On their current West Coast tour, seminal jazz innovators, The Headhunters, and their trademark brand of modern funk, world music, and jazz will be making a rare appearance at Portland’s renowned jazz joint, Jimmy Mak’s, playing two shows at 7:00pm and 9:30pm on May 15.
Going back to 1973, and having recorded for several years with legendary pianist Herbie Hancock, the band gained huge popularity for their inventive fusing of jazz with funk and rock on their Columbia album debut, Head Hunters, selling over a million copies, even out-selling Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.
The Headhunters have recently released some new material and are led by original band members and co-leaders, drummer Mike Clark and percussionist Bill Summers. They will be joined by some of the nation’s best talent, including New Orleans-based musicians Donald Harrison on saxophone, Chris Severin on bass, and Stephen Gordon on piano. Their accomplishments and credits essentially read like a Who’s of Who of jazz greats, as well as stints with popular blues, pop, and contemporary jazz artists.
Catching up with Clark and Summers at a pit stop on their way to gig in Seattle, they made time to answer a few questions about The Headhunters legacy, what the new tour has been like, and their personal experiences as jazz musicians of the highly regarded, and influential jazz band.
In a jazz and blues career spanning over 40 plus years, how does a jazz musician stay inspired and keep it fresh? Mike Clark replied, “I think as a jazz artist, you’re constantly in the act of playing. And playing the music is what does it, just like I did when I was 13. I’m the same guy; I’ve learned a hell of lot more, hopefully, just as long as I can play. The only thing that age does is sort of make your body change, but the spirit is the same. I love playing now as much as I did when I was 11, 12, 13, playing dances at school, in big bands and everything, the same as Elvin (Jones) and Art Blakey. This is what we do.” Adding, “I enjoy the physical sensation of swinging, this is my thing that I love, so I’m not really a funk drummer, I never have been. I’m a jazz drummer who plays funk, not a funk drummer who plays jazz.”
When asked to talk about the positive aspects of the Headhunters’ legacy, Clark reflected, “I think for one thing, as it turned out, we became the roots of a lot of the so called music that happens today. Now I’m not saying there’s no music going today, that’s ridiculous. There’s some great music and great players, but a lot of music we’re forced to listen too, nobody can find middle C on the piano and they’ve ripped off many people, just like they have The Headhunters, for samples. And this is now, somehow, called music. Well the fact is, a lot of the younger people can see how this music started because we actually, physically play the music, you know what I mean? There are no tracks or any of that. We’re playing, and they’re witnessing that.”
Passionately, he continues, “And although it’s not a straight ahead jazz performance, were not, at this point, one of the roots of the so called jazz fusion and funk. We kind of married R&B, funk and jazz, where as most people before had married rock and roll and jazz, so they can see how it’s done. And plus, we’ve all had a lot of different experiences so we’re not playing the way we were when we were 25 years old. But it’s an experience, it’s a wonderful band.”
Summers added his perspective by saying, “The thing about is, when I go back and listen to it now, and listen to The Headhunters’ music we played years ago, it sounds pretty up to date. I don’t think too much has changed, even in the straight ahead world. Like Michael said, things can be rearranged but there’s nothing new. I guess the older you get you realize that more as you spend more decades on the planet.” Upon further reflection he added, “I really realize a lot of things about life when I reached 50, five decades on the planet puts you in a special club. So looking at music and the music scene and how it’s changed, and all the different changes, it’s always been like that. Things are still evolving and looking more at ethnic music. I guess for me, the next step is a more amalgamated, homogeneous type of music, where there’s elements of all these different cultures coming together. In that, the world becomes smaller."
You’ve assembled an extremely talented group of jazz musicians for this tour. What’s the most surprising thing you experience from night to night? Startled by the question, Summers responds, “Wow, that’s a hell of a question.” He then thoughtfully paused and chuckled,” To be honest with you, to see people in the seats”, ending with hearty laughter. “You know, people are always skeptical because we haven’t being touring the States a lot, it’s easier for us to play in Europe because people appreciate us more, and we get paid.” Continuing he explains, “The thing about it is, that skepticism. And the fact is, we have the faith to know that there are going to be people in the seats, and you can’t panic. So, I would have to say the most surprising this about this thing is to see the skeptics wrong, because there’s been plenty of people in the seats, and it’s been successful.”
From Clark’s perspective, he shared, “Donald Harrison is one of the main players in this band, so when we get real funky, we can talk, we can have a conversation at any time we want musically. And everybody in the band knows what everyone else is saying because we’re informed, you know what I mean?”
Clark expands on the musical chemistry that exists between the band members, adding “Each of these guys is a virtuoso in their own right. Each can be a band leader and is a band leader, so it’s pretty intense stuff. Everyone is beyond capable, and everybody’s had years of experience. So that’s why it will affect the people positively. And so far, the people who have come out to hear us like it, and I like it. And I think if the artist on stage likes it, the audience is going to like it. And that’s what Ray Charles said, and he was right. “If I don’t like it, ain’t nobody gonna like it.” That’s how he felt about it, and I agree with him.”
Among the many musicians and band’s Clark has played with, his two album stint with Brand X, perhaps most notable as one of Phil Collins’ side projects, was very memorable for Clark. He was a key component on Product and Do They Hurt? for the 70s fusion band. Asked to share how that opportunity came about Clark recalled, “Percy Jones (bassist) had heard me with Herbie Hancock and requested I come to New York and audition. I’m not really a fusion drummer; I’m really a be-bop and post-bop drummer. But it’s because I played with Albert King, Sam and Dave, and Jimmy Reed, I have somewhat of a funk ability, and I have my own way of doing it, apparently. Or so I’m told. So that’s what did it, right there. He (Percy Jones) thought I was an original sounding guy, or at least I didn’t sound like all the fusion drummers because I’m not coming from there. I’m coming from Blakey and Max (Roach), Elvin (Jones), Philly Joe (Joseph “Philly Joe” Jones) and Roy Haynes. So I transferred that somehow over to the music of the day in order to make a living.
So Percy heard that and thought it was modern, as he said at the time. And he had my fly to New York and I had an audition. There was about six or eight drummers there, and they all played very loud and very technical fusion blasts, blasting all over the kit. But the language I speak is totally not the same. I come from the blues and jazz." With surprised laughter, Clark excitedly replied, “And they hired me! I’m like, okay. It was great. It was a very creative experience for me and really liked doing that record. It was fun for me to play too.”
His drumming mastery on his time with Brand X can be heard on two tracks in particular, the band's stellar release, Product. Clark set the groove on tracks Now Good Enough – See Me! and Dance of the Illegal Aliens. The former song showcases an introduction jam between Jones and Clark that exemplifies, and communicates, the definition of ‘tight’.
Clark concluded the interview with saying, “It’s an honor to be able to continue to play and have people enjoy us and us enjoy them, and have conversations like this concerning our art. The whole thing is an honor for me at this point in my life. I have a deep appreciation, that’s for sure.”
Regardless of your preference of jazz styles, but certainly if you’re longing for the fusion days of the past, don’t miss this incredible opportunity to see and hear Clark, Summers, and the rest of the elite jazz musicians jam on the pioneered foundation of The Headhunters. You’ll thank yourself that you did.