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Stanley Clarke: Standards

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Last year when bassist Stanley Clarke hit the road with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and banjo player Bela Fleck, it was another moment when you had to applaud Clarke’s aesthetic courage. Never one to fear the opportunity to move beyond the expected, the critically acclaimed tour by the trio proved again that Stanley Clarke is a musician who is guided by tradition but motivated by inventiveness. Clarke’s latest effort, Standards, is another collaboration with a trio, and like last year’s work with Fleck and Ponty, this effort will surprise Clarke’s critics and add more credence to the argument that Clarke is one the most important bassists of this era.

Clarke again breaks new ground on Standards; it is his first acoustic bass recording in 20 years and his first album composed entirely of standards. The package includes a DVD full of thought-provoking interviews, footage from the sessions and several complete recordings as well.

Standards is just what the title announces: a collection of some of jazz’s most important songs. The songs are interpreted and expanded by an extremely talented acoustic trio: Clarke on bass, the funky and classically accomplished Patrice Rushen on piano and Ndugu Chancler on drums. The choice of Rushen and Chancler is crafty by Clarke for this recording date; both are remarkable, well-known musicians with expansive music credits and experience and both share Clarke’s vision of creating music in a variety of artistic spheres.

The group delivers just a small part of jazz’s sacred canon full of enlightening solos, demanding call and response, and sleek, energetic arrangements that illuminate the beauty of these famous songs. Roger Ramirez’s “Lover Man” opens the album and is driven along by Clarke’s uncompromising bass rhythm while the trio’s version of Dizzy Gillepsie’s “Salt Peanuts” has Chancler and Clarke engaging in a riveting back and forth between Chancler’s own shining moments.

Rushen has most of the best parts of Standards as might be expected on a trio album of drums, piano and bass. Clarke and Chancler spend most of the album setting the table for her consistently strong piano playing.

The best song here is Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Brubeck’s famous recording becomes a piano-dominated composition that benefits from an easy pace set from the onset by Rushen’s elegant lines. Rushen takes Paul Desmond’s melody to another level, soft and careful while Chancler, on drums, is colorful and powerful. Clarke acts like Ellington here; he’s a clever accompanist, who wants the group to shine and the soloist, most of all, to find her moment and voice.

“Mack the Knife” is another great moment on Standards. Clarke solos meticulously, taking his time; this is not the electric thumper and plucker who became jazz bass’ first megastar, but a musician still on the rise, still hungry after all these years.