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Stanley Clarke

RITE OF STRINGS - Al DiMeola, Stanley Clarke, Jean-Luc Ponty
Hart Theatre - The Egg
Albany, NY
September 29, 2007

by J Hunter

“So let me get this straight,” the thought went. “These guys have toured together… once?!?”

True, we aren't talking about strangers: Al Di Meola & Stanley Clarke were founding members of the seminal fusion group Return to Forever, while Clarke & Jean-Luc Ponty first played together in 1972; Clarke was taking a few moments during their Hart Theatre show to reminisce about Ponty's fashion choices at that time (“Big bell bottoms,” he chuckled) before sheepishly admitting, “I had an extreme Afro back then! One side of my Afro was bigger than most guys!”

But the fact remains: Once. That's how many times Rite of Strings has toured together since the release of their self-titled 1995 CD. They had a reunion in 2002, but other than that, their history as a unit pretty much begins with a performance at the 1994 Montreux Jazz Festival and ends with their 1995 CD. As Di Meola pointed out with tongue firmly in cheek, “We're lucky to be up here at our age!” None of this would be a point of amazement if the three legendary musicians hadn't exhibited a mind-boggling unity that (theoretically, anyway) only comes from rehearsing and gigging on a regular basis for years!

There were moments during the 15-minute opening version of Di Meola's “Indigo” where the players flew in airtight formation for one measure - not a chorus, a measure - and then went right back to their individual parts without even a glance, let alone a beat. Solos were spots were swapped throughout the night without any discernable transition, as the trio stunned the full house with amazing readings of “Mediterranean Sunrise” and “Song to John”, Chick Corea's loving Coltrane tribute. Unlike Corea and Bela Fleck - who played their duet show with Proctor's vast Broadway-class stage yawning behind them - ROS had the Hart stage curtained off, taking the intimacy factor one notch higher.

This was an all-acoustic evening, which meant Clarke and Ponty couldn't “fall back” on the technological flourishes they displayed during their respective appearances at Freihofer's Jazz Festival - Ponty with his quintet earlier this year, Clarke with the Clarke/Duke Project Reunion in 2006. Even their 2005 Freihofer's appearance with Fleck as TRIO! was driven by their electric chops. This show gave Clarke and Ponty a chance to (as Clarke put it) “return to their roots”, which they did with a tasty duet version of Charlie Parker's “Confirmation.”

Other than a slight echo effect, Ponty relied on his phenomenal lyricism to bewitch us with the meditative “Memory Canyon” and the driving closer “Renaissance.” Clarke looked like he was having the time of his life, grinning like a Lotto winner as he laid sterling foundations for his partners while contributing his own tremendous solos. (“All the pain in my hands is for you,” he informed the audience at the end of a blinding spotlight session where he pounded his double bass like a giant wooden conga.) Clarke also took charge of the audience's impromptu version of “Happy Birthday”, which was prompted by Clarke announcing that it was Ponty's birthday that evening.

Di Meola - who did his playing from a chair - has a wonderful Flamenco sound to his acoustic guitar, which dovetailed beautifully with Ponty's Gypsy aesthetic; Di Meola's comping and fills were almost as good as his lightning-fast slos. As with Larry Coryell, I've always preferred Di Meola's acoustic work, so seeing him in this format was a joy. That said, I wasn't the only one who thought his spotlight section went one piece too long. Not that Di Meola wasn't brilliant (He was), but the trio's performance was too great to be interrupted for any length of time.

Not even the obnoxious flashgun blasts during the encore would ruin this amazing performance - though it did cause several people to break out their digital cameras, despite Egg management's embargo on flash photography, and turn the place into one big strobe light. The onslaught came darn close to inciting several audience members (myself included) to violence. That would have been a bad ending to a great evening, especially when you consider the rarity of the experience. After all, how many years might there be before Rite of Strings' third tour?

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.