Stanley Clarke, The Aladdin Theater – Portland, OR- 11/24
I haven't been to church on Sunday in many years. I've chosen a religious path separate from the Christianity in which I was brought up as a child. Sunday night in Portland, however, I returned to the power and glory of religion, that of the jazz bass performed by a legend, Mr. Stanley Clarke. He showed us celebration and talent, he overwhelmed us with his larger than life presence, and he revealed to us why he is so revered by other bass players. To put it simply, the guy is a badass. Stanley Clarke innovated how the instrument was played by adding his own method of slapping and popping to the mix. He has played various styles over the years including funk, fusion, and straight ahead jazz. He led the way and influenced many of the great jazz bass players like Jaco Pastorius, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten. And I was lucky enough to hear and see this performance from the second row, only feet away from Stanley Clarke and his phenomenal band.
I first saw Stanley Clarke play live in 1995 or 1996 at The Strand Theater in Providence, RI. I purchased a "circle of gold" ticket to this show which allowed me to sit directly in the front row at a large table. I put my feet up on an empty chair beside me and let the waitress bring me a steady stream of alcoholic beverages. This is where I first caught an up-close glimpse of Stanley's playing. I was blown away and made a mental note to never miss Stanley if he ever traveled through my town again. When I read that he was coming to Portland I was overjoyed. I purchased a ticket well in advance (something I rarely do in this laid back town of Portland). When the night finally arrived, we got to the venue early to get in line before the doors opened (another thing I rarely do). With a great spot in line secured near the front, we relaxed and began talking about how great Stanley is on the bass. Time flew by and soon we were seated comfortably in our stellar seats.
The room filled up to become almost completely full (the balcony was closed, however). There was a nice mix of people there to enjoy the show. There were older and younger folks of all races and both sexes (although the front row was made up of all geeky jazz dudes). This kind of diversity is rare to see on a night out in Portland, and I was happy to know that Stanley Clarke had the power to bring varied people together through his music. Once he goes to work, race, sex, and age seem unimportant. While church is in session, all one can do is succumb to the power and energy of the live performance.
Stanley was dressed in black jeans, black shoes, and a black button-down shirt that he didn't bother to tuck in. At well over six feet tall, he was a formidable presence at center stage and I did not envy his bandmates in having to compete with him. On stage right Stanley had not one, but two keyboardists. His long time partner Nick Smith had the main keyboard duties and played most of the lead parts. Standing just behind Nick was Mark Stephens. I couldn't really see Mark so well from my vantage point and he was pretty much forgotten for most of the show. Every so often I would hear an organ fill and remember that he was playing back there. Gerry Brown was located at the rear of the stage on drums. Gerry has been playing with Stanley for many years and it shows. He played with fluidity and deftness. The sticks spun and rolled in his hand as he riffed rapid beats and grooved seamlessly along with the music. We were lucky that this particular incarnation of the band was the one playing in Portland because it included Karen Briggs on the violin. She sat on a chair to Stanley's left and played the violin with soul and energy. Her flowing dress fluttered about as she worked her violin solos into frenetic blasts of sound. Then she turned around and played slow sweet melodies or added subtle nuances, a real class act. Rounding out this stellar arsenal of musicians was a new guy to the scene, Armand Sabal-Lecco on bass. Armand hails from Cameroon, Africa and his job was to hold down the groove so that Stanley could play solos whenever he wanted. Armand, who had serious chops, was obviously excited to be playing with the bass legend and it showed. He exuded a palpable youthful energy to the celebration.
The band started things off with a pretty funky groove. Stanley and Armand did some playing around that turned into a bass slap-off. The groove was held down tightly by drummer Gerry Brown as Stan and Armand began to go back and forth. Their hands were flying as they savagely ripped and slapped at their respective basses. The episode culminated with the trading of licks and became so infused with energy that Armand finally just slapped both his hands down on all of his strings to signal an end to the jam. The crowd ate it up.
Next they played some slower tunes with beautiful keyboard work by Smith. He played great leads that were skillfully crafted, not directionless or meandering. He seemed to be in synch with violinist Karen Briggs as the two played around developing different themes and melodies. At one point everyone left the stage except for Stanley, Nick, Gerry, and Karen. Stanley pulled out his huge upright bass and they played some very nice straight ahead jazz. Later, Stanley did some incredible soloing on the massive instrument. His large hands and serious ability made the upright bass seem like a play toy. He slapped and tapped and slammed down on the instrument working up a major groove, but also easily fell back into playing little melodious lines.
The show wrapped up with a performance of Clarke's staple composition, "School Days." The tune is a powerhouse with a thick meaty bass progression. The organs and synthesizers played their wild high melodies over the low end leads. The band traded off solos and everyone took a turn in the spotlight. Each player, feeding from the crowd's energy, displayed incredible musicianship. Solos built and built to inspiring heights. Violinist Karen Briggs was gyrating and shaking by the end of her solo which seemed to please the crowd very much. The entire thing culminated with the two bass players, Stanley and Armand, building a powerful solo that raged with power and fury. Stanley was popping and slamming his bass with all five fingers, assaulting our ears and bodies with his powerful low end barrage. Armand was obviously excited and was driving the energy of the jam. Stanley was bent over, slapping and sweating, playing bass lines and slap fills of which most players can only dream.
After the show ended most people seemed to be silently attempting to digest what they had just witnessed. I was among this crowd as I am still shaking my head a few days later. It invigorated me to the soul and reminded me of the true power of an inspirational live music performance. For everyone in attendance on that Sunday night, church was undoubtedly in session.