Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mike Clark: It's About the Jazz

Summertime isn't necessarily a heavy jazz-listening season for me, but I have had Mike Clark's 2008 effort stacked up in my potential blog posts for a while, so I thought we would switch gears for a minute here and talk a little jazz.

So first off, I am going to bet that the name Mike Clark is not all that familiar even to jazz listeners--at least it wasn't to me until this album. That is probably for two reasons. One, I am hopeless about attending to who plays on what album in supporting roles. Two, I am not a big fusion fan and so don't have a lot of Herbie Hancock coming through the Headhunter phase. And it is there that Mike Clark got his real recognition, playing with Hancock on several albums though the mid-70s.
But with this album, which is part of a series intended to focus on "some of jazz music's eminently worthy but less widely known innovators," Clark, according to the liner notes, is out to
defy the stereotype of my identity as a funk or fusion drummer. I have devoted my entire life to playing jazz--the music I love the most--both before and after my successful association with Herbie Hancock's Headhunters. While I made a name of myself during the early years with Hancock, specifically on the Thrust album, and I love that music, has has always been where my strongests talent lies and my devotion begins.
Many seem to believe he succeeded as this album was clearly well received, getting solid reviews including making Downbeat's Best of 2008 list.

This is definitely a strong album--with Christian McBride on bass, Patrice Rushen on piano, Christian Scott on trumpet, Donald Harrison on alto (who many think steals the show) and Jed Levy on tenor (see that is me attending to the cast of characters)--but you have definitely got to be into the bop and still a little bit into the funk for this one--don't be hanging around waiting for the slow-swinger here.
Now, I have to say that I am not a huge follower of bands led by drummers with the notable exception of Art Blakey. The reason is that I am not real keen on either drum solos (which in my estimation should be left to live performances as they are in part visual spectacle) or, quite frankly, the drums being way out in front musically. Don't get me wrong, I love a strong drummer in the rhythm section who drives the beat and a well-done drum fill is a thing of beauty, but I am too hooked on melody to have the drums leading the song. And in some cases, that is a problem on this album for me, but only a little.
The tunes have a certain quality that is reminiscent of some great 50's Blue Note bop with the theme laid down and the band, which is definitely tight, passing the improvs around but with the theme re-emerging throughout. From a musical performance standpoint, you can see why the album received high marks. Most of the songs are straight jazz and even when they do veer into a funky attitude, it fits. Clark's drumming is quick and light, although very omnipresent in these songs--space is not really the goal here.
Ultimately, you gotta like the bop and you gotta like the drums and a lot of sound to dig this album. Here are three tracks to give you a taste. First up is the opener "In The House" which is a really solid opening track but a perfect example of a drum solo that is more an interruption to me than a highlight. Next up is Tim Ouinette's fine composition, "10th Ave. 1957" which brings some fine New Orleans swagger to the album. And last up is "Loft Funk" which brings the bop/funk sound fully together.
See what you think.
Blueprints of Jazz, Volume I (Buy Album)

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