Bassist Stanley Clarke's solo career has been notoriously inconsistent-- with lucrative film scoring consuming much of his time and a tendency towards (not necessarily bad) smooth jazz sounds, his works can be frustrating and it can feel as though the jaw-dropping virtuoso performances he brings don't quite get matched. So with each new record, it's always a question-- r&b-laced smooth jazz or funk fusion? In the case of "The Toys of Men", it seems to be something entirely different, an unusual mix between fusion and acoustic jazz and one of the more satisfying albums in Clarke's catalog.
Performed by a core quintet featuring Clarke on any number of basses, Ruslan Sirota on keyboards, Mads Tolling on violin, Jef Lee Johnson on guitar and Ronald Bruner, Jr. behind the drum kit, with guest spots by vocalist Esperanza Spalding, guitaristts Tomer Shtein and Michael Landau, keyboardist Phil Davis and percussionist Paulinho da Costa, the album finds an unusual mix of electric and acoustic. A good example is the opening extended title suite-- it opens sounding like it takes a page out of the Mahavishnu Orchestra book, chugging fusion driven by a superb, rolling bass line from Clarke and a frantic statemetn by Tolling. But once you get comfortable with it, it gives way to a gentle acoustic passage, featuring a building melody and wordless vocals by Spalding and closes with a gentle, hopeful, upper register electric bass solo over a gentle piano and drum accompaniment. In fact, while Clarke has shown more virtuoso performances over the years, I dare say this is his most sensitive, emotive and in many ways powerful playing.
The remainder of the album is a mix of different sounds, split between ensemble pieces (where Clarke often plays an acoustic bass guitar) and brief solo acoustic bass (violin) performances. The ensemble pieces are a nice mix, from a pair of superb fusion workouts with absolutely staggering slap bass workouts that could have been lifted straight off of School Days in "Come On" and "Bad *sses" (the latter in particular, as a duet between Clarke and drummer Bruner, provides an opportunity for some serious pyrotechnics) to gentler, more lyrical pieces ("Jerusalem", featuring some fantastic acoustic bass guitar performance from Clarke, the achingly beautiful ensemble piece "La Cancion de Sofia", featuring a simply lovely arco melody statement from Clarke on upright). Along the way, Clarke also drifts into deep funk ("Game", with another jaw-dropping slap bass performance), a pleasant-but-not-terribly-exciting smooth jazz piece (Spalding vocal feature "All Over Again") and a tribute to drummer Tony Williams in the loping drum feature "Chateauvallon 1972".
The bass violin solo pieces are generally all of the same form-- brief, pizzicato performances that provide Clarke an opportunity to show a side of himself that has been fairly recessed in term of considering his legacy. He shows a fairly extensive technique (the extended "El Bajo Negro" is the best example of this), a well developed woody tone, and a propensity for percussive attacks (as illustrated on "Back in the Woods"). Closer "Bass Folk Song No. 6" breaks the pattern by being gentle and lyrical and probably the most satisfying of the five solo upright performances.
For some reason, I keep thinking that "The Toys of Men" is one of those records that I'll end up sticking up on a shelf and not listening to, but I can't put my finger on why. It's a consistently satisfying, engaging and entertaining record, and since I'm really enjoying it.