Stanley Clarke – The Toys Of Men (2007)

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I’m becoming a Stanley Clarke fan again. After a quarter of a century of sitting on the sidelines as he delved into lightweight urban contemporary, soundtracks scoring for the big and little screens alike and playing in other people’s bands, Clarke is back to doing what made him a household name among fusion enthusiasts in the first place: honest-to-goodness balls-to-the-wall uncompromising rock-jazz.

Yes, this is just the kind of music that is often cited when someone speaks of excessive wankery making the music lack soul or just plain unlistenable. Much of that criticism was directed at Clarke’s joint venture with Chick Corea, Return To Forever, and I could pick out a several embarassing moments that make that point in their post-Light As A Feather output, as well as Clarke’s own solo records of that time. But all this fails to recognize that the peaks were often as high as the valleys were low.

For his part, Clarke introduced to the masses the whole concept of the electric bass guitar as a lead instrument, and even though his accomplishments often got overlooked as the Jaco Pastorius bandwagon got rolling in earnest after Jaco’s death, Clarke influence has arguably been greater. His 1976 gem School Days remains a seminal record for bass players of most stripes and still sounds good today, whether the listener plays bass or not. School Days was in fact one of the albums that got me into fusion in the first place back then.

Unfortunately, Clarke’s direction took on a more pop direction when he and funk keyboardist George Duke scored a hit with “Sweet Baby” in 1981. Except for the unexpected delight of 1995’s acoustic Rite Of Strings with Al DiMeola and Jean-Luc Ponty, I lost interest in whatever Clarke was putting out. (Disclaimer: I have not heard 1999’s Clarke/Lenny White project Vertú, but I’ve read mixed reviews on it at the time).

And now, finally, Clarke returns to the fold with the release earlier this month of The Toys Of Men. Clarke states that he was inspired by the current state of war in which we find ourselves in to make this record. It’s not all that clear why such world tragedies were required for Clarke to come back to his greatest strengths, but the results are welcome regardless of the impetus.

Unlike the music he made in that long-ago era, he doesn’t overreach compositionally, and so there’s none of those aforementioned embarrassing moments. Instead, he marshalled a no-nonsense band with a classic fusion configuration consisting of keyboards (Rusian Sirota), violin (Mads Tolling), guitar (Jef Lee Johnson), and drums (Ronald Burner, Jr.), and augmented by guest appearances from the ever-prolific Paulinho Da Costa on percussion and Michael Landau on guitars.

It’s an interesting side note that while Clarke returned to the music that put himself on the map, the big record companies like his old Epic label apparently weren’t interested in following him back. This record is being distributed by Heads Up International, a division of the independent Concord label. Going “indy” was probably required to give Clarke the artistic freedom he needed to make this record. How times have changed in the record industry.

The album starts off ambitiously with the eleven-minute grand statement of this collection, the six-part suite “The Toys Of Men”. Each part consists of a new theme that’s repeated, each varying in mood and tempo. The first section, for instance, is very staccatoed a la Return To Forever, followed by a section that’s more like straight jazz in triple time, then a softer, melodic section, followed by an impressive showcase of Clarke’s piccolo bass that’s both harmonically pretty and challenging.

“Jeruselum” is an extended, quiet piece composed by the keyboardist Sirota, featuring the leader on acoustic bass guitar gently providing the main melodic line.

Other tracks with his band comprise of “Come On,” an update on the funk exercise “Hot Fun” of School Days, the bass-drum synchronized workout of “Bad Asses” and and the cool strut of “Game.”

The strongest composition overall is most likely Clarke’s dedication of drumming legend Tony Williams, “Châteauvallon 1972,” a lumbering but powerful ostinato propelled by Bruner’s vociferous skin-beating. This is one song that actually could have been stretched longer.

It used to be that the vocal tracks on Clarke albums were buzzkills. They were usually R&B-lite excursions not anywhere approaching the artistic level of the instrumental tracks. This time around, though, the lone lyric-laced tune, “All Over Again” doesn’t let down the record. It is a gentle jazz-pop song, but the difference this time is that it’s a better written and that Clarke’s acoustic bass guitar is at the melodic center of it. It also didn’t hurt that Clarke chose this time to let the talented Esperanza Spalding handle the vocals, instead of Clarke’s own unexceptional voice.

If there’s any quibble about The Toys Of Men, it’s the solo acoustic bass noodlings, self-recorded in his living room. Even though these improvisions go nowhere, a little bit of this would have qualified as a nice diversion to demonstrate Clarke’s tremendous ability on a stand-up. But four tracks of this, including one eight minutes long? Only the fifth track of the stand-up bass alone, “Bass Folk Song No. 6,” is an actual composition, which provides the focus his playing was lacking on the other four.

It’s been firmly established long ago that Stanley Clarke is an innovative and outstanding bass player and another excursion into trite, crossover material isn’t going to diminish that. But Clarke is at his best when he leverages his aggressive musicianship with compositions that give all that riffing some form and purpose. And that’s the major achievement of The Toys Of Men.

Purchase: Stanley Clarke – The Toys Of Men

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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