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Stanley Clarke - School Days CD (album) cover


Stanley Clarke


Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.69 | 69 ratings

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5 stars There has never been a time when music wasn't an essential part of my life. Not as a kid, not as an adult. By choice whether playing it, creating it or just listening to it as a soundtrack for my existence it's always been around. And the #1 reason for that is my undying love and respect for its incorruptibility. I can't honestly say that about anything else I've encountered in the material realm. While I will concede that lyrics can be dishonest, exploitative and adulterous, music is always pure and righteous no matter what form it takes. Music can be dissonant but never disgraceful. It can be strange but never perverted. It can also be uplifting without being shallow, manipulative or artificial and that's what I take away from Stanley Clarke's "School Days" with every spin. I can't say that about many albums but this one always elevates my mood no matter the frame of mind I might find my capricious psyche meandering in and out of and that rare characteristic alone makes it one of my all-time favorites. For therein lies the true magic of music. Its miraculous ability to transform me from the inside. To make me want to dance. To make me smile. To instill a sense of unmitigated joy. This recording does all that and pulls it off with class.

By 1976 Stanley Clarke had firmly established himself as a bonafide trendsetter in the hoity- toity world of progressive jazz rock/fusion. His jaw-dropping work with Chick Corea's revolutionary Return to Forever group had brought him to the attention of millions years earlier and the tasteful solo work he'd produced along the way had solidified his reputation as a far-more-than-competent composer/arranger. But with this particular effort he created a masterpiece that stands the test of time. It will be just as exciting to listen to a millennium from now as it is today. I rank it right up there with another of my cherished fusion LPs, Billy Cobham's "Spectrum," because in the case of each the artist cut cleanly through the pretension and arrogance that so often plagues the genre and elicited unabashed exhilaration and pleasure of performing from every musician involved by setting them free. In a word, they allowed it to be FUN.

"School Days" has a beginning that's as simple as a hopscotch layout but as infectious as the common cold. As Stanley and drummer Gerry Brown lay down a strong foundation guitarist Raymond Gomez barges in with a wild, ferocious attack that brings to mind the angry wailings of a trapped East Texas bobcat who shouldn't be trifled with. I'm not sure I've ever heard a guitar effect quite like it but it screams bloody murder (in a good way). Soon the song's central melody line appears and it fits the title perfectly in that it sounds like a children's refrain emanating from a playground. The breakdown section starts out as refreshing as a summer rain shower due to David Sancious' airy synthesizers as Clarke confidently steps up to the plate to knock out one of the best bass rides you'll ever hear. He patiently allows tension to build between him and the drums, culminating in his producing more pops than Orville Redenbacher as Stanley spanks his Alembic like it was a bratty two- year-old and then, at the very peak, summons a triumphant, feral howl from his instrument befitting that of the Hound of the Baskervilles gloating in the moonlight over his latest kill. (Playing air-bass during this sequence is not only acceptable but encouraged.) He then lets the adrenaline abate as he wisely lets you catch your breath before reprising the catchy melody and settling back to terra firma.

"Quiet Afternoon" is an aptly named slice of soulful serenity. Clarke unveils his specially- made piccolo bass and delivers a perky lead on it while Sancious slips in a flirtatious solo on his mini-moog. Drummer extraordinaire Steve Gadd is, well, Steve Gadd here as he demonstrates the exquisite technique that would make Steely Dan's tune "Aja" a landmark cut a few years later. "The Dancer" is next and its Brazilian street festival groove is irresistible. Don't mistake its uncomplicated, repeating pattern for being demeaning or patronizing, though. A tune can delight and intrigue at the same time and this one does just that. First there's Gomez' and Sancious' multi-tracked harmony guitar/synth theme that is arms-raised-in-the-air, fist-pumping triumphant as it brackets various stirring fills from the virtuosos on board. They all contribute to the cause with their best shot but the gleeful laugh David tickles out of his keyboard is a grin-inducing celebration of the good life. I never get tired of buying wholeheartedly into this song's wonderful, enriching aura.

"Desert Song" is a mesmerizing acoustic duet between giants that concentrates more on feeling than precision and the payoff is wholly gratifying. Spiritual inspiration invigorated many artists in that era and, while the fact that guitarist John McLaughlin was a devotee of Sri Chinmoy and Stanley had been curiously enraptured by L. Ron Hubbard would seem to make for odd bedfellows, the result is enlightening and emotional. Clarke flies over the strings with a speed that would cause a bumble bee to go cross-eyed and McLaughlin's fiery passion is palpable as he pulls and stretches his steel catguts to the breaking point. And, despite the sparseness of the instrumentation, these two masters achieve more in the way of dynamics than most fully-loaded bands. The short "Hot Fun" follows and it peels off from the starting line with more energy than NASCAR at Daytona and plops down more heavy funk on your plate than you can eat in one sitting. Here the sizeable string and brass sections brighten the landscape and the rhythm section of Stanley and Steve is tighter than Silas Marner's pockets during an economic recession. Nothing unbelievable happens but it's entertaining to watch it whiz by in a blur, nonetheless.

The nine-minute "Life Is Just a Game" is the closer and it's as thrilling and supercharged as the smell of napalm in the morning. After a cool keyboard intro and a jolt-you-out-of-your- reverie onset, Clarke & Co. present a brief contemporary vocal passage that doesn't last long enough to fret over, then drummer-of-the-gods Billy Cobham's roiling toms herald an abrupt quickening of the pace and your heart rate. Keyboard man George Duke's sprightly synth runs fit like a glove but don't kid yourself, this thing rocks (or, to brazenly steal a line from my distinguished Aussie friend, "It rawks!") with the best of them. Icarus Johnson's guitar lead is spicy/flashy in a Tommy Bolin kind of way, then Stanley and Billy get down to some serious, and I mean SERIOUS interplay so intense that it'll make your head swim like it's caught in a whirlpool. It's everything you'd expect from these titans and more. They don't leave anything on the field. The song has a great big, fat proggy finale that once again involves a huge, in-your-face orchestral score that delivers the necessary knock-out blow and the albums ends with you thirsting for more.

One of the drawbacks of a lot of jazz rock/fusion is that the majority of its art is more progressive jazz than a genuine melding of that movement with rock's raw sensibilities and attitude. Not so with this album, though. With this stellar recording Stanley Clarke successfully blended the felicity and raucousness of rock & roll with the high-brow integrity of modern electrified jazz and it satisfies on a multitude of levels. Its lack of mind-numbing complexity may not be everyone's cup of Earl Grey and I can savvy that and accept it with grace. But I love it when music moves me and I'm not ashamed to say that every one of the tracks on this album does that without fail and that's not only a precious commodity but a treasure hard to find in this crazy world. Five sparkling, happy stars for this bad boy.

Chicapah | 5/5 |


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