Stanley Clarke: Innovative Forever

stanley1.jpg Stanley Clarke is one of the more innovative bass players this world has ever known.  He exploded onto the jazz world in 1971, fresh out of the Philadelphia Academy of Music.  Arriving in New York City, he immediately landed gigs with bandleaders such as Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Pharaoh Sanders, and Gil Evans before running in to a blossoming young pianist-composer named Chick Corea.

Clarke instantly became recognized for his ferocious dexterity and mastery on the bass.  He was an expert performing his instrument’s traditional role as a timekeeper, yet he possessed a sense of lyricism and melody inspired by his bass heroes Charles Mingus, and Scott LaFaro, as well as non-bass players like John Coltrane.  Clarke was uniquely qualified to take the bass to new levels, as a viable, melodic solo instrument positioned at the front of the stage rather than in a background role, a vision that became reality when he and Corea formed the seminal electric jazz/fusion band Return To Forever, along with Airto Moreira and, later Al Di Meola.

Along with Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever was one of the bands that ushered in the evolution of jazz fusion music in the 1970s.  The band was a showcase for each of the quartet’s strong musical personalities, offering strong compositions combined with rare musical prowess to form a new breed of jazz that was truly unique.

“We really didn’t realize how much of an impact we were having on people at the time,” Clarke recalls. “We were touring so much then, we would just make a record and then go back on the road.”  The band worked constantly, recording eight albums while touring incessantly through 1977.  Two of their albums, Return To Forever and Romantic Warrior, were certified gold, while the band also won a GRAMMY for No Mystery and received countless other award nominations.  Though no official announcement has been made, Return to Forever is set to reunite to play shows throughout the US starting in summer 2008, and to tour Europe in 2009.


During this time period, Clarke began to launch out on his own, first releasing his eponymous Stanley Clarke debut.  Two years later he released School Days, an album whose title track is now a bona fide bass anthem, and is often said to have begun the 70s bass revolution and paved the way for all bassists/soloists/bandleaders to follow.  It was also during this time that Clarke pioneered the often imitated percussive slap-funk bass technique.  Though it is true that Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone had already developed a rudimentary slap technique, it was Clarke who took the idea and ran with it, taking it to new levels by adapting the technique to complex jazz harmonies. As he says, “Larry started it, but he had only one lick. I took it from there. A lot of guys could jam all day in E, but couldn’t play it over changes.”

Clarke would soon become the first bassist in history to headline tours, sell out shows worldwide, and record albums that would become certified gold.  By the ripe young age of 25, he was already regarded as a pioneer in the jazz fusion movement, and the first bassist to double on acoustic and electric bass with equal virtuosity.  In his ongoing efforts to take the bass to new heights, Clarke invented two new instruments, the piccolo bass and the tenor bass.  The piccolo bass is tuned one octave higher than the traditional electric bass, while the tenor version is tuned one fourth higher than standard.  Both instruments have enabled Clarke to extend his melodic range to higher and more expressive registers that few others could have imagined.{mospagebreak}

For the next two decades, Clarke teamed numerous musicians, both on tour and in the studio, including world tours with Jeff Beck, Keith Richards’ New Barbarians, Animal Logic (with Stuart Copeland), The Rite of Strings (with Jean-Luc Ponty and Al Di Meola), and The Superband (with Larry Carlton, Billy Cobham, Najee and Deron Johnson).  His creativity has been recognized and rewarded in most every conceivable manner, ranging from gold and platinum records, GRAMMY Awards, Emmy Awards, and winner of virtually every readers and critics poll in existence including being named Rolling Stone’s very first Jazzman of the Year, and bassist winner of Playboy’s Music Award for ten straight years.

In the mid-80’s, Clarke, always in search of new challenges, turned his boundless creative energy to film and television scoring, first on the small screen with an Emmy-nominated score for Pee Wee’s Playhouse. He soon moved on to the big screen, where he has served  as composer, orchestrator, conductor and performer of scores for films such as Boyz ‘N the Hood, Little Big League, Passenger 57, and Poetic Justice.  Clarke can currently be heard on the series Lincoln Heights for the ABC Family Network.

stanley3.jpg “Film has given me the opportunity to compose large orchestral scores and to compose music not normally associated with myself,” says Clarke. “It’s given me the chance to conduct orchestras and arrange music for various types of ensembles. It’s been a diverse experience for me musically, made me a more complete musician, and focused my skills completely."

Early last year, Clarke joined forces with the Heads Up International label to release Night School: An Evening with Stanley Clarke and Friends. The 90-minute DVD chronicles the third annual Stanley Clarke Scholarship Concert, held at Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA, in October 2002. The concert featured guest performances by Stevie Wonder, Wallace Roney, Bela Fleck, Sheila E., Stewart Copeland, Flea, Wayman Tisdale, Marcus Miller and more, capturing performances that range from straight-ahead jazz to full-tilt rock fusion to 22-piece string arrangements.

Clarke followed Night School with the October 2007 release of The Toys of Men, a 13-track CD examining the emotional upheaval caused by war, mixing his fiery electric bass attack with acoustic bass interludes that provide a stirring counterpoint to Clarke’s better known electric performances.  On this release, Clarke finds himself filling the role of an artist reaching out across borders, offering his attempt to hold civilization together through music.

“If you study history, and the history of warfare,” he says, “it boils down to some very simple dynamics.  When there are disagreements and disputes between countries, people always go back to their toys and how they can use them to intimidate their adversaries. This goes all the way back to the days when we were fighting each other with swords and shields, and even rocks and clubs.  It’s just a part of human nature, particularly with men. There’s this basic belief, however flawed as it might be, that the only way you’re really going to get what you want is by conquering someone or something. In those moments in history when we’ve been at war or on the brink of war, the whole idea of just allowing something to be what it is just doesn’t exist.”

The title track of The Toys of Men, a six-part suite and the cornerstone that opens the 13-song collection, focuses on this recurring phenomenon of human history, running the gamut of human emotions, from the dark and violent to the uplifting and transcendent.

“When you listen to the song in all of its parts,” Clarke explains, “it has a lot of different emotions going on in it. There’s fear, there’s confusion, there’s chaos, all of those things that we associate with war and destruction. But at the end, in those segments entitled ‘The Opening of the Gates’ and ‘God Light,’ there’s ultimately hope.”

“Come On,” which follows the opening suite, is a song that offers a different twist of social commentary.  Clarke says the track is, “about letting go of the things that are holding you back, and finding some peace within yourself. Sometimes when I’m playing music, I just want to tell people, ‘Come on, drop the baggage. Drop the negative energy and be more positive.’”

stanley_toysofmen.jpg The quiet acoustic interludes of The Toys of Men, while seemingly understated, offers a glimpse of optimism for today’s trying times. While much of the subject matter of the album seems bleak, Clarke’s outlook remains optimistic.

 “I do believe that civilization is headed toward a golden age,” he says. “I may not see it in my lifetime, but I do believe that people approach their differences with at least a little more civility than they did in earlier centuries. I think there will come a day when men will in fact drop the baggage and the negative energy once and for all, put down the dangerous toys and talk to each other like human beings.”

In speaking of these acoustic interludes, Clarke says, “I actually recorded those tracks in my dining room. It has a very high ceiling and a lot of wood. I just put the bass in there and rolled tape. I’ve really been practicing with the acoustic bass a lot in the last couple years, and I’ve developed some different techniques and styles. A lot of that has come from touring with Jean-Luc Ponty and Al Di Meola in Rite of Strings. Working with them, I’ve developed a way to play the acoustic bass as a truly solo instrument.”

More than three and a half decades in to his career, this innovative artist continues to develop new techniques, new ways to approach his instrument that keep him amongst the most inspirational players of this new millennium. While his impressive body of work would seem more than enough for most, Clarke is an artist who refuses to settle.  With Return To Forever preparing for a triumphant return, and an untold backlog of ideas that he has yet to unleash upon the world, it would seem that Stanley Clarke will remain a musical force; a luminary of just how far a bass can be taken, for many years to come.