Friday, December 2, 2005

From an admittedly informal poll of jazz club-goers, when the bassist takes a solo turn after things have been bopping along so nicely, eyes wander toward the ceiling, the girl at the next table, or the exit. It’s a problem of pregnant pauses, those plucking stabs at profundity, the too-low registry for the human ear, and the limits of that thick-stringed instrument. It’s a moment in a performance when the oxygen leaves the room, and you long for the horn player to wail back in on the motif.

But with jazz bass legend Stanley Clarke in the room, as he was at Blues Alley on Thursday night, you have to pity the poor horn. In his hands, the bass not only takes high and low roads, runs funked-up melodic lines and arpeggiates like a lead guitar, it also smacks and pops; it gargled water at times; and in a tune called “Sunny” even seemed to burp, to much applause.

But the crowning point was a solo showcase called “Touch.” After a few numbers on the electric bass, including his 1970s’ hit “School Days,” he embraced the stand-up bass, bowing an achingly beautiful classical melody that soon gave way to something crazy: Segovia-like Spanish guitar on the bass with a seemingly dismembered right hand taking on a life of its own: strumming, plucking, flopping back and forth, playing the neck like a washboard, so slap funk percussive that at one point the percussionist threw Mr. Clarke a look as if to ask: Why am I here?

Mr. Clarke answered, midway through the set, graciously introducing his stellar twentysomething supporting cast. “I get a kick out of bringing in the new guard,” he said.

L.A. drummer Ronald Bruner, who has also played for the punk band Suicidal Tendencies, served up some high-powered streetwise bucket banging yet seamlessly jelled with the more cerebral material. Keyboardist Ruslan Sirota, a Ukrainian-born Israeli, behind a Star Treky three-board console, displayed not only solid old school chops — riffing on Bach and TV theme songs — but also the technical wizardry that Mr. Clarke’s fusion idiom seems to demand.

All this comes with a caveat: Fusion, or jazz/rock, with all its cascading tinkly bell effects, orchestral swells and rhythmic preciousness is an acquired taste. Even in the right hands, as these most certainly were, its yearning for depth can come across as bombastic overload. But Mr. Clarke and company’s brilliant command of the genre surely converted a few in the packed house. And, just to throw a bone to the unconverted, the trio also ran through Charlie Parker’s complex bebop classic, “Confirmation,” as if it were a nursery rhyme.

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