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It’s one week after the remnants of Hurricane Ida left much of New York City severely flooded. Mike Clark is on the phone discussing the harrowing ride home he had on the night of the storm with fellow drumming pioneer Lenny White after White’s gig at Birdland. The danger now in the rear view, Clark brings a sense of clarity to the larger significance of what the catastrophe portends.
“It’s a new time in the world,” he says. “Who knows what’s going on? I certainly don’t. A lot of changes, so I’m just trying to roll with it — as we all are.”
Clark has spent his career not just rolling with the changes, but sometimes spearheading them. He was the drummer on Herbie Hancock’s 1974 fusion classic Thrust, and his performance on the tune “Actual Proof” cemented his reputation as the master of funk drumming. If that weren’t enough, Clark’s beat on the Headhunters’ 1975 track “God Make Me Funky” has been sampled more than 300 times, according to WhoSampled.com, including by prominent rap artists such as N.W.A., De La Soul and DMX. Funk-jazz fusion made his reputation, but that’s only part of Clark’s legacy.
When you think of the leading contemporary drummers — Eric Harland, Tyshawn Sorey, Marcus Gilmore, Allison Miller and Mark Guiliana, among others — you think of musicians who bring a wide musical palette to their work, including hip-hop, R&B, alternative rock and contemporary classical. In his unassuming way, Clark helped set the template for today’s drummers.
“He’s an innovator,” says bassist Leon Lee Dorsey. “He’s the bridge after Tony [Williams]. In terms of this modern generation of drummers post-1970 being influenced by Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette and Elvin Jones, Mike represents another evolution of that. He’s bringing all this history — funk, R&B, blues, jazz — and even when it’s straightahead, it’s got a certain kind of energy about it. He’s just so selfless about the music, and that’s one reason he sounds great. That’s 1,000 percent him, just his love of the music.”
Clark’s love of the music pours out of him in conversation. He gushes about the musicians he’s collaborated with over the years, whether it’s the elegance of pianist Kenny Barron or the mind-expanding experience of playing with trumpeter Eddie Henderson. Even on the phone with a stranger, Clark is warm, relaxed and quick to laugh, happy to discuss his life in music. For saxophonist Michael Zilber, that down-to-earth quality extends to Clark’s performances. “One of the things about Mike is that he has a wide-ranging set of interests, so we have great conversations together about all kinds of things, from food to politics to movies,” Zilber says. “He’s a well-rounded human being, and I think that comes through [in the music], because you play who you are. I really believe that if you hear somebody play on stage and then you get to know them, you’d go, ‘Oh, that totally makes sense they would play the way they did.’ Because I think people, if they’re honest, they play who they are, and Mike plays who he is.”
After the lost year of 2020, which Clark largely spent leading remote drum clinics over video conferencing, he’s been able to play a few live dates this year with the likes of Donald Harrison, Fred Wesley and Jamie Saft, as well as his own ensembles. He’s also featured on three stellar studio releases. Mike Drop (Sunnyside), which he co-led with Zilber, came out in July. Two records with Dorsey — Thank You Mr. Mabern and Freedom Jazz Dace — were released in January and August, respectively, on the Jazz Avenue 1 label. He also recently recorded a series of solo drumbeats for Yurt Rock, a company that provides loops and samples for musicians. “It’s a different time right now, so we’re all adjusting,” he says.
Recording a series of beats is somewhat ironic given that Clark’s reputation as the “Tony Williams of funk drumming” has been both a blessing and a curse. “When I played with Herbie, it was only for about four years,” he says. “When you work for a guy, you gotta play what he’s playing. He wasn’t playing jazz at the time, so I didn’t think anybody was going to think I wanted to do that for my entire life. [Laughs] At that age and at that time in the world, I had to play every gig that I was called for in order to make a living, and I certainly wasn’t going to turn that one down.”
Still, Clark had his concerns at the time. The pay was low — he was making more money playing gigs in New York — and he was concerned that it could damage his standing in the jazz world. Hancock told him that could very well be the case, but he also pointed out that everyone in the world would know Clark’s name if he joined the group. Both turned out to be true. Thrust reached No. 13 on the Billboard 200 and No. 2 on the Billboard Soul Albums chart. Clark’s beats and solo on “Actual Proof” have had a particularly long shelf life. That’s largely where his reputation lies. Never mind that he’s collaborated frequently with the likes of Henderson and pianist Michael Wolff or led his own ensembles with jazz stalwarts such as Christian McBride, Donald Harrison and Chris Potter.
“What happens is that people get pigeonholed sometimes, and in the minds of the casual listener they’re not allowed to move on to what they were,” Zilber says. “But Mike always had a deep history of playing jazz and blues, and that’s where he came from.”
Zilber adds that “Actual Proof” provides a case in point. “If you listen, he’s playing this really interesting hybrid of jazz and funk on it. It’s like listening to DeJohnette when he was playing on things like Moon Germs [Joe Farrell’s 1973 album]. For a while people said DeJohnette was a fusion drummer, but DeJohnette was never a fusion drummer. He was a jazz drummer who found himself in some fusion situations, and that’s how I see Mike. He was always a jazz drummer, it’s just that there are a lot of people who love that music who aren’t aware of the deep history of jazz drumming that percolates through what Mike does.”
For Dorsey, it’s also a matter of historic timing. “Not only was he magnificent with Herbie, it happened at a time when there was Weather Report, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra — it was part of another phase of the music. When it happened had just as much to do with who made it happen. This is all Miles’ children post Bitches Brew, and you’ve got Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, [Hancock’s albums] Mwandishi and Head Hunters. I just think that period is connected and linked to Miles for the most part.”
Clark’s passion has always been with straightahead, hard-swinging jazz. But after his time with Hancock, he had to start over in the jazz world. He moved back to San Francisco (Clark got his start playing in Oakland) and played gigs with Henderson five nights a week for nearly a year at a club called Crystals.
“I’m cool now, but when I moved to New York, I had to get in line after a lifetime of playing jazz, as if I had never played jazz before,” he says. “Most of the jazz records I’m on sell a couple of thousand; that one with Herbie, everybody in the world heard it. That’s just the nature of what it is. It’s not a complaint, but I have to know what I’m dealing with. Although at the same time that I’m saying this, I’m having a great career and a great life. I’m OK. This is fine. Thank goodness I’m playing the music that I’m playing now.”
As befitting someone who embraces change, Clark is especially proud of his most recent work. On Mike Drop, he and Zilber collaborated without any plans or preconceived notions — a true shared vision for spontaneous collaboration that allowed Clark to express his musical personality in full.
“I love this record because it’s the first record I’ve made where, honestly, I can say this is really my point of view on jazz music,” Clark says. “We didn’t do any edits, no ProTools, nothing — just bam! We did everything, I think, in six hours. I remember we went in, and when we got out, it was still light out. New York-style. [Laughs] You know, just go in, throw down and leave.”
“We both think that the most fun thing to do is to just to swing hard and pay attention to the time and the changes, but be in the moment and have a conversation,” Zilber says. “That’s what I love about Mike. As great a technical drummer as he is, for him it’s all about swinging and playing in the moment and responding.”
Dorsey’s Thank You Mr. Mabern, which features the late pianist Harold Mabern in what is believed to be his final studio date, took a similar approach. “He puts his heart and soul into the project,” Dorsey says. “He’s not just like, ‘I’m Mike Clark and you’re lucky to have me.’ He’s in there like this is his first recording date. He offers information, he listens, he makes suggestions, he takes suggestions. It’s the best of all worlds.”
That’s because for Clark, music is a never-ending search. Technique is important, of course, but the key for Clark is what he calls an ability to “swing nasty.”
“For me, it would be digging into that cymbal, or for the bass player to really pull the strings hard enough without being gruesome about it, to really get a good solid dance beat out of that quarter note,” he explains. “And no matter how far out you go, that’s underneath the whole thing all the time. If you listen to Sam Woodyard with Duke Ellington, it’s always swinging, man, and the swing felt funky to me. It made me want to dance. You can play a whole bunch of modern stuff on top of a groove like that and it’s fine with me. But to me that quarter note’s gotta always be there. That’s the bread and butter of the whole thing.”
“Swinging nasty” is the way Clark’s ride cymbal accentuates Dorsey’s bass attack on “Freedom Jazz Dance,” or how it bathes his own snap-crackle snare figures on Zilber’s “Sonny Monk (If I Were A).” And he still has a soft spot for “Actual Proof.”
“I’m extremely proud of that because that was another time I made a statement that I believed in,” he says. “Most of what I played on Thrust, they wanted me to keep it in the pocket, play time, don’t play so many ideas. And then [Hancock] came up with ‘Actual Proof’ and said, ‘Here’s something you can improvise on, something you’ll get to sink your teeth into.’ Whether I want it to be that way or not, it turns out to have been my calling card. And thank goodness it was that one and not some of the others from that album.”
Clark turned 75 in early October. Describing himself as naturally restless, the drummer believes he’s “at the end of a sweet spot” creatively speaking. He’s been experimenting with more free improvisation in the studio, trying to figure out where that might lead in terms of a future project.
Clark says he’s always been one to both reflect and look ahead. And as a Buddhist who chants a Nichiren mantra daily, he also knows the value of letting go of attachments and desires. It’s a principle that has helped Clark creatively, as it helps him live in the moment of a performance and adapt to sudden changes — skills necessary for any accomplished jazz musician. But it also explains why Clark has not allowed himself to be defined by one aspect of his career from nearly 50 years ago.
“I self-reflect about the good, bad and the ugly in my life,” he says. “You do these great records, say ‘Thank you so much’ to the universe, now let’s move on. Because that’s the nature of things, and that’s how it’s going to go anyway, with or without me. The natural order of existence is we’re moving forward, whether we love the direction or not.” - John Frederick Moore