live anymore?

Al: Because after UZEB I wanted to focus more on just the bass. The fretless 6 string. First of all, I wanted to develop two sounds, the fretless and the piccolo bass as well. I am going to develop an upright 6 string as well.

Iíve been working on this for yearsÖ

 

GB:  Who will you have build it for you?


Al: Itís already done, I will have it in a couple of months, itís built by Boosey and Hawkes. The instrument is at the finishing stages now. Itís very exciting.

GB:  Back when you did use the B1-D pickup, it appeared that you favored voices that were flutelike or horn-likeÖ

Al:  Yeah, it was because of the tracking. That kind of wave is easier to track.

GB:  Did the pickup handled fretless fairly well, overall?

Al:  Yup, it did. I also had the Peavey midi bass.

GB: Yeah, they just seem to come in with a bang and then just disappeared!

Al:  Because it didnít sell. I had one for 5 years and I thought it was a great bass. But they decided to stop the building because they werenít selling enough of them.

GB:  Do you think it was because of the technology?

Al:  No I think the technology was right. But Peavey sells so many guitars and amplifiers, itís such a big company and that department was losing money.

GB:  On ďCALL ME ALĒ did you use midi at all? There are times when it sounds like you may have, but when I look at the sheer size of the band you are using I thought, why bother? Seventeen people, you wouldnít need midi bass, you had everything there!

Al:  Thatís right. This record was focussed on the idea of a small Big Band. As acoustic as possible, I wanted the real horns, the real piano. But when I was making the demo and when I was writing, I used the midi bass.

GB:  There is a wonderful R & B singer in Toronto by the name of Liz Tansey. When her album ďWhat I WantĒ first came out I went to see here play live and it was obvious that to pull off that full sound from her album, she had to use a very large band. In spite of this excellent debut album, it was far too expensive to tour a large band like hers to support that album.

Al:  Yes, I know her. I have the same problem, donít worry. I cannot tour with a horn section. I have to use keyboard.

GB:  Thatís really a shame isnít it? You canít help but feel badly for the horn players too because they know that they are the first out the door when cutting costs becomes paramount.

Al: Very true.


GB:  You have long endorsed La Bella strings.

Al:  For a long time now.

GB:  Why La Bella versus the hundreds of other types of string available?

Al:  When I first started to play 6 string bass, there was no low B available on the market. By accident I met the La Bella distributor here in Quebec. He told me that he could give me the direct phone number and they could build me the exact string I wanted. So that was how it started. It could easily have been another company.

I called them and I told them I would like to have them build me a low B. They sent me a couple samples and we met, and they asked me if I would like to endorse the strings. I liked the string, but we kept developing different models. We are still working on different models for them.

GB:  So for you it isnít just that you endorse a string because they will send you free boxes of them. The same with F Basses, you are actively involved in the development of the product. You are helping them and they are helping you.

Al:  Yes, I donít want or need free strings. I have the same thing with EDEN Ampifiers. I use their Navigator preamplifier. David Nordshow, the owner of the company, I donít know how many cabinets he has sent me to try. I keep saying to him, ďNo this is not right, this is right, this is betterĒ. When he designed the Navigator, he sent me a list of things I would like to see on a preamplifier, so definitely I want to work with this company.

More and more I am going to do things with Roland as well. Iíve actually been working with Roland for years, doing clinics with them but more and more I am going to be involved with other Roland products for bass.  It is going to be very interesting, but I cannot say more than that at this point.

On my last record I used their digital board, it was incredible. Itís 24-Bit with onboard effects, the A to D (analog to digital-Editor) converter sounds incredible, it sounds warm and fat. Itís definitely incredible, I have it in my studio right now!

GB: Would you say you have a very discerning ear, an exact sense of what sounds good and what doesnít?

Al:  I donít know about that, but I know I can differentiate between frequencies. When David (Eden) calls me and sends me a speaker cabinet, I can tell him if there is too much of this or a resonance in that area or this tweeter is different.

GB: In the long run however, having someone such as yourself in the fields but with a good ear is a blessing, you would save a company many tens of thousands of dollars from building a cabinet that may have a sympathetic resonance or a Ďhonkí. They need to know this stuff.

Al:  Thatís why they want me to work with them and on the other hand, thatís why I want to work with them.

GB:  Itís good to be taken seriously and respected, isnít it?

Al:  You cannot ask to be respected, it has to come naturally. If you have to ask to be respected, if you have to tell a person to be respectful to you, you probably are already too late.

GB:  The song on this newest album entitled ďThe F FileĒ. Is that a play on the X Files or a reference to your love of Furlanetto basses?

Al:  No itís just a stupid thing. Actually, I did name it after the X Files, but really when I write music I write it on the computer using Q-Base and I always use a score. Obviously when I write these things, I put them in files and that tune was in the Funk File. That was the F File.

GB:  Have you ever wrestled with trying to get the slap technique on the fretless?


Al:  On the fretless I donít think it sounds good because the string hits a long flat wooden surface, it just sounds thin and quiet. I donít like the sound. All the slap I do I do on the fretted bass.

GB:  Have you ever been tempted to venture beyond 6 string. Perhaps 7 and other configurations?

Al:  No, I donít think itís for me at this point. It took me a long time to be totally comfortable on the 6 string. Iíd rather spend my time now on developing my writing skills.

GB:  Why six strings then?

Al: I knew I wanted to have more strings to have more vertical possibilities. And more range!  `Cos when Gino Vanelli came on the scene with a bass synthesizer, it made me want to have access to that same low B.

I wanted to have access to that low range and since I wanted to be a good soloist as well, I wanted to have access in the higher range without having to play at the very top, at the very highest section of the neck all the time. I knew a long time ago that I wanted a six string.

GB:  Did you ever come across butting heads with guitarists that would say to you, ďYouíre not a guitarist!  Stay out of my rangeĒ.

Al:  Of course, but when I play bass, I play bass. When I solo, I solo. When to step forward and when to step back. This is the first thing I say in my clinicsÖĒIf you came here to learn how to solo, I will show you a few good tricks, but first you have to enjoy being a bass player. This is the first question you have to ask yourself, ďDo I wanna be a bass player, because a bass player has a role to fulfill. To support harmonically and rhythmically, you have to be the father of the band. If you donít want to fill that role, youíre not a bass player.Ē

Itís just a matter of understanding arrangements and writing. When you write you understand the importance of the bass.

GB:  I might as well get your opinion on this issue as well. I have asked Dann Glenn, Chuck Rainey and Jeff Berlin this and would like your opinion as well. Do you feel that Tablature holds any place compared to Musical Notation in written music, any validity?

Al:  I am against that (Tablature) too. It took a long time to develop the writing of music, to make it international, to make it able to speak with other musicians, to allow other musicians to play together. So, itís international, and it works! I think we shouldnít change that.

GB:  At the beginning of this interview we talked about the universal and international language of music, and how the success of UZEB was in no small way because it used no words, no English and no French, no barriers. The limitation of Tablature lies in itís inability to cross talk with other instruments in a group.

Al:  I agree definitely!

GB: In this newest album you have ventured into looping, a very adventuresome step. Was this the first time you have embraced that technology?

Al:  No. We used looping with UZEB even in the `80ís.

GB: There is one track on this album called ĎSECRETSí where you use upright bass, acoustic piano, a cello and a female voice only. The cello and the voice are done by a young lady by the name of JORANE. Tell us a bit about her, please.

Al:  She is a great singer and a great cellist, the only one I know that can do both at the same time! She has two great records out.

GB:  Have you ever been approached about doing a duet with someone say for example, like Michael Manring, another fretless wizard?

Al:  I did a bass record called  BASSE CONTRA BASSE (ĎBass and Contrabassí) thatís on my record label now. NORAC Records. I would like to do some other duet, not necessarily with bass at this point. Although I know Michael very well and I really enjoy his playing.

GB:  I have been listening to what you have been saying and I canít help but ask if you feel that perhaps Quebec is more prone to nurture its artists than maybe the rest of Canada.

Al:  I think we are a bit more organized. I mean, look at the Montreal Jazz Festival, the biggest festival I have played. Next week I have to go to Quebec City because of an event called Le Rideau, itís where all the festival managers get together to organize their events.

I am going to do a showcase there to present my show and to do a tour in Quebec. So I feel it is a bit more organized. All the Jazz Festivals across Canada should be able to get together and perhaps have an artist not just do one festival, but to do them all.

I had been trying to play across Canada for years and itís so hard. Itís too complicated, itís easier just to head to Europe. I make a living in Europe because you know, I go a couple of times a year to do a one-month tour. There is a kind of organization in place that I donít see in Canada.

There is no communication between Toronto and Montreal and there is less between Vancouver and Montreal!

 

 

So if you are not familiar with Alains work, why not take a jaunt on over to his website. The URL is provided at the end of this article. Try out a few of his samples from this most recent album and others. If you like what you hear, and if you are a lover of all things fretless, chances are you will, albums can be ordered directly from his site.

A complete discography of Alainís career with UZEB and his 4 solo albums. He has played on other peoples recordings as well, and that information can be found along with other interesting info at his website at:

 AlainCaron.com

Ten releases with UZEB in clude:

Live in Bracknell    `81

Fast Emotion          `82

You Be Easy           `84

Between the Lines  `85

Live a líOlympia  `86

Absolutely Live    `86

Noisy Nights         `88

Live in Europe      `88

UZEB Club           `89

World Tour           `90

 

Videoís

UZEB 86~90

60 rue de Lombards

Noisy Nights

UZEB Club

 

Solo Albums to date

92/93    His first with Le Band

95         Also with Le Band

97         PLAY

2000     Call Me Al

 

Also the re-release of the UZEB World Tour and The Best of UZEB on Les Disques NORAC

 

Read this article in Italian

Read this article in German

Read this article in Chinese

Read this article in Spanish

 

 

                    

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