Stanley Clarke is best-known as an electric bass player. His excursions into fusion with Return to Forever and experimental funk with his own bands have made him famous in the jazz world. He’s been recording since the early ’70s, but this is his first acoustic bass album.
Clarke leads a trio with pianist Hiromi Uehara and drummer Lenny White on Jazz in the Garden. As might be expected with such minimal accompaniment, the record is quiet and full of meaningful silences. That doesn’t mean it’s not experimental. In fact, just the opposite is true. Clarke and company take the listeners on a voyage to the unknown by playing fast, clean, and hard.
Clarke uses the acoustic bass to provide rhythms, which he constantly shifts so that his partners have to change styles mid-song and explore new territories. He does this on his original tunes, such as the 8-minute tribute to Barack Obama, “Paradigm Shift (Election Day 2008)”, as well as old chestnuts like “Someday My Prince Will Come”. Unlike Miles Davis, whose recording of the Disney tune has become a jazz standard, Clarke makes the bass the lead instrument and plucks his way softly through the song. He constantly changes the tempo, while Hiromi’s piano provides lightly colored melodic accents. White’s drumming can barely be heard in the background, but his presence is necessary to keep accurate time like a precision watch.
The songs vary in intensity and playfulness, from the meditative play on traditional Japanese tune “Sakura Sakura” to the swinging “Take the Coltrane” to the angular abstractness of “Isotope”. All of the members take solos on all of the material, but there is also a cohesive collaboration that takes place. Clarke always seems to be nudging his band mates to play together, and the songs seem to blossom when the three go at it simultaneously.
Clarke has always had a predilection towards rock. His version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” was an underground hit during the ’80s because of the way Clarke turned the white boy anthem into a song of racial politics by showing the black point of view through the bass line. Here, he leads the trio through the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge”. Clarke showcases the beauty of the melody through soft, long runs on the bass. That makes the effect more pronounced when Hiromi goes off on an atonal piano riff, reminding the listener that the song is about homelessness.
While there is nothing earth shattering about Jazz in the Garden, that’s kind of the point. Clarke and company are content to just get together and explore the nuances of acoustic music as a jazz trio. Listening pleasures are subtle, as the musicians purposely do not show off, but just sort of play with and against each other for the sheer joy of it. The sounds of bass notes being slapped and plucked in time, piano keys fingered in rhythmic succession, and drums keeping the beat moving by three artists in sync with each other is all there is — and that has value in itself.