In jazz jargon “monster” is a compliment of the highest order. It intimates that the artist in question has achieved superb, possibly peerless, musicianship. Many jazz artists, especially those of the fusion persuasion, would associate that mammoth epithet to Stanley Clarke.
The 68-year-old American jazz bassist is due over, for a two-gig date at the Reading venue in Tel Aviv on July 1 (doors open, 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., while shows begin at 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.). He is bringing his current sextet with him, but Clarke has been there and done that with practically every titan of the art form for five decades now.
But, while he is known for his silky quicksilver dexterity on electric and acoustic basses, Clarke started out on the accordion and violin. That, he believes, only enhances his creative spread and take on his craft, even if he isn’t exactly a “monster” on everything.
“I still play several other instruments like piano and drums for fun,” he notes, “though certainly not professionally. Any exposure to different instruments is a good thing.”
He says he eventually ended up with the instrument for which he is known by default. “The bass pretty much chose me. I was late to class and only the acoustic bass was left when the students at my public elementary school in Philadelphia were choosing instruments for music class,” he recalls, adding that he has absolutely no regrets. “No one else wanted it. I guess it was meant to be! I’ve never looked back.”
The instrument’s public profile has shifted up a couple gears since back then. “To me, the bass is the best instrument in the world, because it’s the coolest! When I first started out, bassists were sort of the underdogs in a group. Now – since the bass revolution in the 1970s – it’s totally liberated. Bassists are band leaders, solo recording artists, leading tours, etc. I believe it’s considered the fastest expanding instrument in the past 10 to 20 years. Acoustic double bass is my first love. It’s what I learned on. On tour I perform on both acoustic and electric bass.” And he always leads from the front.
LIKE QUITE a few jazz musicians who came up in the Sixties and early Seventies, Clarke’s imagination was fired by one of the pioneers of the avant-garde movement.
“Someone gave me a John Coltrane album, A Love Supreme, in my teens that I fell in love with,” he said. It was an epiphany on several levels. “That album was the first time where I experienced music and spirituality come so close together. It took me many times of listening to fully grasp this music but I knew that there was something very special about this music and the musician.” Clarke was truly inspired. He began mining all kinds of sonic seams. “That experience motivated me to listen to artists like Miles Davis, Stan Getz and Charlie Parker. All are incredibly creative and innovative in their own way.”
He also had some pretty weighty co-professionals to feed off back in the early days. Clarke hails from Philadelphia, which has a rich jazz heritage of its own. But it was when he relocated to the Big Apple that he gained invaluable bandstand time with some of the veteran giants. “I was very fortunate in that when I came to New York to launch my career in my late teens, I immediately landed jobs with famous band leaders such as Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Pharaoh Saunders, Gil Evans and Stan Getz among others,” he notes. “They were great role models, each in different ways.”
He would have been hard pressed to get more illustrious mentors. “It was the best on-the-job training. One of the wonderful things about jazz is the nurturing that takes place of young musicians by the masters. I guess I was smart enough at that young age to sponge up all of the musical knowledge as well as leadership skills I possibly could. I couldn’t have asked for a better foundation to last me for a lifetime.”
In terms of fellow instrumentalists, who helped to illuminate his pathway to excellence, Clarke went for one of the masters of modern jazz who has been doing his stellar thing for close to six decades.
“Ron Carter is the greatest bass player in my mind. He is the most recorded bass player in history. Many bass players are influenced by Ron Carter and are not even aware that they are influenced by him indirectly.”
Indeed, now 82-year-old, Carter is said to have contributed to well over 2,000 recordings and, Clarke says, he has served as a beacon for the whole fraternity. “There is a little bit of Ron Carter in all bass players. Sometimes players come along and do something that’s very fantastical and should receive all the accolades and acclaim that is thrown their way but, when you look at the big picture of music and you truly inspect the musical life of Ron Carter, you see all the various different types of music and composers he’s played for and all the groundbreaking records that he was a part of, and listen to what other bass players say about him. The results of his musical life was quite an achievement.”
CLARKE CAME from a musical home. “My mother was a semi-professional opera singer, so there was certainly a classical influence. My father loved gospel. They didn’t push me into music, but it was very important in my home.” During his childhood, he also got into the commercial sounds of the day, imbibing Motown soul, rock and pop too.
Much of that came to performing and recording fruition when, in 1972, along with keyboardist Chick Corea, he established fusion band Return to Forever (RTF), which embraced Latin-oriented material along with jazz and rock. It was also key to Clarke’s musical and public profile continuum. “RTF had a huge impact on my career,” he states. “It was where I was really able to bring the bass to the front of the stage as a feature performer.”
The band also became a vehicle for Clarke’s emergence as a composer. “Another big thing that came out of my RTF years, influencing my future development, was that Chick challenged me to compose a song for an album. In fact, he said that if I composed a song they used, he would make it the title of the album and he did, Light as a Feather [in 1973]. Now that’s encouragement! I haven’t stopped composing.”
Clarke believes the band earned its place in jazz history, accessing new fan bases in the process.
“I feel RTF became a landmark because, along with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Weather Report, we sparked a jazz-rock movement. RTF was a good band. All of the musicians were in top form. We were something brand new that came at a time when a young audience was excited by instrumental music. I like to think that we were somewhat of an ‘exposure gateway’ of the time. Fans of rock were exposed to jazz and jazz fans were exposed to rock. It gave listeners an appetite for discovery.”
Clarke has certainly does his bit in that regard. In the late Seventies he teamed up with Rolling Stones guitarists Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards to form the New Barbarians. It was a great departure for the bassist. “Keith Richards is the best at what he does. He is the engine that drives the Rolling Stones musically. I enjoyed playing with The New Barbarians so much. It’s very difficult to explain the feeling of excitement on the stage with those guys. You would’ve had to have been there in my shoes. Many great stories come from that tour.”
OVER THE years, Clarke has written his fair share of soundtracks too. “I love composing for film. I think I’m up to over 70 film and television projects. In fact I recently did the original soundtrack for the documentary [about American fashion icon] Halston, which was released just a few days ago on Node Records.” The bassist enjoys the expansiveness of the genre, and the freedom it allows him.
“Film has given me the opportunity to write large orchestral scores and to compose music not normally associated with myself. It’s given me the chance to conduct orchestras and arrange music for various types of ensembles. It’s been a diverse experience for me musically, made me a more complete musician and focused my skills completely.”
As ever, Clarke says he is keeping his options open. “I’m always exploring. I’m currently working on another soundtrack. In addition, I have a lot of touring coming up as well as a new album I’m developing. One project I’ve always wanted to do is a semi-classical acoustic bass album. I enjoy doing a lot of different things.”
With all the above, and much more in Clarke’s bulging CV, and with a current band that includes, besides the usual suspects, a violinist and a tabla player, Monday’s Reading audiences should prepare for a ride and a half.For tickets and more information: https://www.etickets.co.il/
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