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Mike Clark: The Double-Edged Sword Called Funk

Overdue Ovation profile of the jazz-funk drummer best known for his association with the Headhunters

Photo of Mike Clark (photo by David Sokel)
Mike Clark (photo by David Sokel)

It is both a blessing and a curse to drum master Mike Clark that his fan base remains interested in the contributions he made to beat language during his mid-1970s tenure with the Headhunters, the popular funk-jazz unit founded by Herbie Hancock. Clark’s bespoke grooves on hits like “Actual Proof” and “God Make Me Funky” remain hip-hop lingua franca, looped, sampled and appropriated by high-profile producers and turntablists since Grandmaster Flash used the latter track in the early ’80s. His fans include several generations of jazz drummers of all stylistic predispositions, who regard “the godfather of linear funk,” to quote one YouTube clip title, as a model for imparting texture and motivic variety to groove without sacrificing elemental phatness.

Clark, 71, continues to bring those qualities to funky music, most notably with a N’awlins-flavored edition of the Headhunters that he co-leads with percussionist Bill Summers, a ’70s bandmate, featuring sidemen like saxophonist Donald Harrison and bassist Chris Severin. But it frustrates Clark that his fans—and bookers—are less cognizant of another unit, Wolff & Clark Expedition, that he co-leads with pianist Michael Wolff; their most recent offering is the well-reviewed 2015 album Expedition 2 (Random Act), which includes trumpeter Wallace Roney and bassist Christian McBride. At the time he was readying the album, Wolff elaborated on Clark’s “serious strengths”: his “straight-ahead playing; his special funk stuff; his mixture of all those beats; the way he turns the time around. I feel a total freedom rhythmically to do whatever I want to do with him.” Clark also notes that he’s currently mixing a kinetic organ-trio date with California-based Delbert Bump, and points out Philadelphia bassist Dylan Taylor’s One in Mind (Blujazz), on which Clark drum-paints to improvisations by the late guitarist Larry Coryell.

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