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A Review of “The Stanley Clarke Band”

The Stanley Clarke BandIn The Stanley Clarke Band, the great bassist has released a record which is the heir to the halcyon days of School Days, Stanley Clarke and Journey to Love. There are some extended, electric fusion pieces and a range of fresh sounding music. As the title hints, it’s very much a band record: Stanley’s line up features exciting young players Ruslan Sirota on keyboards and Ronald Bruner Jr. on drums as well as star keyboardist Hiromi Uehara and some excellent guests, notably Charles Altura on guitar and Bob Sheppard on soprano and tenor saxophone.

Stanley’s last previous release was Jazz in the Garden in 2009 with Hiromi and Lenny White; the latter returns here as co-producer. While Clarke played double bass and acoustic bass guitar on that record, this one brings his electric bass guitar fully to the spotlight. The quartet of Clarke, Bruner, Sirota and Hiromi have toured and created an exciting band sound and that is reflected in the organic nature of the performances and the tight-knit interplay.

Ruslan Sirota’s “Soldier” opens the proceedings; the Ukrainian born, former child-prodigy wrote the piece to frame his concerns about continuing global conflict. The dramatic tenor bass-led opening leads us into a kaleidoscopic, epic fusion track with strong thematic writing. I’m sure we’ll all share a smile of recognition, moments in, when Stanley plucks one of his trademark ‘behind the nut’ bent harmonics over suspended chords and Clarke’s bass is elegantly melodic here. There are continual shifts of mood from jazz grooves to rock-out sections as the track develops. I loved the spare, intelligent piano and the great bass solo on this track. Stanley’s motif-structured bass solo is a thing of beauty, building from short phrases with some signature runs. Soulful, layered vocals added to the ending theme develop the mood well.

The Cameroonian born bassist Armand Sabal-Lecco wrote the next tune, “Fulani”. It’s a soulful, soundtrack style piece built around a relaxed groove reminding me a little of Marcus Miller‘s writing for Miles Davis. A twanging melody is built with layers of guitar and programmed blended seamlessly with some live drumming; Sabal-Lecco joins Clarke on electric bass and Clarke plays a very tasty solo and there’s a lovely little synth solo from Sirota – lyrical and expressive.

Stanley ClarkeClarke himself wrote the tender power ballad “When Tears Dry”. “The tune came about when a family member was ending a long-time love affair”, says Clarke. “There were a lot of tears, so I came up with that song. The tears evaporate into thin air, and the pain eventually goes away. It’s another episodic tune contrasting bass-led melody over washes of synth, piano and responsive drumming with expressive stadium-fusion guitar from Altura – at times reminiscent of Frank Gambale’s playing – spiky, angular and unpredictable. Bruner drums sensitively and shapes the mood as bass, guitar and Sirota’s gorgeous piano share the spotlight. The track balances delicate and anthemic moments and is a great example of Stanley expressive writing, soloing and bass playing.

“I Want to Play for You Too” takes us infectiously back to the funk years… I kept expecting George Duke to show up. The piece was written by Felton Pilate of genuine funkateers Confunkshun and tastily showcases Clarke’s funky slap bass style. Pilate adds keyboards and layers of 70s styled vocals. It’s an affectionate and accurate representation of 70s funk music, right down to the talkbox, the simple drum program and the horn riffs. Stanley has an absolute ball!

“Bass Folk Song No. 10″ opens with a very fine unaccompanied Stanley Clarke electric bass solo – featuring a lyrical melody accompanied with his own chord and pedal tones. Clarke then strikes up a jaunty slapped, multi-tracked bass extravaganza accompanied by layered programmed percussion before returning to the lyrical rubato theme.

“No Mystery” is the classic, beloved Return to Forever tune. The intricate melody is beautifully phrased by guitar, piano and virtuoso bass. Twists and turns are added: 1/8th note rock sections, prog-influenced sections and a reggae tinge just when it was least expected. Hiromi’s spectacular piano twists and turns, thrills and trills here over Clarke and Bruner’s reggae and rock rhythms. Stanley, ever individual, plays his gorgeous reggae influenced lines with a bright toned bass sound. His own solo begins with slow melody and develops into flurries of energy, ending with intense repeated figures.

Written and arranged by Clarke and Bruner, “How is the Weather up There?” opens like a track of Bruford’s Gradually Going Tornado – all tension and intensity. A dense multi-layered prog-feel leads to a talkbox hook and vox-pop style recorded voices rather than the expected track development however. Clarke’s concept was to develop a commentary on global warming built around comments submitted by fans. “We left a message on Facebook inviting anybody who wanted to talk about global warming to call a phone number that we posted,” says Clarke. It’s a brave concept that I don’t think quite works here; the (often tongue in cheek) commentary adds little to the debate or a listener’s understanding while also inhibiting the musical development of the track which becomes episodic and resembles more a soundtrack for an imaginary video.

The Zawinul dedicated “Larry Has Traveled 11 Miles and Waited a Lifetime for the Return of Vishnu’s Report” is Clarke’s homage to the heady days of jazz-rock, fusion in the 1970s, name-checking Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House, Tony Williams Lifetime, Miles Davis, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report. Opening with an exciting drum solo reminiscent of Billy Cobham’s drum introductions, a press roll leads to a tense, complex theme featuring bass, piano and some lovely saxophone work from Bob Sheppard who plays a brief, fluid solo over some gorgeous bass and fabulous drumming from Bruner with drum’n'bass intensity with some fabulous squelchy bass from Clarke.

Hiromi’s intense piano solo helps build the intensity with Stanley again making use of the envelope filter before he fires off a machine-gun electric bass solo over pads of synthesizer. A section redolent of Weather Report follows with gorgeously voiced synthesizer, bass and soprano sax over l turbulent, thrilling drumming. Altura on guitar and Sirota on synth then get to spar, trading fours, Mahavishnu-style, and leading the track to it’s conclusion. It’s an affectionate tribute to the music of the ‘sons of Miles’ and a thoroughly enjoyable fusion romp.

“Labyrinth” is composed by and features Hiromi’s mercurial talents on piano. A complex, classically influenced theme, shifting between 5 and 6, it’s a mature and affecting piece of music. As fast as she plays (and she can play as fast as anyone), her composition and playing here work musically to develop the piece organically. There is some gorgeous bass/piano interplay here. Stanley’s solo is carefully paced and melodic and Mutsumi’s exciting piano thematic as it develops in rococo flourishes, repeated melodic cells and poly-rhythmic intensity perfectly matched by Bruner’s splashing, crashing, rolling drumming.

“Sonny Rollins” begins exquisitely with just under a minute of Clarke’s solo introduction played on a double bass that belonged to the legendary Charlie Mingus, Bill Cosby having given Clarke the instrument some years ago. It’s delightful to hear Stanley summon the spirit of Mingus and Rollins on it as he plays an expressive boppish introduction, At first, I was disappointed that what followed was not an acoustic trio tribute to Rollins in the style of Way out West or Night at the Village Vanguard, but it’d be mean-spirited to criticize this track for not being something that it isn’t as it’s an ebullient, light-hearted tribute to the Caribbean influences often present in Rollins music and it’s a joyous piece of music.

It’s a modernized big band arrangement with synth bass, brass and the former Manhattan Transfer singer Cheryl Bentyne’s wordless vocal to the fore. Sheppard’s breathy tenor saxophone solo leaps playfully over the band and there is some lovely, light-fingered piano from Hiromi and dancing Zawinul-influenced electric piano soloing from Sirota. Stanley plays a spirited and engaging upright bass solo, beginning with the bow, and the band romps out as Cheryl Bentyne soars and saxophones wail.

“Bass Folk Song No. 6 (Mo Anam Cara)” closes the CD in reflective mood: a tender and evocative upright bass solo, rolling and rumbling beautifully over a subtle synthesizer and percussion backdrop. Stanley says that he thinks of Dublin when he plays this It’s a lovely way to end the record and may point to the immediate future as Clarke states: “This is the last electric album I’m going to do for awhile. The legacy of this release is that I’m providing lots of material and homework for a new generation of bassists to catch up with. I’ve worked hard to give the bass a distinctive voice, and I feel so excited about where it’s going.”

Yes, Stanley, you’ve given us plenty to work with. Thank you!

Line up

Stanley Clarke – basses and talkbox
Ruslan Sirota – keyboards
Hiromi Uehara – keyboards
Ronald Bruner Jr – drums

with

Cheryl Bentyne – vocals (10)
Charles Altura (1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8), Rob Bacon (4, 10) – guitar
Armand Sabal-Lecco bass (2)
Bob Sheppard – saxophones (8, 10)
Lorenzo ‘Larry’ Dunn – bass synthesiser
Felton Pilate – keyboards and vocals (4)
Andew Lippman – trombone and John Papenbrook -trumpet and Doug Webb – saxophone (10)
Chris Clarke – drum programming (2)
Jon Hakakian – programming (2, 4, 5)
Stanley Clarke, Natasha Agrama, Ilsey Juber and Ruslan Sirota – vocals (1)

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