Headhunting jazz drum master Mike Clark
BY AL CARLOS HERNANDEZ ON FEBRUARY 20, 2013
HOLLYWOOD (Herald de Paris) – When two of the best musicians on the planet decide to combine their estimable talents to create a band without boundaries, the result is the Wolff & Clark Expedition. Dizzy Gillespie famously said that jazz must have, “One foot in the past and one in the future.” With the Wolff & Clark Expedition, the music embraces the past, ventures into the future, but remains rooted in the improvisational present.
Drummer Mike Clark is a true percussion legend – Clark gained worldwide recognition as one of America’s foremost jazz and funk players while touring and recording with Herbie Hancock’s group in the early 1970’s. Mike became known as a major innovator through his incisive playing on Hancock’s ‘Thrust’ album which garnered him an international cult following. While often referred to as the “Tony Williams of funk,” Mike, a JAZZ musician, has, in fact, become one of the most vital to ever sit behind a set.
He has performed with jazz greats Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Bennett, Bobby Hutcherson, Christian McBride, Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Wallace Roney, Donald Harrison, Nicholas Payton, Fred Wesley, Vince Guaraldi, Chet Baker, Larry Coryell, Eddie Henderson, Geri Allen, Billy Childs, Chris Potter, Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau, Dave Liebman, Oscar Brown Jr., Lenny White (Mike has a two-drummer band with Lenny called “New Brew”), Mose Allison, Gil Evans and his Orchestra and many more luminaries.
Mike is currently finishing his forthcoming solo CD ‘Indigo Blue’, which features Randy Brecker, Christian McBride, Donald Harrison, Rob Dixon and Antonio Farao. Clark said, “We have years of combined experience playing with many masterful jazz artists so we share an innate understanding as to how to play at a consistently very high level with a feel for improvised music. We both spent time in the Bay Area and since we’ve been friends and band mates for many years, The Expedition is a natural result of our shared, cumulative experiences.”
Herald de Paris Deputy Managing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez spoke with Mike one day before he spoke with band mate Michael Wolff in a Herald De Paris world exclusive interview.
AC: Growing up, tell us about how your dad influenced you. I’m told you would sit in at some of his gigs at seven and eight years old.
MC: Yes there was always a set of drums at home and he played jazz records all the time. When I made my way to the drums I could play right away – it made sense and had a beat. He was really excited about this and he took me to a nightclub that night and I played with some of his friends. He booked me as a child drum prodigy on many gigs from then until I was about fourteen. I played with some famous people while I was very young.
AC: How did the music of New Orleans and Texas in the early days inform your musical palate today?
MC: Well I think I assimilated the regional sounds, dialect, style and feel of those places as I was young and didn’t think about it. In Texas I really learned the blues and the Texas shuffle. The cats in New Orleans were real funky and could play as well. I also moved to the East Coast which is where my style fits the best as far as jazz goes.
AC: What kind of music did you listen to? Who impressed you the most? Any musical mentors?
MC: Jazz music. Coltrane, Miles, Blakey, Philly Joe, Roy Haynes, Monk, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Basie, Duke Ellington, Clifford Brown, Ray Charles, James Brown and all blues and R & B artists. Most all jazz artists impressed me deeply from the time I was a child until now. I can’t name them all or we would be here forever. There aren’t many that I don’t like no matter what the style.
AC: When was the moment when you realized you were going to be a professional musician? What was the dream at that point?
MC: At four years old: the first time I played the drums and that night playing with the band. I knew this is what I am going to do.
AC: Tell us about your teenage years. What attracted you to R&B, and jazz?
MC: Well, as I said, I was already deep into the music way before being a teenager but I guess the exhilaration of swing, the blues and the feeling was the attraction.
AC: Why didn’t you pursue pop and rock which are much more profitable?
MC: This type of music never hit me where I live. I never listen to it. I don’t hate it; I just have no connection to it.
AC: Tell us about meeting up with Herbie Hancock and life in the 70’s as a headhunter. What was the good and bad of all that?
MC: I met him through Paul Jackson – I auditioned and he hired me. He was a genius as a person and an artist so I tried to understand how he thought and what he held in high esteem. He also told me a lot about the band with Miles and Tony and I wanted to know everything about that. Playing with him was fantastic and it was at a very high level so I could play easily in that setting. This also made me a very well known drummer. Herbie also encouraged me to chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo and practice Nichiren Buddhism. I am still practicing today.
The unattractive part for me was that the music was limited and I became known for playing funk which is not my passion. It is something I like to do now and then, but jazz music is what speaks to my inner world and what I have the most experience playing. It was also very loud and hard to find space for self expression. Most of the musicians involved were always talking about making a lot of money and being commercial. Exploring new vistas musically, which is where I was coming from, was not part of what seemed to be important or even talked about during my time in that setting. When I did bring it up it brought out a bad vibe.
AC: Did being a headhunter open the doors to work with Brand X and Phil Collins? Isn’t he quite a drummer himself? What was the objective of that project?
MC: Yes it did. I really enjoyed playing with Brand X as it was a totally creative experience and they let me play anyway I saw fit. I had never played rock or rock influenced music before so it was all new and exciting for me. I really had a great time with them. They were innovative cats trying to break new ground. Yeah, Phil Collins could play his ass off – a natural.
AC: Why did you leave the West Coast and go to New York? What did you find there?
MC: The jazz music on the West Coast, at least in the Bay Area where I am from, was very polite and almost like hotel type playing or playing for a wedding. People seemed upset if it really swung hard with no blues influence. After all I had experienced there was no way I could return to this type of understanding so I came to New York. There I found everything I was looking for in jazz music and more. All of the masters where alive and lived here at that time and I heard them every night. The music was raw and on fire. This is what I love.
AC: Tell us about your foray into the young jam scene. How would you characterize what they were doing and what was your level of participation? Les Claypool?
MC: I had a manager and he wanted me to try to mix my style with what was going on with those cats so I did. Some of it was pretty good but a lot of it was at a high school or junior college level and sort of like fake funk. Many were trying to do what I had done much earlier with Herbie but it wasn’t really funky with zero harmony. Many young artists are still very popular on that scene and still are playing at the same level as there is no room for growth, even though it is dressed up like a forward-thinking scene. It was moving backwards for me. I knew cats like that in high school. I didn’t really dig it but I did meet some great cats and still play with them at times. Les was a raw and soulful artist that was totally natural and had a hell of a groove.
AC: Some of your beats are the most sampled by hip hop artists. How do you feel about that? Should they pay royalties?
MC: Well, how I feel about that is: if you don’t know how to play, if you use people’s beats or music that they have spent a lifetime learning how to play and you don’t know how to play, then it is a crime not to pay them. It is ripping them off. It is doing the same thing many rap artists are complaining about – being ripped off by the man. So don’t rip musicians off. I am flattered that some of those artists liked my playing but I would rather them not like me and pay me. I would like to be paid just as they like to be paid. You don’t see me wearing a Rolex (not that I would want to) and I am on a ton of those CD’s.
AC: Tell us about being a faculty member of Drummers Collective. What is that all about?
MC: I haven’t taught there in many years but it was great. It is a great school with great teachers and a great staff. I always look forward to stopping by there or doing a clinic or whatever. A musician can learn a great deal about playing from that school. Top shelf place to learn. I recommend this to any young musician trying to learn his craft.
AC: Talk about Blue Prints of Jazz – one of the most critically acclaimed recording of the decade according to Downbeat magazine.
MC: I was offered a chance to make a CD playing whatever music I wanted to play. I called Christian McBride, Patrice Rushen, Christian Scott, Jed Levy, and my dear friend Donald Harrison. These are some bad folks who can swing real hard and they certainly did on this record. We had a blast making it and it reflected where I was at with hard bop with a twist on it at that time. Great people who were involved and a great experience.
AC: What about Carnival of Soul with Delbert McClinton. How was it to work with a country blues singer?
MC: Delbert is great. He can sing anything. I worked with him in the sixties briefly and I love playing with him. He is totally instinctive, natural and can sing the blues with the best of them. He is a real talent and has lived it. Much respect! Also check out Rob Dixon on sax, Delbert Bump on organ and Steve Homan on guitar – all top notch artists. These cats are waaay into feeling it. Check it out.
AC: Tell us about your friend Michael Wolff. What made you decide to put a project together with him?
MC: Michael and I have played together since the seventies. We seem to share a musical understanding that does not have to be talked about. We had done so much playing and enjoyed it so much that we finally said, since we are working together all the time and see a similar vision, why not put a group together? And we did! He is brilliant and I never know what he is going to play even though I have played with him for so many years. Totally creative and refreshing. We have skeleton arrangements and we fill them out differently every night. Very open!
AC: The American press says, “When two of the best musicians on the planet decide to combine their talents, they create a band without boundaries.” What does that mean?
MC: It means that we don’t adhere to the norm but the tradition is with us big time. In other words, we stretch out or not; whatever or whenever the feeling hits us. It is always improvised although we know the tunes forms.
AC: How do you combine the roots of jazz and blues together? How much does improvisation have to do with the final product?
MC: Let me just say that for me if you can’t play the blues you can’t play jazz. Improvisation has everything to do with everything about Wolff and Clark.
AC: How do you deconstruct a tune in order to construct a new one?
MC: I would say this is different according to the tune and the moment. We start to experiment harmonically and rhythmically and push the boundaries without falling off the cliff and still having it swing. Like playing without a net.
AC: What can people expect from the Wolff and Clark CD? Who are some of the artists featured?
MC: On this CD it is a trio: Michael, Chip Jackson on bass and myself. I would say you will hear some very nice surprises and we are beholding to no one except ourselves. We try to marry what went before us into the future and never lose sight of the blues. We bend it many different ways and never sacrifice the groove.
AC: Plans on touring?
MC: Yes we are touring the US this March and April and are looking at festivals around the world.
AC: What are some of the musical things in life you would still like to accomplish?
MC: Having Wolff and Clark and my own visions on the main stages at jazz festivals and clubs worldwide. This is now more about business than anything else. We are always looking for people who love our music to help us and many have joined the effort. As far as music, I practice every day and want to deepen my playing on every level; to present music that I believe in so people can hear an interesting musical conversation, find music that is uplifting, non-patronizing and to enjoy!
AC: What advice would you give a young jazz player who wants to follow in your footsteps?
MC: That practice and learning never stop no matter what shape your career is in; good, bad or in the middle. To study everything you can, listen to everything you can and play as much as you can in a band setting. Playing with others, learning how to listen, comp and interact is the most important tool to master at the end of the day. Playing with live artists is crucial.
AC: Someday, when it’s all over and done, what would you like your musical legacy to be?
MC: That I could swing hard, had my own style, broke new ground and made the listener feel good.
Check him out at: http://www.mikeclarkmusic.com
Edited by Susan Acieves