Stanley Clarke celebrates Return to Forever in San Francisco concerts

Stanley Clarke is in a reflective mood.

He has to be, after all, since he’s hard at work on a big career retrospective box set that he hopes to have in stores by the summer.

“It started out as a four-record set, then it turned into three,” Clarke says during a recent phone interview. “I am trying to figure out how I can get it to two records. But it’s probably going to be three.”

With one foot already in the past, Clarke — one of the greatest jazz bassists of all time – has little trouble zooming back in time to discuss his fabled fusion group Return to Forever.

Clarke will celebrate the wildly influential outfit when he performs with the new band 4EVER during two shows at the SFJAZZ Center. The concerts will also serve as tributes to the late, great Chick Corea, who co-founded Return to Forever with Clarke and others in the early ‘70s.

The shows are also part of SFJAZZ’s 10th anniversary celebration Jan. 12-15, which includes a tribute to the late pianist McCoy Tyner (who, like Clarke, played on the SFJAZZ Center’s opening night) and performances by artists — ranging from Laurie Anderson and Bill Frisell to Mary Stallings and Chris Potter — who have served as a SFJAZZ artistic directors over the years.

Stanley Clarke N 4EVER — featuring guitarist Colin Cook, keyboardist Jahari Stampley and drummer Jeremiah Collier — performs at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 13 at the San Francisco venue. Tickets are $30-$95;

Here’s my interview with the five-time Grammy winner, whose many accomplishments include being a 2022 recipient of a NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship.

Q: Take me back to the days leading up to Return to Forever. You were in your early 20s when you first met Chick Corea, right?

A: I actually met Chick a little before that. When we started playing, I think was like 18 or 19. Whatever age I was playing with Stan Getz — the first time I played with him — you’ve got to back it up like two years.

When I first started playing with Chick he was in his 20s, late 20s, because Chick was exactly 10 years older than me — 10 years and a couple days. I am 71 now, so he would have been 81 now.

We had a little trio. It was myself, Chick and a drummer named Horace Arnold. Then we expanded the band to include (flutist) Hubert Laws.

Q: And eventually this sort of morphed into Return to Forever.

A: We weren’t calling ourselves Return to Forever (yet). Chick was the most popular guy out of the bunch, so, it was like the Chick Corea Group — which was pretty much how jazz groups were promoted at that time. You know, like the Chick Corea Trio or the Joe Blow Quartet.

Eventually, Chick got the idea, “Let’s try to put together something a little more serious.” So, that’s when it was myself, Chick, Joe Farrell, Airto Moreira and Flora Purim and we made the (1972) “Return to Forever” album and then we did (1973’s) “Light as a Feather.”

And “Light as a Feather” had all those classic songs — “500 Miles High,” “Light as a Feather,” “Spain” — and that’s when it started to kick off for us. And it just went from that point on. We just kept going.

Q: Return to Forever has had a lot of different players over the years. Yet, the classic lineup, many feel, is the one with you, Chick, drummer Lenny White and guitarist Al Di Meola, which originally ran from like 1974 to 1977. How did White and Di Meola get involved with the band?

A: Chick and Lenny go back to the (1970) “Bitches Brew” album with Miles Davis. It worked out really great. Then, finally, Bill Connors, the guitar player (in Return to Forever), left the band.

I think it was my wife at the time found a cassette tape of some guy who was 18 years old in Jersey. It was Al Di Meola.

Q: Oh, wow. Nice find!

A: I think by the time he played with us he might have been 19 — I’m not sure he was 20 — and I do remember his first gig was at Carnegie Hall. The music was very complicated, so he stood there with a music stand — at Carnegie Hall — playing this music. I thought, “Here’s a guy with some (nerve) — to play at Carnegie Hall, with a music stand, playing some music that very few people could play.” And he did it. So, I grew to like him right away.

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