Upright Bass Featured in Jazz Fusionist Stanley Clarke's New CD
For the first time in four decades, the upright bass is center stage on Stanley Clarke's new straight-ahead jazz CD
Stanley Clarke purchased his first upright bass not from a dealer, but from a street peddler. It was 1968, and Clarke had just finished high school in Philadelphia. He saw the man standing on Broad Street, a busy downtown thoroughfare running through the campus of Temple University. “Me and my buddies, we were going to a party to see some girls,” Clarke says. “This guy is standing on Broad Street, sweating, so I knew he had some drug issues. He had this acoustic bass and said, ‘I’ll give it to you for $200.’ I took it. And that’s my bass. I’ve always chalked that up as divine intervention because I made thousands of records with that bass.”
The instrument, a 3/4-size German flat-back model from the late 19th century, can be heard on the recent Jazz in the Garden (Heads Up International/Concord), the first straight-ahead jazz session that jazz-fusionist Clarke has led since he began recording in the late 1960s. The album teams Clarke with pianist Hiromi Uehara and drummer Lenny White, Clarke’s backline partner in the seminal jazz-rock band Return to Forever.
Rather than a display of flashy virtuosity for which Clarke is known, the album reflects the 58-year-old bassist’s maturity. “I played with Clarke when he was 18, 19 years old, and it was just the wild, wild West—how fast can you play?” says White, who also performed with Clarke in the early 1970s in groups led by saxophonists Joe Henderson and Stan Getz. “But now he’s the consummate musician. When he plays his solos, he’s composing music.
“He’s just as relevant today as when he wowed everyone with his technique.”
Still, Clarke—whose practice regimen includes Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello—distances himself from jazz purists, and takes pride in his penchant for a mastering a variety of instruments and music styles. “I always for some reason just played the music that was in my environment,” says Clarke, in a phone interview from his home in Topanga, California. “Yeah, I guess you can say Jazz in the Garden is a milestone, but to be quite honest, it didn’t feel like it was something so different from everything else that I was doing.”
In the late 1960s, Clarke attended the Philadelphia Musical Academy (now called the University of the Arts) and planned to audition for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Instead, he joined Return to Forever. The gig altered the course of his career. When pianist and bandleader Chick Corea incorporated rock music—and the attendant amplifiers, synthesizers, and effects pedals—he asked Clarke to double on electric bass. Clarke became one of the preeminent bassists of the era, known for both speed and grooves, performing on electric and acoustic piccolo bass.
Clarke later signed a record deal with Epic, and found himself with a rising profile as an electric bassist. He recorded such best-selling albums as Journey to Love (1975) and School Days (1976) and collaborated with Paul McCartney, Carlos Santana, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, and Jeff Beck.
Even at the height of Clarke’s fame as an electric bass virtuoso, he kept up his upright bass chops. “That was just something between me and the instrument,” he says.
Clarke attributes much of his success to Eligio Rossi, a Curtis alumnus with whom Clarke studied at Philadelphia’s fabled Settlement Music School. Clarke, who stands six foot four, recalls looking down at the diminutive teacher, but he also remembers Rossi’s uncommon strength. “He was built—his arms were bigger than my legs,” Clarke says. “He scared the crap out of me because he was really, really tough. He used to play the hell out of the acoustic bass, and he was real old-world European classical music. You know, beat you down if you don’t play a note right. I owe everything to him. I always think about him. He was a master teacher because he not only taught the instrument, he [also] taught life. I actually learned a lot of my life skills from him—more from him than my parents.”
Rossi made enough of an impression that Clarke has stayed true to the instrument that was his first calling. “I’ve always viewed myself, from the first time I started playing bass till now, as an upright bass player,” Clarke says. “I have a hobby of playing the electric bass.”