There were two surprises with this Independence Day gig at The Jazz Cafe.
First, that there was jazz music at the refurbished, but still misleadingly named Camden venue, whose calendar in recent years has been decidedly un-jazz in its content.
Secondly, not one but both of Stanley Clarke’s Alembic basses - source of his unique sound - failed after two tracks, requiring a switch to the acoustic double bass for the rest of the show and the unexpected absence of many fan favourite tunes.
What was it Oscar Wilde said? “To lose one bass guitar is unfortunate …”
The show from US bass legend Clarke and his kindergarten-level band of bright young jazz things was stunning in its virtuosity, power and musicality on the signature tracks from recent album Up! and more established Stanley Clarke back catalogue favourites. Yet the technological failure denied the audience the evening of low-end bombast and showmanship they’d come for.
Frequent shouted calls for “School Days” went unheeded as the £20,000 beautifully wrought basses needed for this classic track sat forlornly on their stands, unheard. It felt rather like going to see Pat Metheny playing an acoustic-only set; it’s great, but it’s not quite what you hoped for.
The evening started off well on the tight stage of the Jazz Cafe, which is now gloomier, more expensive and “hipster” (using manhole covers as wall ‘art’ says it all) post-refurb. It is still defiantly all-standing on the main floor, presenting an endurance challenge for those who arrived at 1900h, with a full two hours to wait until the show.
Opening track Gotham City was a powerful show opener which started off in fifth gear and never let up. Fan favourite Goodbye Pork Pie Hat - almost unrecognisable from the Mingus original, but oozing low-end power and snap in the main riff - was an extended showcase for Clarke’s unique finger style and slap/pop style which make him, in his own words, the “liberator of the electric bass”.
Then, a minute into Lopsy Lu, from his eponymous 1974 album, the low-end vanished on his main guitar. No problem, there’s a spare. Same thing on the spare. Perplexed looks all round, and one embarrassed bass tech!
Could have been disastrous, but Clarke and band shifted inexorably into his vast acoustic bass repertoire. Clarke is one of the few acoustic bassists who isn’t content with simply plucking and bowing his four strings: he slaps, pulls, strums, attacks, twists, beats his instrument in an gymnastic display of playing control which creates sounds you wouldn’t think could come from a double bass. Chick Corea track No Mystery was a particular stand-out, along with Bass Folk Song No 7.
Clarke’s band is very young but bursting with ostentatious talent, not least from 21 year-old drummer Mike Mitchell who, who double bass drum riff on the intro to Gotham City literally blew my hair back. Keyboard prodigies Beka Gochiashvilli from Georgia and Cameron Graves provided the astoundingly complex melodic landscape over which Clarke’s bass pyrotechnics burst. Indeed, it was evident that Clarke is willing to let the band do much of the creative heavy lifting at his shows with extended solos, not least on the drums, with which he interacted engagingly.
Fantastic though the show was, this felt a little disappointing. A Clarke show is all about the shapes and sounds he creates on the Alembic bass, the instrument with which he brought bass front and centre stage as a melodic lead. Shorn of that, I couldn’t help feeling a little cheated, and I think many of the largely male audience, thumbs unconsciously slapping away in anticipation, felt the same.
Adding to my frustration: the ‘superman’ at stage front, two feet from Mr Clarke, filming the whole damned thing on an iPhone and a laptop. Get out of the way, man, enjoy the music not two feet in front of you!
There should be a fresh place in hell reserved for this scourge of modern concert-going.