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Stanley Clarke: Bass First

Catching up (and looking back) with the unrelenting bass pioneer

Stanley Clarke
Stanley Clarke
Stanley Clarke
Stanley Clarke
Stanley Clarke in 1979
Stanley Clarke (left) and George Duke in 1981
Stanley Clarke (r.) and Ronnie Wood in the New Barbarians in 1979
Return to Forever 1973 (l. to r.): Bill Connors, Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea, Lenny White
Stanley Clarke conducting
Stanley Clarke (left) at age 16 in a trio featuring drummer Darryl Brown and bassist Randolph Malachi

Stanley Clarke has been a bass legend, in jazz and several other genres, for nearly four decades. At 63, he’s happy to be more active than ever-as a recording artist, bandleader, composer for film and television, music educator and more.

He earned a 2015 Grammy nomination in the Best Instrumental Composition category, for a track off his latest album, Up (Mack Avenue), a project that features such diverse Clarke pals as longtime musical partner Chick Corea, Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh and former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, whose perky temperament inspired the album’s title. Up‘s dozen songs range from three deeply felt solo acoustic bass pieces to the jigsaw-puzzle-like “Last Train to Sanity” (the Grammy nom). It also includes a smooth-jazz-styled version of “Brazilian Love Affair,” written by the late George Duke, with whom Clarke formed the R&B-oriented Clarke/Duke Project in the 1980s.

“It’s an honest record,” he said of Up. “I just tried to touch all the different areas of things I like. I didn’t get to all of them, maybe not even half. But I got things that I thought were somewhat important. One of the luxuries of the fact that the music industry is kind of amiss and radio is so unimportant now is that, really, no one has to make a record to please some radio stations. You find more people playing music they like, which I think is how it should be. That’s what I do. Up was interesting because it was more about the relationships of the guys; everyone on that record is a close friend.”

Clarke clearly relishes recording and performing, both constants throughout his multifarious career. Even so, he admits to sometimes longing for a simpler, less hectic existence. “My life is much more complex right now,” acknowledged the Philadelphia native. “I play more shows, I do more things. When I was younger, I pretty much had the bass, I had a wife, I had an apartment, I had a dog.”

Things were never the same after he and then-budding keyboard icon Chick Corea launched the seminal fusion band Return to Forever in 1972, after which Clarke almost singlehandedly established the bass as a lead instrument. His days as an eager jazz student-he played in the bands of both Horace Silver and Art Blakey before he was 20-seem almost like a lifetime ago. “I’ve had five dogs! I’ve had houses, women, children, all kinds of shit, man,” said Clarke, whose second wife, Sofia, is a native of Chile. “I would love to take off for a couple years and write some music, because I really love composition. I love to write and then have access to people playing it. It’s difficult, and it’s funny, [because] I would like to do that. But at the same time, I wouldn’t enjoy not playing live. I’m kind of going in many different directions. I have this desire here, and this desire over there, and they fight against each other. Life is a little more complex right now, so I have to manage it, which is what I do.” Clarke was the first bassist to headline international concert tours, earn gold albums and draw an audience that extended from jazz to rock, funk, pop and beyond, if not always with equal degrees of approbation from critics.

On a sunny January afternoon on the veranda of his secluded Southern California home, a few miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, he recalled working with Aretha Franklin, Paul McCartney, Beck, Jeff Beck and Rolling Stones guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood, as well as with Stan Getz, Gil Evans, Dexter Gordon, Pharoah Sanders and other jazz luminaries. He also touched on some of his upcoming projects, including composing an extended orchestral opus and recording a solo bass album of transposed Bach cello suites. “Stanley is the ultimate musician’s musician,” said Neil Portnow, the head of the Recording Academy, under whose auspices the Grammy Awards are presented. “His bass playing has always been extraordinary, his technique, his feel, his innovation, his collaborative abilities. There’s also Stanley Clarke the film and TV composer, so he’s sort of the renaissance guy who can do it all.”

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Originally Published

George Varga

George Varga began drumming in bands at 12 and writing professionally about music at 15. A Louisiana native who grew up mostly in Germany, he has earned three Pulitzer Prize nominations as the music critic at the San Diego Union-Tribune. In 2002, he created and taught the UC San Diego Extension course, “Jazz in a Post-Ken-Burns World.” Varga’s latest project is Acid Reflux & The Wardrobe Malfunctions, a free-jazz Ashlee Simpson/Janet Jackson tribute band.