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Grammy winner Stanley Clarke taps eclectic musicians for his Roxboro push

Jazz legend's label keeps the jams going.

March 19, 2011|By Nate Jackson, Los Angeles Times
  • Jazz legend Stanley Clarke
Jazz legend Stanley Clarke (Katie Falkenberg / For The…)

Record labels may not require brick-and-mortar buildings anymore, but Grammy-winning bass legend Stanley Clarke knows that it still takes a strong foundation to build one. Maybe that's why the idea of naming one after his old high school sounded so appealing.

"It was all-stone, like you were walking into a government building," Clarke said. "Just a solid piece of granite."

While attending Roxborough High School in Philadelphia in the late '60s, Clarke, 59, spent hours toiling on the bass, practicing with school bands in between schoolwork and basketball practice.

In late 2010, he launched Roxboro Entertainment Group, hoping to lay a sturdy foundation in the record business. The fact that the tiny Topanga-based label is being bolstered by one of the biggest names in jazz certainly doesn't hurt.

Parlaying dual roles as bass player and business man, Clarke's newest venture is inspired by memories as a breakout artist in the early '70s, the lanky rhythmic anchor for jazz fusionists Return to Forever. As with Clarke's early career, his record label has been developing gradually.

"I'm well aware that the economy doesn't necessarily dictate to a guy like me to go start a record label," Clarke said. "Smaller companies have to be careful and have everything in place."

Roxboro's longevity banks on Clarke's artistic success. Funds from his tours and album sales help the independent label stay afloat, Clarke said.

After winning a Grammy this year for contemporary jazz album with "The Stanley Clarke Band," Clarke's business momentum is surging.

Blurring elements of jazz, world music, funk, and R&B, Roxboro's sound defies typical smooth jazz homogeny. Artists include guitarist Lloyd Gregory, composer Kennard Ramsey, pianist Ruslan Sirota and keyboardist Sunnie Paxson.

Its first two releases, Gregory's eponymous album and Ramsey's "Somos," debuted in November. Albums by Sirota and Paxson are slated for April 2011.

Ramsey, a composer for movies and television, including the 2000 film "Romeo Must Die" and the TV series "The X-Files," describes "Somos" as an updated take on the exotic, virtuosic sounds championed by Verve Records and Blue Note Records in the '70s.

Despite the opportunity to work with Clarke -- an accomplished composer himself -- Ramsey was at first reluctant to record an album for him.

"I remember thinking 'Stanley you have access to the best virtuoso musicians in the world, why are you bothering with me?'" Ramsey said.

But, Clarke was adamant about showcasing Ramsey's composing skills. His patient style of artist development is a valued asset.

"The things he's heard in his lifetime that he's able to bring to the party during your creative process are so valuable as an artist working for a label," Ramsey said.

Gregory, a renowned Bay-Area guitarist, combines mellow, expressive tones reminiscent of Wes Montgomery with shards of R&B. Gregory was excited to develop his sound alongside Clarke's tight-knit crew of musicians.

"We're all able to be in touch with each other, just a phone call away," Gregory said. "I know usually with labels that's not the case. Everybody seems to have each other's back."

Roxboro's roster blossomed through Clarke's previous musical partnerships. Paxson, his childhood friend from Philadelphia, toured with Clarke in the '80s. Sirota, 30, won a Grammy with Clarke as the pianist and arranger for "The Stanley Clarke Band."

"When you're starting something small, the initial crew have to be people that trust each other," Clarke said. "The good thing about these artists is that they really wanna go out and work."

This isn't Clarke's first label. In 1992, he created Slamm Dunk/Epic, an imprint of Epic Records. He released two of his own albums including "Live at the Greek: Stanley Clarke, Larry Carlton, Billy Cobham, Deron Johnson and Najee" and his score for 1992 film "Passenger 57." Defunct after only two years, Clarke admits the label was a "glorified production company" controlled by Epic.

"This time it's different," Clarke said. "We're doing everything ourselves."

That includes recording at Clarke's home and various LA studios. Roxboro's skeleton crew of assistants and marketing professionals run the daily operations.

"Even though we're small, I set it up so it's like a real record company," Clarke said.

Currently signed to independent, Ohio-based label Heads Up International, Clarke plans to release albums through Roxboro.

Meanwhile, he's supporting the label by staying on the road. Among his slew of current tour dates is an international summer stint with Return to Forever alongside Chick Corea, Al Di Meola, Lenny White and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.

Despite the strides he's made in his career, Clarke insists the label really isn't about him.

In tradition of old musicians helping promising up-and-comers, Clarke hopes Roxboro becomes as sturdy an institution as the high school it's named after.

"The thing that I love the most about Roxboro," he said, "is that it creates an energy in the business and hopefully it will fulfill some dreams for some people."

nate.jackson@latimes.com

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