Mike Clark: Forever Cool
It’s late in the evening when I give Mike Clark a ring. I’m expecting him to be holed up inside like I am, protected from the bitter cold that has descended upon New York City, where both of us call home. The 68-year-old jazz drummer lives just eight miles from me as the crow flies. On a night like this where the 15-degree chill has cleared the city’s otherwise teeming streets it feels like 800.
When he picks up, I’m expecting to exchange the usual pleasantries Can you believe the weather? You catch the news about the mayor the other day? How pathetic are the Knicks? but the longtime New Yorker stops me before I even begin. “I’m in Miami right now and I’m getting ready to leave on a ship for Jam Cruise 2015,” he says. “There’ll be a lot of guys out there. Lonnie Smith. Grant Green, Jr., George Porter, Jr. A whole bunch of guys. [John] Scofield will be out there.” Jeez, Mike, just rub it in. I’m sitting here enduring Polar Vortex 2: The Jet Stream Strikes Back and you’re folding short-sleeve shirts in 80-degree weather and hold- ing a round-trip ticket to Costa Maya, Mexico.
The truth is that Mike Clark deserves a little time in the sun. The guy is hot off recording Wolff & Clark Expedition 2, an eclectic group of jazz tunes created in collaboration with Michael Wolff, the veteran pianist. Since finishing the album, Clark has kept a steady stream of dates to stay sharp on the bandstand: with the Gil Ev- ans Orchestra at The Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village; with guitarist Jack Wilkins and bassist Ben Wolfe two blocks away at the Bar Next Door; with Wilkins and bassist Andy McKee at The Kitano on Park Avenue.
He’ll need to get his reps in now. At Jam Cruise, the audience is a bit bigger and a bit ... well, looser. “It’s a thing,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s been going on for awhile. This is a different kind of scene it isn’t exactly a jazz scene, it’s a jam-band scene. Medeski Martin & Wood, Snarky Puppy, that kind of thing. It’s more of a funk scene with a jazz underlay and an avant garde aspect to it.”
During the six-day cruise, Clark will serve as a “float- ing drummer” and sit in with different bands each night. It’s certainly not his usual crowd, but he doesn’t mind. “You know it’s funny as adventurous as this scene is for young people, when I started playing jazz I became less popular,” he says with a hearty laugh. “It’s weird.”
But Clark is definitely in his element. He’s got a mandate to play drums for the better part of a week without the pressure of a studio schedule or the scrutiny of an audience full of jazzheads. And if it all goes bad? Well, there’s always the crystal blue waters of the Gulf Of Mexico. It’s the kind of proposition that prompts one of his signature toothy grins.
“I’m just glad to be on the scene. I’m glad I’m in Florida. This is a nice break. I’ve been pretty busy lately. The record is coming out next month and I’m getting ready for that. The great drummer Lenny White and I have two gigs com- ing up and I have quite a few gigs on my own. This? This is fun. I come out here, get on the boat, and I go in and hang out. I only work a couple hours.” Again, Mike, just rub it in.
In With The New
If you don’t know Mike Clark and you’re a drummer, you ought to. The guy’s incisive, careful patter is on the re- cordings of some of the most acclaimed artists in the last 50 years. That chik-chikka-pa shuffle in Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof”? That’s Mike. The battery of rolls that kick off The Headhunters’ “Loft Funk”? That’s Mike, too. The confident mmm-tsss, mmm-tsss hi-hat swing on Eddie Henderson’s “Acuphuncture”? All Mike. Clark has shared the stage with Tony Bennett and Wayne Shorter, Bobby McFerrin and Chet Baker. He says people tell him he’s the most sampled drummer in hip-hop thanks to his oh-so- funky output in the ’70s and ’80s. More importantly, he’s one of the most talented jazz drummers around, and he’s spent the last couple of decades quietly trying to distance himself from his funk reputation to show people what he’s always been made of.
His latest evidence is Wolff & Clark Expedition 2. The new album, chockablock with full-frontal jazz tunes, is in- tended to be a statement — that two great musicians can work together to create something beautiful, that two old friends can find new ground to tread, and that Mike Clark isn’t really the funkateer everyone believes him to be.
“I’ve been playing in this direction that’s on this record for a long time. But most people know me still from Thrust, even though it was a long time ago. From Herbie Hancock. But that was just one day in a studio. Herbie wanted a certain thing, so I delivered it. Many people approach me like I’m a guy that would be totally comfort- able in a James Brown band or something like this. I’m really not that guy. I don’t mind doing it, especially if the money’s good. But I’m a jazz musician, I like to swing. That’s the language and volumes I’m most comfortable at. And I have a point of view in that music that I wanted to get across. We finally captured it together on wax — well, I guess not wax. On CD.”
He laughs. “This represents where I’m coming from.” And where he’s coming from is swingin’. On Expedition 2, Clark is equal parts lion and lamb, cataclysmic and compliant. The high-energy opening track, “Clark Bar,” serves as a sort of backdrop to city life where a million dif- ferent stories are playing out at once. Clark’s insistent ride pings start at a hurried pace and don’t quit, punctuated by snare snaps and hi-hat crashes as Christian McBride’s pizzicato bass notes run alongside. “Sunshine Of Your Love” is a cover of the famous 1967 Cream song, only here the iconic guitars recede and let rhythm take center stage; instead of Ginger Baker’s thudding toms, Clark’s kinetic snare work speeds up the song, bobbing and weaving through an arrangement that toys with the notion of the classic 4/4 time signature. (There’s also a gentle, melancholic cover of Prince’s “1999” deeper in the album.)
On the brooding “Israel,” Clark dials back to a whisper and plays with his bare hands. “Papa Jo Jones used to do that on the snare, with the snares off,” he says with pride. “We wanted to have a dark, brooding undercurrent, a down type of deal.” On “Madiba,” he steps into Bitches Brew territory, allowing himself moments of complete, ecstatic release before returning to steadier rhythmic ground. “I find that type of rhythm really enticing,” he says. “I don’t know what to call that, it’s very exciting.”
And, of course, there are inspiring takes on classic jazz songs: Clark nearly struts on Thelonius Monk’s “Monk’s Dream” and reinterprets the traditional jazz ride cymbal pattern over and over on Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tu- nisia.” The album resists ending quietly with “In Walked Bud,” where you’ll find a blistering Clark solo a cappella sandwiched in the middle. “The arrangement is in seven and the bridge is in ten, and it’s 4/4 on the blind,” Clark says. “We tried to have some obstacles and hoops to jump through to keep the fire hot.” The whole set ends with a crack of the snare.
“We made the arrangements open enough so we could express ourselves. So we had a musical dialogue. There’s an intellectual spirit going on. The arrangements are sharp. The rhythm isn’t particularly standard at all we tried to interject some rhythm that would sound exciting and interesting to the listener, something between eighth-note and swing. And on the tunes where we’re swinging, we wanted to swing hard and have lots of dialogue and interplay and things that are fun and make people feel good. Mainly we wanted to create value for ourselves and others with the style we’ve arrived at. Michael and I have been playing at this level and with this style for some time, but I think that this is the first record that captured it.”
Clark and Wolff first met in 1969, when the pianist was just 17 years old. Wolff was playing regularly at San Francisco’s Both/And Club in the Lower Haight district. One night, Clark sat in. Both walked away impressed by the other’s playing. At the end of the 1970s, after Clark rose to fame with The Headhunters, they reacquainted in New York and formed a trio with bassist Jon Burr. The pair lost touch again sometime in the 1990s — Wolff re- located to Los Angeles to serve as musical director of the Arsenio Hall Show between 1989 and ’94 but eventually reconnected, hired each other for occasional gigs, and found themselves working together so much that they decided to form their own group. They called it The Wolff & Clark Expedition, playing off the famous exploration of the American West by Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s. The first record “made some noise,” Clark says, and gave them the confidence to do another.
“We put a lot of rehearsal into it. It’s both our vision. We really worked hard on it. We used Christian McBride on bass. Also Daryl Johns on bass. Hailey Niswanger played saxophone. [Trumpeter] Wallace Roney showed up on a few tracks. We tried to make the music on this one the statement that we both want people to know. We made the arrangements open enough that we could both express ourselves so we could have this musical dialogue and keep it interesting."
“I think the record sounds great. I like it a lot, and I don’t like everything just because I’m on it.”
We Feel You
Clark calls himself a “band musician,” that is, he drums for the band, rather than drumming for the drums. In another life he’d play trumpet or piano or anything that would put him back on the bandstand and allow him to swing. Jazz the freedom, the energy, that swing was always his true love. He spent his formative years trying to chase it across the United States in Dallas, Texas; in Roanoke, Virginia; in Pittsburgh and McKeesport, Pennsylvania; in Atlanta and New Orleans as his father looked for work.
“He would take me out and I’d go sit in and play with people and I’d learn the language of the area. I wouldn’t learn it perfectly, but I’d get a taste. All of that regional stuff is part of me. I settled in Forth Worth, Texas for a while and copped a bunch of blues gigs. By then I was 19 and I ended up doing a lot of soul music and backing up soul stars and playing a lot of roadhouse blues Albert King, Albert Collins, Jimmy Reed, all of those guys.”
The Mike Clark sound was really formed through his father’s listening habits. A serious fan of jazz, the elder Clark had assembled an impressive collection of records enough to get young Michael interested in Charlie Parker at eight years old. Clark remembers listening to Gene Krupa at a very young age when his dad brought home an Art Blakey record and blew his mind.
“I first walked over to the drum set when I was four years old. I guess I knew how to play instinctively because he had been playing those jazz records the whole time, since before I could walk. My brain probably absorbed a huge amount of information and I didn’t even know it. I went over to play the drums and I could affect a Gene Krupa tom-tom solo, and it made sense, and it didn’t sound like a little kid banging on things.”
The elder Clark was so excited by his young son’s progress that he took him to a nightclub that very night and had him sit in with his friends and play. It became a way for father and son to bond as they traveled across the U.S. “My father would take me into nightclubs and buy the drummer a drink or pay the bandleader five bucks it was good money; this was the Fifties. I kept doing that, and by the time I was in junior high school I was a working drummer. Nobody played rock and roll then, you played swing for the dancers.”
In all of his years behind the kit, the Sacramento native never really embodied the sound of the drummers that came from the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere in California. When East Coast hard bop players came through town, he gravitated to their music and the scene around it. When Clark first visited to New York home of hard bop in the early ’70s, he thought: "This is where I belong. This is the language that I speak. He switched coasts and never looked back.
“The minute I moved to New York, I thought, ‘Hey, they get me.’ I’m really a bebop-er and a post-bop drum- mer. I’m not a funkateer. I don’t mind playing funky stuff. I like it once in awhile. I liked it when I was young. But sometimes it’s loud and there’s no real interaction. You just play time. For all of the jazz that I’ve played in my life and all of the great cats I’ve played with where there’s a ton of interaction and intellectual conversations going on, the challenge [with funk drumming] is not to play — it’s to sit back there in the pocket and not do anything. I’m not used to doing that anymore.”
Clark pauses for a moment in search of the right words. “I’m an expansive type of drummer. That doesn’t mean I’m the best or the deepest or the fastest or the loudest or the swingingest or any of that. But I’m a jazz musician. I’m used to improvising. I’m used to improvising with musicians that are at a level of improvising where you can have an open dialogue like Elvin [Jones] did with ’Trane or Tony [Williams] did with Miles Davis. It’s very open and loose but yet in the pocket. A lot of so-called funk groups now are just instrumentalists the drummers play as if they’re backing up a singer. You don’t do anything; you just play time. That’s something that’s become a style. You used to do that when I was young when there was a singer around like Sam & Dave [of “Soul Man” fame] soul singers. It’s challenging to not interact.” He pauses again. “You feel me on this? I’d rather play acoustic jazz music.”
Speaking The Language
It is tremendously irritating for Mike Clark to go to see a band play jazz or otherwise and hear that its members aren’t talking to one another on stage musically. The language of music, the conversation, the give and take, is something that Clark continually comes back to during our lengthy conversation. It’s top of mind as he prepares to ship out for this year’s Jam Cruise.
“There’s nothing more boring [than] to go hear a band where the drummer is playing single stroke rolls through the whole set. I’m into the language of jazz music, big band, swing, bebop, post-bop, Elvin, avant-garde. It’s spontaneous, but it’s a language we all know. Something that’s fun to listen to, but from the tradition.”
If you’re lucky enough to catch Clark at one of his gigs, you can see what he’s talking about but you’ll have to look closely. When Clark plays, he’s not looking all over the stage at the musicians he’s playing with. He usually has his head rotated to the left, toward his hi-hat, locked in place. Sometimes he’ll let it bob side to side a little, when he’s really feeling the groove. When he’s re- ally going at it, he’ll allow his shoulders to slump forward and his jaw to slacken, his nose scrunching up as he gets under a rhythm that’s taking off like a rocket. But most of the time he’s uncommonly focused.
There’s a reason: He’s listening. He’s deeply engaged in conversation, but it’s all happening aurally. You could close your eyes and not lose much of the experience that Clark and company are creating in front of you. It’s how the drummer likes to do things. It’s exactly how he approached Wolff & Clark Expedition 2. It’s how he’s going to approach Jam Cruise 2015. And it’s exactly how he’s going to approach his busy schedule when he returns to New York. Clark already has gigs lined up with guitarist Tom Guarna and organist Brian Charette in the Hud- son Valley; vocalist Giacomo Gates in North Jersey; and Lenny White, David Gilmore, Helen Sung, and Jaleel Shaw at the Iridium on 51st and Broadway not to mention a recording session in Paramus with Wilkins and pianist Mike LeDonne for vocalist Tony Adamo squeezed in between.
For now, though, Clark is merely intent on enjoying his six days in the sun. And if he’s feeling good — really good — maybe he’ll allow himself to trot out a little funk.
Early Monday morning, 24 hours after he disembarked from Jam Cruise 2015, a message suddenly popped up on Mike Clark’s Facebook page: “I have an Important Proclamation To Make This Morning.... There Ain’t Nothin Better Than Playing Get Outta My Life Woman with George Porter Jr.!..... DAMN THAT’S FUNKY!!!!”