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Photo by Steven Park
For those in the know, the name Stanley Clarke brings many things to mind—beautiful Alembic basses … funky slap solos … a big Afro ... and, most likely, Return to Forever. Founded by legendary keyboardist Chick Corea in 1972, Return to Forever—along with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report—was hugely instrumental (no pun intended) in establishing the jazz-fusion genre. Though RTF has included such noted players as session drummer Steve Gadd and guitarists Al Di Meola, Earl Klugh, Bill Connors, and Frank Gambale (who currently plays with the band), Clarke is the only member other than Corea who’s been there from the get-go. Through this and other vehicles, Clarke became one of a handful of 1970s bassists who brought electric bass to the forefront and gave it a solo voice of its own.
In addition to RTF work, Clarke’s prodigious musical accomplishments over the years include collaborations with the likes of Jeff Beck, Ron Wood, Larry Carlton, Jean Luc Ponty, Stewart Copeland, and fellow bass gods Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten. He also has a formidable track record in film scoring with credits including such feature films as Boyz N the Hood and Like Mike 2, television series like Lincoln Heights and Soul Food, made-for-TV movies such as Murder She Wrote and The Red Sneakers, and even Michael Jackson’s video for “Remember the Time.”
Considering that Clarke’s stellar career as a bassist has centered on the electric, the last thing you might associate with him is the upright bass. But all of that changed when he and longtime RTF drummer Lenny White reunited with Corea for this year’s Forever. In fact, after 2010’s Stanley Clarke Band album won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album, Clarke—now 60 years old— asserted that he might not be recording and performing on electric bass again for quite a while.
“I told Lenny that the worst thing in the world is for a guy over 60 years old to be playing electric bass. I get this picture of an old, fat guy holding an electric bass, and I said, ‘It won’t be me.’”
While the thought of Clarke behind an upright bass may be new for those used to seeing him groove on an Alembic, it’s nothing new for him. He began his musical career at the age of 19, backing jazz greats Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, and Stan Getz in New York jazz clubs. “I didn’t formally study the electric bass like the kids do today,” Clarke says, “but the acoustic bass is something I studied—I was planning on joining an orchestra.”
When you listen to Clarke’s recent acoustic bass excursions on Forever, his years of developing a unique electric bass style clearly come through. “I’ve always viewed them as two completely different instruments, but the music I play on the electric bass and the music I play on the acoustic bass have a kind of cross-pollination,” he says. “Personally, I think [playing both] makes you a better player on both instruments.”
Forever comes with two discs. The first is a best-of collection that includes tunes from the 2009 RTF Unplugged tour, jazz standards like “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Waltz for Debby,” RTF classics such as “Señor Mouse” and “No Mystery,” and originals by Clarke and Corea. The group’s founder plays acoustic piano on all these songs, while Clarke is mostly on upright. The second disc features studio tracks from rehearsals for a one-off Hollywood Bowl concert that kicked off their world tour. It includes Corea, Clarke, and White, as well as Jean Luc Ponty on violin, singer Chaka Khan, and original RTF guitarist Bill Connors. On this disc, the acoustic tunes are mixed with electric-driven tracks in the more traditional RTF vein, with Corea getting behind his synths and Clarke bringing out his trusty Alembics.