Drummer Mike Clark first gained acclaim in the 1970s, with a chameleonic playing style that ranged from funk with keyboardist Herbie Hancock to propulsive fusion with British group Brand X. But you wouldn’t know it by listening to Indigo Blue Live at the Iridium, featuring an all-acoustic sextet rounded out by all-stars (bassist Christian McBride, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., trumpeter Randy Brecker) and impressive lesser-known players (tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon, Italian pianist Antonio Farao). In fact, you likely wouldn’t realize the drummer was the bandleader without that previous knowledge.
It’s a straight-ahead, eight-song set at the famed New York City venue, and one largely lacking the militaristic snare drum playing and inside-out grooves that Clark is known for. Yet the drummer, now in his early 70s, still knows how to percolate. On Dixon’s opening “Of Infinity,” Clark drops occasional background bombs on his tom-toms and cymbals as the horn section states the melody and all five of his accompanists take superlative solos. The tenorist’s “Lucky No. 7” showcases Clark’s ability to drive the band through a shuffle feel late in the disc, and to finally contribute his inimitable solos in trades with his bandmates.
No less impressive a composer is Farao, whose relaxed “Black Inside” features dramatic tempo shifts and the pianist’s interplay with the ever-impressive McBride, and whose ballad “Sweet” spotlights Clark’s brushwork amid the horn section’s solos and harmonic offerings. Two Thelonious Monk gems are also highlights. “Straight No Chaser” is a playful arrangement in which the signature melody stays cloaked until the very end, and a breakneck take on “Well You Needn’t” features darting statements by Farao, McBride, and finally Clark, whose blend of jazz tradition and rimshot unorthodoxy elicits exclamations from both his bandmates and the crowd.