An Interview with Stanley Clark - Looking Back

Stanley Clark

Written by H. Allen Williams

Stanley Clarke Bassist and composer Stanley Clarke, like his good friend Chick Corea with whom he has been touring this summer as part of the quartet Return Forever, has long been considered a musical genius and innovator in the world of music. Prior to embarking on this summer’s tour, which also includes Lenny White and Al Di Meola, Clarke took time to speak to H. Allen Williams about his current album The Toys Of Men, the changing landscape of the music industry, the Stanley Clarke Scholarship Fund and projects that he is developing.

The Toys Of Men, is an album whose opening and title track is comprised of six mini-movements, and the CD is one of the more creative recordings to come our way in years. "When I was touring with the band that plays on the record," says Clarke, "Ruslan Siorta (keyboards / piano), Mads Tolling (violin), Jef Lee Johnson (guitar) and Ronald Bruner, Jr. (drums), they were very intelligent. These guys are all like little intellectuals and while they were watching the news, they were always arguing about something, as they discussed world affairs from different perspectives. I thought that it would be cool to write a series of songs, which had references to conflict and tension in the world. That was to be the theme of the piece."

"There would also be the challenge of doing it without lyrics," continues Clarke, "which is one of the luxuries that rock and roll musicians have. It is much more difficult to convey that (conflict and tension) with just music. We needed to figure out how we were going to do this, and get it to be explosive. That, for me, was a great thing, because it made the musicians really get involved, particularly in that first piece. The notes were all written out, but that doesn’t always do it either. With music like this, interpretation is about sixty percent of the game. I learned that many years ago, playing with Chick Corea. Chick would write some amazing stuff, but it wouldn’t come to life, until somebody, and in particular the bands that we had, interpreted the notes," says Clarke."

"The first song, "The Toys Of Men," is broken down into words that describe each section ("Draconian," "Fear," "Chaos," "Cosmic Intervention," "The Opening Of The Gates," and "God Light). It starts out pretty grim, but then it ends with hope. It’s funny, because I have done interviews with people who try to pull out some heavy, introspective thought, or something from it. I had a lot of relatives who went to the Vietnam War and I almost went myself. When you sit and talk to them, it is pretty damn simple, people are shooting bullets at you, you don’t know who they are, and you have no beef with them, but they are trying to kill you. In some places in "The Toys Of Men, we tried to pull those things out. I think that we did a pretty good job. I am never a person to say that something is one hundred percent, but it is pretty close," Clarke says, and you can detect the sincerity in his voice, rather than a sense of smugness or his being boastful.

On the production side, Clarke was looking for a unique engineer, one who would grasp the essence of the music, without bringing with him significant overtones from other genres. Enter in Ed Thacker, who in addition to engineering the title track, also lent his production skills to "Come On," "Bad Asses," "La Cancion De Sofia," "El Bajo Negro," "Game" and "Chateauvallon 1972." Clarke says, "We didn’t want to get a standard jazz engineer, and we didn’t want to get a standard rock engineer, someone who just does those kinds of bands all day. The guy we got (Thacker), I recorded with many years ago. He records rock bands, but he also listens to other things. He has a wide taste in music and he understood (what we were trying to accomplish)."

One of the other songs, "Jerusalem," from the CD, The Toys Of Men, was inspired by a more tranquil moment. "I have been to Israel many times, and one of my favorite cities is Jerusalem. I am always astounded by this country (Israel) that is surrounded by its so-called enemies, and yet it is so calm there, particularly in Jerusalem. I remember getting up one morning while I was there, and it was very peaceful. I wanted to write a song about that feeling. I asked the keyboard player in the band to come up with a little sketch; he did, and then left me to finish it," Clarke recalls.

Just like the chaos and fear depicted in the early movements of "The Toys Of Men," Clarke sees parallels in the music industry, although he also detects hope and finds positive elements in the current music climate. By now, it has become apparent that Clarke pretty well speaks his mind, "The record industry is really screwed up. There are cool things about it with the whole idea that you can make your own records and then distribute them in cyberspace. You cannot, however, honestly answer the question as to what demographic is going after your record. Nobody’s records are promoted properly, and one might even say, and this may sound crude, but there are too many records out there. When I came up in the early seventies, if there were a thousand people who could make a record, the record company execs like Clive Davis, Ahmed Ertegun, Mo Austin, and a few other guys, decided who was going to record and who wasn’t. There were some nice things about that, as it got rid of all the riff raff, who were really not ready to record. The not so good part about it was you had a couple of individuals on the planet deciding who was going to make a record."

Clarke however, sees more opportunity for some artists with the advent of new technology, "The beauty of new technology is you can buy a computer, a couple of hard drives, a couple of programs, and then you can go and make your own record. You can distribute it somewhere, or you can go out on the street and sell it. The cool thing about that is it gives freedom to people to make records. You and I could go and make a record this afternoon. The other side of it is there are a lot of records out there. I am fully aware that there are people out there, who know me, like me and probably are not even aware that I have a new record out. It is a very interesting time. Personally, I like it."

Comparing how things were when he started in the music industry during the early 1970’s and now, Clarke says, "I was lucky, but there were a lot of people who didn’t get record deals, whom I believe should have gotten record deals. There were people that I believe got record deals that should not have gotten them. Now it is just like the wild, wild west. I think that a record may be for us, a calling card to do other things. To think that you are going to be able to support your family, by making a record and then go home, sit by the mailbox and that all of this money is going to show up at your house, is a little naïve," he says.

To assist young, developing artists, the Stanley Clarke Scholarship Fund was founded ten years ago. "It is a pretty standard scholarship that sends kids to music school. We raise money through the contributions of friends. We also have some sort of events, with entertainment, to raise money. We raise money for scholarships and we raise a lot of cash awards. That came about from my own experience. I didn’t grow up in a family that was wealthy. They were wealthy in love, but that was about it. There were a lot of times that I would love to have eaten something different than a peanut butter sandwich. We raise these cash awards and if someone shows an amazing ability at something, we will give them a one thousand, two thousand or three thousand dollars cash award. The school that I deal with is called Musician’s Institute in California. They do a lot of cool things, from teaching standard curriculum to having courses on new technology. They are up-to-date on all the legal stuff in the entertainment industry, which I think is really lacking in other schools. Today you have to be well rounded."

Clarke credits Miles Davis for helping to shape some of his own views his career. "I was really lucky, because in New York during the seventies, I lived eight blocks from Miles Davis. Miles used to talk about expanding laterally. It used to be, that a guy who was a great saxophone player, was just a straight down the middle saxophone player, and that would work. Miles referred to his music by saying, that he would step to the right and do something there, and then go back to the middle. He said if you do that, they can never pin you down, because you have all of these things that you have done. He said don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. One thing that he said, which was very powerful was, ‘There are some things that I do really well, and there are some things that I do not do so well, but there are other things that I can get better in.’ I have so many things in the works, that I don’t think that I will ever get bored. My problem is (he laughs at this juncture) I don’t think that I am going to have enough time."

Some of those things include, writing a series of pieces for the orchestra, a project which Clarke says is probably still one to two years from completion. His boutique record label, the Roxboro Entertainment Group, is releasing several albums this year, including one by Ruslan Sirota and another by funky, smooth, jazz keyboardist Sunnie Paxson. Clarke is also working on a recording project with fellow bassists Victor Wooten and Marcus Miller. Towards the end of the year, the trio will be launching the Thunder Tour.

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H. Allen Williams