Stanley Clarke Fits in a Solo Career

Jul 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Chris J. Walker

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Though jazz and fusion superbassist Stanley Clarke has been ubiquitous on the music scene for decades now, playing a strong, supportive role with a wide variety of disparate artists, it has been a decade since he put out an album of his own music. The fact is, he never really had the opportunity to record one during that 10-year period, such were the demands on his time. For a working musician, that's a good thing.

In the '70s, as a co-founder (with keyboardist Chick Corea) of the highly influential group Return to Forever, Clarke influenced a generation of both rock and jazz bassists, and won the admiration of people all over the world with his inspired and, at times, flamboyant fret work. Whether playing electric or acoustic bass, Clarke was regarded as a true pioneer; indeed, some of his harmonic innovations on electric bass predated those of Jaco Pastorius, who emerged as the iconic god of electric jazz bass through his work with Weather Report, several years after Clarke's tenure with RTF. As fusion waned in the early '80s, the Philadelphia-born bassist started venturing into more accessible and commercial aspects of contemporary jazz. Funk and R&B were emphasized with keyboardist George Duke for the Clarke/Duke Project. Other collaborations included stints with a host of top jazz and rock players, such as Corea, drummer Lenny White (also a member of Return to Forever), violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, Rolling Stones' guitarist Keith Richards (their group toured extensively and introduced Clarke to a whole new rock audience), Police drummer Stuart Copeland and vocalists Chaka Khan and Nancy Wilson.

Another aspect of his career — album production — began with his first solo project, the 1973 Children of Forever. By 1977, he had branched out and produced R&B/jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater's Just Family, pop vocalists Natalie Cole, Howard Hewett and Brenda Russell, R&B/jazz vibraphonist Roy Ayers and others. By the early '90s, Clarke spread his wings even more, moving into the demanding (but lucrative) world of writing and/or arranging music for films and television; to date, he's worked on some 50 films, including such notable soundtracks as What's Love Got to Do With It (The Tina Turner Story), Boyz In the Hood, Poetic Justice, Higher Learning and last fall's sleeper hit, Undercover Brother. It's kept him extremely busy, to say the least, and has put his promising solo career on the back burner for a while.

“After my last solo album in '93, I got heavily into the film-composing thing,” he explains from a hotel in Oakland, Calif. before a gig at Yoshi's, the San Francisco Bay Area's most prominent jazz club. “I didn't really have much to say [from a solo perspective]. I was going through a divorce at that point, and to be quite honest, I really wasn't in the mood for making a CD then. I've been involved with some big soundtracks, but it's very different from being a solo artist, and the movie has to take precedence over everything else. I think I've done more recording in the past 10 years than most people, but it's all been directed toward film composing and soundtracks. Just the same, it's been great.”

But attitudes and outlooks change over time; these days, the bassist is happy to return to his solo career for a spell, making a fine new album called 1,2, to the Bass and touring to support it. “Usually, when I do a soundtrack, the music from the movie doesn't have anything to do with me personally,” he comments. “It's music to enhance to the film. My own [solo] stuff is more introspective and about what's on going in my head.”

Another significant distinction between film-music work and conventional music recordings is the time constraint. In cinema, music is usually composed late in the process, with tremendous pressure placed on it being written and recorded very quickly. By contrast, Clarke says 1,2, to the Bass was created in a “laid-back” time frame: Overall, it took about a year-and-a-half, from conception to finished product, definitely a luxury never afforded a film soundtrack. Dan Humann, who has helped Clarke with technical matters for two decades, notes, “We just didn't have to rush through stuff, and also there was a lot of editing on this record as far as assembling pieces of music to create songs.”

Humann set up and now operates the bassist/producer/composer's home studio, located in the Topanga Canyon area of Malibu, and is also Clarke's FOH engineer on the road. Serving in multiple capacities has made Humann indispensable to Clarke's endeavors, and over the years, they've matured into a solid working team. “He's the bulk of my work,” states the engineer, who's originally from Idaho. “We're old friends, and I just ended up taking care of all of his [recording and touring], and it's less people for him to deal with. He loves it when we do a concert and blow up speakers in the house. That's one of his favorite moments,” he says with a laugh.

At the studio in Malibu, Humann designed a room based around a Fairlight MFX3.48 digital audio workstation system, a Mackie D8B console, JBL 28 V Series speakers and various plug-ins and outboard pieces. He considers the setup fairly basic; nevertheless, he's very happy with the Fairlight DAW: “It's an amazing system that's very reliable. And I don't have to worry about losing data or clips disappearing. We've had it for three years now, and during that time, we've only had four hours of downtime, and half of that was just waiting for the Fairlight techs to show up.”

Material on Clarke's 1,2, to the Bass runs a gamut of genres and moods. As you might expect, there's some contemporary jazz, but there's also a symphonic composition, a fusion/R&B jam (“Hair”) with high-voltage guitarist Joe Satriani and hip hop-styled grooves. Clarke says that he's especially proud of the title track, which is a collaboration with A Tribe Called Quest's MC, Q-Tip (Jonathan Davis). “My son [Christopher, 23] says it's a great day for hip hop,” Clarke beams, “'cause it's different and we did this thing on it that's really unusual. If you saw Q-Tip and me on paper, you'd wonder, ‘How the hell is that going to work?’ He came with this rap that's really positive, but not in a corny way. It's uplifting and very poetic, with sophisticated music and a stone hip hop beat, plus me.”

“We had a lot of other people contribute to the CD,” Humann adds, “such as Oprah Winfrey reading Maya Angelou's poetry [“I Will Not Be Moved,” produced originally by Quincy Jones eight years ago] and John Robinson, along with Vinnie Colaiuta sending drums tracks over on Digital Performer files. ‘Just Cruising’ [originally written for Undercover Brother] had George Duke, Gerry Brown, Paul Jackson Jr. and others for a live session. Also, he had other bass players, such as Jimmy Earl and Reggie Workman come in, too. There were several string sections recorded on analog 2-inch tape [cut at Ocean Way, Capitol and Sony in L.A.] and later transferred to ADAT through an Apogee converter.” There is a pair of tracks featuring renowned Indian violinist L. Subramanian and, Clarke adds, “I also do a remake of an old Donny Hathaway tune, ‘Where Is the Love,’ [with] two young singers, Glenn Lewis and La Melle, on it. They're kind of like Patti Austin and James Ingram on an old Quincy Jones album. They are really killer singers and radio really loves them. I had an idea for that tune and always wanted to do it. It's really nice with strings and a hip hop beat underneath.”

All in all, the different sessions and formats equated to a lot of transfers for the engineer and a fairly complicated mixing strategy. Ultimately, though, Humann mixed through the Mackie board, with the Fairlight used as a playback deck and a 24-bit Alesis MasterLink as the mixdown destination. This was a strictly D/D operation, and Humann averaged about a song a day in a span of about two weeks during October 2002. Clarke notes, “We stayed in the digital domain, but when we mastered, we took it to Bernie Grundman's. There, it came out analog and kind of warmed it up. They have a real nice way of doing it over there, and it really helps.”

Fans who just want to hear Clarke wail on the bass need not worry: He does plenty of that, too, on a wide range of basses. “On this album, I played regular, tenor, piccolo and acoustic [bass],” he says. “The acoustic piccolo bass sounds much like an acoustic guitar. Also, I have a new bass from Alembic, because I had to retire an old bass [Series A]. [Alembic] came by and copied it and it's actually better than the old one.” Humann adds, “He tends to lean toward the Alembic basses. He tries other ones occasionally, but he's really attached to the sound of them. On the record, they're just ripping and EQ'd to the max. But not on the low end; more so on the high and midrange. Also, it's a hard bass to record because it's so alive, with hot dynamics and transients.”

Even though he made his mark on music many years ago, Clarke feels that he's making some of his best music now. He's a better composer and player today than he was when his public profile was larger. As he says, “If I knew back then what I know about music now, I would have really increased possibilities in that area [composing/arranging].” And now, through his film work and his revived solo career, there's more of his music to go around than there has been for quite some time.






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