Is Stanley Clarke the Rosa Parks of the electric bass?
With all the Victor Wootens, Michael Manrings and Marcus Millers out there, it’s easy to forget that not so very long ago, the electric bass was relegated to the back of the musical bus: While the lead instrumentalists frolicked in the spotlight, the bassist’s job was to do little more than keep time with the drummer and lay down simple grooves.
Then came Stanley Clarke. With the possible exception of Jaco Pastorius, no musician has done more than Clarke to help establish the bass guitar as a lead instrument in its own right. In the early ’70s, Clarke—previously known for his work with the fusion group Return to Forever as well as with jazz players like Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Art Blakey and Pharoah Sanders—took flight as a solo artist. Though it was almost unheard-of for a bass player to act as the leader of a band, Clarke’s undeniable skills made short work of the naysayers’ prejudices.
“I want to get some T-shirts made one of these days: ‘The bass is finally liberated!’” Clarke jokes. “You go to schools now, and people actually study the bass as a legitimate instrument.” The 58-year-old virtuoso adds that he frequently talks with young bass players who tell him they’re looking forward to the time when they’ll be making albums. “Now, whether all the records are gonna be good or not … probably not,” he chuckles. “That’s true with trumpet or guitar players, too. Now bassists have that freedom: They have the freedom to make shitty records! That’s great.”
In mid-June, Clarke himself will be putting out a new album, simply titled The Stanley Clarke Band. Whereas Clarke’s last record, 2009’s Jazz in the Garden, was an all-acoustic affair, his latest offering finds him with electric bass back in hand. Standout tracks from The Stanley Clarke Band include an acoustic/electric remake of the Chick Corea-penned Return to Forever tune “No Mystery” and a tour de force called “Sonny Rollins,” which Clarke counts among the best compositions he’s ever written.
The forthcoming record, one of Clarke’s favorites in quite some time, is the bassist’s second release to feature Japanese piano phenomenon Hiromi Uehara. Clark and Uehara will be performing at Kuumbwa Jazz as a duo on Monday, May 10. “She can play anything you put in front of her face,” Clarke says of the pianist. “She has more technique than any of us will ever need. [But] she’s not just a girl with a bunch of technique; she has a really deep, vast understanding of jazz language, particularly where improvisation is concerned.”
Along with Clarke and Uehara, the new record features drummer Ronald Bruner Jr., keyboardist Ruslan Sirota, saxophonist Bob Sheppard and 24-year-old guitarist Charles Altura. Clarke notes that this is the first time in a while that he’s worked with a guitarist or horn player. “A lot of them were sounding the same to me when the smooth jazz thing came,” he notes. “Sometimes it was difficult to figure out who was playing!”
The bassist adds that when he finishes making a record, he’s already thinking about his next project. In fact, while he awaits the release of The Stanley Clarke Band, he’s working on his next album, a solo acoustic bass effort which will consist of Bach cello pieces adapted for the bass as well as some originals. The record will feature a small chamber orchestra and may include a new song written for Clarke by his former Return to Forever bandmate Chick Corea. The musician says he hopes to complete this “straight-up classical record” by August.
“And then I’m gonna take up trumpet!” he jokes.
The Stanley Clarke/Hiromi Duo plays at 7 and 9 p.m. Monday, May 10, at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $28/advance, $31/door. For more information, call 427-2227 or go to kuumbwajazz.org.