Legacy Recordings’ recent spate of Complete Albums Collection box sets have righted a whole slew of wrongs by bringing long out-of-print recordings back in a reasonably priced and tidily collected series. They may be relatively light on production values—simple clamshell-style boxes, mini-LP cardboard sleeves, and booklets whose information, beyond detailed track and personnel listings, is largely dependent upon how much the artist has to say, if anything at all—but the opportunity to collect an entire discography from a specific period in time is plenty compelling enough.
Some boxes have included sought-after bonus material to entice existing fans, like the recently released Mahavishnu Orchestra The Complete Columbia Albums Collection (2011) which, in addition to a bonus live track tacked onto the group’s seminal The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia, 1971), fleshed out the skimpy, single-disc Between Nothingness and Eternity (Columbia, 1973) to a two-disc set with a full extra hour of music. Elsewhere, however, the addition of two CDs containing Weather Report performances of compositions by founding member Wayne Shorter seemed like an odd way to flesh out the saxophonist’s The Complete Columbia Albums Collection (2011), given that three of the four other recordings in the box were long out of print and, for completists, incentive enough.
Stanley Clarke’s The Complete 1970s Epic Albums Collection doesn’t have any bonus material, and the virtuosic bassist has less than fifty words to contribute to his booklet. Still, by collecting his five recordings from 1974-78 (some out of print for years) plus a live recording that was not released until 1991 (Live 1976-1977), Legacy presents a good opportunity to look back and reassess the music of a bassist who, back in the day, was amongst the most influential on his instrument—for better and for worse. Clarke’s meteoric rise was, perhaps, only eclipsed by the late Jaco Pastorius, whose own one-two-three punch in 1976— Jaco Pastorius (Epic), his first appearance with Weather Report on Black Market (Columbia), and lyrical work with the increasingly jazz-focused singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell on Hejira (Asylum)—demonstrated greater compositional and stylistic breadth, and a stronger jazz disposition, even as Clarke moved further into the arenas of funk and rock over the course of these recordings.
Stanley Clarke (Epic, 1974) was the bassist’s second album following Children of Forever (Polydor, 1973), and in some ways those two recordings mirrored Clarke’s ongoing work in Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, his debut, a more acoustic and straight-ahead session that reflected the similar (albeit more Latin) bent on RTF’s self-titled 1972 ECM debut and bigger cross-over hit, Light as a Feather (Polydor, 1973). When RTF went more fully electric later that year, with the guitar-heavy, high-octane Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1973), so, too, did Clarke—even going so far as to recruit Hymn’s six-stringer, Bill Connors, for Stanley Clarke. It’s no surprise, either, that the line-up mirrors RTF, although in order to provide some differentiation Clarke opts for drummer Tony Williams and, in a particularly inspired move, ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboardist Jan Hammer, whose guitar-like Mini-Moog synth playing was always more credible than Corea’s less meaty tones. There’s plenty of formidable soloing, amidst writing that ranges from the straightforward and groove-laden (“Lopsy Lu,” “Vulcan Princess”) to the more ambitious (“Spanish Phases for Strings & Bass”) and expansive (the four-part “Life Suite”), both orchestrated by Michael Gibbs and some of Clarke’s best overall work on record.
Journey to Love (1975) delivers more of the same, though the same amping up of testosterone that was taking place over in RTF-land with the recruitment of Al Di Meola to replace the departing Connors, means that Clarke’s third album as a leader began pumping up the muscle, too. Still, a core group with drummer Steve Gadd, guitarist David Sancious and, in particular, keyboardist George Duke (with whom Clarke would later collaborate for three records with the Clarke/Duke Project between 1981 and 1990) meant that the grooves were even deeper on tracks like “Silly Putty” and the title track. Blasphemous though it may seem, when it came to laying it down with direct and largely unadorned simplicity, beautifully behind the beat and always in the pocket, Gadd trumped the often busier Williams.
The album also introduced a larger cast of characters beyond the strings and horns, with RTF-mate Corea and Mahavishnu’s John McLaughlin collaborating on the all-acoustic, two-part “Song to John” (dedicated to saxophonist John Coltrane that made Journey to Love even more eclectic than its predecessor. Jeff Beck—whose Blow by Blow, released on the same label that same year and which moved the British rock god closer to Clarke with his own brand of fusion—guests on “Hello Jeff,” a sign from the bassist that he was taking the “rock” side of the jazz-rock equation very seriously, while “Concerto for Jazz/Rock Orchestra” demonstrated the Clarke had learned some lessons from working with Gibbs on Stanley Clarke, though Gibbs never demonstrated the same degree of outright bombast.
But it would be Clarke’s third album for Epic, 1976’s School Days, that would introduce two players who would remain key for the rest of Clarke’s ’70s Epic tenure. It was Clarke’s most successful album, charting the highest in both the Billboard pop and jazz charts. A more focused recording that retained all the bass pyrotechnics that Clarke had honed on his earlier releases and through extensive touring with RT—the bassist sometimes reaching a degree of blinding speed unequalled by anyone until Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten, two unmistakable Clarke protégés, emerged about a decade apart—but with a leaner, more direct approach. With the exception of the episodic closer, “Life is Just a Game” and the acoustic reprise with McLaughlin and, this time, percussionist Milt Holland on “Desert Song,” there was also a focus on largely shorter songs, including a very radio-friendly 2:55 running time with the frenzied funk of “Hot Fun.”
Drummer Gerry Brown appears with Clarke for the first time, and it’s his work here, combining some of Gadd’s grease with a busier approach more in keeping with the rest of his band mates (Gadd often flying in direct contrast, capable of massive chops but rarely resorting to them) that, no doubt, led to his recruitment for RTF following its post-Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976) flip from guitar-heavy to brass and string-driven. Guitarist Raymond Gomez leaned considerably more to the visceral feel of Bill Connors, rather than the admittedly virtuosic but somehow soulless mechanics of Di Meola, but possessed greater dexterity to match some of Clarke’s seemingly impossible gymnastics.
If Clarke’s first three recordings for Epic represented a muscular and extremely impressive trilogy of outrageous bombast, bringin’ home the funk, arena rock-centricities and the occasional glimmer of tasteful restraint and lower-volume acoustics, then 1977’s Modern Man amplified the very worst of Clarke’s traits and almost completely eliminated the positives. Clarke had sung before, and on each of his recordings—not to mention becoming more key in that role, alongside Corea’s wife, Gayle Moran, in the MusicMagic (Columbia, 1977) incarnation of RTF—but Modern Man features his singing on two radio-intended Earth, Wind & Fire rip-offs (“He Lives On” and “Got to Find My Own Place”) and an extended and excessive rework of one of RTF’s best songs on the first side of No Mystery (Polydor, 1975), the ebullient “Dayride.”
“It’s people like you what’s cause unrest,” Monty Python’s John Cleese once said, and it’s tracks like “Opening (Statement)” and “Closing (Statement)” that began to give ’70s fusion a (somewhat deservedly) bad name, including kitchen sink production values (including Clarke’s “Cast of Thousands” footstompers and James Fiducia’s 44 Magnum gun), with too much information vying for attention, and most of it superfluous and downright distracting. If School Days represented Clarke at his powerful best, Modern Man was the bassist at his ego-fueled worst.
With little else to go but up, I Wanna Play For You was a significant improvement, although its odd combination of live and studio recordings makes for an uneven listen. In the studio, Clarke continues to move towards a strange mix of R&B and flat-out rock ‘n’ roll, with the synth-driven “All About” sounding like a strange harbinger of what was to come in AOR—and not in a good way. And if “Jamaican Boy” finds Clarke getting “ire with I,” the actual melodies have become a little repetitive—Clarke’s thumb-popping, finger-slapping approach to layering themes over low-end harmonic movement beginning to lose its freshness.
Still, there’s less excess, as Clarke relies largely on smaller groups and guest turns by saxophonist Tom Scott, George Duke and Freddie Hubbard, though the trumpeter is hard-pushed to do much with the discofied, handclap-driven “Together Again.” This double-disc release of I Wanna Play for You does, however, return it to its original running order, the previous CD release omitting three tracks, in order to squeeze it onto a single CD, and reordering it so that the studio and live tracks are segregated. Not that it was a bad idea, as the live material definitely eclipses the studio tracks, even the more straight-ahead “Blues for Mingus,” which sticks out as a superfluous piece of esoterica. Still, Clarke’s high-speed volleys over Gerry Brown and pianist Michael Garson’s incendiary playing on the too-brief “Off the Planet” makes clear that Clarke’s lost none of his jazz cred—he’s just chosen to bury it.
Live 1976-1977 is the album that delivers on I Wanna Play For You’s promise of four live songs totaling just 30 minutes. The only crossovers are the title track to School Days and the softer “Quiet Afternoon” from the same album, here given an even better reading with the inclusion of Bob Malach and Alfie Williams’ flutes. And while “Dayride” is expanded from the version on RTF’s No Mystery, this version works where the one on Modern Man didn’t, sporting a set-defining soprano saxophone solo from Williams. The heavily scored “The Magician,” first heard on RTF’s Romantic Warrior, actually works better here, with Al Harrison and James Tinsley’s horns grounding it more than Corea’s synths. Recorded largely from two tours with line-ups that, including horns, range in size from the duo of “Bass Folk Song No. 2” to the full-blown septet of “Lopsy Lu”—and with Raymond Gomez and Gerry Brown the constants throughout—these performances are leaner, meaner and far better than anything on I Wanna Play for You.
All of which gives The Complete 1970s Epic Albums Collection a score of somewhere considerably less than perfect: four superbly strong recordings in Stanley Clarke, Journey to Love, School Days and Live 1976-1977; one dud with Modern Man and one middling recording with I Wanna Play For You. Sometimes you’ve gotta take the bad with the good, and if the bad here is, indeed, very bad, then the good—for fans of a time when major labels supported unfettered (and, admittedly, sometimes overreaching) experimentation, to the betterment and detriment of all—is very, very good. Clarke’s successes largely outweigh his failures, rendering them, if not exactly acceptable, then certainly ignorable.