Long before he became an established star, Stanley Clarke got a bit of advice from legendary trumpeter Miles Davis. "I can still hear his voice," Clarke recalls. "He said, 'Always be sure that the people who are following behind you are playing what you did weeks ago.' ... I've never been content to keep doing the same thing or playing the same music, and neither was he."
Clarke has made variety one of his career hallmarks, along with spectacular talent on both acoustic and electric bass. Though he began during his teen years in Philadelphia playing conventional jazz and operating in a very traditional mode, Clarke later pioneered the instrument in both lead and rhythm roles. Since his days in the first edition of Chick Corea's Return to Forever, which played primarily mainstream and Latin-tinged jazz, Clarke has lent his propulsive accompaniment, innovative tunings and definitive solos to groups ranging from the Stanley Clarke/George Duke Project to collaborations with Jeff Beck, Stewart Copeland and Ron Wood.
"A lot of musicians tell me I liberated the bass from the tyranny of piano players, guitarists and singers," Clarke laughs. "But it was really just a case of recognizing what you can do with the instrument and not accepting the idea it was limiting, or that you can only play certain things in any situation." Clarke has not only been a key figure as a stylist, but has also helped design and popularize a number of specific instruments, among them the piccolo bass, tuned an octave above the standard acoustic bass. Paul McCartney's among the musicians who've received special basses Clarke helped design, and the late Wayman Tisdale is one of many bassists Clarke influenced and guided.
"Wayman used to play me tapes whenever he'd come to Philadelphia while he was in the NBA," Clarke recalled. "I'd tell him, 'Wayman, man, stick to basketball — you've got a good thing going there.' But he was determined, and he eventually became a good bass player because of that. That's really what it's about to a large extent in this business — that, and being unafraid of criticism. There are a lot of bass players, guys who are friends of mine, who do the same things on all their records, and they work, but they don't evolve as players. I'm not going to worry about whether critics think what I'm doing is good or whether it's going to fit with what's on the radio or whether it satisfies someone's definition of a particular type of music."
Clarke has excelled at hard bop, Latin jazz, pop, rock, electronic/dance, and funk since he departed Return to Forever during the mid-'70s. His album School Days ranks among the finest of a handful of modern works featuring a bassist as leader. But in addition to his various projects and groups, Clarke may be best known to general audiences for his work in film and television. He's done music for more than 50 films and a host of TV shows, things ranging from Boyz n the Hood to Pee-wee's Playhouse. Ironically, Clarke's willingness to experiment has occasionally caused him some problems within that world as well. Clarke says, "I remember before I was supposed to do Poetic Justice that [director] John Singleton came up to me, looked and yelled, 'Vanilla Ice. Man, I shouldn't even be talking to you.' ... He was joking around because I had done the music for [the soundtrack to Cool as Ice]. I've never really taken a political approach in terms of picking film projects. There's only been one time I can remember when I turned something down because of politics. It was a director whose name I won't call who wanted me to do some kind of music in a vein similar to Glory, about a project that was one of those suicide type missions where all the slaves were going to make this charge and they would all die in the process. I passed on that one."
Still, for jazz and fusion fans, some of Clarke's most memorable music comes from his multiple stints with Corea's Return to Forever. He remained with the band as it changed gears from acoustic jazz to an electric, more diversified format. Clarke's aware of the group's popularity, something that was reinforced last year during a reunion tour that culminated in the CD/DVD release Returns. "We saw people in their 50s and 60s right there alongside the teens and young adults going crazy," Clarke says. "There was one show where we thought this 60-year-old guy was going to have a heart attack right there on the stage next to the instruments, because he was out there having such a great time jumping up and down. ... I wasn't sure he was going to last through the show."
Clarke's as busy now as at any time in his career. Last year's Jazz in the Garden featured Clarke heading a trio with Japanese piano sensation Hiromi and longtime friend and fellow Return to Forever colleague Lenny White. He's now working on another release that spotlights his new band, which also includes Hiromi, and Clarke says fans will get yet another surprise when it's released later this year.
"We're going to do some new things here with some old songs from Return to Forever, with Chick's permission of course, that I think people will really enjoy. This band has a lot of great players, and we're able to work in all types of settings and do things that musically are as challenging as anything I've ever done."
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