Monday, June 25, 2007

Concert Review: Stanley Clarke After Dark

As bass guitars go, the Alembic is something of a rarity. So it's kinda weird that three of my four all-time favorite electric bassists play these distinctive looking and sounding handcrafted instruments.

The Alembic players would be Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna fame, Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead and jazz virtuoso Stanley Clarke. (The late Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report is the fourth favorite; he played a Fender Jazz.)
In my book, Ron Carter and Charles Mingus were pretty much the bass standard bearers going into the 1970s when jazz fusion hit the jazz world like a comet from outer space. To my mind, that explosion began with Miles Davis's "Bitches Brew" double LP (1970), and its electrified funk-infused improvisations rocked the traditional jazz world to its core.
I first saw Stanley Clarke in the mid-1970s. At age 24 he seemed to be more of an enthusiastic kid than a seasoned pro, although he played like one. He was gigging with Chick Corea's original electric Return to Forever jazz fusion quintet.

Meanwhile, Pastorius was setting the jazz world further on fire with his revolutionary fretless bass playing -- and like Clarke using the bass like a lead guitar, if you will, and not in its customary place as a rhythm instrument. Pastorius was soon to join Weather Report, for my ducats the best jazz fusion ensemble ever.

Not that it matters. Comparing groups and musicians can be silly. But I did think that Stanley was Jaco's equal back then and still do today.
Pastorius, like Clarke, was born in 1951, but never saw his 40 birthday, primarily because of drugs wrapped in emotional issues. (Or was it the other way around?)

Clarke is now 56. And still playing like that enthusiastic kid, only even better.
On Saturday night, Clarke headlined the closing night of the 19th Annual DuPont Clifford Brown Jazz Festival under the stars in Rodney Square in my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware.

Clarke's quartet repeatedly brought the packed house of 5,000-plus out of their lawn chairs with the kind of inspired playing reminiscent of the heyday of jazz fusion but suffused -- and sometimes supercharged -- with the years of experienced he has gained playing with an eclectic range of performers from George Duke to Stewart Copeland to Jean-Luc Ponty.

The quartet's set spooled out over 90 minutes, but the DF&C and I lost any sense of time from the opening notes of the opening song -- an extended jam on "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," the Mingus standard, all the way through to the finale -- an extended jam on "School Days," Clarke's signature work.

I cannot count how many times I have heard "Pork Pie Hat" performed and performed in so many styles. It must be one of the most played compositions in the jazz songbook.

I knew that it was the Mingus standard from the opening notes, and although the interpretation of Clarke and friends ranged far and wide from the original through a series of driving solo bass, piano and synthesizer excursions, it was never unrecognizable. Just recognizably brilliant.

Somewhere it is written that the bass player shalt not lead, but Clarke turns that silliness on its ear, or should I say its right hand.
Clarke delivers his percussive, fret-snapping attacks on the Alembic by holding the fingers of his right hand as he would playing an upright bass, but rotated at 90 degrees with his fingers partially hooked under the strings. He sometimes uses the heel of his right hand to strike the strings from above. The result is an extraordinarily distinctive and emotive sound that a times seemed to insinuate itself into my chest cavity while frying my mind.

Speaking of hands, there is something beautiful about a musician's hands. How the muscleature develops as it conforms with the technique. I remember Clarke's young hands and bass player-long fingers of 30 years ago. Today they look like works of art. Which they of course are.
Clarke, just back from South Africa, is mostly touring this summer with George Duke. But he assembled a tasty quartet for this appearance, including a young drummer whose name we did not catch.
As someone who has heard Philly Joe Jones, Billy Cobham and Tony Williams, to name three virtuoso drummers, I can report without fear of contradiction that this Nameless Drummer has extraordinary chops, which were on full display in an extended solo toward the end of "School Days." Whoever he is, he is bound for greatness.
* * * * *
Clarke spoke with his basses -- the Alembic electric, a traditional stand-up acoustic and a hollow body four-string crafted in the classic guitar style -- but did share a few words about Clifford Brown, for whom the festival is named.

Brown, a trumpet player born on the East Side of Wilmington only a few blocks from Rodney Square, tore through the jazz world like Halley's Comet, his warm bebop stylings blazing a trail during the four brief years that he recorded before tragically dying at age 26 in a car crash on the way home from a gig.

There apparently are a lot of folks who believe that traditional jazz is in eclipse, but Clarke is having none of that.

Said he:
"I have been privileged to travel and world and I am here to tell you that jazz is alive and well."
Speaking of how he endlessly played Brown's albums as a teenager and would riff off of them, Clarke asked us to remember and honor Brown and other trailblazers all the way back to that great original, Louis Armstrong.

How to do so?
"The next time you are shopping for a Kenny G album, buy a Clifford Brown or a Miles Davis.

"And please remember and cherish them."
As we shall cherish Stanley Clarke.

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