Damn, I got a blister on my thumb!
Bassist Stanley Clarke's new album may have a generic title, but it's appropriate. As someone who helped invent the genre known as fusion jazz in addition to completely mastering his own instrument, a piece of living history like Clarke has every right to have complete control over his recording output. A looming influence like Clarke, who is well over 40 years into his career, has the luxury to call all the shots. But on The Stanley Clarke Band, the man at the center of it all has no problems handing the reigns over to much younger musicians, whether it be for extended solos or songwriting. And fortunately for us, the Stanley Clarke Band is more than up for the challenge. Aside from a few minor missteps, The Stanley Clarke Band is about as rock-solid and no-nonsense as its title.
Clarke has assembled an impressive band this time around. He has the benefit of not one, but two extraordinarily talented keyboardists with Hiromi Uehara and Ruslan Sirota, the former a holdover from Clarke's 2009 album Jazz in the Garden. Human metronome Ronald Bruner, Jr. proves to be a reliable backbeat for Stanley Clarke's heavily syncopated bass plucking in times of great fury. The rest of the disc is rounded out with guest performances from sax man Bob Sheppard, guitarists Charles Altra and Rob Bacon, vocalist Cheryl Bentyne, and a galvanized rhythm section helped out by additional bassists and drum programmers. On paper, it sounds like a busy mess, and some of you might not be too impressed by a long list of names. But you're going to have to take my word for it when I say that it's an impressive sounding ensemble.
The leadoff track "Soldier" gives us the spirit of the band in a seven-minute microcosm. Composed by Sirota, it's an inimitable scaled-down epic. The rubato in the beginning slowly gives way to a hesitant fusion groove that would have not sounded out of place coming from Weather Report or Return to Forever 30 years ago. 90 seconds in, the song is completely seized by this brisk motif that is absolutely riveting. This is followed by a piano solo that sounds like Vince Guaraldi if he were surrounded held at gunpoint in combat. "A soldier's path is never easy", writes the song's author in the liner notes. The piece's sense of drama never pretends to assume otherwise, and it easily establishes the high point of the album right away.
This doesn't mean that the rest of the album slouches. A close second to the power of "Soldier" would probably have to be a rereading of Return to Forever's "No Mystery", which the band manages to play as if it were written just for them. Hiromi Uehara gets to display her writing skills on "Labyrinth", her lone composition on the collection (and does it ever count!). Just the main theme plays out like a myriad of syncopated cadences that seem to resolve only in ways you least expect them.
After awhile, it feels as if Stanley Clarke's songwriting contributions were the least convincing ones in the pot. They do have their place, however. "Bass Folk Song No. 10", which concludes a long-standing series of solos Clarke had been writing since the '70s, accomplishes a surprisingly affecting mood in ways fusion skeptics could never imagine. And it's all done with a four-string and just the tiniest bit of background programming. "Larry Has Traveled 11 Miles and Waited a Lifetime for the Return of Vishnu's Report" and "Sonny Rollins" function as dedications to Joe Zawinul and Sonny Rollins (obviously), respectively. And though Clarke has solidified his own compositional voice over the years, they still don't rise to anything above homage. "How Is the Weather Up There?", apart from being an excuse to groove, also does its best to be timely in the face of global warming. Informed by the news of this forthcoming composition, Clarke's fans left voicemail messages offering up their thoughts and opinions about the subject, including one that I hadn’t heard before: "It's not carbon dioxide driven. When the planet gets warmer it's because of the sun. When the sun gets hotter, all the planets get hotter." Gosh, how come we never thought of that one before?
Since the title is so definitive, early buzz around The Stanley Clarke Band compared it rather favorably to his first three solo albums. And to anyone who still sits at home spinning their vinyl copies of Journey to Love or School Days, the idea of this release ranking as Clarke's greatest achievement may sound preposterous -- especially with all that young talent invading his space. But to anyone who thought that Clarke's 2008 album The Toys of Men showed great promise of elastic tension and release, The Stanley Clarke Band is hot off its heels. For all its inconsistencies, this album could be fusion's new fountain of youth.