When it comes to Jazz bassists in the 1970’s, there are two names which seem to dominate; Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke. The former probably gets the majority of acclaim among critics, whose mellifluous and melodic bass lines were nothing short of a revelation at the time. While the latter’s style was a little earthier, not to mention funkier, preferring to spank the bass instead of caress it the way Jaco did. Yet it was Clarke who was arguably the most accessible, who had earned his chops by playing with Jazz fusion pioneers Return To Forever, along with other luminaries such as Jeff Beck, Jan Hammer and Tony Williams before releasing his third solo album, School Days, in 1976, an album which would prove to be his most successful and enduring.
The album opens with the title track and one which sees Clarke slap the bass like no-one has slapped it before. Part of the brilliance of this tune is that it’s sophisticated and yet rocks all at the same time. Something which can’t be said regarding some aspects of Jazz fusion as a whole, whose cerebral workouts could be appreciated only by those blessed with enough brain power to have worked at Bletchley Park or understand the standard model of particle physics. Not so this song I’m happy to say, and the sort of tune you can party to or sit down and analyse depending on what mood you’re in.
“Quiet Afternoon” is an exquisite piece, and captures the mood of a quiet afternoon perfectly, or at least the sort of afternoon I like to spend. “The Dancer” reminds me of the Caribbean for some strange reason, where everyone’s drinking tequila on the beach and having a good time. Clarke slaps his bass as only he knows how, while all the tourists dance away into a calypso sunset.
In “Desert Song” Clarke lays down a delicate bass line, while Mitt Holland contributes triangle and congas (probably not at the same time), along with John McLaughlin on acoustic guitar, playing in full Shakti mode. The only way I can describe it is like watching clouds form and drift overheard before disappearing into some far off mystical horizon. But it’s not long before we’re back into funk-jazz territory with the upbeat “Hot Fun”, where Clarke lets rip with some frenzied bass while Steve Gadd on drums provides ample back up. The talented Raymond Gomez adds some delicious guitar notes to complement what is overall an extremely enjoyable track.
The last number is simply a blast, where Clarke pulls out all the stops, at least arrangement wise. Perhaps having Billy Cobham playing drums meant that the whole thing couldn’t fail. “Life is Just a Game” is certainly a cinematic closer, where Clarke reprises his slap-down-the-house style a la “School Days” in all its four-stringed splendour. And as the song continues you begin to realise that there are some serious musical chops going on here. Because while most rock musicians were stuck within their three chords (four if you’re lucky), this lot were into the equivalent of trigonometry. Not that I have anything against rock, I love it, but sometimes I need more than just your average four-four beat, something which jazz fusion provides in spades, allowing the listener to take journeys hitherto unheard of, and which were impossible just a decade earlier, before this album was made. Stanley Clarke was one of those musicians who required the complex but was fond of keeping it danceable in the same instance. A thinking man’s Bootsy Collins if you like. There’s no doubt that Clarke pushed the parameters of bass guitar in general, bringing it to the forefront alongside the guitar. And “School Days” itself is a prime example of what was possible when talent and imagination combined to form something unique and singular in the cosmos of creation. Because after all that’s what this album is really about; a creative coercion of atoms intelligently designed to rouse the brain and excite the heart.