Bass Instincts

Stanley Clarke on winning a Grammy, returning to Forever and Charlie Mingus’ bass

Dave Kirby | Boulder Weekly

It’s 4:30 in the morning, halfway across the world in Australia, and Stanley Clarke is resting the world’s most renowned electric bass chops when the call comes.

“My little cell phone, as they say, blew up,” Clarke told Boulder Weekly. “Ninety text messages. I mean, I didn’t know I had that many friends.”

Clarke got the word that his 2010 release The Stanley Clarke Band had just scored a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.

A sprawling, deeply arranged blend of new and old-school fusion jazz, poised ballads, old school funk and bruising jazz calisthenics, the CD was matched against releases like John McLaughlin’s fiery and elegant To The One and the surprise breakout of the year, Trombone Shorty’s Backatown.

But Clarke, whose career extends back four decades across ensemble projects, all-star touring groups and a staggering resumé of soundtrack and production work, took the whole event as a nice compliment, and immediately gave a nod to his younger recording partners.

“I’ve won a few Grammys before — early on in the ’70s — and been nominated I don’t know how many times. For me, it was nice to sort of feel this from the point of view of the young guys in my band. It was their first nomination … and they won.

Did Clarke get that same rush when he won for the first time?

“I did, absolutely. It was in ’74, when Return to Forever [RTF] won a Grammy for the album No Mystery.”

The interesting twist here is that Clarke re-recorded the title tune from that RTF album, a fiendishly braided composition written by Chick Corea, for this CD, and the new version — Clarke playing electric this time, rather than the standup he used for the original — was nominated this year for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, though the statuette went to Jeff Beck, Clarke’s old buddy and former touring partner.

But Clarke, who turns 60 later this year, also acknowledges that this win was hard-fought recognition for a serious and deeply invested project. We remarked, after spinning through the CD a few times, that what struck us was that he and his band really leaned into the thing — broad arrangements, carefully placed soloing, room to breathe at the right times and seamless band interplay at others, with, among other blessings, the brilliant young Japanese pianist Hiromi Uehara alternately gracing and turbocharging the proceedings with her astounding chops and evocative vamping.

“A lot of it came from me, and I have to acknowledge that a lot of it came from the younger guys,” Clarke says. “It reminds me of what Miles Davis said, when someone asked him what he liked about playing with the younger players” — here he mimics Davis’ trademark rasp — “‘They play faster and harder.’ Takes it down to the basics.

“There’s one tune on the record called ‘How’s The Weather Up There,’ which was a direct take-off of a tune I wrote [from RTF’s Hymn To The Seventh Galaxy] called ‘After The Cosmic Rain,’ and they’d say ‘We like that tune, but let’s do it like this.’ And that’s what happened — we got the inspiration from that old tune.

“So, for me, it was really nice to see these guys … they put a lot of work into something, and they got rewarded for it. They got two Grammy nominations, and won one. That’s kind of rare in the jazz world.”

We asked if it was a little conflicting for Clarke to hear and experience these young players (drummer Ronald Bruner, keyboardist Ruslan Sirota) touching on bits of Clarke’s distant past and hoisting them up as models for their 2010 collaboration. Clarke himself has had a lengthy, tangled relationship with his Return To Forever past, the groundbreaking fusion band he formed with Chick Corea in 1972 and with which he has recently reunited, as well as his own solo pop-fusion hit, 1976’s “School Days.” Must have been a little spooky to hear it all referenced by players half his age in the studio.

“It was a little shocking at first,” Clarke admits. “There’s always a sort of retrospective process involved. [Young players are] always looking at something in their past. I mean, anybody. I’ll bet even Justin Bieber heard a Marvin Gaye record or a Michael Jackson record, something. It’s just a little weird when it’s you you’re looking back at.”

For now, Clarke is savoring his Grammy triumph and eagerly looking forward to taking this band out on the road. He has been lately dividing his time with his own projects and the reformed Return to Forever, with whom he was on tour in Australia two weeks ago when the Grammy news came in. RTF, of course, was fusion’s brightest commercial star in the early ’70s, a collaboration between Clarke and Miles Davis keyboard alum Corea, melding rock-dynamic amplification with post-bop jazz virtuosity. After a string of successful albums, Corea shelved the franchise, and it lay dormant for almost 30 years, with various members over the years resisting calls from the dwindling fusion faithful to saddle up again. In 2008, the so-called classic lineup — Corea, Clarke, guitarist Al DiMeola and drummer Lenny White — finally cleared their schedules for half a year and took the stage again, to the rapturous reception of their now-middle-aged fans and the predictable diffidence of professional fusion skeptics.

Corea’s longtime guitarist Frank Gambale has since replaced DiMeola, and the band — dubbed Return to Forever 4 — remains an active franchise.

We asked Clarke if he was pleased with that.

“It’s kind of a love/hate thing for me.

Now Chick, if you pin him down, doesn’t use terms like that. … I think he’s usually more positive about it.

“What I’d really like is to do a tour, with Return to Forever, of just playing clubs. … But, like with any big band, it’s a huge setup. You can’t play a club and make a couple of grand for the night and try to pay 20 people. That’s just the reality of it.”

Before his schedule pulled him away, we asked about the tune on the new CD called Sonny Rollins, a tribute to one of Clarke’s heroes, and a tune he recorded with Charlie Mingus’ old standup, unmodified since the master himself played it, an instrument given to him some years ago by friend and longtime jazz fanatic Bill Cosby.

“Yeah, I’m lookin’ at it right now,” Clarke says. “Killer, man. Best soundin’ bass I have.”

No young jazz bassist passes the threshold without offering props to Mingus.

“Yep, you got that right,” Clarke says.

“I was lucky to have a couple of meals with him. That’s a whole other interview right there.”

On the Bill:

Stanley Clarke Band and Victor Wooten Band play the Boulder Theater on Saturday, March 12. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $34.50.