Walking into the Tralf Music Hall for the second of Stanley Clarke’s two shows at the fabled venue on Friday evening, I fully expected to be captivated by the man’s talents as electric and acoustic bassist supreme. With the possible exception of the late Jaco Pastorius, Clarke is the preeminent electric bassist to have emerged from the 1970s milieu that saw jazz spread its wings to take in the influence of funk, R&B and rock textures, birthing what came to be known as “fusion” in the process.
What I didn’t necessarily expect was to be so blown away by Clarke’s skills as a bandleader. Instead of merely offering a master class in virtuosic jazz bass playing, Clarke celebrated the talents of the musicians he’d assembled for the tour supporting his new album, “Up.” The three players – all under the age of 20 – proved to be supremely gifted musicians in their own right, and their performance as an ensemble suggested that the future of America’s greatest art form is in more than capable hands.
Throughout the evening, 17-year-old pianist Beka Gochiasvili offered a simply stunning display of harmonic sophistication, dizzying chops and astute manipulation of dynamics, all of which made it difficult to accept his tender age. The young musician, who won the prestigious Montreaux Jazz Festival Piano Competition at the age of 12, has clearly studied the work of jazz luminary Keith Jarrett, as well as Clarke’s bandmate in Return to Forever, Chick Corea. But he filtered those inspirations through a startlingly fresh and contemporary sensibility, and he sparred with leader Clarke and second keyboardist Cameron Graves throughout the evening, volleying chordal stabs and jaw-dropping lines in a call-and-response that brought the Tralf crowd to its feet for ovations at several points during the show.
Clarke always has balanced his time between more straight-ahead jazz compositions and the funkier side of things, and he rather surprisingly opened Friday’s late show with his biggest hit, the hook-heavy funk workout “School Days.” The tune afforded Clarke the opportunity to solo on his iconic Alembic electric bass, and he took that opportunity and ran with it, making it plain that his status as one of the greatest living jazz bassists is well-earned. The crowd, naturally, ate it up and responded with enthusiasm.
Next came a fitting tribute to one of Clarke’s primary inspirations, the legendary jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus, in the form of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Here, Gochiashvili came to life, offering an inspired solo on the Tralf’s grand piano that built slowly and crescendoed gracefully, punctuated by responses from Clarke, Graves and drummer Mike Mitchell.
By the time the quartet tore into the ebullient “Up,” Clarke had moved to the acoustic double bass, where he would stay for the rest of the evening, conjuring a deep, resonant tone that ably suited the music’s effortless flow between Latin, be bop, and post-bop stylings. A take on Wayne Shorter’s “ESP” was punctuated by the explosive playing of 18-year-old drummer Mitchell, who offered a tour de force performance celebrating the cymbal work of late jazz icon Tony Williams and the thunderous groove of John Coltrane’s drummer of choice Elvin Jones in equal measure.
By this point in the program, the crowd was ecstatically enthralled by the Quartet’s interplay, and spontaneous eruptions of applause became commonplace.
Clarke and band saved one of the evening’s highlights for the encore slot. “Last Train to Sanity” is an ambitious, dense and daring composition from the “Up” album, one that echoes the bassist’s work with Corea and Return to Forever in its compositional structure and multimovement format. The piece offered a fittingly joyous conclusion to a stunning evening of music.