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Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller & Victor Wooten Join Forces as SMV

Musical pairings of like-minded legends are always an exciting prospect, whether they go on to set tour-attendance marks (Elton John and Billy Joel) or never get out of the gate (Prince and Michael Jackson). Even the challenge of sonically coexisting has not stopped successful multi-bass unions, ranging from Ray Brown’s SuperBass (with Christian McBride and John Clayton) to last year’s chops-and-comedy coalition of Stu Hamm, Billy Sheehan, and Jeff Berlin, as Bx3.


However, the long-rumored teaming of Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, and Victor Wooten—a.k.a. SMV—is truly historic. It started with the trio’s debut performance at Bass Player LIVE! in ’06, after Miller and Wooten joined Stanley onstage to present him with a Bass Player Lifetime Achievement Award. The idea of further collaboration caught on quickly. Clips of the threesome ripping into Clarke’s “School Days” are nearing one million views on Bass Player TV and YouTube. Clarke commented on how instantly intuitive it was to play with Miller and Wooten at the show, each player finding a register and dialoguing effortlessly. But while melding musically has not been a problem, getting face-to-face bass time to record is another story. All three have recent solo albums to support, Wooten continues to globetrot with Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, and Clarke is in the midst the biggest jazz event of the year: the much-anticipated road reunion of Return To Forever, with Chick Corea, Lenny White, and Al DiMeola.

The solution for SMV was to book a U.S. and overseas run beginning in mid August, thus cementing the need to get a CD together. Because of Bass Player’s role in the formation of the trio, we were afforded access to the tracks as they were coming together (at press time, nine tracks, though not all titled, were just about complete). The results so far are riveting; there are enough Stanley, Marcus, and Victor-isms to gratify the most groove-hungry bassheads, but it’s all balanced by a depth of musical ideas guaranteed to take your mind off who’s playing what. Add in guests like human beatbox/vocalist Butterscotch (winner of TV’s America’s Got Talent), drummers Poogie Bell, Ronald Bruner, J.D. Blair, and Derico Watson, keyboardists Karlton Taylor and Bobby Sparks, trumpeter Patches Stewart, and rumored special guests George Duke and Chick Corea, and the CD—titled Thunder—is sure to rattle more than just the thumper crowd. We met up with Clarke, Miller, and Wooten individually, as their busy schedules allowed, to discuss the parts and potential of this Supreme Musical Venture.

Stanley Clarke

What has been the best part of the project for you?
The camaraderie—getting to know Marcus and Victor better. I’ve known them since they were teenagers, but you really don’t have a chance to get inside someone’s head musically until you work closely with them. I’m really impressed; Marcus is a tremendous musician, with a lot of insight into the languages of music, from bebop and classical to fusion and R&B. He’s doing a great job as the producer and leader of the project. Victor is just a marvel; he has the greatest facility I’ve ever seen on the electric bass. He’s a natural player and musician who has done a lot of studying, too, so it’s a great mix. The three of us are basically out of the same mold. It’s kind of like, together we make this one nuclear bass player. One thing I get a kick out of, though, is their right-hand positions, which are just like mine—except I’ve always had a wrong hand position! I have that wrist break where my right hand angles down, instead of staying straighter, like most players. It’s just not natural, and it’s amazing I can get any power at all. So I look at their hands and I go, Oh my God, what have I done! [Laughs.]

Did you make a conscious decision to play mostly tenor bass and stay in that range?
Yes, I did. Marcus’s bass sound is like the low strings and brass in an orchestra, but at the same time he can go up in the cello range. Victor is more in the middle, but he can go all the way up. I’ve played tenor bass for so long that I’m really comfortable and happy in the upper range. I get to cover the whole range for the tunes I play upright on. I did play standard 4-string on one SMV track, but because I’m playing predominantly 4-string on tour with Return To Forever I’m getting plenty of time with it. Plus, I’ll be playing some 4-string live with SMV, and I told Marcus and Victor I’m going to put tenor and acoustic basses in their hands, so we’ll be having some other “looks” for the shows.

You’ve contributed two tracks so far. What can you reveal about them?
The first will probably be called “Victor” because it features him as a soloist. It moves between a ballad section that echoes the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata, and a power rock section, which is a color I felt the CD was lacking. The other is “Intro”; I hope it will be our show opener. It starts with an orchestral section, which comes from my love of composing film music, and it goes into this funky jazz blues head. The three of us end up playing the harmonized melody, à la Supersax [see Lesson]. The inspiration for the piece came from a dream I had some months ago about SMV going on a stage somewhere in Europe. We had this amazing opening, and we all came out in these wrestling-style outfits! We were all pumped up, and Vic had on a mask [laughs], and there was this triumphant music. So when I woke up I tried to get it down, and “Intro” is what came out.

Is there a track that typifies what SMV is all about?
Marcus’s tune “Milano” is a great piece. That one covers it all: acoustic bass played with a bow, fretless, bass chords. It will show younger listeners the grandaddy of all bass instruments, as well as what sort of different concepts can be done with multiple basses.

Marcus Miller

Has it been a challenge sonically to record with three different bassists?
No—the greatest challenge has been getting together, because of everyone’s schedules. Musically, we all fell into our roles effortlessly, and a lot of ideas and magic have come out of our jams. We all know how to listen to each other, and no one is trying to impress anybody. Our primary goal is to make a musical album, not a bass heroics CD. Sonically, Stanley is mostly in the tenor range, so it’s not three guys rumbling—and there aren’t a lot of other instruments on the tracks to deal with. I’ll do some panning and EQ and it will be fine.

Have there been any revelations?
Just the confirmation that these guys are full-on complete musicians, as badd as advertised—there are no shortcomings to cover up. In a lot of ways, the project is a tribute to Stanley, because he’s the originator; everything we do has a bit of him in it. Early in one jam he picked up my bass and it sounded just like Stanley Clarke! I guess one revelation is when you work this closely with Stanley, you realize how much of an influence he’s had on you. It’s like, Oh yeah—that’s where I got this from. And then there’s the illumination that you’ve taken it and made it your own in some way. The same is true of Victor; our styles are all so close that I’ll hear something of Vic’s and go, Hmmm, if I’d grown up in a different area, with different influences, this is what I might have sounded like and been writing like.

How did you come up with the “Lopsy Lu/Silly Putty” cover?
That was something Victor and I wanted to do. We just switched “Lopsy Lu” from a shuffle to a straight-four feel and put it together with “Silly Putty.” But we also have the bass line from Average White Band’s “School Boy Crush” [from Cut the Cake, Rhino] in there—that somehow came about during a jam. A lot of rappers sampled that song because it had sleigh bells in it.

What was the inspiration behind “Los Tres Hermanos” and “Milano”?
For “Hermanos,” I knew we would have some jam-out tunes, so I wanted something more melodic that people who don’t play bass can hold onto. It also gives us some changes we can sink our teeth into. “Milano” came about from Victor and me listening to a harpist. I tried to write something similar, with a wash of harmony from the two of us, while Stanley bows the melody on upright. And then we have the insane arpeggios in the middle [laughs]. [See Lesson.]

“Thunder” is a good showcase track for everyone.
That’s the kind of piece I wanted for the title track. I imagined Stanley playing those big 5ths you hear in the melody, with me holding down the bottom and Vic dancing around it all. And we have Butterscotch doing her amazing vocal beatbox and trumpet, plus some shout-outs.

What else might make it in under the wire?
I’d love to do a jam on Vic’s piece “Classical Thump” [from A Show of Hands, Compass], and I may add a new tune I’m calling “Grits.” We’re also contemplating having interludes between some tracks, because we have plenty of good ideas on tape.

Victor Wooten

How has your role in the trio fleshed out?
It’s been really interesting. Watching Stanley and Marcus play and create in the studio has been the greatest joy. Stanley is definitely the father figure, the old Jedi Master. It was fascinating to see his methodical approach to one of my tunes; he took out pencil and paper and went to the piano and really figured it out—which I wouldn’t even know how to do! Marcus is the go-to guy; he has all the studio prowess. If we need something, he gets on his laptop and starts programming on Logic and somehow flies it into Pro Tools. I’m glad he took on the producer role. So, part of me is like a ten-year-old kid—I sit there smiling in amazement at these two legends, and I end up being quiet a lot [laughs]. The flip side is I need to make sure I allow myself to be represented and throw my two or five cents in, and not feel inadequate. But they’ve both made it real easy by giving me complete respect. I think it’s because I bring something different to the table, coming from my background with the Flecktones, acoustic bluegrass, and other styles. Ultimately, you can say we all have similar but distinct voices.

Your song, temporarily known as “SMV#2,” is a good example of the different kind of flavor and feel you bring to the band.
It has one of the brightest tempos on the CD; the A section is in three, and the chorus has a sort of rural, Nashville flavor. I played the opening bass line, overdubbed a bouncy, percussive part, and then I added a sustained harmonics part. I’ll have Marcus play the bass part and Stanley will have the melody.

Probably the most intriguing aspect of the CD is what happens when you play each other’s parts, like on your tune “Hillbillies on a Quiet Afternoon.” The bass line is obviously yours, with the odd-meter bars, but when Marcus plays it, he makes it his own.
Exactly. What’s the most fun for me is knowing that as soon as those guys play something I wrote, it’s going to change—which is what I want. We also wrote with a lot of holes, the idea being the other guys would fill in with a bass line or melody.

What was the inspiration for “Hillbillies”?
Actually, I may just shorten the title to “Hillbillies.” We had talked about the idea of redoing each other’s songs in our own voices. Time may not allow for that in each case, but for me, that’s where “Hillbillies” started. I wanted to redo a Stanley tune, and while I was on tour with my band, I heard Anthony Wellington humming “Quiet Afternoon” [from Clarke’s School Days, Epic]. I didn’t want it to be instantly recognizable, so I added the odd-meter bars to the groove, a different melody, and then a new section in 7/8. Finally, in the middle of the second solo, by Marcus, I introduce Stanley’s original melody. I used a similar concept for my cover of “Tutu”: I changed the key to Am, used a different bass line, and altered and brightened the groove a bit. I also added the melody of “Big Time,” another tune Marcus wrote for Miles [from Amandla, Columbia].

Have you decided on what size band and which musicians you’ll take on tour, and what other material you’ll cover live?
Not yet; we’re discussing possible drummers, and we’ll probably have one keyboard player. As for material, I’m sure in addition to songs on the CD, we’ll cover other tunes of ours, like “School Days.” It’s going to be a blast.

 

CAN BE HEARD ON

SMV, Thunder, Heads Up
Stanley Clarke, The Toys of Men, Heads Up
Marcus Miller, Marcus, Concord
Victor Wooten, Palmystery, Heads Up.

GEAR

Stanley Clarke Spellbinder tenor and standard bass guitars, 120-year-old German flatback acoustic bass, Spellbinder copy of German acoustic bass; Rotosound, Spellbinder, and Thomastik-Spirocore Weich strings; Fishman BP-100 bridge-mounted pickup; Alembic F-1X preamp

Marcus Miller ’77 Jazz Bass, fretless ’66 Jazz Bass, Fender MM 5-string; DR Hi-Beams and Fat Beams; Demeter VTDB-2 tube DI

Victor Wooten Fodera Yin-Yang bass, Fodera Monarch tenor bass, Fodera NYC 5-string; Fodera Victor Wooten strings; Radial JDV MK3 Direct Box

 


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