Jazz fusion is fun music to listen when you’re working. There’s enough of a groove to keep your feet moving, and on the best albums a lot to keep your brain working, too. A lot of it was controversial at the time, and for some jazz fans it still is.
Some of our favorites are really tough albums to find today, while others which were big-sellers in the seventies are fairly common (you won’t have to dig too long to find most of the Crusaders albums, for instance, or the Weather Report albums after Mysterious Traveler). Some of the rare ones are in print today as reissues — for instance we’ve been stocking reissues of Miles Davis’ On the Corner for a while and it’s been very popular.
Fusion is, in so many ways, beset on all sides by irony — the subgenre so inspired by commercial pressures created some of the most “un-commercial” jazz of its era. Miles Davis’ response to the popularity of Sly & the Family Stones’ funk-heavy act led to hard-sell albums like On the Corner, (which had as much to do with musique concrete and avant-garde classical music as it did with jazz or funk) while at the same time Herbie Hancock response was the highly commercial and popular Headhunters. And really, who doesn’t love “Chameleon”?! People who don’t like jazz fusion dismiss it as simplistic or sell-out-istic, but some of the most innovative and talented soloists of their generation recorded fusion records that were complex and anything but commercial.
Stanley Clarke is certainly regarded as a living legend, one of the best bassists performing today, whether acoustic or electric. He really belongs to the second wave of jazz fusion albums, having cut his teeth playing double bass with an astonishing array of bop legends like Horace Silver, Dexter Gordon and Art Blakey. By the time he recorded School Days (which was his fourth album as a leader) his recordings were almost entirely on electric bass — for many he was best-known as a co-founder of Return to Forever, even though his previous three albums were pretty awesome.
School Days is one of the most infectiously fun records to come out of 70s fusion — the title track alone blends the funk-infused fun side of fusion with its expansive potential. There is more variety on this album than other sort-of comparable albums like the Crusaders’ Chain Reaction, because Clarke varies the backing from track to track. David Sancious, as the most constant player, alternates between organ, electric piano and mini-moog, and guitarist Raymond Gomez plays mostly backing parts to Clarke’s lead (kind of the opposite of the guitar/bass relationship on most records). George Duke and Billy Cobham join just a single track, “Life is Just a Game,” on the second side and Clarke, on acoustic bass, jams with John McLaughlin in the quiet mini-masterpiece “Desert Song.”
On a lesser album “Desert Song” would stand out — it might fit more handily on a record like the Sam Rivers/Dave Holland duos or even a Leo Kottke album from the same era. Clarke reminds listeners he can still pluck and bow a string bass with sensitivity and drive, and McLaughlin offers a hypnotic accompaniment. His part was was sampled on the 1995 Courtney Pine album Modern Day Jazz Stories. — another album that explores new jazz territory by fusing turntable work with conventional jazz performers.
“In the Garden of Eden” by Courtney Pine
One thing that always bugged us about School Days is the cans of paint on the cover — what’s he going to paint with the yellow one?
“Hot Fun,” with Steve Gadd on drums, take Clarke’s bass to the dancefloor and the last track, “Life is Just a Game” hints at the Stanley Clarke/George Duke collaborations to come. Our favorite groove on the album is “The Dancer” from the first side, which features Gerry Brown and Milton Holland on drums and percussion and a couple solos on the mini-moog by Sancious — Clarke plays a solo on the piccolo bass, too.
The reason we’ve been jamming to School Days for the past week is that Stanley Clarke is currently touring the entire album — he’ll be performing next Thursday night at the Cedar Cultural Center (details here). The program will also include tracks from his epic catalog of music; we’ll bet a couple songs from his various collaborations with George Duke will be in there, as a tribute to the great fusion keyboardist who passed away last summer. We’d also enjoy hearing a couple of the spacier tracks from Clarke’s 1973 debut as a leader, Children of the Future.