Stanley Clarke is able to bring out an interesting cross section of folks. I personally attended the Stanley Clarke Band’s June 2 performance at the Jo Long Theater of San Antonio’s Carver Community Cultural Center with my parents, aunt, and uncle in tow. My parents had pants and hair respectively pressed. My uncle in t-shirt in jeans. Such was the range of the crowd– filled with San Antonio’s dressed up jazz crowd (college presidents, community power players, etc.) and young bass freaks who are probably the backbone of San Antonio’s future jazz scene who I really wish I saw at more shows. There may not have been as many bros in cargo shorts as there were older ladies in their Sunday best but it was still nice to see a real mix of the city all united in one emotion– rapture to be in the presence of a bass legend.
The set, which was around 90 minutes, consisted of just five songs. When caught in the moment of all that this quartet of Clarke on stand-up acoustic bass (but mic’d up and connected to a panel of knobs to adjust the sound electronically as necessary), Ruslan Sirota on piano, Zach Brock on violin, and Ronald Bruner, Jr. on drums, you’re not really counting how many songs are being played, just marveling and how talented everyone on stage is. Upon seeing the group, one’s mind can quickly go to a slightly younger version of Roy Haynes’ Fountain of Youth band, but then it would seem apparent that this is that model of jazz that folks claim to have disappeared– an old pro who is still creating great work surrounding himself with young bucks to come up and gain chops. These four work great together but they also work closely together. They’re all learning from each other as a band (and they have the Grammy to prove it) and they all have a shared ethos to be playful, respectful, and downright entertaining amongst themselves and to the crowd. Everything about this show was jazz done right– the aforementioned apprenticeship model, the proper integration of acoustic and electronic instruments (just add some distortion pedals to the violin and the aforementioned panel to the bass), a consistent mix of straight ahead jazz and jazz fusion, but ultimately the recognition that the songs don’t matter nearly as much as one may think. The forms of the song and where this group could take them was the most important thing. Yes, it was a 90 minute set of only five songs, but never did it seem like things were dragging on. Each musician showed so much prowess and the show was arranged with enough dynamism that it was hard not to be entirely enthralled all the way through. Five songs may really have been all we needed (even if it was still so good that we wanted more).
To go back to this band, what an absolute astonishment these gentlemen were. I knew walking in about the drumming prowess of Ronald Bruner, Jr., brother of Steven “Thundercat” Bruner (who released what we declare the best jazz album of last year and upon which the elder Ronald played on a few tracks). Perhaps because of his legend (which of course paled in comparison to the literal and figurative giant playing the bass to his right) that he didn’t get a significant solo section until the second song of the evening. Bruner’s solo during Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean?” was all about him, to put it colloquially, tryna’ be cute. He definitely succeeded.
As for the rest of the quartet, Ukranian-born and Israeli-educated Ruslan Sirota on piano is an absolute monster. Thinking back to the Grammy-winning eponymous album of last year, I was wondering if I would miss Hiromi on piano but it didn’t take long for that thought to pass. Listening to him play wave after wave of music, it became immediately clear that Sirota is one of those pianists who could stand alongside Clarke and fare quite well– putting Sirota and Chick Corea together in the same sentence just plainly makes sense. (Also, his plaid Chucks win the prize for best shoes in the building, far surpassing my own red Chucks and Clarke’s cowboy boots.)
The capstone of the evening was the Return to Forever standard, “No Mystery”, which, while I was not exactly staring at my watch, must have gone on for a good twenty minutes. This was the epitome of the moment when the form of the song ceased to matter and the shape of the melody was the most essential idea of the show. This is, as I said, standard form for the genre, but what happened Saturday night was a minor piece of magic. What could have devolved into jam band noodling stayed above board– a dynamic, authentic groove. Everyone involved had ample chance to solo, most certainly Kentucky violinist Zach Brock (the “old man” of the band as Clarke called him, still fresh faced and seemingly not a day older than 30) whose prowess was what came to violin legend Jean-Luc Ponty’s attention which is what brought him to Clarke’s band in the first place. Brock plays the fiddle like a rock star, rising from plateau to plateau to stratospheric heights. While some in attendance could hear the Southern twang in his stylings, the Kentucky roots could really only explain the root of his prowess. The spectacle of his variable phrasing is an amalgam of musical styles all its own.
But ultimately this was Stanley Clarke’s show. Midway through “No Mystery” (which was most certainly going strong for some time by then), Clarke began his extended solo section, not merely plucking away on his stand-up bass but pounding on whatever could (and at times couldn’t) make acoustic sense. Almost no part of his instrument was exempt from his music making. He plucked every part of every string (including beneath the bridge for some cool, hollow, atonal sounds), beat the sides, and the back. If Clarke could have bent his giant 6’3″ frame down quickly to knock on the peg holding the bass up, it wouldn’t have been a surprise (for by this point, the audience knew to expect the unexpected). All of this happened while the band left the stage, leaving Clarke alone to bring the audience into his own little world of sounds, quoting melodies of times past. Yet when the band returned to the stage, like turning on a dime, they returned to playing the same song! There was still more to this shape for all of them to explore. It was truly marvelous.
This is a band that deserves all the praise they have received so far and much more. As good as their Grammy-winning album was, they’re even better to hear live. Over and over, it’s worth saying that this is a band that plays jazz right. As perfect as this quartet is together, one could hope that they continue to grow stronger as a band as time goes by, even more epitomizing all that’s great about a standard of jazz thought long past but still going on in modern times.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.