Something Else! Interview: Bass-playing jazz legend Stanley Clarke

A new seven-album retrospective from Legacy focuses on one of Stanley Clarke’s most innovative periods, his solo Epic recordings of the 1970s. They would propel the young Clarke, already a burgeoning legend on the bass from his on-going stint with fusion pioneers Return to Forever, toward new heights: He became the first bassist to headline tours and craft gold-selling solo projects.

Clarke joined us to talk about The Complete 1970s Epic Albums Collection, in the latest SER Sitdown. The box set includes 1973’s Stanley Clarke, 1975’s Journey To Love, 1976’s School Days, 1978’s Modern Man, 1979’s double album Wanna Play For You and the subsequently released Live 1976-1977, which arrived in 1991 – each housed in replica mini-LP sleeve. The Complete 1970s Epic Albums Collection box is available exclusively at Sony Music’s retail website, popmarket.com.

Even while releasing these seminal solo albums, Clarke maintained his already celebrated career in Return to Forever with Chick Corea and Lenny White – a musical relationship that continues to this day. The trio’s 2011 release Forever earned them a Grammy earlier this month for best jazz instrumental album. (Clarke won a Grammy for best contemporary jazz album in 2010 for The Stanley Clarke Band, as well.) Along the way, Clarke has also worked with jazz legends like Horace Silver, Art Blakey and Joe Henderson, as well as rock music icons like the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, the Police’s Stewart Copeland and Paul McCartney.

Clarke’s set to return to tour this summer, with dates beginning in May at St. Louis. Go here for updated concert and ticket information: http://www.stanleyclarke.com/tour/index.php.

NICK DERISO: This new box set explores an interesting, ground-breaking period. You’ve got the bass suddenly moving to centerstage in jazz and popular music – and, in many ways, that was sparked by these albums. What was it like to play the role of pioneer?
STANLEY CLARKE: It was tough in the beginning. I remember when it was really apparent that I was doing something out of the norm, I was doing a concert in Indiana one time – it was right after the Journey to Love album – and I was playing a place that was, maybe, an 800-seater, a small theater. The place was packed. I come off stage, and the promoter was standing there. He said: ‘I don’t believe this.’ I said: ‘What don’t you believe?’ It dawned on me later, I was standing centerstage, playing my songs. It was just an unusual thing for him. And, looking back, I guess it was unusual for everybody. But, we tend to define ourselves by things that we shouldn’t define ourselves by. I’ve always been of the belief that your instrument should never define who you are. You yourself define that. Your thoughts, your goals should really define who you want to be in life.

NICK DERISO: Not long after your emergence, Jaco Pastorius broke through as well. Back then, there seemed to be a friendly rivalry of ideas, with one of you pushing the other into uncharted territory on the bass.
STANLEY CLARKE: I remember, I was so happy when Jaco Pastorius came on the scene. Then I didn’t feel alone. When you’re trying to do something out there, it’s always nice to have a friend, someone with similar ideas. I know many people thought that Jaco and myself would be sort of natural adversaries, but it was actually the opposite – the complete opposite. He understood what was happening with the bass: The instrument had to move forward. It was an instrument that anyone could grab but, again, that instrument shouldn’t define how much music you know or which music you don’t know. There are many, many great film composers, great bandleaders, great arrangers and writers that are bass players. I’m really happy right now. It’s so liberated, it’s actually funny. There are so many guys out there. You can go to school now to learn how to play the electric bass. When I was younger, there was no literature out there for studying the electric bass. All of those early records that you’re hearing, I was only playing electric bass on the side. I was really an acoustic bass player. I just sort of developed that stuff, like most of us at that time, by picking the instrument up and doing what I could.

NICK DERISO: “School Days” would set a template for the way to play the instrument, in the sense that you perform both the typical foundation role but also as an innovative soloists. Many radio listeners were familiar with (Sly and the Family Stone band bassist) Larry Graham’s slap technique but not the way you incorporated it into the structure of the song. What led you into that moment?
STANLEY CLARKE: You can see, if you study the music, the way certain influences culminate in one player. Prior to me, there were so many types of bass players – acoustic bass players and electric bass players. Larry was really a strong force. To many of us in the bass community, we all love Larry and look up to Larry as someone who innovated something. There were a lot of them: James Jamerson, even Paul McCartney – he was one of the first melodic bass players. In the jazz world, Charlie Mingus, Scott LaFaro, Ron Carter. I think when I came along, having listened to all of these different players, it was natural for all of these things to have this interesting convergence in my world. It’s funny, you don’t really think of it so much when you’re a player. Really, to be quite honest, I never thought of myself at first as someone who was trying to liberate the bass. It was only years later, around the time of the School Days album, that I started championing the whole idea of bass liberation.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Lenny White takes us inside the sessions for Miles Davis' 'Bitches Brew' and Freddie Hubbard's 'Red Clay,' while exploring the lasting musical brotherhood that is Return to Forever.]

NICK DERISO: It’s interesting that you included players from the rock genre. Anymore, it seems like the two camps have separated. Yet this new Epic collection includes musicians from bands like Steely Dan, the E Street Band, Toto. Why doesn’t that happen more often these days?
STANLEY CLARKE: First of all, in the pop world and rock world, you had more players back then. Nowadays, you have less players. You still have good players in pop, and the traditional rock bands, but you have more people that are just celebrities, not real musicians. Not to take anything away from them. That way of being is fine. But you have a lot of actors, people that just sort of grow up and have nice voices and all of a sudden they’re making a record. Back in the old days, pretty much all of the singers were guitar players or bass players or piano players. Usually that guy played something. It was more musician friendly. Many of the players, back then, were guys that knew the fundamentals.

NICK DERISO: This year’s Grammy win for you, Chick Corea and Lenny White – the soul of Return to Forever – provided another opportunity to recognize something that’s become such a fruitful lifelong collaboration. Help us understand the inner workings of that relationship. Has it become wordless, almost like being brothers?
STANLEY CLARKE: There’s a connection there that is much like the relationship between twins. Certain things, you just know the other guy is going to say this, or do that. Chick is like a big brother to me. I have known him for a long time. We’ve done a lot of things together, and Lenny is the same way. The Grammys were a very nice thing. It was nice to have people recognize you in that sense. It was a lot of fun. I hadn’t been to the Grammys since the 1980s. It sort of wasn’t my cup of tea. But actually, I had a good time this time. It was nice to see some young musicians there that came up and talked to us. It was cool.

NICK DERISO: The reemergence of Return to Forever, starting with the double live album a couple of years ago, has worked as a powerful restatement of the band’s musical legacy. Are you finding new fans, folks who may have missed seeing the band live when fusion was in its heyday?
STANLEY CLARKE: I remember, it was somewhere in the Midwest. We were playing, and some guy came who was a doctor, he brought his son. His son was going crazy. He said a really interesting thing. He said: ‘I never even knew that musicians could play like that.’ (Laughs.) He had been so isolated, and separated. I said: ‘Man, don’t you have YouTube?’ The kid said: ‘There’s a billion things on YouTube. I don’t know how I would have come across you guys.’ He was genuinely shocked to hear music like that. What we’re doing on stage is just as powerful as anything he might hear. He hears all this sort of sophistication from these old guys. He couldn’t believe it. I just sat there for a moment, and thought: ‘It’s really an interesting thing. There is so much music and culture, and it’s amazing how much it still doesn’t reach people because of proximity.’ I always tell my kids not to just listen to one thing, like only being into alternative music or funk. Listen to stuff, even if you don’t have an opinion about whether you like it or not. Just listen to it, everything from Coltrane to Coldplay, so you can know that you’ve come across it. Then, maybe later, you may have an opinion.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Could Return to Forever, reuniting in 2008, ever again ascend to the dizzying counterpunctual heights of, say, 1975's pulse-quickening jazz-funk excursion “Vulcan Worlds?” Yes, indeed.]

NICKDERISO: In some ways, it seems to me, that segmentation is the fault of the Internet itself: Its democratic nature works both ways, providing an amazing amount of access, but also making it somewhat impenetrable. Because there’s a crowd of voices, but no gatekeeper, it’s hard to pick one out. You really do need a parent now, or a teacher, to help you organize it. That role used to be played by a DJ, somebody to help you make those connections. But we don’t have those anymore.
STANLEY CLARKE: That’s a great way to articulate it. That’s so true. I remember I was doing one of these commencement ceremonies, I was getting a doctorate. I went to my daughter, as I was writing my speech, and I asked her: ‘Who are the Beatles of your generation?’ She was thinking, and thinking. About an hour later, she came to me and she said: ‘Here’s my iPod. I’ve got thousands of songs. I don’t know who it is!’ There are so many things they have now, from the old to the new. There’s so much access. You wonder, as you say, without someone pointing them in a direction and saying ‘this is where these guys got this,’ getting that education on it, how hard it must be.

NICK DERISO: You mentioned Paul McCartney, with whom you appeared on a couple of projects, 1982’s Tug of War and 1983’s Pipes of Peace. What was that experience like?
STANLEY CLARKE: He’s a beautiful player. Of all of the recordings I’ve played on, those two records are among the most memorable. We went down to this island, and I hung out with Paul for a couple of weeks. I really, really had a lot of fun. He’s a very melodic player. Melody just comes right out of him. That’s only natural for him to play the bass like that. He does it without thinking. He’s a writer who sings songs, so it was only natural when he plays the bass, his lines would be very melodic.

NICK DERISO: One of the many guest stars to be found on this new box set is Jeff Beck, who sits in both on 1975’s Journey to Love and 1979’s I Wanna Play For You It’s another terrific example of the cross pollination that we see so infrequently now. How did you meet?
STANLEY CLARKE: This is one of the greatest things that happened to me. It was just fun. I had this house on Long Island, and I was living out there with my wife. There was this knock on the door, and I looked out the window and there was this long limousine. This guy got out with this rooster haircut – that’s what I used to call them – and it was Jeff Beck. He knocks on my door, and I didn’t know much about him. I had definitely heard his name, but I hadn’t really gotten into his history. He comes in, and he has this really heavy accent. He’s telling me he was playing in town, and somebody gave him my address. He came over and he wanted to meet me, because he was playing a song from one of my albums. He just took a song from the first album, called “Power,” and he was playing it live. He wanted to meet me. We talked for about an hour, then he got back in the car and he left. That led to him playing on my second album, on a song called “Hello Jeff.” I called him and said: ‘Hey do you want to play?’ It was like that. With Return to Forever, Billy Joel was a huge fan of Chick Corea. Elton John used to come to see us when I would come to England; he would let us use his Rolls Royce. There were all these kind of stories. You don’t see so much of it now, because there are bigger partitions between the genres of music. I think it has to do with the managers, and the business. They want to keep everything separate. Most of my friends were rock musicians or funk musicians. Still to this day, I’m going over to Stewart Copeland’s house and we hang out. I think it was more common back then. It’s a shame that it doesn’t happen as much now. I don’t want to say that musicians were better back then. Maybe they were, or maybe it was just an attitude. They were more flexible. Who knows? Maybe it will come back.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.