Rather than taking the trio back on the road, though, Clarke, Corea, and White decided to support the US launch of Forever with a new Return to Forever touring band that includes Ponty and Australian sweep-picking master Gambale, who has recorded and performed with Corea several times over the years.

We spoke with Clarke recently about the double album, his collaboration with Miller and Wooten, his to-die-for gear, and his philosophies on music as a vocation.

Although the first Forever disc features acoustic-jazz instrumentation, you can definitely hear jazz-fusion thinking within the straight-ahead stuff.

Yeah. It’s very difficult to have a partition between genres. I think that’s true in all music today. You really have to put your mind into it, like “Okay, it’s straight-ahead and I’m going to do it in the style from 1960 to 1965 Miles Davis.” It’s difficult. I think those days are over. One of the things I love about young players right now is that it’s all there. You even hear hip-hop influences in their stuff. It’s cool.

Stanley Clarke plays his Lemur Music-made upright through a Ampeg SVT-2PRO head and an Ampeg
cab at De Oosterpoort in Groningen, Netherlands, on November 13, 2009. Photo by Klaas Guchelaar

One of the guests on Forever is Chaka Khan. A lot of people think of her as a funk singer because of her groundbreaking work with Rufus in the ’70s, but on this album she sounds like a seasoned jazz singer—she does some sweet scat singing.

Chaka has always been a big, big, big jazz fan. She’s a serious musician, and whenever we call her to sing, she loves to do it. But you have to remember that in the ’70s, she and Rufus had hits and managers that were kind of controlling. That’s all they wanted you to see. The perception of an artist from an audience’s point of view is completely different from what the guys and girls are really like. I know country artists that, if you go to their house, they’ve got Miles Davis and Coltrane on.

Bill Connors also makes a return appearance.

At the end of the last RTF tour, the band and Al Di Meola decided to go separate ways. We were wondering what we should do for the guitar scene, and Chick came up with the idea to call Billy. I didn’t even know if he was still playing. We called him up and he says, “Yeah, I’m still playing.” So he came in and we messed around. He rehearsed a bit with us and took some music home. He came back again and hung out. And so he played with us at the Hollywood Bowl. The thing I like about Billy is that he’s always a warm player—he’s a melodic player. And he still has that.

You’ve been playing with Lenny White since you were teenagers. How would you describe the way you interact musically?

We’re both predictable to each other. That can be a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing. So we have to work on trying to surprise each other and amp the game up. We’ve been together 40 years now. You know, you have this musical mind and two or three people can be the owners of that mind. And that’s a great thing. But what makes it even better is when you challenge it—when you go against that mind. Everyone will start smiling, and it’ll throw everybody back into playing games— it’s great. My logic tells me that maybe it would be boring because we’re both predictable— I know what he’s going to do and he knows what I’m going to do—but I’m pretty sure what we’re doing sounds great.