Stanley Clarke has had an incredible career, fully of variety and experimentation – taking in traditional acoustic jazz, fusion, and a wide variety of film scores. He has also unfortunately had equally vast variety in the quality of his works, with a catalogue that includes equal parts masterpieces, forgettable fluff and those that are merely just okay.
Having spent most of the last few decades with the electric bass, Clarke - choosing to play in a rare piano trio - re-unites on ‘Jazz In The Garden’ with his Return To Forever partner in crime and drummer Lenny White, and returns for the first time in years to the acoustic bass. For the piano chair, Clarke could choose any pianist in the world, and for his return to the acoustic format, he chose the 29 year-old Japanese star Hiromi. A junior member in age alone, her solo work has already grabbed critics and audiences alike, and has shown that she should more than hold her own with the two veterans.
Opening with the Clarke original ‘Paradigm Shift (Election Day 2008)’, Clarke shows us we have much to look forward to, with a minute-long opening that shifts and changes directions tantalisingly, the bass establishing the rhythm punctuated by the cymbals of Whites drumkit. Clarke’s bass playing shows incredible dexterity, with some high-class slap-bass and use of the upper range. Sometimes the sound will make you swear he’s playing electric bass, but he’s not – he’s just that good he can caress the sounds from an acoustic bass that just sound electric. A climactic finish between the two rhythm buddies, with fast playing from Clarke and stunning tom rolls by White closes a perfect opener.
Hiromi brings two original pieces to the album, the very beautiful ‘Sicilian Blue’, which alone could become a Hiromi calling card, and the harder ‘Brain Training’ which features the bass and piano, riffing and swinging together in a strong bop. Aside from the two excellent originals, Hiromi also brings the traditional Japanese song ‘Sakura Sakura’ that is reworked to such a startling effect, with Clarkes’ bass echoing a traditional koto it becomes a highlight of the album.
Elsewhere we get some group improvisation in the form of duet piece for piano and bass ‘Global Tweak’, which is an effective jam that carries the two musicians and us along for a thrilling ride. ‘Take The Coltrane’, with its odd slowed down drum ‘n’ bass feel, simply sounds like two old friends having a ball, and we’re allowed to join in for the fun, whereas ‘Three Wrong Notes’ showcases Hiromi’s awesome talents to perfect effect in a style reminiscent of Brubeck or Powell, but it is Miles Davis’ ‘Solar’ that scores as the album standout, with some great arpeggio runs from Hiromi, while White lays down some sublime polyrhythmic work. A clever role reversal enters when the piano takes the bass role, while the bass plays melody.
The album closer is the odd choice of Hiromi’s arrangement of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers ‘Under The Bridge’, which although surprising, works wonderfully, with Clarke and Hiromi trading the lead melodic line duties with each other. The bass is downright funky, the sound intensifies and builds throughout, with the chorus adding an ethereal quality, and Hiromi offers first a discordant break before then launching into a free and expressive solo, building and then coming to a full stop.
Clarke has, contrary to the popular common opinion, played acoustic bass, on many occasions. But ‘Jazz In The Garden’ is his first all-acoustic album as leader of his own group, and interestingly, more than any other piano trio around, the bass seems more involved - both as lead and as rhythm – and it works stunningly well. As do his inspired bandmates, who both manage to innovate and sound like no-one could better them on these sessions. If there is one complaint, it is that Hiromi’s piano solos sometimes don’t sound completely integrated with what Clarke and White are laying down, almost as though someone has photoshopped a superb solo over a different rhythm, but the match doesn’t always quite fit.
Regardless, all the music here is first-rate and is an unexpected surprise from three musicians more commonly associated with more experimental and electrically-powered fare. Highly recommended for fans of any of the three players here, one can only hope the Stanley Clarke Trio is not a one-off project.