In most jazz bands, the bass player remains as anonymous as a stagehand, lost as he is in the shadows beyond the spotlight. So how could anyone anticipate the phenomenon of Stanley Clarke? A bassist—as thin and taut as an A-string—he is emerging from the back of the band to become, at 24, the hottest musician in jazz. Clarke has composed and cut two solo albums this year, including his Journey to Love, now rumbling toward the top of pop, jazz and R&B charts—an astounding triple play for a jazz musician.
The force behind Clarke’s booming bass—he plays both the electric and upright acoustic—is jazz-rock, a hybrid whose time has finally come. If the ’60s were the golden years of rock, the decade was just a long, sour note to neglected jazzmen. Only recently did pioneers like Miles Davis blend the intricate free improvisations of acoustic jazz with the synthesized keyboards, electric guitars and pulsating rhythms of rock. They created a compelling music that in the last four years has driven up sales of jazz records tenfold.
“Jazz-rock is the music of the future,” allows Clarke, who performs in concerts with Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, the four-man band that’s stumping the country and generating the frenzy of a top-line rock act. “People now want a higher form of communication,” Clarke believes. “Jazz-rock reaches deeper than just plain rock’n’roll. After all, you can just take so much of this ‘Hey, baby’ thing.”
When he was a kid on Philadelphia’s North Side, Clarke was more into Bach than Brubeck. But when his machinist father brought home a demo record of big band jazz, Stanley remembers, “I played it so often that the tracks wore down and just went, shhhhhhhhhhhhh.” His mother, a would-be opera singer, encouraged his classical studies, but Clarke found that as a teenager his problem was finding the proper instrument for his spidery, 6’2″ anatomy. Violins didn’t respond to fingers as long as darning needles. Cello? “Too small,” he recalls. “But I saw this bass standing in the corner of the music room. I tried it and it went just perfectly with the way I looked.”
After studying at the Philadelphia Musical Academy, Clarke dropped into the wedding and bar mitzvah circuit, then went on to ensembles headed by jazzmen like Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon. But it was not until he moved to New York and Corea’s group that Clarke developed his full range of musical expression.
In concerts, where his solos are show-stoppers, Clarke rips out stupefyingly fast runs on his customized electric bass, filling the air with a fluttering thunder. With equal finesse he can carve out doleful images with his bow on an acoustic bass, and then bring audiences to their feet by plucking out breakneck rhythms, his fingers flying up and down the strings. “The first time I did a solo in front of thousands of people,” he recalls, “I thought, here’s this big piece of wood, with steel strings, and all those people waiting for you to get them off. So I just had to develop a new way of playing solo bass.” Clarke’s virtuosity is such that, before he joined Corea’s group, he was an indispensable session musician, backing up singers like Aretha Franklin on more than 40 albums.
“Acoustic or electric, classical or Latin, jazz or rock, I’m really loose,” Clarke concludes. “I like to get people way out there with that heavy, funky thing and then get into some mellow, classical stuff. It’s like sex; afterwards you don’t feel like running a mile, you want to relax.” Clarke now talks seriously of performing on the upright bass with symphony orchestras, though he has no plans to unplug his Alembic. “In the ’60s jazz had become too esoteric,” he says of its revival. “Jazz musicians are just starting to communicate to the people again.”