Stanley Clarke's debut solo effort was issued when he was already a seasoned jazz veteran, and a member of Chick Corea's Return to Forever, which at the time of this recording also included Joe Farrell on soprano sax and flute, and the Brazilian team of vocalist Flora Purim and drummer/percussionist Airto Moreira. Produced by Corea, who plays Rhodes, clavinet, and acoustic piano on Children of Forever, the band included flutist Art Webb, then-new RtF drummer Lenny White, guitarist Pat Martino, and a vocal pairing between the inimitable Andy Bey and Dee Dee Bridgewater on three of the five cuts -- Bey appears on four. Clarke plays both electric and acoustic bass on the set; and while it would be easy to simply look at this recording as an early fusion date, that would be a tragic mistake. If anything, Children of Forever is a true cousin to Norman Connors' classic Dance of Magic and Dark of Light albums, which were also released in 1973; Clarke played bass on both. This is basically funky, spiritual jazz in the best sense. Yes, jazz. That wonderfully mercurial, indefinable force that brings into itself the whole of music, from popular to classical and folk forms, and makes something new out of them. The long title track with its killer vocal interplay between Bridgewater and Bey is seductive from the jump. Add Clarke's big fat bassline, which is mellow and meaty at the beginning, but after the long piano and guitar breaks in the middle becomes dirty, fuzzy, and spacy by the end as the cut leans into souled-out funk.
The "message" tunes that make up this music balance the dawning of the future as the logical place of Black consciousness -- where a new day was indeed emerging from the struggles of the '50s and '60s. Add to this the cosmic looking cover, and its weighed electric and acoustic underpinnings, and you have the makings of a timeless classic. Indeed, no matter how one feels about Clarke's later work, which aimed for the harder and funkier realms of disco and urban soul as well as keeping his jazz chops intact, this disc in every sense is forward-looking and memorable. Bridgewater's lead vocal interaction with Webb's flute on "Unexpected Days," with Bey helping on the bridge and refrain, is awe-inspiring. The ensemble is focused on "song." Corea's has rarely sounded so naturally funky as he does here and his production is free of the hard, sometimes brittle sound he would employ with the Al DiMeola-Lenny White version of RtF. The centerpiece of the disc is a vehicle for Clarke, called "Bass Folk Song." At nearly eight minutes, Clarke plays both upright and electric bass, sometimes employing a wah wah pedal on the former. It shows his virtuosity; he could literally make either instrument sing. Corea is fantastic in his supporting role, playing fills and vamps behind the bassist and Martino -- who also has never sounded so nasty as he does here on electric guitar and 12-string acoustic -- they're full of innovative rhythms and eclectic harmonics. And White is simply a powerhouse, breaking beats and taking Clarke for a real ride in almost unconscious rhythmic interplay.
The last half of the set is equally wonderful with the ballad "Butterfly Dreams" that launches into something wholly other by its midpoint, and never loses sight of its melody, lush harmonics, and very real sense of abstract swing. Clarke propels the ensemble from the bass chair, and allows everyone the room to blend into that big wood sound he gets on his upright. Bey's vocal performance on the cut is one of his best on record. The set closes with Corea's "Sea Journey," the longest track here, coming in at over 16 minutes. There is quite a bit of improvisation here as one might expect, with Corea playing intense Latin contrapuntal melodies on his Rhodes and clavinet -- even moving into descarga at one point -- and Bridgewater and Bey stretching their vocals to drape the music; their pairing is utterly elegant, soulful, and lovely. Clarke and White are a force maejure as a rhythm section, they push and entwine with one another in a dance of double, triple, and half-time beats and pulses, bringing a sense of not only movement but travel to the proceedings without ever leaving the groove. The beautiful front line of Corea and Webb in the head and during the middle section is subtle and haunting; it literally drifts, anchored only by the rhythm section that keeps them from lifting off into more modal explorations. Martino is free to fill, solo, vamp, and project. Clarke's bowed bass fiddle solo, which interplays with Bey's vocal, is brave and deeply moving; there isn't a trace of gimmickry in it (or anywhere else on this set, for that matter). Like the aforementioned Connors' recordings, Children of Forever has aged exceedingly well, and sounds as warm, inviting, and full of possibility in the early 21st century as it did in the early '70s. It's full of heart, soul, passion, and truly inspired musicianship. ~ Thom Jurek