Review Summary: What's this strange rumbling in my lower regions?
Stanely Clarke, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten could’ve taken the easy way out. They could’ve just gotten together in a studio, and sat around while an engineer recorded the three of them breathing. They could’ve packaged this as their album and every bass fan would buy two copies: one for looking, one to hold at night while the thought of thunderous bass thumped their bones into sweet slumber. But when the three bass gods met, they figured they might as well make some funky sweet music.
For the uninitiated, Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten are three premier jazz/funk bassists. Stanley Clarke has some classic solo albums, which showed a mastery of both acoustic bass and this new fangled slap bass. From time to time he joins Chick Corea for the fusion super group Return to Forever. Victor Wooten is the bassist for Bela Fleck’s Flecktones. He also has some classic solo albums that show case some of the most jaw dropping slap bass ever heard. And Marcus Miller began as Miles Davis’ bassist in Davis’ later years. Miles Davis’ Tutu is basically a duet between the two masters. Marcus has also produced a few great solo albums, featuring the best bass chops of all three (I’ll get my bias out of the way right now, as the lineup was bound to incite comparison and favoritism). For the uninitiated, to call SMV a super group would be an understatement. Were you to ask any jazz fan who are the top three bassists in jazz today, 9/10 times, these are the three names you’ll come up with. Sorry Avishai Cohen (who would be on my list instead of Stanley), Chris Wood, and Phoenix. This, dear readers, is the Dream Team.
So it’s hard not to gush all over this review when the thought of these three men together is so awe-inspiring. There’s a lot of room for error, as anyone who follows super groups would know. The egos, technicality over musicality, and of course the heightened expectations. Plus, they all play the same instrument. The Yardbirds couldn’t keep it together with Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck. Besides, it’s not just any instrument-it’s bass. As good as SMV all are, bass is still primarily a rhythmic instrument, and that role comes into contrast with any solo bass album, let alone a trio of bassists. Thus for me, the surprising aspect of this album is how well it worked.
Thunder works because it has a very playful element to it. These are not three gods out to shake the world with bowel moving bass-they could, by the way. These are three ordinary guys (well, ordinary enough) getting together and jamming. They have songs called “Lil’ Victa” and “‘Lemme Try Your Bass.’” Even the first full song, “Thunder,” is playful, despite the thunder sound effects. They trade off solos, Stanley has an alpha male riff going throughout, and a woman does roll call for all bassists present twice in the song. SMV realized that all we wanted from them was some great bass playing slopped onto more great bass playing, and we get it.
We get harmonics, bass chording, and a whole lot of slapping. The solos are wonderful feats of man’s mastery over an instrument. However, it’s the backing bassists of any solo that makes the CD for me. Again, bass is a backing instrument for the most part. Stanley and Victor are particularly good at support. Victor has a deep sense of groove, and Stanley smacks the rhythm into shape with powerful bass chording. Of the three, Marcus is the most solo oriented. His slap bass has character, too much for support work in my opinion. The layering of three basses is all I could hope for. The little snippet of harmonics that goes throughout “Lopsy Lu / Silly Putty” is great. The pops and kicks that accentuate a solo are perfect.
Considering this is an album of three bassists, the battle between musicality and technicality is a surprisingly close one. The songs are jams with a little structure added on. The CD could’ve done without any other instruments, saved some money. If they had a drummer, he could’ve easily been replaced by a drum machine. The ephemeral horns are a distraction.
This CD was never going to be a genre defining moment for jazz or solo bass work. If you listen to the CD don’t expect to be impressed by the deft handling of song composition. Its sole (glaring) fault is also its best feature: there’s too much jamming. If you don’t like Jaco Pastorius, if you keep the bass setting low for your car stereo, if your favorite bassist is Michael Anthony, stay away from Thunder, it’s not for you. For the rest of you, this is bass masturbation at its finest.
Recommended Tracks: Thunder, Lil’ Victa, Classical Thump (Jam)