Mike Clark: Blueprints of Jazz Vol. 1

By: Trevor Pour

Sometimes writers find a much easier task in defining an artist through their accomplishments in lieu of their qualifications. Such is the case of Mike Clark, a drummer whose rise to international acclaim occurred during his era with Herbie Hancock and The Headhunters, thus cementing their mention in the first lines of every article written about him since. Now that I’ve gotten my journalistic duties out of the way, I would like to move away from Clark’s resume and towards his musical character.

In fact, Clark was a successful percussionist long before his days performing on Thrust and astounding the world with the now-legendary “Actual Proof.” The son of a union man traveling across the nation, a young Clark was exposed to vastly dissimilar musical cultures, from the early jazz of New York City to the deep blues of New Orleans. Clark’s natural ability earned him the privilege to routinely sit in with high-profile performers throughout his travels, establishing Clark as a bona fide professional musician while still a teenager. It is no surprise then that Clark found very little challenge in shifting styles away from the funk fusion of the Headhunters to the rock fusion of Brand X and finally to the straight-ahead jazz that he’s pursued in his later career. Clark’s technical versatility speaks for itself, as manifested by this album.

In 2006, Talking House Records approached Clark to kick off their new series entitled Blueprints of Jazz, and he quickly jumped at the opportunity. Joining him on this collaboration is longtime partner and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, good friend and tenor sax Jed Levy and the talented young New Orleans native Christian Scott on trumpet. Also appearing on the disc is pianist Patrice Rushen, who arguably makes the strongest stamp on this production with her electrifying skill and perspective. Bassist Christian McBride also guests, a longtime acquaintance of Clark’s who finally found the opportunity to collaborate on Blueprints.

The album content is predominantly straight-ahead jazz, but with strong elements of past experiences from all parties involved. The entire Blueprints series is aimed at highlighting the music that defined a particular artist’s history. Despite the drum kit acting as the clear centerpiece, Clark and his team managed to breath life into an album that never feels overwhelmingly percussive or heavy-handed with nostalgia. To that point, the first track on the record, “In the House,” begins and ends with Rushen’s exhilarating keys with only a brief drum solo buried within. Another album highlight is “Loft Funk,” wherein the band delivers a strong performance with a deep New Orleans sound and a superb showing from the horn section of Scott and Harrison. Overall, the appropriately lengthy album possesses a profoundly conversational nature with provocative counterpoint and energetic exploration. The sound is tame enough to find itself accessible by most jazz listeners, but fascinating enough to tempt more discerning ears.

As someone who still considers themselves a relative jazz neophyte, the Blueprints series is an exciting prospect. To highlight those players who have for too long lived ‘behind the scenes,’ despite their groundbreaking role in the foundation of jazz, is indeed a noble pursuit. And if this album is any indication, fans will have much to look forward to in the coming months and years with the entirety of this series. Mike Clark was a fitting and solid choice as the premiere release, with his record succeeding in telling the story of a true musical architect.

JamBase | Roots
Go See Live Music!