Stanley Clarke's 'Message' to All: I Can Still Jam with the Young Guys.
Jazz fusion giant Stanley Clarke and his new(ish) band continue to deliver the fusion goods on The Message.
Stanley Clarke Band
29 June 2018
Unlike Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, Stanley Clarke hasn't gotten lazy in his old age. He certainly belongs to a throng of jazz artists who have earned the right to be lazy, but this elder statesman of jazz-fusion doesn't appear to bend that way. Clarke revved his 21st century career into gear with 2003's 1, 2, To the Bass and quickly followed it up with grand, sweeping statements like The Toys of Man, Jazz in the Garden, and the eponymous release that commemorated his new band, followed by Up!. The fresh-faced Stanley Clarke Band has proven that the legendary bassist is never afraid to ask for help, especially from young guns. The Message continues Clarke's journey through his late career renaissance where he appears to be only too happy to share the limelight with the kids. It's clear as day on the album's cover: Clarke stands in the background, arms crossed, perfectly content to let his spring chickens ham it up for the camera for him.
So, what does this mean for the overall quality of The Message? Does Stanley Clarke let his young band run amok in the studio, tainting everything to the point where Return to Forever feels like a million years ago? Or is Clarke the coach constantly blowing the whistle and hollering about how they need to get down to business? If you've heard The Stanley Clarke Band or Up!, you know that neither scenario is true. Stanley Clarke is the leader of a highly democratic organization. When discussing the original compositions by other members of the band, Clarke admits in the press release that their material is "stuff I would have never written in a million years". So why not rehearse it and include it, right?
Opener "And Ya Know We're Missing You" features Doug E. Fresh beat-boxing with his mouth while Clarke slaps out a funky riff. It's meant to be a solemn reminder of the recent deaths of Al Jarreau, Tom Petty, Leon Chancler, and Larry Coryell, but all of the musical components make it sound a little too light for what it is. But this is just a two-minute introduction to the album. After that, the door is open for Clarke's core band of Cameron Graves on synthesizers, Beka Gochiashvili on piano, and Mike Mitchell on drums, which is a deadly fusion combination that could rival a Return to Forever reunion any day. The proof is in the rollicking Graves/Gochiashvili/Mitchell original "The Rugged Truth" where mounting tension can only be resolved by simmering tension. "Combat Continuum" ups that ante with a fiery musical backdrop to Steve Blum's anchorman narration about a suspected alien invasion (spoiler alert: the aliens want to help us). "Alternative Facts" cooks really fast, with Gochiashvili giving the listener a total barnstormer of a solo. The mellow Clarke hasn't gone anywhere though. "Enzo's Theme" makes sure of that, with solos from trumpeter Mark Isham and saxophonist Doug Webb that could melt a pat of butter.
Doug E. Fresh makes another appearance at the end with "To Be Alive", an aw-shucks-ain't-life-grand stomper (rather, the perspective of life from someone who gets to perform with Stanley Clarke). Skeyler Kole and Trevor Wesley carry the lead on one of the most laid-back R&B numbers to be recorded by a fusion artist, "Lost in a World". The melodies are easy, and the harmony is too perfect to write off as pure schmaltz. And remember those "Bass Folk Song" solos that Clarke would sprinkle throughout his 21st-century releases? This time, he turns to bowing his upright for "Bach Cello Suite, No. 1". Chances are, you've heard this piece many times (in commercials), and chances are, you may not notice that he isn't playing the cello.
Stanley Clarke has seemingly done it all by this point, but that doesn't stop him from barreling ahead as if he still has something to prove. What else can be said about such a muscular album arriving after 45 years of music making?