Interview with Bassist Stanley Clarke –
Stanley Clarke is truly an artist that needs no introduction. The amount of musicians this man has influenced over his seriously long and brilliant career is probably second only (maybe) to Jaco himself. That kind of positive longevity rests in a very small circle of contemporary influences, and beyond that I find his musical enthusiasm simply just hasn’t changed right up to present day.
The “Return to Forever” reunion tour with Chick Corea, Al DiMieola, and Lenny White, and the ongoing SMV tour with Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten could easily be looked at as two of the most prominent musical events of our brief venture into the 21st century, and this man is at the heart of both of them. I’m sure most of us would be thrilled to simply just “sustain” a lengthy career such as Stanley has, but to be at the forefront of present day contemporary music (again) decades after literally picking up the instrument is a one liner few of us will know, but what an immense encouragement it is to all that are working so hard to sustain themselves in this industry.
He quoted how it’s been a busy touring year, and followed that statement with… “As soon as I’m done touring, I’m going right to work on a few projects I’ve been trying to get to.” That kind of dedication (or maybe at this point pure love of playing) most certainly is one of the elements that help to define a statement such as “A true artist”.
Stanley was literally crossing the border from Canada when we spoke, and he said he needed to stop our conversation for a moment to show them some identification, and I said, “Just show them your CD”. That probably would have worked, and that’s one hell of a statement.
Jake: First off, I’m sure you enjoyed your reunion tour with “Return to Forever.” At Its conception, “Return to Forever” was the encapsulation of contemporary jazz. Somehow, down the road, the “new voice” of contemporary jazz got to be Kenny G and the like. My question is, from your perspective after the tour, do you feel quote/unquote contemporary jazz might now be seeing a resurgence of its original roots—that open and more aggressive approach to composition, or is this wishful thinking on my part?
Stanley: Well, I think your right. You know, whenever an older group comes back on the scene, there seems to be a resurgence of an old form of music. One of the things about RTF is that each of us remained very active. It’s not like Chick hasn’t been playing for 25 years, or myself, or Al and Lenny. We’ve all stayed active and continued to make records right up until we re-united. It wasn’t a true reunion that you see in some other groups where you have no idea where the guys have been and they just pop up after twenty years. The beautiful thing was that we got right out and played live and brought out our old fans as well as new fans that have been following us as far as being solo artists. It was a really beautiful thing to see. And the music, even though it was old music, came across very strongly because all of us play better now. We had these old songs, but they sounded new because everybody plays differently at this point. Basically, we all have our own unique voices, but everyone has developed a better voice. It was great.
Jake: I caught you guys live here in Portland, and the enthusiasm from the audience was quite overwhelming…. kind of a Rock concert reaction, and I’m sure you felt that coming across, and experiencing that was kind of the basis of my question to you. Is there any chance RTF will be doing a new CD?
Stanley: Maybe so. I think we’re going to have quite a few things to release from this tour that we just did. We have a DVD that’s coming out as well as a live recording… we’ll see where it goes from there.
Jake: I know the respect and admiration you have for Chick. In the concert you had here, your introduced him as one of the great American composers, which I’m in total agreement with. Do you have the urge, or the time for that matter to think about releasing a new solo project featuring your own compositional prowess?
Stanley: Yes I do. You know, Chick was the guy, and this is going back to when I was eighteen or nineteen years old, that actually encouraged me to compose more. He’s always liked the way I compose. Even to this day he talks about how I should be pursuing this more. I think probably next year I’m going to be releasing a bunch of different things. There are a lot of things that I have been writing but haven’t had time to put them out. This year was a heavy touring year, and come November 1st, I’ll be done. I think I’m going to take quite a few months off and that’s when I’m going to work on putting out some new music.
Jake: Any idea at all where the direction of that music might be going?
Stanley: I’m writing less and less with radio in mind, I’ll put it that way. The radio really doesn’t have an affect anymore as far as instrumental musicians are concerned. Record sales are down so far that it just doesn’t seem to have an impact like it once did. As far as I’m concerned, it’s kind of a good time for musicians to kind of forget about radio… it’s a great time to be yourself. When smooth jazz radio started, and I want to interject that I do respect some of the guys that do that well, I saw so many musicians kind of jumping on the bandwagon and pursuing that as opposed to what they really do. I believe it’s always better to be true to what you really do.
Jake: I remember talking to Gary Willis about this, that being the lack of power that the record companies seem to have at this point in time, and that realization kind of leading to what we’re talking about here as far as considering the premise… you might as well do what you do at this point.
Stanley: Absolutely. The industry has changed, and I think we’ll see a more open approach by a lot of artists at this point in time.
Jake: Let’s talk about your recent release SMV with Marcus and Victor. I know the goal of this effort was not to make it a bass fiasco type of project, which upon my listening I feel you most definitely accomplished. With the level of musicianship and experience being at such a high level between the three of you, I’m curious as to what you felt to be the most challenging part of this project?
Stanley: The most challenging part was basically trying to get us all in the same room at the same time. It’s a very natural pairing, or band for that matter. Victor and Marcus are very serious musicians, as well as very flexible musicians. Their not just bass players, they’re much broader than that, and that made it very natural for us to play together.
Every one seemed to know where to be at the right place at the right time. So actually the challenge was getting everyone together. Victor and I elected Marcus to oversee the project, more are less as the producer, and that worked out good. I think it was a little tough for Marcus at times, as far as being responsible for getting us together on multiple occasions. Each guy would take a track to his house and work at it at home, and eventually it kind of all came together. I’m really, really proud of the record. And the concerts are going great as well. People really seem to love it. It’s so funny because on paper it actually shouldn’t sound as good as it sounds. It’s actually a better live band than it sounds on the record. This band has turned out to be a great deal of fun for all of us.
Jake: The different writing styles the three of you employ seem to work very well together. There is diversity for sure within your compositional approaches, but I think you are right that it went well beyond paper. How much touring do you plan to do with SMV?
Stanley: We’re going to tour up until November 1st.
Jake: Didn’t this whole project come about with an event put on by Bass Player Magazine?
Stanley: Yes it did. Marcus and Victor were giving me a Lifetime Achievement Award and the magazine editor said why don’t you guys play something together. So we went ahead and played together on a song of mine called “School Days”, and it was so natural. It was like we had been playing together all our lives. And somebody videotaped it, and then it showed up on You Tube, and I believe something like a million people came on to see it, and it was like we were the new “Spinal Tap” or something like that. And as always, promoters smell success, like they always try to do, and the rest is history… here we are.
Jake: I wanted to mention that last issue we reviewed your DVD with Al and Jean-Luc Ponty that you did a while back. That was a stunning trio. Any plans at all for that trio resurfacing?
Stanley: I’m sure we’ll play again. I know Jean-Luc and I will be getting together soon. We’re thinking of putting out a live CD of Jean-Luc and I, and Bela Fleck. We’re actually reviewing some tapes on that.
Jake: I’m sure your schedule doesn’t permit much personal time for you and your instrument. If time did become available to you, what type of projects or studies might you be focusing on at this point in time?
Stanley: Actually, I’d like to put out a real “solo” bass album, on acoustic bass. I have to find some practice time first off. There are some Bach pieces that I’m working on right now. I’ve been trying to work on them as much as I can while I’m on tour. A couple of these songs are actually Bach cello pieces, as well as a couple of things that I have written myself. I also plan to work in a couple of improvised pieces as well. This is the next project I intend to put some time into.
Jake: In this last concert I saw you in, you took about a fifteen-minute acoustic solo, which was one of the highlights for me that evening, and you seemed to be very comfortable in that particular musical space.
Stanley: I enjoy it immensely. I’ve been developing that for quite some time now, and I’m looking forward to working on that when the time presents itself.
Jake: With all of your experience over the years, and the music industry at this point in time being so radically different than it was a few decades ago, what would you like to see and hear more of from the younger generation of players that are out there right now?
Stanley: You know, I’m actually kind of enjoying the direction that a lot of younger players are going these days. I feel that the guys that are in their twenties right now are a very interesting bunch because they’ve sort of grew up in the Hip-Hop era. A lot of these guys really do try to make a serious attempt to understand all the different genres of music, all the way back to Charlie Parker. They try to understand the post bop Bebop era, fusion, and even avant-garde music. There are some extremely talented musicians that are out there right now.
What I would like to see is more change from the business people. I’d like to see more support come from the record companies, as well as agents and the whole music infrastructure, to try to help and promote these guys. I think the musicians are doing just fine.
There’s some tremendous talent out there and I’m speaking internationally as well. There are tons of tremendous players out there. But what I don’t see is the record business embracing these players. It’s much tougher for a young player now than it was when I was coming up in the early seventies. I think that the record executives were much better and they had a much better understanding of music. Some of the people involved in the industry now still try to understand and consider the musicians, and their music. But a lot of them are just businessman, and they’re just out there to make a buck. So when you have that element in an artistic environment, something is always going to suffer, and you’re going to have basically what happened to our business over the last twenty years.
That’s basically what happened. A bunch of guys got in and were more interested in the money being the total bottom line. I understand that concept; I have businesses of my own. But then what happens is that these businessmen encourage musicians to sound like other artists because those artists are selling, and that doesn’t work. When I came upon the scene one of the first people from the record labels I met was Ahmad Ergman. I was on a label that was distributed by Atlantic, and I put out my first record, which was called the Stanley Clarke album. At that time the average jazz album sold about 5000 or 6000 units, and this particular record I did sold over 80,000 units. So I went to see Ahmad at his office, and I remember how much he encouraged me, and more specifically he encouraged me to be myself. When you look at his history, and study the history of the record company, you realize that’s what he did. He didn’t try to make the Rolling Stones sound like Aretha Franklin, or Charlie Mingus sound like Al Green, he just encouraged everybody to be distinctive. Now you have the record companies trying to make everybody sound like everybody else, and that’s the problem… a problem I’d like to see disappear.
Visit online at www.stanleyclarke.com