Sunday, October 18, 2009

Stanley Clarke Trio: Live at Catalina's

Last December, when Stanley Clarke gathered drummer Lenny White and piano phenom Hiromi together to do his first-ever trio album, Jazz In The Garden (Telarc, 2009), no one knew quite what to expect.

Hiromi was clearly the new kid on the block, at least in this straight-ahead context. Clarke and White were both veterans who had made their marks before she was born.

The question was whether a fusionista like Hiromi could be brought successfully into a musical world that would measure her not simply by her ability to flash a fancy solo, but her ability to speak the language of an idiom and swing on a groove. Testing her mettle with such high profile players was risking a lot.

After the show at Catalina’s in Hollywood Wednesday, October 7th, she had something to say about that, as she addressed the comment that she had come out swinging with very intense, aggressive energy on the first number of the set. “Three Wrong Notes” is an infectiously melodious bop tune penned by Clarke for his recent CD. It swings fast and hard right from the opening notes. A Monk-like time signature at the break surrounded on all sides by Brubeck-ian bounce. Responding to the comment on her energy level, she smiled and said: “I had to, just to keep up with these two.”

That is the truth. But while she’s got a ways to go before she catches up with “these two”, she’s catching up pretty damned fast.

In fact, she came out hitting so hard on “Three Wrong Notes”, that at times Clarke and White were keeping up with her. And the capacity crowd at Catalina’s went nuts for it. Clearly, the majority had come to see the legendary bassist and drummer, but it was the brilliant young Japanese prodigy who stole their thunder with her rambunctious blues figures and glistening arpeggios. Playing with a ferocity usually reserved for later in a performance, if not the encore, Hiromi tore into her solos with such intensity that it immediately engaged the crowd and fired up Clarke, whose own solo went places the studio recording never would have predicted. Near the end of the tune White traded a series of fours with Hiromi, snappy little snare rolls that kept it jumping. Both were smiling by the end. It was a perfect tune to open the set.

The next number was also from Clarke’s CD, “Sakura, Sakura”, which stands as Japan’s best known folk music in the West. Too well known, perhaps, because pretty as the melody is, by dint of being included on the soundtrack of nearly every Western film ever made about Japanese culture, this low-energy ditty about blossoming cherry trees has become a tiresome cliché. But they were able to pull it off, the clash of Hiromi’s angular, urban-sounding improvisation rescuing it from toxic sweetness.

Just as familiar to the audience was a composition borrowed from the set list for Clarke’s and White’s current world tour with Chick Corea. “No Mystery”, which both have played (and Hiromi has undoubtedly heard) hundreds of times, took off like a shot from the opening unison phrases. In this case, familiarity has bred perfection, not contempt. When the inevitable live CD is released, the first track to hear will be this one. As she took up the melody, her soaring solo lines broke it out into strangely new and beautiful territory. Late in the tune, as a run-up to the composition’s breathtaking coda, Stanley indulged his new fascination with hand drumming on the body and neck of his big upright in an explosive, hammering display that no one who saw and heard will ever forget. Corea will undoubtedly grin widely when he hears it.

After only a few bars of Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus”, it was plain that Hiromi was not only keeping up with “these two”, she was stealing the show.

Not that Clarke and White were trying to stop her.

The piano-bass-drums trio configuration by its nature results in a timbral spectrum. The high frequency sounds, naturally, are more audible than the lower frequencies and jump out at the listener. But even if the arrangements gave Clarke plenty of opportunities to play higher on the strings, and White used a lot of snare and cymbal, the trio’s orchestrational design put the solo spotlight on the piano whenever a main theme or melody needed to be stated. By design.

Stanley Clarke’s soloing abilities have been unquestioned for 30 some years. Shortly after he first gained worldwide recognition playing with the early edition of Return to Forever, he set the gold standard for every electric bass player in the world with solo recordings like “Silly Putty” and “School Days”. So when he pulled out his bow and caressed those fat strings on the next number, it was not to tease, but only to please the audience. The tune, unnamed, with the only commentary from Clarke coming at the song’s conclusion when he turned to Hiromi and said “crazy!”, turned into a pleasantly frenzied free-for-all jam that built to a three-way duel between them. The Cheshire grin on Hiromi’s face was evidence of who had won.

White is the kind of timekeeper only an attentive listener will ever notice. Put another way, he’s noticed when he wants to be noticed. He gets the train to run on time, and makes sure the locomotive pulls into the station. At the end of the intro to “Paradigm Shift (Election Day 2008)”, he does both with a startling rimshot. Partisan politics aside, when a black man was elected President of the United States last November 4th, racism was officially rescinded as a national policy. This is a piece of music which calls for the dramatic, and delivers. White, who seldom takes a real solo (he has certainly avoided gratuitous displays in his career, just to show off his chops) took a solo that was mesmerizing. Not the machine-gun barrage of notes that often passes for a performance, but a musical interlude that was as notable for what it didn’t do as what it did. Reminiscent of Max Roach on an introspective evening, he played different parts of the kit in an organically developed melody, with the rhythmic qualities of echoing counterpoint, like water condensing and splashing inside an underground cave.

At the end of White’s solo, a young man’s voice from the back of the room began shouting enthusiastically, “Lenny White! Lenny White! Lenny White! Lenny White!” in a kind of Tarzan-esque bellow. Embarrassing though it may have been for White, one and all of the assembled understood completely. No question.

When the musicians returned for their encore, they did yet another tune from Clarke’s trio CD, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ crooner’s ballad “Under the Bridge”, a big radio hit that had always seemed like a terrible mistake. His arrangement is a curious one, not a deconstruction at all, but a re-interpretation. The familiar piano intro is kept intact while he plays a faithful rendition of the vocal melody line on a fretted Fender Victor Bailey Acoustic/Electric Bass, a sweet-toned guitar that looks like an oversized version of what Gene Autry used to strum on horseback, but which Clarke was able to pop and pluck vigorously. In Clarke’s hands the tune is stripped clean of the ironically lilting but deeply morose pathos of the original’s lyrics, turned inside out and transformed from a junkie’s lament into a swinging, upbeat song of redemption. Here the City of Angels becomes, for a moment, that glittering, mythic sanctuary called Hollywood where a lost soul can find succor for his artistic dreams. Passionately playing his axe like a lead guitarist, Clarke burned. Which of course prompted Hiromi to tear apart the piano line. The abstracted chords she pounded out on the big Yamaha grand were jarring, sometimes harshly voiced as she seemed to utilize all 88 keys in an embrace of a wide spectrum of emotional contradictions as she went further and further outside the boundaries of the compositon, over and over skirting dissonance and disaster, but always returning safely and staying just this side of chaos.

And then White brought the train into the station. Clouds of steam plumed as the brakes hissed and coughed, and the tracks trembled. One by one the three of them stood up, walked forward to stand on the platform and take a bow.

Later, backstage, Hiromi came up to White to say good night and ask if they had recorded the show, and White told her yes, the first set. She had clearly preferred the second, the one that had just concluded, but there would be other shows. White rearranged himself on the comfortable couch and returned to the conversation he had been having. Leaning forward, he tried to respond to a friend’s comment about what Miles Davis had supposedly once said about jazz, that “sometimes mistakes are the baddest shit that happens.” “Music,” White said in correcting him, “is how you get out of your mistakes, how you get from the point where you’re lost… finding your way back from that lost point.”


Cicily said...

Great blog. Very informative, esp. with the trained ear and jazz mind in the spirit of what you're doing. Nice job.

Cicily Janus said...

My either on Huffington Post (I was just signed on there) or you can go to


Carl Hager said...

Thanks very much for the kind words, Cicily. A compliment from a good writer like you means a lot to me. Thanks also for the link to your blog - I'll check it out.

Beach Concerts said...

We really appreciate your blog here at the Blue Note! In case anyone's interested...

Blue Note Management Group APAP Showcase:
McCoy Tyner Trio with special guest Gary Bartz

Francisco Mela’s Cuban Safari

Jon Batiste Band

Alfredo Rodriguez

January 08,2010

Concert starts @ 8PM
Doors open @ 6PM
Tickets $25.00

Full dinner menu available / General Admission Seated Show / All Ages / First come, first seated / $10 min per person at tables

OldHippieRick said...

Hiromi Uehara has totally blown me away she is an Art Tatum & a Oscar Peterson rolled into even more..Stanley's body of work stands the test of time, and this new CD just is simply wonderful..*smiles for the ears..A very nice blog Carl yes indeed it is../;-)

Carl Hager said...

Hey OldHippieRick,

Yes indeed, Stanley's Jazz in the Garden CD with Hiromi and Lenny White is a fine recording. You should check out my blog entry for March 7 - Stanley has just recorded with Hiromi again, this time with Lenny as producer.