Review Summary: Four years after landing a Grammy, The Stanley Clarke Bland have snuck up with a justly long-awaited new album, "Up".
Keeping the spotlight on him for a smooth introduction to this album, Stanley Clarke starts things off with a painstakingly groovy slap-bass solo, backed by infectious claps, before the band joins in to complete the hook to "Pop Virgil" (TRACK 1, 3.5/5), a jazz-funk jam that is heavy on the funk, complete with prominent elements lifted from James Brown's "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag", flavored up with Paul Jackson, Jr.'s flashy guitarwork, and by an airtight composition and impeccable rhythm whose pattern is repetitious, but freakishly entertaining and technically remarkable. Concluding with a drumroll by Ronald Bruner, Jr., this piece leads into a more whimsical number that sees Clarke, if you will, "returning" to the Return to Forever feel, "Last Train to Sanity", whose dreamier spots are made enchanting by the Harlem String Quartet, an eerily well-harmonized choral section, and by perfectly tuned and arranged piano work, following a much more rhythmic hook in which Bruner's amazing drum work really comes to life, while Clarke, alternating between the upright and guitar bass, delivers a prominent, galloping bass performance that really does establish a vivid feeling of hustling-and-bustling with the rhythm of a train. In terms of virtuosity and technicality, Clarke is not simply a force of overwhelming influence, but a standard of an overwhelming height that you don't usually see in people who simply inspired virtuosos, and a lot of his proficiency derives from his ability to tune and compose his basses in such a way that he defines the heart and soul of a number of pieces, even when they strictly focus on him. Continuing the "Bass Folk Song" series, a long-running tradition of featuring bass solo tracks, this album includes three short, but oh-so sweet solos by Clarke of various style, with "Bass Folk Song #3: Mingus" (TRACK 5, 2.75/4) being a simple, but psychedelically atmospheric, one-minute-long double bass groove, while "Bass Folk Song #7: Tradition" (TRACK 8, 3.25/4) sees Clarke embracing the recent melodic bass movement with a beautiful, if sometimes disjointed bass guitar solo that is rich with unique chord patterns and harmonics, and "Bass Folk Song #14: Dance of the Giant Hummingbird / Bass Folk Song #15: Eleuthera Island" (TRACK 10, 3.25/4), a medley on the double bass, initially features a broad-sounding, rumbling riff, punctuated by tender lows, before Clarke asks, "Should I do one more?", then, with his peers clapping along, funks up the upright with a perky rhythm. This sort of tropical energy is really on display in the album's longest and perhaps most infectious track, a cover of longtime Clarke collaborator (Who passed away in August of last year) George Duke's "Brazilian Love Affair" (TRACK 4, 3.5/5) whose dead-on samba rhythm is mellowed out by Jessica Vautor, Natasha Agrama and Patrice Quinn, and punctuated by insane solos by Clarke, pianist Beka Gochiashvili and drummer Mike Mitchell that define the charge of this both technically powerful and danceably delightful homage to the late, great George Duke's Brazilian heritage.
For all of this technical proficiency and expert songwriting, Clarke and company do know how to have fun with their jazzy roots, with the crazy-groovy "Gotham City" (TRACK 9, 3.25/4) being an airtight jam session that, complete with mellow, synthesized keyboards by Ruslan Sirota, Dan Higgins' energetic tenor sax work, and a blazing bass guitar solo, takes us back to both Clarke's comic book boyhood, and the heart and soul of classic smooth jazz fusion, while the title track, "Up" (TRACK 3, 3/4), despite being not as lively, proves to be another infectious jazz number that, with the kicking guitarwork of the one and only Joe Walsh, and the rhythmically spot-on drumming of Steward Copeland of The Police, brings a bit more of the rock side out of Clarke. Among the definitive examples of Clarke really rocking out was the classic title track of his 1976 album "School Days", and Clarke adds to the sense of fun and revitalization of this album by re-recording the piece in question (TRACK 11, 3.5/5), making it a tighter vehicle for wild solos, including an exhaustingly extensive and blistering guitar solo by Jimmy Herring which steps up Raymond Gomez's somewhat disjointed performance on the original, and which is eventually broken by smoother, jazzier leads by other members of the band. This piece which both kills and chills just goes to show you that at the end of the day, Clarke's heart belongs to jazz, and no piece reflects that quite like "I Have Something to Tell You Tonight" (TRACK 6, 3/4), a well-played and tightly arranged, but ultimately simpler and more old-fashioned, if rather slow and overlong jazz piece that, save a couple of impossibly bone-chilling bass guitar grooves, is more about the sheer emotion and atmosphere of jazz. Another emotionally-charged exercise in the exploration of traditional jazz styles, "Trust" (TRACK 7, 2.75/4), a tribute to Clarke's beloved daughter Natasha (NaNa), is more of an avant-garde piece whose intentionally surreal atmosphere and disjointed composition style don't always work, but hypnotize when truly realized, say, through yet more of that mighty musicianship. The emotion of the album really comes to a head in the place where it should probably thrive the most, as a bittersweet bon voyage in "La Canción de Sofia" (TRACK 12, 3.25/4), a bona fide classical-jazz piece that, dedicated to Clarke's wife Sofia, alternates between sentimental light classicism and tender jazz, both powered by the acoustic talents of the one and only Chick Corea, of Return to Forever, on piano, and Clarke, bowing and plucking an upright bass that ultimately has the last say in this showcase.
The arrangement of this album is airtight, with "Pop Virgil" being killer, yet not-too big, and therefore an impeccable hook, while the sobering beauty of "La Canción de Sofia", contrasting from the well-balanced fire of "School Days", proves to be a fond farewell, and between these bookends is a collection of catchy fusion exercises of varying length, tone and, of course, style. Mostly exploring funk, rock, and jazz of a traditional and modernist nature, while flirting with the tropical ("Brazilian Love Affair"), the avant-garde ("Trust"), and, just for the heck of it, classical music ("La Canción de Sofia"), Stanley Clarke sees to it that every track in this sweepingly versatile showcase is distinguished, and that each piece's tonal core is impeccably emulated through brilliant songwriting that pays as much attention to the nuance of each arrangement as it does to being a vehicle for virtuosity. At 63 years young, Clarke is still one of the greats on the bass, and that's largely because he, as this album reminds us (Particularly in the "Bass Folk Song" solos), is always looking to explore and expand his style, and continue to dazzle with his righteous technical proficiency and more-or-less flawless rhythmicity, and as if that's not enough of a shining testament to his musical genius, when The Stanley Clarke Band, complete with keyboardist Ruslan Sirota and drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr., isn't jamming as well as they always have, Clarke spares no expense in assembling an awesome collection of fabulous guest musicians who are actually worthy of writing and interpreting airtight and dynamic jam sessions with a musician of the caliber of Clarke. Outside of a few questionable touches in, say, the overly experimental "Bass Folk Song #3: Mingus" and "Trust", and the somewhat draggy "I Have Something to Tell You Tonight", the big issue in most of the tracks is their boring perfection, because every single one of the twelve tracks is outstanding in its musical ability and expert songwriting, resulting in a total runtime of about 45 minutes that, considering the quantity of the material, is just long enough. I say that with reservations, of course, because I didn't really want The Stanley Clarke Band's "Up" to end, for although the album isn't exactly loaded with masterpieces, it is a rippingly fun time and a triumphant comeback for one of the great geniuses of modern jazz.