Stanley Clarke: “Jazz in the Garden”
On Jazz in the Garden, bassist Stanley Clarke is a man standing outside the normal, linear flow of time. Seriously: The debut outing for his new Stanley Clarke trio finds the bandleader in a rare and enviable position, surveying the entire train of his career as though he were an outsider, enough distance between the watcher and the object of his observation that he seems to have the past and the future in his field of vision, both at the same time.
In other words: Jazz in the Garden is much better than its cocktail-hour title. This isn’t lite jazz to be played while serving appetizers. This is the kind of jazz made by an artist who’s been studying the medium for a long time, and has amassed so great a familiarity with the form that he’s able to sculpt it at will. It’s the album where a long and prolific career pays huge dividends, for it is effortless and imaginative in ways that suggest a rich sense of history and craft, and a passion to see the music evolve still further.
Its very nature as trio-based acoustic jazz is a change-up for Clarke, who has spent most of the past several years working in electric jazz and jazz-fusion media, most critically in the reformed band Return to Forever. Unlike that music, Jazz in the Garden is down-to-earth and accessible to the point that it’s positively mainstream– or at least as mainstream as jazz can be in 2009. As a bandleader, Clarke looks to the history of jazz– in which he himself plays a notable role– not as an object of reverence of awe, but as a tool for forging a new jazz idiom for the present, a jazz that’s vibrant and alive and standing on the shoulders of tradition, not in its shadow.
The very makeup of his combo is indicative of this: He’s joined by his long-time colleague, veteran drummer Lenny White, as well as a young prodigy from Japan, Hiromi Uehara. Their interplay is dazzling, but what also makes the album excellent is how Clarke allows the material to reflect the traditions and personalities of the three musicians. There are a few jazz standards here– “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “Take the Coltrane,” to name two– that are played with vigor and creativity, sounding fresh even though Clarke and White have both been playing those tunes for decades. Meanwhile, “Sakura Sakura” is a Japanese folk song, performed here with modal jazz inflection; it’s a nod not only to Uehara’s heritage and the stylistic flavor that she brings to the group, but also to Clarke’s understanding of jazz as folk art, meant to be imagined and interpreted in a plurality of ways.
But there are songs that point to the future, as well– or at least celebrate the present. Clarke’s original “Paradigm Shift” opens the set, and is noted to be a musical reflection on the election of Barack Obama. Its composition is wonderfully evocative: It begins with a cartoony bounce that reflects pure, giddy joy, before moving into a modal section that reflects, vividly, an arduous and at times downright bewildering campaign season. It’s a song born in traditional jazz but played with zest and zeal that are completely of the moment, and it’s also, one imagines, a deeply meaningful cut for Clarke personally, who has released his fair share of politically-motivated protest music in the past.
Clarke creates harmony where lesser leaders would only find conflict. How thrilling it is to hear the impish energy of Uehara– who contributes a couple of spirited compositions of her own– in the same setting as the stalwart talents of Clarke and White, and how liberally the three players quote from classic jazz to create a language of their own. (Even Uehara, the relative newcomer, dazzles with how effortlessly she invokes Thelonius Monk, then peels off into Herbie Hancock territory.) And while the album riffs on time and culture, history and tradition, what ultimately makes it such a delight is simply the sound of the band locking together and settling into a groove. Jazz in the Garden is a uniformly excellent album that proves just how handsomely attention to craft can pay off, and for its passion and imagination, it’s easily one of the best jazz albums in recent memory.