IT’S BEEN OVER 40 YEARS SINCE STANLEY CLARKE LIBERATED THE LOW END, BUT THE
crowd at Manhattan’s Iridium jazz club has a collective look of astonishment as Clarke swiftly spans the full
scale of his upright fingerboard, coaxing warm, resonant notes that both lead and support the music. His band
members—drummer Michael Mitchell and keyboardists Beka Gochiashvili and Cameron Graves, whose ages
cluster around 20—smile and nod.
Backstage, after a stirring encore of the original bass guitar anthem, “School
Days,” on his trademark Alembic, Clarke is in a reflective mood. Born in the bassrich
city of Philadelphia (June 30, 1951), he’s a man of much deep-end distinction.
He forever changed the way the acoustic and electric basses are viewed as solo and
support instruments, thanks to innovative techniques and designs that pushed the bass guitar up in range, as well as the way bassists are viewed as
legitimate composers and bandleaders. Clarke moved on from
being a root rebel and a cornerstone figure in the birth of electric
jazz and fusion (as a member of Return To Forever and as
a solo artist) to a Grammy-winning career as a producer, a film
and television composer, arranger, and conductor, and a collaborator
in jazz (Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter), rock (Paul
McCartney, Ron Wood, Jeff Beck), R&B/funk (George Duke,
Chaka Khan), classical (The Rite of Strings) and, yes, bass (Larry
Graham, SMV with Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten). The new
millennium hasn’t slowed down Stanley at all, with nonstop
touring, scoring, and collaborating built around five solo sides.
His latest, Up, is a star-staffed summary of all his career stopping
points on both instruments, and it’s where we began our
Up is a new album on a new label. Fill us in.
I had left Concord and I was going to make an album on my own
label. But then Mack Avenue approached me, and what impressed
me is that they’re like an old record label. They’re interested in the
music, they like to work a record for a long time, and they were
genuinely happy to have me. So I signed a two-record deal. Musically,
this album started when Stewart Copeland, a friend and
neighbor, came to the studio and we started laying down tracks
with another buddy of ours, Joe Walsh. While I was putting the
song together, I thought about how long I’ve known Stewart—
since before the Police—and how through good times and bad,
he’s always very up and positive, so I called the tune “Up.” That
gave me the idea to do a record that featured my friends, a lot of
whom happen to be genius musicians. It came together nicely and
was one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever done.
It’s kind of a return to bass guitar, for you.
It is, in that I play it on quite a few songs. Having played mainly
acoustic bass live and on record in recent years, as I made this album
I thought about my career on electric bass. It’s the instrument I
received the most notoriety on, yet I’ve always been an acoustic
bassist at heart; it’s what I studied, and when I got to New York in
1971, that’s what I was. But after [Return To Forever’s] Light as a
Feather record, Chick Corea wanted to do electric music. He wrote
a tune called “Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy” and I wrote “After the
Cosmic Rain,” and he said, “Let’s do a whole record of this stuff!” I
said, “Do you think I can play upright?” And he said, “I don’t know,
man, it’s gonna be pretty loud.” So I put the acoustic on the back
burner and got an electric, and I have to say, it was so much fun.
First of all, it was easier to play, it looked good on me, and people
responded to it. I enjoyed the freedom because it was new to me. I
didn’t have the typical style of the time, which was Jamerson, Jemmott,
and Rainey seriously laying it down on Fender basses. I loved
that approach, but I looked at it more as an electric bass guitar, and
I wanted to play the full range, bottom to top. Plus, I had music in
my head from listening to Coltrane and Hendrix. And just as important,
I had an advocate. Nat Weiss, who was a lawyer for the Beatles,
had a record label called Nemperor. He saw me playing in a
club one night and he said to me, “Here’s $25,000—I want you to
make an album.” I was so fortunate that he believed I had something
to offer, and he unleashed me as a bass player and solo artist.
What do you think your legacy is on electric bass?
That’s not something I stop and consider, but I’d say I’m one
of quite a few bassists who have contributed to the instrument’s
development. There were the session guys I mentioned who really
established how to play the instrument and make a record sound
better. When I came along, I was rebellious in a way. I brought a
jazz psychology and attitude to the electric. I never really prepared
anything on it, like the guys who came after me—say Jaco through
Victor Wooten. Those cats had a clear idea of what they wanted
to present, and that’s what I love about them. The pieces on their
records seemed much more prepared and worked out, with brilliant
results. I was a jazzer; whatever came out that day, that was it. You
didn’t think to fix a note or overdub. I didn’t prepare much, other
than compositionally. For “School Days” we started the take, the
engineer stopped us for a buzz, we started again, and that was the
record. I didn’t make any fixes; we overdubbed my vocals and a bell.
My jazz sense applied to slapping, too. Larry Graham innovated
the style using mostly open-string keys, but I needed to develop a
way to slap in other keys, without using open strings, and to move
through changes. When I look back now, I don’t see what I did
as overly special; it was just different. I was one of the guys who
pushed the instrument along, and later players pushed it in their
ways, and it continues on.
What was your concept for revisiting “School Days”?
Over the years there have been many famous guitarists
who have said to me, “Man, I would have loved to record that song with you.” When we were on the second Return To Forever
reunion tour, Jimmy Herring sat in with us on the tune,
and he sounded so good on it I decided to record it with him.
He’s an amazing player who comes out of the great Southern
rock tradition and has it all: tone, vocabulary, style. By contrast,
I played a subdued bass solo, knowing I can never outdo
my original solo. Some fans took issue with me recording the
song again—to which I say, Miles recorded “So What,” like, ten
times!—while others thought I should change up the meter
or the feel. But that’s for other artists to do. For me, the song
is what it is.
You cover four more of your Bass Folk Songs.
I have about 20 of them now—half on acoustic, half on electric.
Basically, they’re songs you can play unaccompanied on bass
because each has melody, harmony, and rhythm. I think if anything,
these could be my contribution to the instrument and
a key part of my legacy. My plan is to record them all and talk
about them. The first one I wrote, called “Bass Folk Song,” was
for upright, but the second, “Lopsy Lu,” was written for the bass
guitar. I have most of them notated, but No. 14, “Dance of the
Giant Hummingbird” on this album, has been tricky. I’m using a
very brisk technique that sounds harder than it is; I need to come
up with a way of notating it.
There’s a James Brown vibe on the opener, “Pop Virgil.”
That’s named for my grandfather, who was a very interesting,
rambunctious kind of guy, given the way things were at that time
for men of color. He was a landowner down South who was defiant;
there were stories of him standing up to the Klan. So this song
has all the freedom and style that Pop had. I’ve always been a serious
James Brown fan. When we do “School Days” at my shows,
we go into a “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”-type of funky blues
for my solo. Over time, this “Pop Virgil” melody emerged. For the
track, I fleshed it out, had Jerry Hey do a horn arrangement, and
I brought in a killer rhythm section with Greg Phillinganes, Paul
Jackson Jr., and John “JR” Robinson.
“Last Train to Sanity” features your string writing and
the Harlem String Quartet, whom you toured with.
That piece is where my head is at as a composer. From doing
dozens of film scores, I have this whole orchestral side of me
dying to come out, and I actually have a big piece in the works.
The interesting aspect of “Last Train,” which was for a film that
didn’t happen, is that it’s the first composition I ever wrote without
using an instrument. I used Sibelius software to enter the
notes and I relied on the playback function to make adjustments.
What that did was free me up rhythmically and harmonically.
Actually, the ostinato bass line I wrote was tricky to figure out
how to play; I had to practice and come up with a fingering for it
[see music, page 36]. As for the Harlem String Quartet, touring
with them was one of the best musical experiences I’ve ever had.
They can play anything; they’re extremely good rhythmically, and
they can also improvise.
The title track is a rock tune, but you play upright on it.
That’s because Stewart loves it when I play acoustic bass. The acoustic
has been on the rise in recent years, in all styles of music. I was at
the Grammys a few years back, and there were four or five bands with
upright bassists, and all of them came over to say hi. There are some
great young players pushing the envelope, like Miles Mosley, who has
studied the instrument and bows well, but is also into using effect
pedals. My one bit of advice to electric players is to get an acoustic
bass and take some lessons. What it does is force you to understand
the fundamentals of bass, because you can’t just jump on it and start
soloing. The physicality of it is more difficult; it’s not really in front
of your face, and your hand, arm, and body positions are crucial to
playing in time and in tune. But it’s the source. There are all kinds of
classic methods and methodologies to study, and you gain so much
from them. I heartily endorse learning the acoustic bass.
You dedicate the album to the late George Duke,
and you also cover his “Brazilian Love Affair” and play
keyboard bass on it.
I’m so happy I got to spend the amount of time I did with George
while he was on the planet; he was like the big brother I never had.
He was just the nicest guy in the world and a force of nature in music.
When he passed, I decided I was going to do one of his songs, live, so
I had this ready to record. His version is kind of laid back; I wanted
to make a big arrangement out of it, in tribute to his giant talent. I played Minimoog bass in his honor because he was such
a master at that, going back to our first record together.
I tried to phrase like him, and I sang a bit on the track,
too, but I could never sound like him in either role.
“Gotham City” is an evocative track, made
all the more intriguing by you playing notes
below open E in your bass line.
I know. I always say I’m one of the last of the
4-stringers, but I actually use an Alembic 5-string; it
just has to be a very controlled setting, like it is here
[laughs]. It took it onstage once with Stewart and I
just lost it—I kept thinking the low B was an E. I’m
determined to get comfortable on it; I’m touring a lot
in 2015, and I’m going to bring it out and really learn
it. “Gotham City” is a wild piece, and difficult to play
[see music]. I have a soft spot for superhero movies;
they’re a fun form of escape. If I were writing the score
to a Batman movie, this is what it might sound like.
You play on two tracks on Beck’s Grammynominated
album, Morning Phase.
His dad, [arranger/composer] David Campbell, is
an old friend of mine, and I’ve known Beck since he
was a little kid. He called me to play on a tune and I
ended up on two [“Morning” on upright, “Heart Is a
Drum” on electric]. He’s one of my favorite pop artists.
He puts a lot of thought into his music, and he’s highly
creative, but he’s also very open to input. It reminded
me of doing a track for Paul Simon years ago; they
both take the time to get the part and the sound right.
You’ve been touring with and developing
young musicians for years, including your current
It’s something that people like Stan Getz, Art
Blakey, and Horace Silver instilled in me, that I have a duty to pass down what I know, as they did. It’s
part of the human experience. Jazz is a very truthful
music—it doesn’t get any more truthful than
playing improvised instrumental music, because
the creativity has to be very high for it to be good.
I make sure I let my young musicians know what
came before, what’s happening now, and what possibilities are there for them, if they continue
on this path of truth. They’re very responsive, and
what I like is they’re true to their music, too. They
listen to hip-hop and Kanye West, and then they go
on YouTube and check out Art Tatum or Jo Jones—
just like I listened to Miles and Coltrane but I also
dug Hendrix, the Beatles, and Motown. I explain to them that they are the next generation of musicians, and that ultimately
the truth is the freedom to do whatever you want with whatever you have
in your head. And it’s always better to have more art in your head than less.
What are your thoughts on the music business at present?
The older musician in me is bothered by the exchange of music by young
people these days. Some call it piracy, some call it sharing [smiles]. A person
studies an instrument, gets their craft together, and records something with
the expectation they will receive some sort of financial remuneration, and suddenly
it’s all over the internet for free; that’s troublesome, to say the least. But
there’s another viewpoint that all of those people who saw you on the web, if
you go to their town, they’ll probably buy a ticket to your show. I think that’s
where the business has been heading: They haven’t figured out a way to come
to shows for free yet [laughs]. I worry about instrumental artists, who aren’t
typically as supported or organized as vocal artists and bands. Classical musicians
have an established structure in place, but in jazz, smooth jazz divided
us and we lost our power. Smooth radio stations emerged and only certain
musicians got airplay. I knew those stations would eventually fade because all
of the records started to sound the same. The bottom line is these days you
have to take an individual approach and be proactive about learning how to
best disseminate your music.
I see some positives: There’s a better live scene out there now, and the internet
helped. For the Return To Forever reunion, we met a lot of kids who got hip to us through YouTube and wanted to see us
in person. And thanks to technology and the ability
to record an album in your bedroom, there’s a
whole new set of people who are doing this not to
be rich and famous—they’re just making music.
How about the state of bass?
I’m very happy with how the instrument has
developed. You have the players using basses with
high C strings, who focus on chords and soloing—
I call them baritone guitarists. You have the guys
who are slap specialists. You have the burgeoning
upright movement, and you have folks on the internet
arguing about how to educate, and it’s all good.
When people start arguing about something, that
means it’s big. The bass universe is bigger than it
has ever been. What I’ve come to realize, though,
is that great bassists have a unique skill that’s more
important to learn than anything else: the ability
to create and compose bass lines. That’s much
harder to do than soloing. Coming up with a line
that has integrity, is melodic, perfectly marries the
elements of rhythm and harmony, and elevates the song is an art. It takes confidence, ingenuity,
instinct, magic, and a big heart—because anything
a person creates comes from love in the first
place. That’s why to me Ron Carter is the greatest
jazz bassist ever, with his unparalleled gift for creating
bass lines. Same with James Jamerson and
his ability to create multiple masterpieces on the
pop side; “Bernadette” is my all-time favorite pop bass line. It’s why I love Marcus Miller so much;
he understands how to make a song go from a 3
to a 10. They all play memorable parts because of
their ability to compose on their instruments, virtually
on the spot. The true genius bassists are not
the ones who play a million notes—it’s the ones
whose bass lines are loved worldwide and remembered
Stanley Picks A Dozen Favorites
Solo Up [2014, Mack Avenue]; The Stanley Clarke Band [2010, Heads Up]; If This Bass Could
Only Talk [1988, Epic]; School Days [1976, Epic]; Journey to Love [1975, Epic]; Stanley Clarke
Sideman McCoy Tyner With Stanley Clarke and Al Foster [2000, Telarc]; Clarke, DiMeola,
Ponty, The Rite of Strings [1995, Capitol]; The Clarke/Duke Project, Vol. 1 [1981, Epic]; Aretha
Franklin, Let Me in Your Life [1974, Atlantic]; Return To Forever, Romantic Warrior [Sony, 1975],
Light as a Feather [1972, Polydor]
Basses Alembic Signature, Alembic Signature strung as a tenor bass, Alembic Signature
Deluxe 5-string (all Alembics are stereo, with high and low pickups); Fender Marcus Miller
Jazz Bass (on “Last Train to Sanity”); 300-year-old French “Mingus” acoustic bass (played by
Charles Mingus); 200-year-old German flatback bass (both with Underwood bridge-mounted
pickups and French-style bow)
Strings Rotosound RS66M Swing Bass (plus custom piccolo and tenor bass sets); DR Strings Hi-
Beams (for tenor bass); Thomastik Spirocore Weichs on uprights
Amps Two Alembic F-1X preamps (for highs and lows); Ampeg SVT-4PRO head for electric
basses (with stereo input for highs and lows); Ampeg SVT-2PRO head for acoustic bass; two
Ampeg PN-115HLF cabinets; Fender Twin or Champ (for high-end crunch)
Effects Rodenburg Gas-707B NG Clean Boost, EBS Octaver Deluxe, EBS Bass IQ; for upright:
EBS MicroBass, EBS DynaVerb
Recording Up Electric basses direct through old Fairchild Limiters; acoustic basses miked
with Coles ribbon and Telefunken tube mics
DOWN WITH UP
STANLEY CLARKE MINES THE UPPER AND THE LOWER
floors of his acoustics and electrics on his latest album, Up. Example
1 shows the upright ostinato on the Stravinsky-inspired “Last
Train to Sanity,” nominated for a Best Instrumental Composition
Grammy. Notes Stanley, “The line simulates the engine of the train
in the title. The key to playing it consistently is the open D and G
strings.” Example 2 contains the rockin’ upright ostinato of the title
track. “An upright can sound loose and lagging on an eighth-notebased
rock groove, so I tried to craft a line that nailed the roots on the
downbeats and upbeats with precision, but still sits in the pocket.”
Example 3 shows the chord shapes Stanley uses on his tenor bass
(tuned ADGC) for “Bass Folk Song #7: Tradition.” Listen for them on
the track, in between his melody and improvisations, and check out
the chord symbols to see the full chords he craftily implies with his
(mostly) three-note voicings. Of note is the open G in bar 2’s Gm7
chord, which Stanley plucks before playing the other three notes; the
Em7b5 moving to an Em9 at the end of bar 2, by virtue of the F# and
B harmonics on the latter chord; his unexpected substitution of a
Dmmaj7 at the beginning or bar 3, instead of the anticipated Gm7b5
(to continue the II–V–I–VI movement of the previous two measures);
the cool C7b9 voicing in bar 3, with the b9 on the bottom and the
root on top; the use of a G harmonic to get the #11 in the Dbmaj7#11
chord in bar 5 (not to mention the five-fret stretch from the Db to
the Ab); and the use of the open G root in between the F (7th) on
the D string and C#(#11) on the C string, for the final G7#11 chord.
(Also dig the voice-leading from the previous D13 and Dm7 chords.)
Example 4 contains the main melody of “Gotham City,” at 0:33
and 3:23, which Stanley played on his 4-string, with the E string
tuned down to D. Bars 1 and 2 are in unison with Doug Webb’s sax;
Webb plays a line in bar 2 (not shown) that Stanley answers in bar
3, before both play bar 4. Similarly, Webb’s unseen solo line in bar 7
is answered by Stanley in bar 8, before both play bar 9. “The melody
recalls my early New York City days playing with Joe Henderson,
Freddie Hubbard, and other post-boppers, who used modal tonalities
and wide intervals. Get your fingerings together and play it slowly at
first, with a drummer or a click.”