Bassist Stanley Clarke Amazes, Acoustic and Electric

NIGHT SHOOL: AN EVENING WITH STANLEY CLARKE AND FRIENDS (Heads Up International)
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I have this theory that eventually almost everything that’s been videotaped (or archived in any visual medium) is going to turn up on DVD (or, perhaps, streamed digitally for public consumption). A lot of it will be really lame—like, can you believe some of the unspeakably bad TV series that have already made it to DVD? But with any luck there will also be a lot of releases like this excellent concert from October 2002, which probably wasn’t intended for commercial distribution when it was shot, but which turns out to be a magnificent showcase for some really hot musicians a few years down the line.

The concert was a benefit for the Stanley Clarke Scholarship Fund at L.A.’s Musician’s Institute, endowed by the great virtuoso bassist, whose long career has seen him collaborate with a plethora of fine players in many different genres. Clarke is truly one of the best in the world, as well as a great collaborator, so it’s no surprise that he was able to attract an incredible roster of talented folks for this concert.

It opens with a piece for Clarke and a small orchestra, and then moves through an astonishing array of styles. “Wild Dog,” written by Clarke and fellow fusion titan George Duke, finds Clarke out front of an electric quintet (two keys, drums and another bass player) blasting through a funky workout with amazing speed and dexterity—he’s clearly showing off, but it’s hard not to be impressed! Then the lineup expands to include five horn players for a confident and powerful reading of the Mingus classic “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” and here Clarke blends in beautifully in the bigger surrounding, another player in the ensemble (yet always distinctive and forthright in his playing).

Next come my two favorite tracks. Clarke switches to standup bass and he’s joined for a pair of intimate tunes with the great Nashville-based banjo master Bela Fleck, and a violinist I’d never heard of (but whom I now adore!) named Karen Briggs. The first tune, “Song to John,” finds the threesome nimbly trading solos on a dreamy flight that alternately soars and drifts—it’s meditative at the same time it sizzles the ol’ synapses. I’d forgotten what an inventive soloist Fleck is on this type of material, and Briggs is a revelation—in a genre where you can count the great modern violin players on one hand (Goodman and Ponty being the most influential, I suppose), she is quite a creative force and original voice. And Clarke’s work is as subtle and exquisite as his electric playing is flashy and at times over the top; very impressive. For their second tune together, a reggae workout called “The Lochs of Dread,” they’re joined by Police drummer Stewart Copeland, and he adds a lot of personality to the mix as well.

The following section consists of three tunes (all short Clarke compositions) with Clarke conducting the orchestra (augmented by a few rock/jazz players), including his sumptuous “Theme from Boys ’N the Hood”; another nice change of pace. “Big Jam” funks it up again with a large grouping that includes Briggs, Copeland, the horns and guest bassist Flea from the Chili Peppers. Then it’s back to a small group, with Clarke (on acoustic) and Briggs and Stevie Wonder leading the way on “Every Day I Have the Blues” and then dropping easily into jazz mode for a turn—I had no idea Stevie could play straightahead jazz so well (though I can’t it’s exactly surprising).

The disc concludes with a veritable bass orgy: Clarke is joined by 10—count ’em 10—other electric bassists, and all of ’em get a chance to solo! I was familiar with a few, but not most of them. My favorites: Bunny Brunel, Billy Sheehan (for that Rock God sound!) and Wayman Tisdale. Bass players will no doubt salivate at this parade of fabulous axes and extraordinary technicians. Me, I kinda prefer the more introspective offerings on the disc. But all in all it’s an extremely impressive outing. The multi-camera shoot (directed by Kenneth Martinez Burgmaier) looks great, and the sound (chief engineer is Don Humann) is generally excellent, although the jumbo bass jam definitely tests the limits.

One quibble: On the package’s track list is a tune called “Why Wait” by an all-star quintet consisting of Clarke, Lenny White on drums, Patrice Rushen on piano, Benny Maupin on sax and Wallace Roney on trumpet, but it does not appear on the disc with that lineup—instead, among the bonus features is “Why Wait” with Clarke on standup bass and poet Maya Angelou reading; nice, but not as advertised. Other bonus features include interviews with many of the musicians from the concert, mostly talking about how good and cool Stanley Clarke is. True.