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Stanley Clarke

Stanley Clarke: Music for the Making

 

Bassist/composer/educator Stanley Clarke remains one of the giants of jazz, in height as well as stature. During his four decade-long career he has amassed a stellar list of accolades including Grammys and Emmys, gold and platinum records, honorary doctorates, topping readers’ and critics polls and more. He’s played with many on jazz’s A List: Chick Corea, Al diMeola, George Duke, Béla Fleck, Jean-Luc Ponty, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Larry Carlton, and countless others … even with rockers Jeff Beck and Keith Richards.

A world-celebrated bassist, Clarke is a redoubtable doubler; that is, he performs—with undisputed virtuosity—on both acoustic and electric bass. He has invented new prototype basses, such as the piccolo bass and was one of the first to pioneer the funky slap ‘n’ pop technique back in the ’70s.

Not one to rest on his exceptional laurels as a bassist, Clarke also became an established composer, first penning the score for Pee Week’s Playhouse (Emmy-nominated), and then writing the soundtracks for several blockbusters including Boyz ‘N the Hood, What’s Love Got To Do With It?, The Transporter, Passenger 57 and others. His music score can currently be heard on the TV series Lincoln Heights.

Last May, Jacksonville Jazz Festival enthusiasts witnessed the world debut performance of Clarke’s first-ever acoustic jazz trio, coinciding with the release of his new album, Jazz in Garden. Joining Clarke were his former Return to Forever compatriot, drummer Lenny White, and the dynamic, young Japanese-born keyboardist/composer, Hiromi Uehara. I had the honor of speaking with Clarke a few weeks prior to his trio’s impressive concert.

Abstract Logix: I understand that your upcoming performance here in Jacksonville, Florida in a few weeks will be your new jazz trio’s world debut concert.

 

Stanley Clarke

Stanley Clarke

 

Stanley Clarke: That’s right. It will be the trio’s first-ever live gig. This is a real acoustic jazz trio. It’s not electric … you won’t be hearing “School Days.” It’s all acoustic jazz music.

AL: A couple of years ago I saw you on tour with Béla Fleck and John-Luc Ponty. That was a mostly acoustic trio as well …

SC: You’re right. But a traditional acoustic jazz trio is piano, bass and drums. You have to go back to … there have been a lot of acoustic jazz trios and so this trio kind of brings some of that jazz tradition back. I hear a lot of jazz trios or even acoustic trios but with different instrumentation, like in bluegrass or in world music, for example. But specifically in jazz—bebop or straight ahead—you’ll usually find jazz trios consisting of piano, bass and drums.

AL: You’ve accomplished so much in your celebrated career. Why did you decide to create an acoustic jazz trio album at this juncture?

SC: Because I wanted to. I don’t feel particularly tied down or affected much by radio. I mean, it’s fine to get a hit record but this was just a purely artistic move. I wasn’t even particularly thinking of touring with this trio at first, to be quite honest. This may sound stupid but it didn’t matter to me whether anybody bought the record or not {laughs}. I’m sure the record company wouldn’t want me to say that, but it’s the truth. It’s just something I really wanted to do that I hadn’t yet done as Stanley Clarke per se.
But that’s where I grew up. That’s where I come from, a jazz background. And when I was a kid, studying acoustic bass for instance, I bought a lot of records—we’re talking vinyl now—by the great Bill Evans trio. He had a fantastic bassist by the name of Scott LaFaro. I used to listen to him as a kid and I still do. It’s kind of a full circle for me in that it was part of my musical upbringing. So I just made the record. I’m not forcing it down any body’s throat; I’m not saying somebody has to come see me play. It’s just purely something I wanted to do that made me feel good. Maybe it’s a little self-indulgent, but hey, nobody’s being forced to do anything.
And I also think it’s a very good record. The sound of the acoustic bass is really special because I wanted to make sure that … I think on all the records that I’ve done, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve spent a lot of time and paid a lot of attention as to how the bass comes across on the recording. Because I’ve sort of been one of those guys who’s been pushing the bass forward. And on this album, the acoustic bass sounds really good, it doesn’t get any better. I think it comes across really clear.

AL: Which is saying a lot because the acoustic bass isn’t an easy instrument to mic or amplify accurately.

SC: Right. And here’s the other thing: it’s very difficult to play. And that’s another thing, people that like bass music, when they think of this type of music or somebody playing something difficult, they might think, “Ooh, Stanley Clarke’s ‘School Days’ or Marcus Miller or Victor Wooten, or Jaco Pastorius,” whoever, you know? And that’s all fine. But I’m telling you as a bass player, the real difficult shit on the bass is the acoustic bass. That’s the real, the real bass {laughs}. Again, I’m not forcing that on anybody, but you know, people like what they like and that’s great. But nevertheless it’s a different thing. I had to spend a lot time studying that instrument. To be able to play it the way I do takes a lot of time. It ain’t natural. I didn’t wake up playing like this {laughs}.

AL: I once read that you had started out on violin but eventually you were moved over to the bass because your hands were too big …

SC: Well, I started out on violin. But I had a short career on that instrument and an even shorter one on cello. And then I finally got to the bass.

AL: In following your career for several decades now, I’ve noticed that you’ve been playing more acoustic bass rather than the electric more recently.

SC: That’s right. I’ve been practicing it more and the gigs that I’ve been getting have been more acoustic bass-oriented. I really get a kick out of playing it. For me, I feel more natural when I’m on the acoustic bass. Although, I just recently played in Texas and I played two outdoor shows. Prior to that I had been doing a lot of clubs with a little band playing predominately acoustic music. But since we were doing some outdoors show I thought I should pull the electric bass out, or a combination of the two. And we had a very cool balance there. We actually started out with a few electric tunes and then I switched over to acoustic and then came back at the end and played “School Days.” So it was a really nice balance.
You know, I really do like playing the electric bass. I actually I think I appreciate and understand it more now than when I was younger and playing it more often. I was so much a part of it. I was like it, I was an electric bass. But now I can sit back and look it differently. It’s really a lot of fun playing that instrument. For me, the time when I came up playing the electric bass there were no books about it really. I think Carol Kaye had a Motown groove book out but it was oriented more toward beginner players. There was really no literature out there. So most of us just learned on our own. And so it’s really interesting, because a lot of the older bass players who are out there … It’s one of the reasons why back then there was probably more uniqueness of styles or that you could really hear how each person played it differently than the next. I mean, imagine me and Jaco coming up at the same time! Because he completely played the electric bass differently than I did, even though we both played a lot of notes.

AL: And others such as Percy Jones from Brand X and then Jeff Berlin and even rock guys such as John Wetton and Chris Squire.

SC: Yeah, and other guys like Larry Graham and Chuck Rainey. All these different bassists. Because we didn’t really study under teachers back then. One of the problems with studying with books is that it becomes much easier for you to sound like the crowd, because everyone is using the same books. What I like to do with my students is have them study through some sort of method books, but at the same time I really stress that they write their own music for the electric bass. Don’t wait for a keyboardist or guitarist to write something for you. You write your own music. Something that’s unique to the bass. And that kind of opens that door for personal creativity so your own style will tend to come out more.
For me, I’m always looking at different things. Particularly if you’re the sort of person who has a lot of music in your head, and you’re dealing with an instrument that has limits per se, you’re going to be always striving to find something that works on the instrument. Like, “Okay if I play 10ths, so far as chords or intervals are concerned, that’s going to be the clearest thing. If I play octaves or fifths, they’re going to be pretty clear. But I’m going to stay away from thirds down in the lowest strings of the instrument because they’ll sound pretty muddy” {chuckles}. So you start figuring things out and you develop this arsenal of things that you can do. And the only thing you have to do to make it work is to make it musical.
Like, a musician that’s playing an instrument that has a lot of tricks and things you can do and devices, etcetera, etcetera . If you just play them in a row but there’s no musicality, there’s no rhyme or reason for any of those licks, then it sounds like crap. But if you can figure out to do it, take the time to be musical. That’s why, again, I always stress that people write music for themselves. Write something that’s like … For instance, I wrote these tunes called “Bass Folk Songs.” There are ten of them now. They’re the best things I ever did. Just writing music that’s specific to you, not “I’m going to write some music for the bass.” But, “I’m going to write this music for Stanley.” You know? Who just happens to be a bass player.
So if you’re a bass player and you really wanted to have some fun … You know after a while you play a C major scale, you play a G major scale or whatever, it gets boring. Once you play a C scale, then you can play it. The only real reason to play it again is to warm up or if you want to play it faster for some reason. So the next thing after that is, what can you do with that C scale? How are you going incorporate that in to a song or some part of it? And then you write that so you actually have some music. Because the music is what makes the person come back to the instrument. And it’s funny because it doesn’t matter what level the player is at, he or she could be one the most advanced musicians in the world or a near beginner playing something simple, who just plays something that sounds good them, then that is their own song. Something that they can feel confident about performing because to them, it’s a composition. Then you put that away and in time, you write another one. And you learn. You learn much about yourself and music.

AL: I can hear that in your own approach, certainly. And especially on your new album, I hear it in the arrangement your trio did of the traditional Japanese folk song, “Sakura, Sakura.”

SC: Yeah, the cherry blossom song. That melody is over 200 years old. There are certain melodies in particular cultures that people have a lot of reference to, and this is one of them. When Hiromi and I would talk about it or when we were going to play it, her whole facial expression changed. It’s just natural for her because the melody is so indigenously Japanese. I didn’t want to overplay it. I just wanted to make a musical statement. Then Hiromi started reharmonizing the melody and I changed some bass notes and we came with up with a pretty cool arrangement without messing with integrity of the melody.

AL: Tell me more about the opening track, “Paradigm Shift (Election Day 2008).”

SC: I was moved by Obama’s election but aside from that, I was keenly aware there was a paradigm shift in this country and it’s still happening. Sure, he’s the first African American president, but if you look at how he won the election, the way he won the election … He really connected with the younger voters. The way he used the Internet. My daughter went off to work on his campaign with a bunch of her friends. That demographic is so in his pocket. It was amazing how he beat the odds to won. Right after that I thought, “Let me write something down about this.” I actually wanted to entitle the album “Paradigm Shift” but the record company felt people wouldn’t get it. That’s about the only thing I gave in to, renaming it Jazz in the Garden, to coincide with the album cover.

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