Another bass tour de force from Stanley Clarke, this time featuring an all-star lineup that looks like a jazz readers’ poll for the year’s best artists: Jeff Beck, Chick Corea, George Duke, Steve Gadd, John McLaughlin, David Sancious, Lenny White. Journey To Love basically returns to the same approach as his last album: throw down some contagious funk, slip in a smooth-as-satin vocal song, add some old school jazz and class things up with a modern classical composition. The new wrinkle here is the addition of Duke and Beck. Clarke found a sympathetic partner in Duke, the two meshing like finely tuned and funky gears on the opening “Silly Putty” and “Hello Jeff,” the latter turbocharged with the electric guitar of Jeff Beck. David Sancious and Steve Gadd are also inspired choices, with Sancious playing lead and rhythm with equal aplomb. Maybe it was the presence of Duke, but Clarke takes on more complex arrangements on this album. “Concerto for Jazz/Rock Orchestra,” for example, features a full brass section that recalls Frank Zappa’s horny exploits (e.g., The Grand Wazoo) and stiches together several different parts with precision and skill. Compared to the concerto, the Corea-Clarke collaboration, “Song to John” (dedicated to John Coltrane), is a snooze. I get where the first part sounds like the shimmering and slowly unfolding sound of John’s later music, but the second part just sounds like Chick noodling around, and John McLaughlin’s acoustic guitar is a wet match that never lights. Still, it’s a minor complaint against a major work. Journey To Love continues to fill a special need for bass-driven jazz/rock. So few musicians were making (or were capable of making) music like this, and it’s easy to hear why many considered Clarke the instrument’s greatest champion. Together with his last and next albums, this represents a triumphant trio of jazz/rock that every bass aficionado (and plenty of pure music lovers) should own.
Kronomyth 4.0: BASS CLASS. From whiz kid to wizard in five short years. On School Days, Stanley Clarke steps out of the shadow of Return To Forever to show us what he’s learned. Suffice to say that fusion fans took note(s). School Days is set up to showcase the many sides of Stanley: fusion, funk, smooth, classical, acoustic, R&B. For progressive fusion fans (i.e., the kind of people who only get jazzed about RTF, Frank Zappa, Brand X, etc.), School Days scores an A+ on the merit of the opening title track alone. “School Days” is basically six feet of genius crammed into eight minutes of music. I walked away from that song thinking that Clarke had found a way to match the best progressive fusion artists of the day and make it look easy. “Quiet Afternoon” explores the romantic/smooth jazz side of Stanley Clarke, though it’s not as painful as you’d think. “The Dance” follows exotic fusion, “Desert Song” journeys into the arid world of acoustic jazz , “Hot Fun” is a crazy funk song that lives up to its name, and “Life Is Just A Game” brings out all the stops in a big fusion finale, including vocals. Earlier albums showcased many of the same skills, but were partly weighed down by multipart suites and occasionally weak arrangements. School Days is different, as Stanley Clarke scores extra credit with one great number after another. Is it his best record? Well, given what I’ve heard so far, that would be an educated guess.
Not a McLaughlin matter worth overanalyzing, simply a septet of songs in various permutations. The idea here seems to be to show off the guitarist’s range, from Mahavishnu to Santavishnu to contentious energy-lord of the avant garde. Interesting but rarely arresting, Johnny McLaughlin, Electric Guitarist doesn’t belong at the top of John’s resume. I’ll concede that “Friendship” delivers where Love Devotion Surrender didn’t, finding middle ground between the styles of McLaughlin and Santana, and the dreamy “Every Tear From Every Eye” conjures butterflies. But the rest of the record is a little too loose and jammy, from the drum-guitar boxing match of “Phenomenon: Compulsion” to the aimless funk of “Are You The One? Are You The One?” While it covers a lot of ground, spectacular scenery is scarce. A Mahavishnu reunion of sorts (“New York On My Mind”) arrives at the same attainable height as Jean-Luc Ponty’s early also-rans, a session with Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke is standoffishly notey. McLaughlin’s tripping bursts of guitar notes are technically impressive, though he only generates warmth by turning off the fireworks display for “My Foolish Heart.” The track placement seems to suggest a predestined course, stripping away layers until the irreducible is left. If it’s not the guitar workshop some hoped for, drummers won’t be disappointed: Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette and Tony Williams are their usual awe-inspiring selves. Fine cameos from Patrice Rushen, Jerry Goodman and Jack Bruce further underscore the who’s who lineup on this all-star assembly. But great musicians don’t automatically equate to great music, at least not here. Perhaps he should have retitled this Johnny McLaughlin, Eclectic Guitarist.