The Stanley Clarke / George Duke show on June 26th at B.B. King’s, part of the Blue Note Jazz Festival, was a long awaited reunion of two jazz-funk legends, a sterling example of how an old catalog can be reinvigorated with pure, in the moment playing, and a complete shit show.
I have been a fan of George Duke since first hearing his playing on The Mothers’ Overnite Sensation album and I got turned onto Stanley Clarke in college when I first started listening to Return to Forever. I latched onto their solo works and other collaborations later, and loved the ability that both shared to marry jazz, Latin, R&B and even disco into a funky, kinetic hybrid. Obviously I would have preferred my first time seeing them to be the best example of their current live sets, the best of what they have to offer today, instead of making the best out of a bad situation, trying to play the best possible set while dealing with pervasive sound issues. Well, shit, I guess that’s live music for you.
Clearly, the intended show was a greatest hits show, playing through jazz-funk classics from their solo albums of the 1970s (aside from the R&B hit “Pretty Baby,” they largely eschewed material from the duo’s collaborative albums from the 80s) laying down energetic, stretched out versions of classics like Stanley’s “Silly Putty” and “School Days” and George’s “Brazilian Love Affair” even throwing in a bit of Zappa.
Often at shows like these, it is inevitable that the mind will jump to unfavorable comparisons with the artists’ former selves, playing with less agility and fire than during their glory years. As George began singing “Brazilian Love Affair,” I could not help but notice that his vocals, an octave down from the falsetto line he sang on the original album, did not cut through the arrangement very well. However, when he began his piano solo, the intense, funky lyricism laid to rest any suspicions of lost chops.
George first whipped out the old Keytar during “Silly Putty,” and though I generally disapprove of emulating guitar lines in that fashion, George’s facility with the instrument made him one of the only people today who can play it without looking like a schmuck (apologies to Donald Fagen).
The sound issues had became evident almost immediately with a clipping sound becoming pervasive by the middle of the first song. When drummer Henry McAdams took an extended solo, it was obvious that the purpose was to fill time and try to isolate the issue in the channels of the other instruments even before the house lights started going up and down and the engineers started roaming the stage.
At this point, their acoustic performance of the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” served several major purposes in the scheme of the show. It gave both musicians a platform to show off their chops and pure musicality without the frills of the technology with which both had done such pioneering work. Also, for those members of the audience who wore out the grooves on their copies of School Days and Reach For It in the late seventies, but were unaware of their earlier work with Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz and Chick Corea, it firmly established their presence in the pantheon of jazz musicians and their roots in its tradition. For the sound guys, it provided a chance to change out second keyboardist Bobby Sparks’ main keyboard in hopes of isolating the source of the clipping sound. The chaos happening at the back of the stage, however, did not distract from the intricate but fluid interplay between these two masters.
After this the sound issues seemed to be a bit more under control, if not fixed. The rest of the show featured the duo displaying the best and worst of their talents and excesses. Stanley showed how he could still play funky lines better than most young lions while occasionally being so percussive that the notes would disappear. George displayed both his masterful playing and his mastery of the technology and the ability to give human qualities to electronic instruments. It still sounded strange when he applied pitch bend to the acoustic piano patch on his keyboard. In the end, though, it’s easy to forgive such eccentricities when the moments that lead to a roll of the eyes or quizzically raised eyebrow are so outweighed by the moments that inspire pure awe.
Basically, these guys are just really funkin’ good at what they do (pardon the pun, but I felt it was necessary).
It was uncertain whether they would end the show with one of George’s songs or one of Stanley’s (but the fact that they had already played “School Days”, arguably Stanley’s biggest cut, tipped the scales in George’s favor), and the intro simply confused the issue. Recalling “Space Lady” (the old Cobham/Duke Band piece featuring George accompanying a psychedelic/sci-fi story with odd textures on his keyboards), George began reciting in a low voice: “Many moons ago…”
Unfortunately, the old sound issues gave way to new ones, and the desired effects apparently were not backing him up. He kept repeating the phrase “many moons ago,” each time hoping that things would fall into place before eventually declaring with a laugh: “It was working at sound check.”
They promptly aborted the introduction and jumped right into George’s classic (although with its mix of P-Funk grooves with James Brown clichés, quite derivative) rave-up, “Reach for It.” With this they got the largely post-baby boomer crowd screaming along, if not on its feet.
Hopefully, the late show fared better, with the sound problems proving to be less of a hindrance. However, the band appeared, at least, to take the issues in stride and just play with that mix of tight discipline, loose spontaneity, and plain stinky funk that they are known for. This may not have been their most exemplary show, but I’d rather see this than the best show by a lesser group.