Stanley Clarke got an offer last year that he couldn’t refuse . . . once he picked himself off the floor.
The bassist/producer, who appears Saturday at the two-day Long Beach Jazz Festival this weekend, was approaching the end of his deal with CBS Records and contemplating a label shift. But it wasn’t a big money offer that surprised Clarke; it was the suggestion by label execs that he make the kind of record he wanted to without taking commercial considerations into account.
“I was shocked at that,” admitted Clarke, 37, in the converted garage recording studio of his Beverly Hills home. “I actually had to check myself to see if I could still do something that I completely wanted to do without any worry of (getting) radio airplay.”
The result of that creative green light is “If This Bass Could Only Talk,” Clarke’s 12th solo album and his first for the revamped Portrait label. The all-instrumental album--featuring appearances by saxophonists Wayne Shorter and George Howard, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland, guitarist Alan Holdsworth, and keyboard player George Duke--is Clarke’s strongest record since “School Days” was released in 1976.
Said Clarke: “When you make a record where you’re trying to sell records, I care whether they sell because selling is part of the overall plan. This record is just for myself, almost like spending all that money just so I could listen to it on my speakers here. If somebody else likes it, great, but I couldn’t have cared if it sold one record or a million.”
The album also returns to the trademark eclecticism of his earliest solo work. “Workin’ Man” takes off from the theme of an old composition (“Lopsy Lu”) and a pair of improvised duets feature the unlikely combination of Clarke’s bass accompanied by the tap dancing of Gregory Hines.
A version of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” pays homage to Jaco Pastorius and Gil Evans. Clarke was originally producing “Funny How Time Slips Away"--from Janet Jackson’s “Control” album--for bassist Byron Miller until the latter’s record deal failed to materialize.
“There’s a lot of my wearing different hats on the album,” Clarke explained. “ ‘Workin’ Man’ and ‘Tradition’ are Stanley Clarke the player. ‘Funny’ is the producer side and what I did with Gregory is the kind of unusual thing I think about when I’m alone.”
Clarke also encountered some unusual technical problems when he recorded with Hines.
“The hardest thing was recording me and Gregory at the same time,” he remembered. “We flew in this floor he has from Las Vegas that had special microphones on it. We couldn’t have amplifiers in the room because the sound would go into his mikes so how the hell are we going to hear?
“So we go direct (recording directly into the recording console) but how is Gregory gonna tap with headphones? He’d get screwed up with the wires. We finally hung the headphones from the ceiling so the wire was off the floor and Gregory had them on his head.”
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Clarke exploded on the national jazz scene when he was 18. Then focusing on acoustic bass, he worked with a number of major jazz artists in New York before joining forces with Chick Corea in Return to Forever in 1972 at 21.
Return to Forever recorded one acoustic album before turning electric and becoming one of the foremost architects of the jazz-rock fusion sound of the ‘70s. Clarke’s prodigious technique and melodic solos helped to revolutionize the role of the electric bass in jazz. He also recorded four well-received and adventurous solo albums.
“I guess the apex of my career for that music was the ‘School Days’ record,” reflected Clarke. “It was considered a great record, I’d gotten all this acclaim, won Grammys, making tons of money, a billboard on Sunset. What more could you ask for?
“It almost throws you back to where you started and you want a new game. I’m a very future-oriented, ‘goals’ type of person and my records changed drastically because I was (thinking) like, ‘Well, I did that, so let’s check this out.’ ”
Clarke played on the New Barbarians tour with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood in 1979, produced several jazz and R&B; artists and released a series of less satisfying solo albums. A collaboration with George Duke yielded a pop hit (“Sweet Baby”) in 1981 and Clarke also recorded a hard-edged rap version of “Born in the U.S.A.”
Clarke is continuing to explore a wide variety of musical projects.
“Anybody who does anything creative has to refuel their juices with something like ‘If This Bass Could Only Talk’ because it really helps. I feel healthy as an artist now.”