Bringing the Bass Up Front: An Interview with Stanley Clarke
With the re-issue of all seven of Stanley Clarke’s solo discs in a career-spanning box set, we talk to the legendary bass player about his career, writing classics like "Lopsy Lu" and "School Days", the ideal balance of heart and virtuosity and the value of live performance, warts and all.
It’s 1975. Stanley Clarke, the bass player for Return to Forever, has just released his second solo album Journey To Love. The single "Silly Putty" has begun climbing up the pop charts. He and his band are playing a sold-out concert in Indiana. The reception is wildly enthusiastic. But later, as Clarke heads backstage, he runs into a promoter, shaking his head, profoundly unsettled by the idea of a bass player writing songs, leading a band and headlining at a large rock arena. "He just couldn’t believe it," says Clarke. "To have the bass player standing out in front of the band and the guitar player in back and the keyboard player over there and the horn players over on the side ... to have me, the bass player, talking to the audience and playing and laughing and all crazy, it was weird to this guy. No singer, and the place was packed. Something was wrong."
Clarke laughs at the memory, half a lifetime past the days when a bass player as band leader was a radical idea. "At that point, I just recognized this was not fashionable, but I kept doing it and it started something," he says. "Going on stage as a bass player is a total natural thing now. But then, for the bass player to play shows and release an album, it was a no no."
Stanley Clarke grew up in Philadelphia, and was brought, at an early age, to that city’s Settlement Music School for lessons. His mother, who sang opera and was devoted to classical music, pushed him into a white-gloved, formal atmosphere that was totally at odds with the rest of his life, a disciplined, demanding world, of exercises and continual practice. Later, at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, Clarke aspired to become the first black bassist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, but like many black musicians found that path closed to him. Instead he headed to New York City, where he turned to jazz, playing with Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, and many others. He met up with Chick Corea in the early 1970s and founded Return To Forever, blending electric rock instrumentations with the technique and improvisation of jazz and founding the genre known as fusion.
It was during this period that he developed his signature style for playing the electric bass, with his right hand bent sharply downward over the strings, in an L-shaped hook that places the fingers roughly where they would be on an acoustic bass. (Though the acoustic bass would be upright, where the electric is horizontal.) "I come from a time period when there really was no education there yet about playing the electric bass. There was maybe one book. Whereas with the stand-up bass, or acoustic bass, there was all kinds of literature," he says. "My approach to the electric bass comes from being an acoustic bass player. " Nowadays, he says, young bass players can study technique at any music school, so you see less variation in playing styles. But in the 1970s, bass players had, to some extent, to find their own way.
"It really is a good question, why someone plays the way they do," he says. "It boils down to what’s occurred and how they want their instrument to sound. I did many recordings where I played in the normal way, playing bass lines, but even from the beginning, I was very interested in solo bass. So I thought, wow, I should write for the bass. And that led to a solo career. "
It was Nat Weiss, a lawyer and proprietor of Nemperor Records, who first took a chance on Clarke as a songwriter. "He used to say, ‘There will never be anybody like you. You are who you are. I was 20 something years old and he gave me a bunch of money said, ‘Go make an album.’ So I came back in about a month with an album."
That album was Stanley Clarke, a landmark in jazz fusion which contained Clarke’s first solo hit, "Lopsy Lu". Clarke had written for guitar and other instruments, but "Lopsy Lu" is unmistakably a bass player’s song, all thump and grooveand driving low-end. Clarke says that he had always intended to write music for the bass, music that highlighted the bass’ unique sound and capabilities.
"A good song for the bass is a song you can play on the bass and everyone recognizes it without any other instruments. Like you hear the bass line from ‘My Girl’, and you immediately know what that is," he says. "I wanted to write a bunch of songs where you could hear the bass lines, and all you needed was the bass to hear the melody. That’s really what ‘Lopsy Lu’ is all about ... ’Lopsy Lu’ is a tune that you can play on the bass, and you don’t need drums or guitar."
Yet while "Lopsy Lu" might be the quintessential bass-driven, jazz-rock song, Clarke’s debut also had a complicated four-part "Life Suite" and an intricate, classically inspired "Spanish Phrases for Strings and Bass". "Well, you know, I have a real classical background," Clarke says, when asked about the disparity between the tunes. "That’s there and I’m going to go forward with that. Maybe that’s another thing that makes me different from other bass players. I wasn’t going to not do that, because I wanted to evolve commercially. I never really cared about that. I was going to do what I was going to do. I felt that people would either like it or not, but it was better to expose people to it."
Stanley Clarke was followed a year later by Journey to Love, whose single "Silly Putty" reached the R&B Top Ten. A year later, Clarke released School Days, introducing his signature song, a tune that was inspired, he says, by a mid-1970s Grammy broadcast.
Clarke says he was watching the 1974 Grammys from his house in Long Island, when presenters Ella Fitzgerald announced the winner of best instrumental performance by a group -- by "Chuck" Corea and Return to Forever. Clarke laughed when they mangled his friend’s name, but found himself curiously happy and excited about the whole event. "Back in those days, it was rare to have anything about musicians on television. You didn’t have Cribs or MTV or reality TV," he says. " So here was a show, the Grammys, all about musicians, and I just got really happy and I put my foot up on the bed, and I played this bass line right there on the bed." Clarke went to bed, then woke up the next morning and wrote the rest of the song. The next time he went to the studio, as it happened for the School Days sessions, he played the bass solo for that song in a single take. "We were going to do a second take, but something went wrong and we didn’t," he remembers. "But I knew that this was a bass solo that I could never repeat. It really was something that just shot out of me."
Clarke is, of course, a master technician, but what he values about "School Days" was something intangible. "The thing that I get out of that song is that it’s really just wholly from the heart," he says. "It’s a great combination of instrument, tremendous virtuosity but really within a frame of heart. When I listen to it now, it sounds fresh. We were young and we were crazy. We had all this energy bottled up and it came out. It really has this great dynamic."
Clarke says that he thinks often about the balance of heart and technical skill. "The fundamentals are the same for classical musicians and jazz musicians and you really need those fundamentals to reach a level of virtuosity," he says. "But then, to go beyond that, you have to have a wild heart. You can play, but you have to have something that’s more than technical ability. And the more you dismiss it, the more conflict you have about your work."
Clarke’s solo career is documented in Stanley Clarke -- The Complete 1970s Epic Albums Collection, a seven-disc box set released late in January 2012 by Sony’s PopMarket.com imprint. The set runs from Clarke’s eponymous solo debut in 1974 through Stanley Clarke Live: 1976-1977. This live album is particularly powerful in the way it showcases Clarke’s marriage of impossible, jaw-breaking technique with the joy and musicality of live performance. Asked whether he prefers recording or playing live, Clarke chooses performance immediately. "I actually wish all records were live," he says. "You know, studio albums are cool, but nowadays, I’m sure you know that when you listen to someone singing today, chances that that is the real performance is nil."
Clarke points to auto-tuning, now ubiquitous in pop music, as one of the technologies that has distanced the music you hear from the way that people actually sing and perform. "It’s funny. For human beings, it isn’t natural to sing every note in tune," he says. "Stevie Wonder sings out of tune. Everybody sings out of tune, if you were to actually go up there and measure it. Now they have these things, when you hear these guys and their voices sound like machines, they’re tuning the notes." Clarke is not exactly negative about the phenomenon. He says his kids like it, and, who knows, maybe they hear something that he cannot. But still it’s a change from the old days when even rock singers like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen would put little slides and hitches and imperfections into their singing, drawing on the blues in a way that pop singers today, mostly, do not. "Now we’re hearing something else. The singers will sing and you’ll hear maybe four or five notes over and over and over again and it drives the rhythm. And the sound of the music is very clean, and they’re really getting the voices in tune. And maybe that’s the vibe."
We talk for a little bit about singers who are bucking the trend, people like Adele and the late Amy Winehouse, who have found audiences with more authentic, less manipulated singing styles. "I’m wondering if people just get conditioned to like the other thing, but when you hear somebody really put their heart into singing, it reminds us all of who we really are," he says.