To see Stanley Clarke playing bass is like watching an entire orchestra; one minute his hand is darting over the strings or hovering like a hummingbird and only seconds later there’s another Stanley Clarke altogether, fiercely attacking, bongo-like or executing his much coveted “slapping” technique. Recently, he has integrated some African flavor into his acoustic work which is challenging him even more, but at 56, he continues to evolve as a musician. Clarke is no underachiever. To read what he has accomplished thus far in his career is like reading a Who’s Who in Jazz – except that it’s all him!
After a successful and acclaimed stint with jazz pianist Chick Corea in the jazz fusion group ‘Return to Forever,’ Stanley struck out on his own in the mid seventies and went on to a number of historical jazz firsts: he became the first bassist ever to tour as the headlining act; he was the first bassist to be just as supernaturally proficient on electric bass as the acoustic. When he noticed that there was a need (his own) for a bass with a slightly higher octave range, he invented one – the piccolo bass and also, the tenor bass. He was also Rolling Stone magazine's first ‘Jazzman of the Year’ and has won multiple Grammy awards. Basically, if there is a bassist award going – it’s probably going to Stanley Clarke.
Although my own introduction to Clarke was Modern Man (melodic, intelligent and smooth as buttercream frosting) many people might be more familiar with School Days an immensely popular and accessible record that has never dated. This record has also managed to maintain a reputation as the ultimate 'Required Listening' for would-be bass players. (‘Desert Song’ is brilliant – how can a bass sound so wistful?) For some reason, I didn’t follow much of his work consistently for a long time, but when I came across 1,2, to the Bass (2003) recently, the liner notes confirm that he had not released a recording in a decade. (Clarke of course had not been idle during that time and has done an impressive amount of composing/scoring for film and television).
1,2, to the Bass is not a typical Stanley Clarke effort. Although the liner notes warn the listener up front that this is not going to be a “nice jazz record,” even that is not enough preparation for the bewildering range of offerings to follow.
From the rap enhanced title track featuring Q-tip, to the soaring R&B ballad from Glenn Lewis and Amel Larrieux who perform “Where is the love?” the selections are just all over the place. At the end, Oprah Winfrey makes an appearance to recite a Maya Angelou poem set to music which is well worth a listen but still strangely out of place. This CD experience was like encountering a restaurant that offers way too much choice. Every dish might be superb in its own right – but you end up feeling too overwhelmed and confused to enjoy what’s happening and maybe not in too much of a hurry to come back.
Having said that – he is still Stanley Clarke, let’s be clear – so stay tuned. I have to say that this CD will likely be most enjoyed by the true Clarke aficionado; jazz newbies might want to cut their teeth on earlier albums. There is a huge body of Stanley Clarke’s work out there, (including the more recent Toys of Men) so try a few and see if his brand of jazz hits your palette right.
This just in:‘Return to Forever’ fans take note! Tour plans are underway for a reunion – the first time in over 25 years. The four members, keyboardist Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke on bass, drummer Lenny White and guitarist Al di Meola seem genuinely excited with the project and still look impossibly cool. Check it out for US and European dates: http://www.return2forever.com/