Stanley Clarke: Taking the Lead on Bass

Stanley Clarke: Taking the Lead on Bass

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Before Stanley Clarke, most jazz fans thought of the bass as an instrument that kept the rhythmic and harmonic foundations of the music together, and maybe got the occasional solo. Clarke changed that, becoming a headliner on his electric bass and helping the genre of jazz fusion to find a wider audience.

Born in 1951, Clarke started on the violin, but his hands were too big to play it. There was a double bass lying around the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, and he claimed it. Soon he was obsessed, and after high school he enrolled at the Philadelphia Musical Academy, dreaming of joining the Philadelphia Orchestra. But along the way, he fell in love with jazz.

After gigs with Stan Getz, Horace Silver, and others, he met Chick Corea, who piqued his interest in the new sounds of jazz fusion. In 1972, the two men formed the band Return to Forever, which gained Clarke his first of five Grammy Awards. At the same time, Clarke started his solo recording career, a courageous move for a bassist. That aspect of his studio work led to three more Grammys.

He founded his own group, the Stanley Clarke Band – twice, actually, about 25 years apart. The first iteration was in 1985, yielding one album. Then he re-formed it with a different lineup for The Stanley Clarke Band album, and his fifth Grammy.

Although his recording output has slowed in the past decade, Clarke did some excellent work in 2019 on the soundtrack of Halston, the dramatic series documenting the career of the fashion designer. It stars Ewan MacGregor and is currently streaming on Netflix.

Enjoy these eight tracks by Stanley Clarke.

  1. Track: “What Game Shall We Play Today”
    Album: Return to Forever
    Label: ECM
    Year: 1972

This was the first album Clarke made with the band Return to Forever, his project with Chick Corea. The group has re-formed for albums and tours over the years, most recently in 2011. Corea died in early 2021, making it likely that Return to Forever has played its last gig.

Besides Corea and Clarke, the original band included Joe Farrell on flute and soprano sax, Airto Moreira on drums and percussion, and Flora Purim on vocals and additional percussion. Max Eichner’s touch at the sound board should not be underestimated; he had a major impact on normalizing a particular sound for jazz fusion. All four of the tunes on this album were written by Corea, including the coyly funky “What Game Shall We Play Today,” which rolls along on Clarke’s rhythmic dance.


  1. Track: “Journey to Love”
    Album: Journey to Love
    Label: Nemperor/Atlantic
    Year: 1975

Corea makes an appearance on one track of Journey to Love, but it is 100 percent a Clarke album. A major difference between this and the Return to Forever aesthetic is the presence of a nine-man horn section. Clarke tends to stay to the jazz end of the fusion spectrum.

But he’s also keenly plugged into the rock scene. The title track features the solo guitar work of British master Jeff Beck. Clarke’s smooth yet carefully shaped electric bass line creates an ethereal atmosphere.


  1. Track: “Dayride”
    Album: Modern Man
    Label: Nemperor/Atlantic
    Year: 1978

Jeff Beck returned for the track “Rock ‘n’ Roll Jelly” on Modern Man, and another fundamental rock artist made an important appearance on several tracks: Steve Gadd. He wasn’t at the drum kit, but just handling cymbals.

You can hear Gadd’s work particularly on the synth- and horn-driven “Dayride,” with Mike Garson on keyboards. This is a new version of a piece originally recorded with Return to Forever. Besides his ever-dependable bass, Clarke demonstrates his imaginative gifts as an arranger on this track.


  1. Track: “I Just Want to Love You”
    Album: The Clarke/Duke Project
    Label: Epic
    Year: 1981

Another of Clarke’s fruitful collaborations was with R&B and fusion singer, songwriter, and pianist George Duke; The Clarke/Duke Project was the first of three studio albums they made together, followed by the Live in Montreux 1988 on Jazz Door Records. A Grammy nominee, this first duo album also sold well as a cross-genre release, hitting the No. 7 spot on the Billboard R&B charts.

The huge string section is surprisingly well-balanced, never too heavy handed, even if the keyboard sound is annoyingly tinny. The twangy bass part on the Clarke-penned “I Just Want to Love You” makes it the best track. That’s Clarke singing along with Duke, and he also plays the guitar solo before the final chorus.


  1. Track: “Heaven Sent”
    Album: Time Exposure
    Label: Epic
    Year: 1984

Beck and Duke came back to the studio with Clarke for Time Exposure, which also featured Ernie Watts, a saxophonist equally comfortable in blues-rock and jazz, and singer Howard Hewitt. Clarke plays a whole host of instruments, including three kinds of bass – bass guitar, piccolo bass, and tenor bass – and various drums and synthesizers.

The R&B tune “Heaven Sent,” composed by Hewitt and American arranger Denzil A. Miller, Jr., multi-tracks Clarke’s array of basses, which have an intricately percussive effect against Hewitt’s smooth voice.


  1. Track: “Bassically Taps”
    Album: If This Bass Could Only Talk
    Label: Portrait
    Year: 1988

One of the highlights of the overall outstanding If This Bass Could Talk is the contribution by tap-dancer extraordinaire Gregory Hines, who uses his feet as rhythm on a couple of tracks.

“Bassically Taps” closes Side B. There’s a big lineup of studio personnel on this album, including big names like saxophonist Wayne Shorter and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, but they’ve all gone to grab lunch. This track is a bare-bones duo of Clarke on bass guitar and Hines on a wooden floor, two masters experimenting and playing with syncopation and timbre. It’s simply thrilling.


  1. Track: “I’m Home Africa”
    Album: East River Drive
    Label: Epic
    Year: 1993

Because Clarke’s passion is to bring the bass into the limelight, it’s not unusual to hear a guest bassist playing along with him on his albums. That person is often Jimmy Earl (best known these days for his work with the Jimmy Kimmel Live! band), who appears on East River Drive.

Unlike some of his colleagues in the jazz world, Clarke has not focused a great deal on creating music that evokes traditional African sounds. One exception is the rousing “I’m Home Africa,” co-written with Earl and pianist Steve Hunt. It’s an interesting combination of polyrhythms, acoustic percussive instruments, different types of electronic bass as percussion, and pre-recorded sound samples.


  1. Track: “Hair”
    Album: 1, 2 to the Bass
    Label: Sony
    Year: 2003

As impressive as his other albums’ guest rosters are, Clarke truly outdid himself on 1, 2 to the Bass. Even Oprah Winfrey is involved, reading a prose-poem over the music on “I Shall Not Be Moved.”

Among the fun offerings here is the song “Hair,” from the musical of the same name, in a wild and over-the-top twangy funk arrangement. It’s an unfettered celebration of the bass, with some clever horn arrangements to boot, plus a rocking guitar solo by Joe Satriani, who played for a short while with Deep Purple. The vocals are by Clarke and Amel Larrieux.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Andreas Lawen, Fotandi, cropped to fit format.

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