This mainstream, hard bop session led by legendary funk and jazz drummer Mike Clark and his top-shelf ensemble, Indigo Blue, hearkens back to those great Blue Note live albums of Art Blakey or Freddie Hubbard’s Night of the Cookers. Clark assembled a “can’t lose” lineup of bassist Christian McBride, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon, trumpeter Randy Brecker, and pianist Antonio Ferao for a three-night stand at NYC’s Iridium last fall. This is an all-star band without the hype; six masters engaging in the sport of improvisation as collaborators seeking to transcend the individual parts. They’re not looking for accolades as a super group but just sheer joy in playing together.
The recording is pristine because the quality of the performance demanded it. Fellow master drummer and fusion legend Lenny White edited and mixed. Incidentally, this is not the first time that such a group had gathered at the Iridium as a similar unit with Wallace Roney on trumpet instead of Brecker played the venue in 2011. Although there was not an album as a result, viewing is available via YouTube.Clark’s widely acclaimed 2009 Blueprints of Jazz, Vol.1 featured McBride, Harrison Jr., trumpeter Christian Scott ( aka Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah), and pianist Patrice Rushen.
Clark was asked to reprise this same lineup that he had appeared with just a few months before as an encore at the Iridium. This time around, the opportunity to record the alchemy of such an outstanding group of players was part and parcel of that same request. It ranks as one of the best of this year’s mainstream jazz recordings. It’s on a par with the excellent recent release of Ralph Peterson’s Messenger Legacy, which we also reviewed on these same pages.
The album features original compositions and standards arranged by band members. The two most widely recognizable tunes are Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” and “Well, You Needn’t,” both, especially the latter, the set closer, taken at a furious, almost off-the-rails tempo. Clark solos robustly amidst the fury. The eight selections provide ample room for fiery solos from all contributors and dialogue on the eights with Clark in several places, most notably on “Lucky No. 7.” McBride makes his most emphatic solo statement in that one and in “If We Must Die.” The set begins with the cool groves of “Of Infinity,” delivers one of its two ballads with “Black Inside,” the other being “Sweet” where Ferao’s piano work is exquisite. Aside from those, the others are highly combustible tunes.
Clark gained worldwide recognition as one of the foremost jazz and funk drummers while playing with Herbie Hancock and The Headhunters in the early seventies. His incisive playing on Hancock’s “Actual Proof” garnered him an international cult following and influenced generations of drummers. His versatility led him to a two-year stint with Brand X, the British jazz/rock fusion band founded by Phil Collins. With them he recorded “Do They Hurt?” and “Product.” Clark is a co-leader with several other artists. “The Wolff and Clark Expedition 2,” with pianist Michael Wolff, was considered one of Downbeat’s Top 25 releases in 2016. Along with Delbert Bump, he released “Retro Report,” an organ trio CD, in April 2018. He continues to tour with the Headhunters. Along with James Brown’s drummers Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Stark, Mike’s funk beats with The Headhunters (most notably “God Make Me Funky”) include some of the most sampled in hip hop history.
Clark is a versatile cat but rest assured mainstream jazz just doesn’t get better than this. These are A-list players showing how it’s done, from sensitive support to fiery, explosive excursions.