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.
As a man grows older, he grows brittle. The magic seeps from his bones, and he makes a dry, creaking sound as he moves about the world, a kind of interminable tsk that secretly guards what little youth he has left by assessing everything around him as unoriginal, automatic, another tooth in the grinding gears of time. Critics discover this internal defect earlier, I suspect, as new works elicit the same old words. I point this out as a forward apology, since I don’t expect to say anything new about Stanley Clarke’s second album and, honestly, it deserves new language. Unlike his first album, which patterned itself after the early voyages of RTF (and even brought Captain Corea along for the ride), the self-titled second album is a true solo journey. Clarke assembled an all-star crew—Mahavishnu’s Jan Hammer, Tony Williams, Bill Connors—arranged the material himself and put his bass front and center in the music. The pieces are decidedly more funky this time and often use a funk riff of bass and drums to move the music along, which suggests that Clarke still needed to grow as an arranger, but the bass playing itself is unimpeachably smart. Highlights include the joyful “Lopsy Lu” (which segues nicely from the album’s only vocal piece, “Yesterday Princess”) and the two extended pieces on side two, “Spanish Phases” (featuring the acoustic bass) and the RTF-like “Life Suite.” Normally, I’d be writing a paragraph just about Tony Williams (my favorite drummer), but he’s merely excellent (versus, say, supernatural) on this session. Jan Hammer, on the other hand, really impresses me here with his Moog work which, although a bit dated (not his fault), is the album’s second main ingredient. Most of the time, Bill Connors isn’t any more audible here than on Hymn, so it must be a stylistic thing, although he does light it up for “Power” and the closing of “Life Suite.” In comparing this with his first record, I would tell you that Stanley Clarke is the better bass showcase, Children the better bet to please RTF fans. The second album also sets a template for future works, which would highlight Clarke’s bass in various settings of funk, fusion and classical jazz.
Kronomyth 1.0: SON OF THE RETURN TO FOREVER. The first solo album from Stanley Clarke is an RTF record in all but name; a Light As A Feather in his cap, if you will. It’s a transitional record, featuring vocals and flute (holdovers from the last RTF album) while looking forward to the future quartet of Clarke, Chick Corea, Lenny White and electric guitar (here provided by Pat Martino). Andy Bey and Dee Dee Bridgewater create an interesting male/female dynamic in the vocals that gives Children of Forever a unique flavor among RTF-related albums that almost feels like Frank Zappa at times (“Children of Forever,” for example, always reminds me of Frank’s “Village of the Sun.”) Children of Forever is both a collaboration between Clarke and Corea and an inversion of their previous roles, with Clarke writing all but one track, lyricist Neville Potter providing the spacey/spiritual subject matter and Corea handling the arrangements to keep everything contained within the RTF universe. The one track arranged by Clarke, “Children of the Future,” begins to fall apart in the middle and suggests that Corea was the stronger arranger of the two (the rest of the album bears that out). “Unexpected Days” shows the difference in their styles, and has a much more sophisticated and languid feel with no trace of funk. Speaking of sophistication, “Butterfly Dreams,” the only track to feature Bey without Bridgewater, could have come from the smooth-as-butter Johnny Hartman himself. On those tracks and the longer “Sea Journey,” it feels as though Corea has hijacked the session, and that may be the only complaint that Clarke fans can level against the album: it’s not a true Stanley Clarke solo album in the same sense as a School Days. As a warm run for the next iteration of RTF, however, Children of Forever is a welcome find for fusion fans and one of the better examples of Corea’s music in a song-oriented form. It’s not the bass showcase I expected, except for the brilliant “Bass Folk Song” and a wild bass fiddle solo on “Sea Journey,” nor is the guitar fully integrated into their sound yet (Pat Martino’s lone solo on “Sea Journey” is more notey than notable). All in all, it’s not quite as amazing as LAAF, Hymn or the Di Meola-era discs (in my opinion), but it’s definitely in the same family.
Kronomyth 9.0: STANLEY DEE IS FOR DISCO. This is one book you can judge by its cover. Let Me Know You is Stanley Clarke’s first full-time foray into disco music, and while the Chick Corea-styled costume changes have been interesting to date, not so Know. To his credit, Clarke does a very passable job of singing these songs, it’s just a shame he didn’t give himself something better to sing. For example: “My girl, sophisticated is her name / Woh-oh-oh / Yea! She’s a lady.” That’s from the opening song, “Straight To The Top,” and it’s downhill from there. With its undercurrent of funk, LMKY sometimes sounds like an imitation of Prince, but you won’t find anything revolutionary at work here. Only the closing “New York City” (which namechecks Miles Davis) reflects the mind of a serious artist; otherwise, Clarke seems content to throw his hat into the romantic R&B ring without so much as a passing nod to his old jazz-rock roots. As with Herbie Hancock and other jazz artists in the 80s, Clarke’s disco is a cut above the competition in terms of musicianship. Carlos Santana (who appeared on Hancock’s equally misshapen Monster) kicks in a quick pair of guitar solos, while Denzil Miller leads a large cast that includes some familiar faces (Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, Paulinho Da Costa, Marcy Levy, Greg Phillinganes). If you see disco as a legitimate medium for music (and I’m not saying you shouldn’t), Clarke serves it up medium well on Let Me Know You. If, however, disco doesn’t ring your bell, you can wait to make the acquaintance of this album until some dull and distant day.
Kronomyth 7.0: GEOLOGICAL POSITIVISM
Stanley seems to be inching slowly toward mainstream R&B with each album. The man likes to sing, and has a decent voice, although he’s still a little too spread out stylistically to win over the fusion or funk camps entirely. Highlights this time include a space funk adventure with Chick Corea (“Underestimation”), the soulful “You/Me Together” featuring Marcy Levy (late of Eric Clapton’s employ) on vocals and the suite (if slightly indigestible) “The Story of A Man And A Woman.” Those last two tracks feature a substantial string section in tow, while Clarke calls in Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall-bangers for the rudimentary funk single, “We Supply.” Like Modern Man before it, Rocks, Pebbles And Sand is a mixed bag. I prefer the fusion and can do without the funk. As for the vocal songs, they work some of the time; the opening “Danger Street,” for example, reminded me of John Lennon and Frank Zappa, two artists I don’t readily associate with Stanley Clarke. I haven’t heard every one of his solo albums, so I couldn’t tell you where this fits in the scheme of things. School Days is a minor masterpiece, but beyond that I haven’t encountered any other compulsory purchases from Clarke. Modern Man and Rocks are two albums that do many things well, none of them exceptionally well. I can tell you that some of the subsequent straight-up R&B albums are pretty awful, although I think jazz in general collectively cringed in the 80s as fusion players pursued funk and disco as a way to cash in on their chops. This album at least rocks some of the time and continues to make a case that the words “singer/songwriter” belong somewhere after the title of world’s greatest bass guitarist.
Kronomyth 5.0: A BASS ODYSSEY. Your average Scientologist, it would seem, has some pretty strange ideas about both God and what constitutes good science fiction. Modern Man begins with Stanley Clarke’s vision of science fiction fusion (“Opening/He Lives On”), plus a couple of funk exercises and a handful of tantalizing Interludes. It feels harsh to say that Stanley has dumbed down the formula since his last record; maybe it’s just that he’s singing more. While it’s not the dazzling display of School Days, Modern Man is no slouch. It features a great rock instrumental with Jeff Beck on “Rock ‘N’ Roll Jelly” and pushes some personal conceptual envelopes with its Interludes and opening/closing statements. Between the spacemen and the synthesizers, Modern Man belongs to an earlier time, but there are a lot of us still living in that past, so maybe you won’t mind at all. The real differences between this album and his last are the amount of singing that Stanley does (a lot, though not poorly) and the difference in styles between Michael Garson (who doesn’t seem to have changed much since his days with David Bowie) and David Sancious. Beginning with Modern Man, Clarke began to evolve from a fusion artist to an R&B/funk artist, although I’m pretty sure “evolve” isn’t the right word. Here, he’s still inhabiting that middle world between jazz and pop/R&B; “He Lives On,” featuring Jeff Baxter on guitar, could pass for a Steely Dan song, and “Got To Find My Own Place” is no more of a sellout than Chick Corea’s songs. Of course, fusion fans may not be so interested in hearing Stanley Clarke sing or play pedestrian funk, while R&B fans probably don’t think of themselves as space warriors. As a result, Modern Man doesn’t truly connect with listeners from either camp, though most will agree it has its redeeming moments (even as they disagree on which those are).
A young magician who fell under the spell of Scientology, fusion, funk and a certain four-stringed instrument known as the bass guitar. From the 70s onward, there probably hasn’t been a moment in time when someone, somewhere wasn’t emphatically advancing the notion that Stanley Clarke is the greatest bass guitarist in the world. He is certainly one of the greatest bass guitarists in the field of fusion, and you’ll find ample proof of that on just about every Return To Forever album. You’ll find that RTF magic at work in his Nemperor recordings too. Like most fusion artists from the 70s, he’s also released some slightly embarrassing funk records (as well as a few good ones with George Duke), exhumed the oldies and proved his resilience with a Grammy in his graybeard years.
Clarke met Chick Corea while they were supporting Joe Henderson, which led to an invitation from Corea to join Return To Forever. Throughout the 70s, Clarke appeared on every RTF album and a few Corea solo albums besides. Corea returned the favor on Children of Forever (1973) and Journey To Love (1975), but it was School Days (1976) that signaled Clarke’s arrival as a star. Featuring six tracks done in very different styles, School Days was a showcase for his versatility as both a songwriter and a performer. In the 1980s, Clarke moved into R&B/funk and scored a crossover hit on his collaboration with former Frank Zappa keyboardist George Duke. Clarke continued to release new records into the next century and surprised many when The Stanley Clarke Band (2010) won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.
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. I didn’t expect an album this varied or accomplished to come from Stanley Clarke; shame on me. You knew he was a major player when you heard RTF, but School Days is really the first time that he shines on his own*. Is it his best record? Well, given what I’ve heard so far, that would be an educated guess. (*Future reality check: School Days is a refinement of his last two albums, which shone fine, but this album is more accessible and isn’t weighed down by multipart suites.)
A nudge better than the recordings around it (Secret Agent, Touchstone) despite the silly costume. Drawing from a loose axis of familiar players, Corea presents seven new compositions that touch upon lighthearted funk, Latin music, cool jazz, and traces of fusion. In other words, Chick is still marching to the same pattern set forth on earlier albums, though the material this time is very good. Tap Step features no missteps, despite trying its hand at all manner of music. The opening “Samba L.A.” is unexpected, a gossamer samba both winsome and ethereal that serves as a cautious celebration (perhaps due to the lack of a low end that a bass player would have provided). “Embrace” is a lilting, pungent song featuring the vocals of Gayle Moran and a wonderfully sneaky arrangement from Chick. The march eventually arrives in “Tap Step,” given a distinctly jazzy flavor here. Side two begins with the delightful “Magic Carpet,” a piece that appeases both the sophisticated palette and the animal grace of jazz simultaneously. Squeaking and squawking herald “The Slide,” which Corea and Jamie Faunt (on piccolo bass) gingerly take up before immersing themselves in a remarkably rich rhythm. The playful “Grandpa Blues” features Chick on vocorder and Stanley Clarke contributing lead guitar-like lines from his piccolo bass (they must have rented one for the week). Tap Step ends on a serious note with the restless “Flamenco,” a noisy return to a style Corea has probably exhausted at this point. Add these seven tracks up and the sum total is surprisingly solid; not the sort of album to displace My Spanish Heart, but the kind of tasty fare that Corea fans can rally behind.
So what exactly constitutes a Return To Forever album anyway? Musicmagic blurs the line between RTF and Chick’s solo recordings, since the same basic lineup (Farrell, Moran et al) was employed on Secret Agent and The Mad Hatter. Far from the stellar fusion of Romantic Warrior, Musicmagic is a song-oriented album. It’s some of the most commercial music that Corea has recorded (e.g., Clarke’s “So Long Mickey Mouse”), but not some of his best. Corea conjures the usual keyboard wizardry, Clarke takes a bow to his bass, and the rest of the band kicks something into the kitty, so there’s fire behind the RTF smokescreen, just not enough of it. Blame the high bar on earlier incarnations; of the RTF albums I own, this is the lamest and it’s still a pretty good record. Gayle Moran’s voice is expressive, warm and occasionally captivating. It’s on Musicmagic that she becomes, in the words of Beavis, “a full-fledged member,” playing keyboards and writing the graceful “Do You Ever.” The horn section also gives the band a different flavor, evoking memories of Frank Zappa’s The Grand Wazoo. Of Corea’s compositions, “The Endless Night” and “Musicmagic” have their mind candy moments where the mustachioed magician coaxes an armoire of sounds from his speaker cabinets. Stanley Clarke, who also sings on this album, adds the popular “So Long Mickey Mouse,” which is la-la-lovely in spots. Surprisingly, more than half of this album turned up on The Best of Return To Forever. If you bought that compilation, you were robbed. The selections on Musicmagic are simply too timid when RTF’s toils are taken in toto to testify in such a trial. If your tastes skip toward smooth jazz, then Musicmagic might be the safest entry into deep waters, but you can’t stand in the shallow end forever.