** Note: At the end of this page is a transcription accompaniment. Please scroll to the bottom, click to open, and then continue reading.
When I asked Jake for suggestions about which DVD he wanted me to review for this issue, he suggested that I check out “Rite of Strings” featuring Stanley Clarke, Al Di Meola, and Jean-Luc Ponty. This was great to hear because I distinctly remember hearing about how great this group was when they passed thru Chicago on tour a few years back. The performance on this DVD is from the 1994 Montreux Jazz Festival, and represents the first time this trio had ever joined forces.The first song the group launches into is the Stanley Clarke/Chick Corea composition “Song To John”. The intro features Stanley’s distinct rubato playing style, using a percussive roll right hand technique and beautiful thumb position chords. The group enters into the main groove before Stanley and Al double the melody, with Stanley throwing in a nice harmonization the second time around (Ex.
1) The group’s chemistry and collective time never seem to settle in on this opening track. This could be a result of this being the first time these three had ever performed together (in addition to the lack of any percussion). Stanley’s solo is full of his trademark repeating lines (Ex.2) and three finger technique.
2) Next up is the Jean-Luc Ponty composition “Memory Canyon”, a tricky tune with alternating bars of 7/4 and 6/4. It features Stanley doubling the melody once again, this time arco. Stanley holds down the groove over the tricky meters with ease (Ex
3) He solos confidently over a quirky guitar and violin ostinato, at one point even imposing a swung 4/4 feel.
Al introduces the band and squeezes in some slightly awkward commentary before they start the next tune, Stanley Clarke’s “La Cancion De Sofia”. The first half of this song is a haunting ballad aptly played by each instrumentalist. It is a shining example of how to play a ballad, displayed by three musicians who are notorious for being “high energy fusion” players. Stanley plays a very tasteful and melodic solo over this one before the tune switches tempos and bursts into a catchy Latin groove. The musicians have obviously settled in with each other by this time in the performance with Jean-Luc turning in, what I believe, is his finest solo on the DVD. The tempo and groove issues are a thing of the past and all three musicians are in top form.
The next three songs are solo numbers from each musician. Al performs “Summer Country Song” from his album “Orange and Blue.” Jean-Luc plays “Eulogy To Oscar Romero” and Stanley performs what is titled “School Days”, even though the “School Days” theme is only very shortly quoted. This solo performance is the highlight of the DVD for Stanley Clarke fans. The playing captured here is a perfect example of Stanley’s legendary solo upright bass performances. If you have ever listened to Stanley Clarke and wondered, “what on earth is he doing?”, then get this DVD and watch this solo. He displays a dizzying amount of techniques, both traditional and highly unorthodox, as well as quoting from many songs of his musical past.
Following the solo performance section of the DVD is the Jean-Luc Ponty composition “Renaissance”. This cut features some great interplay between Stanley and Al. The two were obviously enjoying the opportunity to reunite for this concert. By this point of the concert, the three are really taking more chances musically.
The last number the three perform, before the dual encore, is another Al Di Meola composition called “Chilean Pipe Song”. This song is the closest the group gets to performing in the fusion style that sparked their careers. It is full of odd meters, unison lines, Latin grooves, straight-ahead swing and much more. The trios are locked in together and tackle this very difficult composition with ease.
The first encore brings on pianist Monty Alexander as a guest artist and reintroduces the opening title, “Song To John”. Monty solos impressively and manages to keep up with the three fusion legends on stage. After Monty’s opening solo, this reprise takes on more of a jam session feel and lacks the direction that the opening version had. Stanley does try to deviate from the standard changes by altering his bass notes and the harmony for the soloists (Ex. 4). All four musicians seem to be trying to outplay each other and are often stepping on each others toes, which is not uncommon for an all star performance like this. Stanley, like the true bassist he his, tries to reign in the three soloists multiple times, but has no luck.
The final performance of the concert is an Al Di Meola composition entitled “Indigo”. This relatively mellow closer is a fitting end for a concert that takes on a very relaxed vibe. The acoustic nature of this meeting can seem like a contradiction, considering all three musicians came to fame thru the “jazz rock” movement. This is certainly not the case with this concert. Stanley, Al and Jean-Luc work well together in this acoustic setting.
The DVD menus are easy to navigate, the sound and video quality are superb (even though the camera angles do get a tad artsy at times) and the liner notes are informative.
Like most first time “super group” performances, this concert has some obvious hit and miss points, but overall, it is quality watch. Unfortunately Jean-Luc’s violin signal cuts out at multiple points thru the concert and Al’s synth guitar doubling is not effective, nor does it seem necessary. With that being said, “Rite of Strings” is not for the die-hard electric fusion fan, but is a must for fans of acoustic, intimate jazz performances and of course, for any fans of Stanley Clarke’s superb upright bass playing.
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