Bass Notes: Stanley Clarke Talks All That Jazz

Jazz-rock fusion pioneer performs the Lensic, July 21

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Stanley Clarke doesn’t like to use words like “fusion,” “funk jazz” and “jazz rock” to qualify his contributions to the world of jazz music: “In those days, we didn't really call ourselves anything, because those terms came after us,” Clarke said. “So to me, when people say ‘fusion’ or ‘funk,’ it's a little confusing."

Nonetheless, few musicians have done more to solidify these subgenres into the pantheon of American music. And this is musical territory that Clarke promises to explore this Sunday night during a concert at the Lensic, that also includes Zach Brock on violin, John Beasley on keyboards and Michael Mitchell on drums.

“Usually, what I do, is I play some acoustic bass,” said Clarke, “then I pick up the electric bass and anyone that knows me, knows that immediately the band is going to get louder. One...Two...Three...Four...Bang!”

Stanley Clarke is one of the most celebrated bassists in the world, a distinction he’s carried with him since the early 1970s and continues to hold today. In 2011 he won a Grammy for Best contemporary Jazz Album for “The Stanley Clarke Band,” a return to the jazz-rock studio band sounds of the ‘70s. The same year, Clarke won another Grammy for his work with jazz-fusion group Return to Forever. In 2012 he took home a Grammy in the Best Instrumental Album category for “Forever.” Clarke is also an accomplished composer, conductor and orchestrator.

In his early twenties, Clarke was approached by virtuoso keyboardist and composer Chick Corea to join the Return to Forever project, a vehicle for Corea’s intricate yet explosive jazz-rock compositions. The world of jazz was in the midst of transition. In 1970, Miles Davis released “Bitches Brew,” a challenging and immeasurably influential album featuring an all-star cadre of musicians that included Corea, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul and many others. In the years that followed, these musicians went on to create some of the most popular, innovative and controversial jazz that the world had heard in the form of bands like Weather Report, the Headhunters, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever.

Clarke and his aggressive, syncopated electric bass playing with Return to Forever launched both the musician and his instrument into new heights of popularity. Clarke followed up with a series of successful solo records (“Children of Forever,” “Stanley Clarke,” “Journey to Forever,” “School Days”), establishing his rock star status. “On some of my earlier records, when I’d play electric bass, I'd call people I knew in the rock world. I'd call Jeff Beck -- I love Jeff Beck -- and people would say, ‘Why do you call him? Why don't you call George Benson?’ and I'd say, ‘Why? I want to play electric bass.’”

Despite his reputation as an electric bass player, Clarke said he considers himself an acoustic bass player at heart. Fresh out of the Philadelphia Academy of Music, Clarke cut his teeth on the upright bass performing with legends like Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Pharaoh Saunders, Gil Evans and Stan Getz. “I love passing tradition down because when I was young and played with those older guys, these were like the old guard,” Clarke said. “I mean these guys are dead now. And I learned so much about being a musician. I learned about the history. I learned the good stuff. The bad stuff. And the really bad stuff."

Clarke has shifted his focus onto the younger generations, employing both hungry and talented musicians in recording sessions and concerts alongside more seasoned jazz musicians. “Maybe I picked this up from Miles Davis, maybe I finally understand what Miles was trying to do,” Clarke said. “I love playing with younger players, young players come along and you pass certain traditions down musically and certain stories and certain types of codes you pass down to players and you actually see them grow.”

Stanley Clarke performs at the Lensic, Sunday, July 21. Click here for ticket information.

Here are some additional quotes from the interview:

On playing electric bass in the '70s:
"The younger guys, when Jaco Pastorious came along -- even though he was my age, he was viewed as a younger guy -- he wasn't quite initially accepted by the old guard because electric bass wasn't something that you studied. You played electric bass on the side."

On Weather Report:
"Weather Report's stuff was a little more, it wasn't so ensemble based. It had that but their charts were a little more simple than ours, you know. I think Return to Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra, our music was a little more complicated."

On Jaco Pastorious:
"Event though me and Jaco were similar in age, I always looked at him as a younger guy. He always used to hate that. But he played jazz on electric bass and I thought that was cool because at least somebody could get it to sound good. Weather Report, Return to Forever, they got kids and younger people to actually take the electric bass serious."

"I wish Jaco were still alive because he'd really dig this, because now you can go into school as an electric bass player and your major is electric bass. That wasn't true in the '70s and definitely not in the '60s."

On electric versus acoustic bass:
"I have never, ever consider myself an electric bass player. I am an acoustic bass player who plays electric bass."

On the study of jazz:
"One of the best things that Charlie Parker ever said was, learn all your technique, study your scales, study your chords. Then forget it all and just play."

On smooth jazz:
"There was this whole smooth jazz radio thing, which was, in my opinion, social manipulation using music. They got rid of all this hardcore jazz stuff that had to do with heavy improvisation. They focused in on music…that sounded like R&B music in the rhythm section, then a sax player or acoustic guitar on the top…We knew that that wasn't going to last."

On the terms "fusion" and "funk":
"In those days, we didn't really call ourselves anything, because those terms came after us. I don't think Bach or Beethoven called themselves classical musicians, you know. They were just musicians…So to me when you say "jazz," "fusion," "funk," to me it's a little confusing."

On defining jazz:
"Jazz is a real undefined term. I mean, someone may look at Kenny G as being a jazz musician. Someone may say he's not a jazz musician. Someone may say David Koz is a jazz musician. The string that goes through Kenny G's music, or Joe Henderson's music, or John Coltrane's music is improvisation. That's the common denominator."

On introducing jazz to younger generations:
"There's a tradition in jazz music to pass stuff down. A lot of the young people who came to listen to Return to Forever and Weather Report, they didn't know anything about Art Blakey or even Miles Davis, or any of that stuff."

On improvisation:
"If you have improvisation in your music, you can have a rock band -- you're taking a solo and everyone's respecting that, that act. The act of doing that can be traced all the way back to Louise Armstrong and all those guys doing that. That's the most important string that strings all our music together."

On jazz tradition:
"The only thing I regret in music today is when some of those old traditions get dismissed and belittled. I don't mean that all music should have improvisation in it. I think a lot of of pop groups are starting to realize that."

On composing on the bass:
"When I write a song, if it's something funky, probably 10 out of 10 times it will be on electric bass. But one of the things that I think is pretty unique to me is that I can get pretty funky on the acoustic bass…I don't really play jazz on the electric bass. The way I approach the electric bass in different than the acoustic bass. I approach the electric bass really aggressively. I was really aggressive on that instrument."

Acoustic

Electric

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