It's unfortunate that it took the sad state of international political affairs of the early 21st century to lure Stanley Clarke back to the intense brand of jazz bass playing he pioneered with Return to Forever in the 1970s, but that's what The Toys of Men is all about. Clarke has spent much of the last couple of decades outside of the realm of jazz, scoring films and television programs, but he has said that his disdain for the very idea of war, and specifically the constant state of war in the Middle East, inspired him to put together a fired-up band and make an antiwar statement with this album. Whether he accomplishes that goal is debatable: only one track here, "The Opening of the Gates," contains a sung vocal, by Esperanza Spalding, and the only other voice heard on the recording is the spoken word of Clarke himself. But whether or not instruments can by themselves make the point that violence and destruction do not exactly offer much hope for the future, the music created here is easily Clarke's most dynamic and potent in a long, long time. The set opens with a six-part suite that also lends its name, "The Toys of Men," to the album itself. Those toys, Clarke has said, are weapons, and he disdains mankind's insistence on using them to kill one another. But the toys of choice for this ambitious, sweeping piece of music are musical instruments, and Clarke and his troops slash and burn in a way that often recalls the early fusion of Return to Forever. Working with a core band that includes drummer Ronald Brumer, Jr., guitarists Jef Lee Johnson and Tomer Shtein, keyboardist Ruslan Sirota, and violinist Mads Tolling, Clarke uses the opening collection of connected themes to take off from an earlier song called "Toys" that he recorded with drummer (and former RTF member) Lenny White in a project they called Vertú. The titles of the second and third sections, "Fear" and "Chaos," offer the most obvious clues as to what Clarke is trying to say, although, ironically, "Chaos" is one of the calmer and more luxuriant pieces on the record -- "Fear," meanwhile, lives up to its name, all blistering fusionoid jamming. Clarke takes plenty of opportunities throughout the record to exercise his trademark slapping bass chops, among them a minimal, bluesy solo on the two-minute "Hmm Hmm" and the rambling, adventurous, seven-plus-minute "El Bajo Negro." Other highlights include "Châteauvallon 1972," a steady-rolling slab o' funk dedicated to the late, great drummer Tony Williams, and "Jerusalem," an airy, swaying, acoustic-based epic whose peacefulness direct contrasts with the tension and restlessness that rock the region in which that historical city sits.
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AllMusic Review by Jeff Tamarkin