Posted by: russdavis | March 31, 2013

Sunday in the Village with George (…& Stanley): Russ Davis takes in The Clarke-Duke Duo at NYC’s Blue Note!

Sunday in the Village with George (…& Stanley): Russ Davis takes in The Clarke-Duke Duo at NYC’s Blue Note! 

ImageThere was no way I was going to miss seeing Stanley Clarke and George Duke during their recent four-night run at New York’s Blue Note. I mean, when you’ve followed artists closely over the years, and become friends, you need to see them perform live whenever you can. I’d seen Stanley fronting various solo bands in celebration of his birthday at the Montreal Jazz Festival as well as in the past couple of years at numerous stops along the way during the Return To Forever IV tour. Each time I spoke with him he seemed to mention that he and George would be getting back together for a long overdue collaboration. When I asked him what the project would sound like he’d always say something like “Well, you know me and George, we’ll just do what we do.” When I saw that the guys would be at the Blue Note I put my name on the list. 

Besides, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the time I stood with Stanley and George on top of the mountain overlooking Montreux, Switzerland and Lake Geneva at the chalet of the late Claude Nobs, the founder and longtime director of the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival. Claude recently passed away due to a skiing accident in his beloved Swiss Alps. I was covering the Festival in 1988 and Stanley and George were there playing together and in various settings as George was chosen by Claude to direct some of the programming of the Festival. Plus, Stanley, George and I had challenged the foreign press to a 3-on-3-basketball tournament.  While we had no takers, I have a feeling they might be able to take us now but that’s another story for another day. I remember that interview in that beautiful setting and all the great things these two modern masters have created in the time between then and now. 

Standing outside with the crowd waiting to get in, the conversation turned to who might be in the band with Stanley and George and what they’d play. I jokingly mentioned that I’d waited until the last night of the run so that the guys could work out all the kinks. One staunch supporter didn’t catch the joke and stated that masters like these had no kinks to work out! It’s first come-first served for seats at the Blue Note and since I was near the front of the line I decided to sit right next to the stage. If you are claustrophobic or have an aversion to close contact with strangers you best not come to this club, or New York for that matter. I made the close acquaintance of three lovely ladies who’d travelled to New York from Los Angeles for a vacation together and this was their sendoff celebration. There was a couple who did not speak English, and two middle-aged fusion fans with whom I’d been talking to outside. Once we discovered that this would be only a duo with the guys making all the music themselves no one seemed unhappy with the arrangement. We settled in for a great night of music viewing the set up of electric piano alongside a grand piano for George and both electric and acoustic bass for Stanley. 

ImageThe night began with George and Stanley on electric piano and bass doing a very full sounding version of Stanley’s fusion classic “Lopsy Lu.” George pressed Stanley to tell the crowd who this song was about and why the woman in question was named Lopsy Lu. Stanley deadpanned that this was simply what she was known as. The comedy part of the program was on and was a constant accompaniment to the music all night long. These are two very funny guys and they know how to get the right kind of dig into one another as only good, longtime friends can. The set list included everything from bebop to ballads and beyond. George told the story of how working with Al Jarreau and seeing him get all the girls led him to want to be a vocalist. That led to a story about a very deep and personal breakup spawned one of the duo’s most famous songs, the beautiful ballad “Sweet Baby,” which George dominated with his signature falsetto and bluesy piano. Stanley called out “Autumn Leaves,” but George vetoed it and instead the guys played the standard “On Green Dolphin Street.” This is Greenwich Village after all and when in NYC you need to play some of the classics. More modern bebop was on the list as the guys played Stanley’s composition “Three Wrong Notes” and swung it like crazy. These two have played with the likes of Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey and many more. Swinging is no problem for them! 

If you know the history of Stanley Clarke and George Duke you also know they have a varied career experience, having worked with pop singers as well as folks like Frank Zappa and members of the Rolling Stones. It was time for the fusion portion of the program.  George mentioned that Stanley was a “schooled” musician and an innovator on the electric bass who changed the rules with his “bass as lead instrument” style on the classic song “School Days,” which the guys performed masterfully as a duo. Not a thing was missed with this performance by the two of them, as opposed to the usual presentation by a full electric band. Heads were bobbing and the Blue Note was rocking. Stanley mentioned that he was going to make George “Put on his glasses now,” because he would need to read the music for the next tune, Chick Corea’s classic composition “No Mystery.” The performance included extended solos filled with references to various standards thrown in for extra measure and a combination of blues, classical, bebop and fusion to complete a very satisfying arrangement and a more than satisfying hour of music.

ImageAfterwards I had the chance to catch up with the guys off stage to remind them that it had been 25 years since that moment on the mountaintop in Montreux and that they’d reached yet another mountaintop with another great performance together on this evening. Stanley reminded me that I was old as dirt and though I disagreed, I reminded him that we are the exact same age so if I was old then what would that make him? Actually these two teach quite a lesson, not only as great musicians but as two guys who maintain that creative, childlike attitude and seem full of wonder as they play. We talked again about that moment in Switzerland and thoughts turned to Claude Nobs, with whom George had an especially close, working relationship. He mentioned that not only did Claude go about the business of staging a festival that he loved deeply, but that he loved jazz itself just as much.  Stanley Clarke and George Duke go about the business of playing together with the same level of love for one another and the music. It shows, and on this night at the Blue Note it was there for a packed and energetic crowd of adoring fans to see and hear. 

Russ Davis

>Russ Davis produces and presents the only jazz program – “Jazz America” – for the U.S. Government Service, Voice of America. He also programs and presents the online modern jazz channel MOJA Radio, a subscription service. You can hear a number of free programs, including the latest Jazz America show by visiting <A HREF=>MOJA Radio’s website</a>.</I>


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