BETHLEHEM, PA—Two legends. Two nights.
Bassist Stanley Clarke has liberated both the stand-up acoustic and the low-slung electric from bottom-feeding purgatory. It’s no surprise that he brought to the Musikfest Café stage two teenagers since he himself was hardly out of his teens when he made his spectacular splash in the jazz world. Now 62, Clarke, one of the pioneers of jazz-rock fusion for his work in Return To Forever with Chick Corea, brought to the fore 17-year-old piano prodigy Beka Gochiashvili and 19-year-old drummer Mike Mitchell.
Between the three of them, there was hardly time to catch your breath. The two teens vamped early and often going fast, faster and fastest. Clarke was clearly having a ball proving you can’t best the master. At numerous times during the stunning display, all three of them were soloing simultaneously, going off in their own grooves, spinning into the stratosphere with jaw-dropping dexterity, yet remaining in close orbit with each other. They’d stop on a dime, then careen off onto another avenue jam-band style to madly improvise again. It reminded this reporter of what Cream used to do back in the day: all crazy-sick soloing at the same time to create a cacophony of escalating excitement to the point where you’re almost dizzy.
Clarke’s performed “Brazilian Love Affair” plenty with George Duke [1946-2013] but gave it a new speed-spin on this night. Despite the obvious melodic entrancement of Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus,” it still kept up at breakneck tempo.
His solo spots were pure magic: “Flamenco Rasquado” and Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Cello Suite.”
“No Mystery” was the obligatory nod to his RTF days and, of course, “School Days” ended the set (Clarke staying acoustic until the two-song electric pop of an encore).
I dare say these two kids are going to be jazz legends long after I’m dust.
Leon Russell’s vocal rasp has ripened to Dr. John proportions. His piano contained what sounded like a Hammond B-3, a Farfisa roller-rink organ and a string section so when his young guitar/bass/drums band shut up, he accompanied his own piano playing like a symphony. And those were the most cherished moments of a night to remember. That and his 26-song setlist, a setlist from honky-tonk heaven where his individualistic, idiosyncratic, eccentric, eclectic takes on Little Richard (“Rip It Up”), Jimmy Reed (“Baby What You Want Me To Do”), Bob Dylan (“A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”), Rolling Stones (“Wild Horses”), Ivory Joe Hunter (“Kansas City Woman”), Hoagy Carmichael (“Georgia On My Mind”), Lennon/McCartney (“I’ve Just Seen A Face”), Buck Owens (“Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms”), The Temptations (“Papa Was A Rolling Stone”), Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls Of Fire”) and Chuck Berry (“Roll Over Beethoven”) sounded as original as his own “Back To The Island,” “This Masquerade,” “A Song For You,” “Out In The Woods,” “Delta Lady,” “Stranger In A Strange Land,” “Tight Rope” and “Sweet Emily.” The only thing missing from a near-perfect evening was his iconic cover of George Harrison’s “Beware Of Darkness.”
He took time out for some long rambling stories of his early days in the studio and seemed to lose his place in a tale or two. The 71-year-old is lucky to be alive after brain surgery but he had a knowing smirk and it seemed he might have been doing it on purpose to have a little fun with the audience. For his encore, he never left the stage. “I don’t like walking,” he explained.
Hellbound Glory, from Reno, Nevada, opened the show with an Americana blast of originals, The Band’s arrangement of Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil” and Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box.”