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.
On paper, it looked like Kingfish had collided with a jazz fusion band: Bob Weir, Matthew Kelly, Billy Cobham, Alponso Johnson plus Bobby Cochran and Brent Mydland (who had been on board the Bob Weir Band since 1978) as the passengers. On vinyl, well, it’s a car crash alright. Weir and his benighted Midnites can’t seem to decide whether they want to be The James Gang (“Haze”), the E Street Band (“Too Many Losers”), Foreigner (“Me, Without You”) or the Bob Weir Band Mk. II (all of side two). I had honestly expected this album to be a lot jazzier, given the presence of Cobham (Mahavishnu Orchestra) and Johnson (Weather Report) coupled with the fact that Weir’s work on Go To Heaven (which was also produced by Gary Lyons) was clearly moving in that direction. Bobby & The Midnites, it turns out, is just a wrong turn. I’m not sure Arista ever knew what to do with Bob Weir in the first place; he inherited whatever producer the label had signed for the Dead, and his records seemed to make too many commercial concessions. Gary Lyons has a heavier production hand on the first Bobby & The Midnites album than he did with the Dead, which results in a more contemporary studio rock sound that overshadows (and effectively cancels out) the contributions of Cobham and Johnson. The second side of music, written almost exclusively by Weir, is closer to what Dead fans might have reasonably expected: blues (“Josephine”), ballads (“Carry Me”) and a song tailor-made for concerts (“Festival”), as well as the unexpected “(I Want To) Fly Away,” which incorporates reggae music into a highly original rock arrangement. That track and a cover of The Heptones’ “Book of Rules” suggest that maybe the band should have made an album of reggae music instead of trying to cover rock and roll from every angle. It’s not the Dead, it’s not disco, and it’s not the fusion of jazz and rock that its parts would indicate. I haven’t heard the band play live, so I couldn’t call it a failed experiment, but the first Bobby & The Midnites album does seem like missed opportunity to me.
Given the success they had the first time around, it was pretty much a fait accompli that Stanley Clarke and George Duke would make another album together. The Clarke/Duke Project II is that album. It’s not as funky as the first project, which was already once removed from the funk of George Duke’s solo records (e.g., Follow The Rainbow). Instead, the album is just as likely to trot out synth rock (“Put It On The Line”) or an R&B ballad (“Try Me Baby”) as funk. I notice that the Clarke/Duke albums seem to have a cleaner image than Duke’s solo music, like the positive “Every Reason To Smile” or “The Good Times.” That said, I’m not sure there’s much of a market for clean-cut funk. I can totally see someone putting an old George Duke record on the turntable and rediscovering their booty, but I can’t imagine listeners playing air bass guitar to “Great Danes.” Then again, it’s not like I’m looking into your home with a telescope, so maybe that’s exactly the sort of thing you do. If these projects do nothing more than turn fusion fans onto funk or vice versa, then they’ve already served a purpose. You’ll find more basscrobatics on Stanley Clarke’s albums, though, and better funk on Duke’s. I do enjoy the production value on this record; songs like “You’re Gonna Love It” just ooze quality. Prog fans can stay out of the Projects altogether and scrounge around for a clean copy of The Jean-Luc Ponty Experience if they prefer, but there’s no denying that Duke’s participation elevates Clarke’s funk aspirations.