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STANLEY CLARKE, BASS KING


I've titled this post as is, because when I had the pleasure of shaking Stanley's hand after a gig, the words "You're the king of the bass" slipped unplanned out of my mouth. I thought afterwards that he did look at me a little sideways, maybe thinking something like "Man, you don't know what you're saying", and I wondered if he'd be right.

However, having decided to write about his playing abilities, and having reviewed some of his work, I think the comment really wasn't that far out of line. That night at Jazz Alley in Seattle he'd played his upright bass, along with Chic Corea and Jack DeJonette, and he was well up to the standard of both of the other giants of music. I've always preferred his upright playing to his electric playing-as great as that is, and when I listened closely to "Light As A Feather", Return To Forever's second album, my preference was confirmed and substantiated, as was my comment to him after the Seattle gig: I didn't make a fool of myself at all.

Stanley's style is likely not regarded as orthodox or traditional, and I say thank the Lord for that: orthodoxy doesn't produce innovators. But from the start, Clarke's bass playing, whether acoustic or electric, has always been nothing short of exciting. His passion for the instrument comes shining out whenever he has his hands on those strings. Almost from the outset of the album Light As A Feather, with the benefit of Chic's winning compositions and Stanley's ideas, the bass playing is beyond gripping, and this album now is almost fifty years old. At the time there was almost nothing-perhaps nothing-like it. Is there now?


The word which most came to the forefront of my mind while listening to Clarke was "joyful". There is joy and intense pleasure in his playing at all times, passing on joy to the listener. You can even see that in most pictures and videos he is in. He isn't just there in the background, fulfilling adequate, pedestrian expectations: he's in the forefront, in every way possible.

Stanley, to the irritation of the traditionalists, is just bursting with ideas, and you can't help noticing as you listen that his style is intensely playful. So much so that it's hard to keep up with what he's doing. But don't get me wrong- he isn't being self-indulgent to the point of being distracting: he has the ability to blend, to compliment, and to measure and control that incredible passion for the notes and the rhythm.

The rhythm! Stanley's right-hand technique is and was nothing short of phenomenal, even fifty years ago. He sounds like he has at least eight fingers on his right hand, all perfectly sequenced-and his left is more than ready to fulfill the idea. His frequent fills are endlessly inventive, in place, delightful and shockingly impressive.

Clarke's playing is also eminently melodic, and when, at the start of his solo for the title track, he creates a version of the melody, it sounds like Mozart is lovingly articulating a variation on the piano, with every note having meaning and thought behind it.

The growls! I defy anyone to disprove that Clarke is also the king of growls. As with every other note, each growl is perfectly executed for maximum effect. There is most definitely no understatement at any time with Stanley, but then again, there is no overstatement. Everything is creatively pertinent and fantastically powerful in its voice.

Another word which came to my mind was "fun". Stanley has perpetual fun in his playing, and I detected a little hint of at least one of his influences. I distinctly heard something of Eddie Gomez' earlier playful style in those higher registers coming out at one point- swaggering vibrato and all.

The only bad thing about Clarke's playing on this album is that his solos are far too short. But then, it's always good to leave people wanting more, right?

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