Listening to bassist Stanley Clarke and keyboardist George Duke talk about the first time they met reveals a lot about the way they work together.
Duke: "It was 1971."
Clarke: "George was with Cannonball (Adderley). I was with Chick (Corea). Was it Finland?"
Duke: "Yep. Pori Jazz Festival."
Clarke: "Some hotel. George had a big Afro then; I had a big Afro. Two big Afros walking down the hall. And we were trying to pass each other without touching because they have those little hallways over there. We just had to stop because it was two very striking personalities. You don't see that every day in Finland."
Duke: "I saw this tall, lanky fellow walking down the hall and he stuck his hand out and said, 'George Duke? Stanley Clarke.' And that's all he said. I later heard him playing bass down in the bar and I got a quick understanding of who this guy was. I'd never heard anybody play the bass like that."
This exchange of patter and its mix of humor and seriousness, with the two musicians trading phrases like saxophonists trading fours, hint at the contrasts in their personalities, but also shows how well they mesh. Both Clarke and Duke, who appear Wednesday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, credit these differences with the success they've found recording and performing together.
"Our backgrounds are very similar musically, but our personalities are kind of opposite," Clarke said by phone from St. Louis where the two were appearing as part of their current tour. "George is kind of the mellow-type guy, and I'm a louder, crazier type. But when we're both together, we really don't get in each other's way. It's like two brothers. If one is calm and the other is crazy, and you put them together, it kind of creates this whole person."
Does Duke find Clarke's characterization accurate? "Yeah, I think so. During my days with Frank Zappa I got kind of crazy, but on the whole, I don't think I'm anywhere near as crazy as Stanley."
The keyboardist sees his relationship with the bassist as symbiotic, with both members making contributions. "We innately know each other's strengths. There are certain things that Stanley handles better than me and vice versa. We rely on the other person to handle that particular thing because we know that's his strength."
The relationship continues with "3," their latest album on which the men share composing and production duties as well as manning their respective instruments. The recording's blend of pop, funk and jazz is loosely held together by anti-violence themes that appear in Clarke's compositions "Find Out Who You Are" and "No Place to Hide," the latter using the legend of Hannibal as a touchstone for a contemporary message. Heard on the cut is Rahsaan Patterson, a 16-year-old rapper, backed by vocals from the group Above the Law.
"Basically, both of those tunes are geared toward the black community, quote, unquote, although anyone can listen and check them out from their own viewpoint," said Clarke. "No Place to Hide" is kind of a slick, tricky way to talk about Hannibal."
Duke, who wrote the lyrics to "No Place to Hide," wanted the tune to speak to today's audiences. "Rather than doing a history lesson about Hannibal, I thought it would be better to bring it up to date with what's going on in the inner city. I think having a rap group from the community like Above the Law and also having a 16-year-old kid deliver the message gave it a little more relevance."
"I knew what I wanted to do with the song," said Clarke. "I had a concept, but George put the words down there. He's a much better lyricist than I am."
Duke and Clarke first recorded together in the '70s on Clarke's "Journey to Love" before teaming up on 1981's Clarke/Duke Project which produced the single "Sweet Baby." A second Clarke/Duke Project album followed in 1983.
Each also continues with his own projects: Clarke's last release was "If This Bass Could Talk," a jazz-colored recording that begins and ends with a duet between Clarke and the taps of dancer Gregory Hines. Duke's latest is "Night After Night" which includes guest vocalist Jeffrey Osborne and, on one cut, Clarke.
But their interests aren't limited to performing. Duke has a bevy of production credits including albums for Angela Bofill and Jeffrey Osborne as well as Deniece Williams' 1984 hit single "Let's Hear It for the Boy." Clarke has been writing music for such television programs as "A Man Called Hawk," "Nightwatch" and HBO's "Tales From the Crypt" for which he enlisted Duke to play some of the parts. His work for Pee-wee Herman's "Pee-wee's Playhouse" was nominated for an Emmy in 1988.
Clarke claims that, at this stage in his career, being an instrumentalist is not enough. "It's funny. You make some records, guys start saying, 'Stanley, you're the greatest, you're this, you're that.' I was starting to get bored with all that bass thing. I mean, I'm only a human being, and a person has to naturally expand with what they're doing or the spirit inside you dies."
George Duke and Stanley Clarke play at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $25. Information: (714) 496-8930.