Stanley Clarke: Reflections of a Root Revolutionary

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.

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 wide-ranging interview.

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 quartet.

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 through history.



Stanley Picks A Dozen Favorites

SoloUp [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 [1974, Epic]
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


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.”