Fusion legend Stanley Clarke talks about his
double-bass roots, his bevy of Alembic electrics, why
all bassists should jam with other 4-stringers, and his
recent reunion album with fellow Return to Forever
bandmates Chick Corea and Lenny White.
By Dan Berkowitz
For those in the know, the name Stanley Clarke brings many things to mind—beautiful Alembic basses … funky
slap solos … a big Afro ... and, most likely, Return to Forever.
Founded by legendary keyboardist Chick Corea in 1972,
Return to Forever—along with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu
Orchestra and Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s Weather
Report—was hugely instrumental (no pun intended) in establishing the jazz-fusion genre. Though RTF has included such
noted players as session drummer Steve Gadd and guitarists Al
Di Meola, Earl Klugh, Bill Connors, and Frank Gambale (who
currently plays with the band), Clarke is the only member other
than Corea who’s been there from the get-go. Through this and
other vehicles, Clarke became one of a handful of 1970s bassists who brought electric bass to the forefront and gave it a solo
voice of its own.
In addition to RTF work, Clarke’s prodigious musical accom-
plishments over the years include collaborations with the likes
of Jeff Beck, Ron Wood, Larry Carlton, Jean Luc Ponty, Stewart
Copeland, and fellow bass gods Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten.
He also has a formidable track record in film scoring with credits
including such feature films as Boyz N the Hood and Like Mike 2,
television series like Lincoln Heights and Soul Food, made-for-TV
movies such as Murder She Wrote and The Red Sneakers, and even
Michael Jackson’s video for “Remember the Time.”
Considering that Clarke’s stellar career as a bassist has centered
on the electric, the last thing you might associate with him is the
upright bass. But all of that changed when he and longtime RTF
drummer Lenny White reunited with Corea for this year’s Forever.
In fact, after 2010’s Stanley Clarke Band album won a Grammy
for Best Contemporary Jazz Album, Clarke—now 60 years old—
asserted that he might not be recording and performing on electric
bass again for quite a while.
“I told Lenny that the worst thing in the world is for a guy over
60 years old to be playing electric bass. I get this picture of an old,
fat guy holding an electric bass, and I said, ‘It won’t be me.’”
While the thought of Clarke behind an upright bass may be new
for those used to seeing him groove on an Alembic, it’s nothing new
for him. He began his musical career at the age of 19, backing jazz
greats Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, and
Stan Getz in New York jazz clubs. “I didn’t formally study the electric
bass like the kids do today,” Clarke says, “but the acoustic bass is
something I studied—I was planning on joining an orchestra.”
When you listen to Clarke’s recent acoustic bass excursions on
Forever, his years of developing a unique electric bass style clearly
come through. “I’ve always viewed them as two completely differ-
ent instruments, but the music I play on the electric bass and the
music I play on the acoustic bass have a kind of cross-pollination,”
he says. “Personally, I think [playing both] makes you a better
player on both instruments.”
Forever comes with two discs. The first is a best-of collection
that includes tunes from the 2009 RTF Unplugged tour, jazz standards like “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Waltz for Debby,” RTF
classics such as “Señor Mouse” and “No Mystery,” and originals
by Clarke and Corea. The group’s founder plays acoustic piano on
all these songs, while Clarke is mostly on upright. The second disc
features studio tracks from rehearsals for a one-off Hollywood Bowl
concert that kicked off their world tour. It includes Corea, Clarke,
and White, as well as Jean Luc Ponty on violin, singer Chaka Khan,
and original RTF guitarist Bill Connors. On this disc, the acoustic
tunes are mixed with electric-driven tracks in the more traditional
RTF vein, with Corea getting behind his synths and Clarke bringing out his trusty Alembics.
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.