Bass pioneers Clarke, Miller and Wooten explore the final frontier

by Ryan Snyder

When Chuck D put forth the famous rhetorical question of “How low can you go?” in regards to bass, he never could have imagined how much low end could be produced when three of the world’s greatest electric bassists brought their heads together on stage. As Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten assembled for a performance at Durham’s Carolina Theatre (which coincidentally resembles our own very much), you almost can’t help but be reminded how such a collaboration would have been wholly impossible a few decades ago. It wasn’t until Clarke himself defined the role of the electric bassist as a centerpiece in the 1970s that the possibility of utilizing multiple bassists, each with their own distinctive musical identity, could even be entertained.

Enter SMV to the picture, a quintet, complete with drums and keys, featuring three bassists so prodigious and so inhumanly talented that any effort to encapsulate their capabilities into words might result in sounding like a drooling, slack-jawed cretin. There aren’t enough four-letter words in the English language to capture the raw emotion resulting from one Victor Wooten solo, let alone an entire two-hour set of he and two others in his stratum. That said, it seems slightly illogical that there could even be a stage figuratively big enough to hold three titans such as these. Still, they all managed to fall snugly into their own comfortable places on the low-end continuum. Miller assumed what can best be described as the “conventional” rhythmic carrier, though there’s nothing conventional about world-class playing. Wooten was the speed merchant of the group, showing his dynamic mastery of pedal points and ostinatos whenever possible. Clarke could be whatever he wanted, though his high-register onslaught was a thing of sonic majesty. They never once pigeonholed themselves into a certain role, however, as each were quick to toss off rhythmic, melodic or harmonic duties to another at a moment’s notice. Their performance delved deeply into their joint album, appropriately titled Thunder, though they didn’t play every track on the album. Starting with “Maestros de las Frequencias Bajas,” strings were popping and slapping with palpable tension. Solos abounded, as Miller and Clarke gave way to Wooten shortly into the show after conceding his brilliance as a soloist. Wooten slapped the fret board like a short-changed pimp before eliciting a standing ovation before his spotlight was even over. Despite the enormity of the three names on the bill, their accompaniments were no slouches. Keyboardist Federico Gonzalez- Pena gave a Zawinulean piano solo after “Mongoose Walk,” while the features simply turned to him and looked on. It’s no small feat to hold down the beat for a group such as this, but Derico Watson did it with a quiet, though occasionally flamboyant, type of precision. Heavy doses of interplay between the performers dominated the latter half of the set, with a few more brilliant solos interspersed. Clarke and Wooten tossed the melody back and forth with increasing fervor, though they bottomed out as a pause and blank stares drew laughter and applause from the audience. Both left and turned things over to Miller, whose pops and snaps were the seductive force behind the likes of Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin. They were quick to toy with the arrangement, with Miller pulling out the bass clarinet and Clarke manning the stand-up bass while Wooten maintained the usual. As the group worked their way through the hypnotic “Tutu,” Clarke jostled the crowd a bit with an instantly recognizable allusion to Muddy Water’s “Mannish Boy.” Not to be outdone with the teases, Wooten came back with a few bars of the “Inspector Gadget” theme, though he could just as well have been nodding to Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show.” Despite their greatness, Wooten and Miller are just students and Clarke is still the professor. Though Clarke had been somewhat subdued up until that point, they made that fact abundantly clear. “Before this guy came along, bass players were way back in the back doing this,” Miller said as he bobbed his head lightly and tapped his feet. “After Stanley, we were up front doing this,” as he swung his hips while doing Pete Townsend style windmills. Clarke went on deliver a virtuosic solo on the upright. It was literally one of the most beautiful solos I’ve ever witnessed from any performer, as Clarke alternately tapped the strings lightly to a soothing effect before violently slapping up and down the instrument’s neck. The show wound down with the encore “School Days,” though the finale’s highlight was undoubtedly their transition into “Birdland,” a stated tribute to departed comrades and influences Joe Zawinul and Jaco Pastorius. As the show closed, Watson tossed his sticks back and forth across the stage to Wooten without missing a beat. It was an unusual arrangement for sure, but the type of chemistry shown between these three legendary figures would find anyone hard-pressed to emulate.

Three of the greatest living bassists share the stage at Durham’s Carolina Theatre this past Monday. (photo by Ryan Snyder)