Stanley Clarke‘s first “proper” studio album after almost ten years is neither the unmitigated disaster some broadsheet reviews would have you believe, nor is it the all-conquering return to form that smooth and fusion columns have been claiming. The latter groups are at least generically closer to the mark. 1, 2 to the Bass is a solid fusion album marred by the inclusion of some redundant hip-hop, misplaced poetry and one dismal reminder of Clarke’s jazz-rock days.
Let’s get the obvious fact out of the way first. Clarke is a ridiculously talented bass player, so good in fact that the humble bass is not enough for him. In addition to acoustic and electric varieties, he plays such oxymoronic variants such as the piccolo and tenor basses and even when using the more traditional model likes to add a couple of extra strings. Dizzying and pyrotechnic or self-indulgent and excessive are the sounds thus produced, depending on your level of axe-worship. A new “smooth” inflected (or infected) sensibility has kept the excesses largely in check but they do succeed in the occasional prison breakout.
The most reliable tracks are the more modest, mellow to mid-tempo numbers such as “Simply Said” or “Just Cruzing”. As these are in the majority, jazz-fusionists can purchase this set blind. The level of musicianship, the silk-glove funkiness and those slinky, undulating bass-lines won’t surprise but they will not disappoint. More problematic are the high profile guest appearances and collaborations. Remember those Quincy Jones records from about ten years ago (Quincy co-produces, by the way).This has a similar feel at times. The phrase “mixed blessing” inevitably springs to mind.
On the plus side, it’s gratifying to hear Hubert Laws taking a break from the classical paths he has been treading lately. His presence adds to a pleasant CTI/Kudu vibe that is one of the more appealing aspects of this project. On the other hand, there is Oprah Winfrey. What’s more it’s Oprah reading a Maya Angelou poem. The sentiments are serious and worthy, the tone is bathetic, melodramatic, and annoyingly self-righteous (blame shared between writer and narrator). Basically, it just doesn’t work.
Poetry is a dangerous thing. The irrepressible Q-Tip, for whom I have much affection, seems to have caught the bug. Here, as on the recent Roy Hargrove album, his jaunty doggerel has gone all pseudo-profound and pretentious. As an instrumental, “1, 2 to the Bass” would have been a joy but it is ruined completely, becoming jazz-rap of the most banal and dated type. While we’re on the subject of duds, skip the Parliament cover (“Hair”) as well, unless you’re of a particularly rock-enamoured sensibility.
There are two magnificent, Asian-influenced, “orchestral” duets (with violinist Dr. L. Subrahaman), which are not without their own airs and graces, but are subtle and gently evocative. Clarke has spent most of the last few years composing incidental music and his new impressionism and sense of space are noticeable gains from those endeavours. I think there is potential for longer excursions in this vein.
Apart from a couple of obligatory (but effective) show-off solo pieces (“Touch” is the best), we are left with “Where Is the Love”. Sung in their usual style by the excellent Amel Larrieux and the Wonder-clone Glenn Lewis, this contains, according to some critics, “all the clichés of contemporary R&B”. Maybe so, but as we are talking the Hathaway/Flack classic here, I think we can safely say that is the usual hostility to smoother soul vocals rearing its ill-informed head for yet another tin-eared charge. It is not a straight cover. Clarke has fiddled slightly with the backing melodic structure, which is initially disconcerting, but gradually it makes sense and leaves you with a version that you will return to often and with increasing respect.
So, a mixed bag, far more than was aesthetically necessary, but one that holds a few gems within it. Aimed squarely at those who already recognise Clarke’s prowess as a musician but prefer him in his less hectic moods, 1, 2 to the Bass is a creditable “comeback” session. The skip button will come into play but give some of the less grandiose numbers a chance. They are well worth getting to know.