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March 7-14, 2007

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Stanley Clarke

Stanley and Stevie: Clarke and Wonder kick out the jams, while the rest of us are subtly encouraged to attend the Musicians Institute.

Ace of Bass

Stanley Clarke on musical invention, business intervention and the likelihood of a Return to Forever

By Bill Forman


Put yourself in Stanley Clarke's place: A musical prodigy who'd left his hometown Philadelphia for the jazz clubs of New York City as a teenager, he was barely 20 years old when he'd already begun playing with jazz greats like Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon. In fact, some 35 years later, the legendary bass innovator is just now getting around to putting himself in the young Stanley Clarke's place.

"Everything was moving so fast, I really didn't have time to react to a lot of it," says Clarke, who played with a who's who of jazz musicians before landing his best-known gig with Chick Corea in Return to Forever. "I find myself reacting now to things that have happened to me in the past."

"For me at that time, every week something was different," says Clarke of his early days in New York. "I was kind of a gunslinger, a bass-slinger. I was just going from gig to gig, just doing the best I can, making a name for myself. I mean, while I was playing with Pharoah Sanders on one hand, which was a very Afro-centric group obviously, at the same time I was playing with Stan Getz, who had 'Girl From Ipanema' and that kind of Brazilian, kind of smooth, kind of cool jazz kind of thing."

It was Clarke who played bass on Sanders' 1971 Black Unity album. "I was a big Coltrane fanatic and I just loved the energy of Coltrane and all the people that played with him," says Clarke, "so yeah, it felt so natural playing with Pharaoh. He was a sweet guy, too, he was real nice to me. I mean, I've played with a lot of people, some that weren't nice, and he was genuinely a really warm human being."

Other gigs may have been less than pleasant, although one of the least pleasant turned out to be among the most auspicious. "I was playing in this really dingy jazz club, playing with some really fucked-up group, and this guy walks up and says, 'Man, you have a lot of charisma.' And I looked at this guy and I'm, Who the hell is this guy?"

Nat Weiss, it turned out, would become Clarke's mentor through some of the best bass-driven albums in jazz history. An attorney for the Beatles--"He was Brian Esptein's partner," says Clarke---Weiss was in the process of starting his own Nemperor label.

"You hear these really romantic stories of guys--you know, the guy who walks into a club and discovers somebody?--well, Nat was that guy," says Clarke. "I came to his office and he said, 'Here's 25 grand, go make an album.' I said, 'Man, I'm not gonna make an album. How in the hell am I gonna make an album? What am I gonna do?' He said, 'Don't you write music?' I said, 'Yeah, I write music.' 'Just go write some music and make a record.'"

Clarke did just that, and the resulting album, Stanley Clarke, was a work of genius much more eclectic and sophisticated than the by-the-numbers jazz fusion that sometimes followed in Return to Forever's wake.

"He was a real interesting guy, a visionary--you know, he'd see things," enthuses Clarke. "And for my first three records, he was right there. He was really--he believed. You don't have a lot of those kind of guys now anymore. You have guys that believe in how much money they're gonna make off of you ..."

The world would soon follow. On both counts.

A giant among bass players, Clarke transitioned from his acoustic bass to electric, favoring the Alembic, whose short scale further contrasted with his own lanky form. "I'm 6-foot-3, maybe 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-3-1/2, I stopped counting," laughs Clarke, who'd taken up the upright bass after he'd physically outgrown the violin and cello. "I never really studied the electric bass. Everything I do is pretty much from the acoustic bass. I mean, coming from the acoustic bass, which is like a serious long scale, going to those piccolo and tenor basses was pretty different. But when it comes to playing lead bass, they just sound better."

Clarke would play lots of lead bass--on his solo records as well as in his role with Return to Forever--bringing together an unprecedented array of techniques ranging from Larry Graham-style popping to ragalike chordal explorations.

"I really didn't get caught up in how the bass should be played," recalls Clarke, who instead just drew upon "a lot of the things that I liked--different influences, off and on the bass." In the latter category, Clarke cites among his influences "Ron Carter, who played with Miles Davis, and Scott LaFaro, who played with Bill Evans; on electric bass, Larry Graham, Paul McCartney and Billy Cox, the guy who played with Hendrix."

As a result, Clarke's own music turned out to be as varied and eclectic as his own influences.

"I was very fortunate that the environment was probably a little more flexible than it is now, and so I was able to make records like that, you know? So I was very lucky. It was a good time back then, actually, in the '70s, for that sort of thing."

But, as Ray Charles once told writer Stanley Booth, the record business would soon go from being run by guys like Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun, who really knew and cared about music, to a new generation of record industry folks who, as Ray put it, "couldn't clap in time to a march."

"I knew Ahmet very well," says Clarke of the legendary founder of Atlantic Records (which was Nemperor's distributor), who died last December. "I just saw him in Europe, when he came to a show to see me and George Duke, and we spent some time together. He came in his wheelchair, a pretty girl on his arm, a cognac in one hand and a cigar in other."

Legends aside, Clarke figures the record industry's obsession with growth was its own undoing.

"They've gotten so big they're almost eating themselves up. You know, particularly Sony. I mean, imagine: Sony was so full of it they never realized they were selling stuff that actually ended up hurting them. They were selling the computers that people were stealing the music on. They just didn't figure it out. They got so big that the intelligence didn't get as big as the animal; the intelligence stayed the same. I knew all those guys that ran that company, I knew them all personally, and you know, they weren't rocket scientists. It's the truth. They just weren't. They did the best they could, though." [Laughs.]

One area where labels did look out for their own self-interest was in owning the rights to artists' masters, so that, as Clarke puts it, we can today "turn on the TV at night and see these Time-Warner commercials selling Rock & Roll of the '70s! The Beats of the '80s! I mean, none of these artists ever intended to be on the same albums. I mean Carlos Santana never intended to be on the same album as Journey. I know he didn't. I know Carlos, and I know those guys. But because he didn't own his masters, it ended up that way. Those guys knew back then that the masters were gonna be worth a ton of money.

"And I think--speaking of Ray Charles--I think that because he was blind, he never became intimidated by these guys with the suits and the desks and all that stuff, the big offices. He's one of the only ones--he might be the only one--who owned his own masters. And they gave it to him. And now his kids can license them, and his records are just gonna keep selling.

Clarke says he's in the process of acquiring his own back catalog ("I got the first and last album back") and is thinking about reissuing his other works in creative ways not likely to include Journey.

"When I left Sony, there was a little problem and they knew they had to give me something," he explains. "And so I said, 'Look, when I come to you, I want to license my songs and my records, and I don't want any problems, so let's just do the deal now."

Another aspect of Clarke's past that continues to come up is, of course, his work with Chick Corea. Clarke says the last time they played together was during Corea's 60th birthday party concert at the Hollywood Bowl.

"The only band I really got caught up into was when I finally got with Chick, you know?" says Clarke of the bandleader who may never return to forever.

"I think now it's more Chick than anything," says Clarke of the keyboardist who's 10 years his senior and reluctant to take part in a reunion. "The other two guys wanna do it. I surely think it would be a great idea. And Chick's kind of a little cold on the idea. But I don't think he's seen a lot of the offers. I don't think that money is necessarily--even though these offers are pretty substantial--that's only part of it for him. It's hard to say sometimes why people don't do things or why they do things. It's such a personal thing. I really don't know."

But those reunion offers are still coming in. "Yeah, all the time," says Clarke. "Matter of fact, two came in this week. And it's only Wednesday."


Stanley Clarke plays Monday, March 12, at 7 and 9pm at the Kuumbwa, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $26 adv/$29 door. (831.427.2227)


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