A master of funk drumming comes to town with two adepts on alto sax and organ

Mike Clark, Donald Harrison and Kendall Carter at the JK.

Mike Clark perfected a style of drumming that went hand-in-glove with the new idiom Herbie Hancock was exploring in the 1970s. It drew upon demotic black music without succumbing to "fusion" inanities. Now on the threshold of three-quarters of a century on the planet, Clark  has maintained eminence in his field, and has drawn extra attention hereabouts in recent recorded work with local tenor-sax maestro Rob Dixon. 

His decades of experience include holding down the percussion chair in organ trios. That's the kind of group Clark brought to the Jazz Kitchen Sunday night with alto saxophonist Donald Harrison and organist Kendall Keyz Carter. Clark's style has been called "linear funk," a term he's somewhat uneasy about, though he acknowledges it contains an accurate description of how he blends elements of the idiom over the drum set's different instruments rather than emphasizing the distinctive timbre of each.

The integration of patterns was evident in his composition "Loft Funk," a title explained by Harrison, who did most of the talking for the trio, as a tribute to the jazz loft scene in New York City, where the drummer from California moved several decades ago.  

There his exquisite patterning at fast tempos could be savored, such as the fast-paced dialogue he sets up between hi-hat cymbals and snare drum. Later, his way of doubling the intricacy of a pattern, then reducing it by half, then thickening the texture again, all while keeping the same pulse, could be amply appreciated. He doesn't waste motion, and articulates crisply all over the set.

He supplied much of the authentic flavor for Harrison's lengthy sung and played tribute to his hometown of New Orleans. The parade-ground rhythms endemic to that city's musical legacy were close at hand, and the pattern sometimes called "hambone" (known in old r&b chiefly through the work of Johnny Otis and Bo Diddley) underlay the performance.

Carter is a young organist capable of saying something significant in a phrase or two, reluctant to overload his message. He readily finds a groove that doesn't require the smeary flamboyance of some jazz organists. When he turns decorative, he makes it all count for something.

My first impression of Harrison had me worried, as he led the trio in a slow blues that settled readily into well-worn terrain. Not to worry: he later identified the piece as something he had created on his way to the bandstand, calling it "Blues for the Kitchen." In effect, the music was kind of a casual calling card, a warm-up and relaxed etude for a performance that quickly became committed as well as amiable.

He introduced a more original piece of his by explaining the title "Mister Cool Breeze" as a moniker applied to him by Lena Horne through his long-ago association with the glamorous, widely admired singer. He admitted reveling in that identity, striking a couple of cool-daddy poses, after recounting his discomfort at being called "Duck" in his youth. Donald Duck was obviously not a desirable image for a young man working on his status as a jazz saxophonist. Harrison has probably told the story dozens of times, but made it seem as appealingly impromptu as his best soloing of the evening.

The Thelonious Monk evergreen "Well You Needn't"  was one of two pieces from sources outside the band. The other was one of the oldest songs modern jazzmen are fond of: "Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise." The 1928 Sigmund Romberg tune was delivered in a slightly frantic style that didn't bring forward anybody's best side. It at least showed signs of Clark's stylistic breadth. 

There can be no doubt that this seasoned drummer is not in the habit of waiting for the magic to happen. By way of friendly warning, he told an Indy Jazz Fest master class a while back: "If you're in New York playing drums and you're waiting for everything to come together, and you're not determined to bring it together, I'm going to steal your gig." It's easy to suppose that Mike Clark has never had to be idle.

[Photos by Rob Ambrose]


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