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By Bill Meredith
Drummer Mike Clark first gained international prominence by doing the unthinkable — replacing Harvey Mason on a 1974 Herbie Hancock album, Thrust, which proved equal to the keyboardist’s groundbreaking 1973 electric funk-fusion predecessor Head Hunters. The association has allowed Clark to co-lead offshoot band The Headhunters with that ensemble’s percussionist, Bill Summers, ever since, including on last year’s Speakers in the House album. Here, Clark salutes the iconic Hancock in an acoustic trio setting with pianist Jon Davis and upright bassist Leon Lee Dorsey.
Hancock, of course, gained fame as a traditional pianist long before plugging in, an influence Clark acknowledges in the liner notes. All of which places much of the disc’s heavy lifting upon Davis, who intermittently flashes brilliance. Three of this album’s eight tracks are from Hancock’s 1968 gem Speak Like a Child, including the opening “Toys,” featuring the pianist’s cascading solos and the inimitable, percolating breaks by Clark. That recording’s strutting title track likewise showcases Davis’ classical training — and Dorsey’s value during a middle solo — as Clark sets a restrained pace throughout. The swinging “Sorcerer” proves to be the best of those three tracks, as all three musicians alternately listen, make statements and react to one another.
Clark reaches back even further, unearthing a joyous reading of “Empty Pockets” from Hancock’s 1962 debut Takin’ Off, and guiding the ballad “Dolphin Dance” (from his former employer’s 1965 album Maiden Voyage) with his brushwork as both Davis and Dorsey shimmer. The pianist fares well on the lone cover tune, Buster Williams’ “Dual Force,” but occasionally echoes Liberace on the disc’s lone dud, the shuffling “Chan’s Song.” And Clark can’t resist closing with the Thrust anthem “Actual Proof,” the evened-out rhythm of which might surprise listeners nearly 50 years after Hancock first introduced it.