Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mike Clark

I went to a drum clinic with Mike Clark last night at the shop where I take lessons.

I'm embarrassed to say I didn't even know who Mike Clark was, but here's his Wikipedia entry:
Mike Clark (October 3, 1946) is a jazz and funk drummer who is most noted for playing in the Headhunters band headed up by Herbie Hancock in the mid-1970s. Clark's performance on Hancock's album Thrust, and particularly the song "Actual Proof," is often cited as one of the finest examples of the linear funk style of drumming. He was also a member of the UK jazz-fusion outfit Brand X, alternating behind the kit with Phil Collins between 1978-80. Clark has also performed with many top musicians from the worlds of jazz and funk, including Chet Baker, Vince Guaraldi, Fred Wesley, Les Claypool, and Charlie Hunter. Clark is also known as one of the most sampled drummers in contemporary music. His beats have appeared on records by Prince, NWA, De La Soul, and Janet Jackson, among others.

In other words, Mike Clark is a legend, and it was totally amazing to see him in person. Unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed being there, it was kind of tragic. I still know so little about the drums that I just couldn't absorb anything he was discussing in terms of technique. It was like watching Shakespeare give a clinic on writing for the stage--in French.

My knowledge of jazz (and later, funk) is very shallow, because I'm fine up up to the late 1950s Miles Davis recordings ("Kind of Blue," in particular). With "Bitches Brew," though, which was released in 1969, I lose the thread. I know that Bitches Brew was seismic, and I can even feel that impact when I listen to it, but I just don't like it nearly as much.

At that point, I start to lose the lineage of jazz. I can't connect up who influenced each other beyond that point, so I get lost. I know Herbie Hancock played with Miles Davis, though, and I know (now) that Mike Clark played with Herbie Hancock. So on the way home from work, I stopped and picked up two Herbie Hancock albums: Head Hunters and Thrust. Head Hunters was a landmark funk album, selling more than a million copies, and it was the album immediately before Thrust, which was the album Mike Clark played on.

I'm listening to Head Hunters as I write this, and trying to get from Kind of Blue to here is a mind-blowing experience. Next, I'm going to listen to Thrust and see if I can understand the difference. Different music genres are individual languages, really, so I'm really struggling trying to put this together in my head [insert your punch line here].

Back to the clinic. I tried very hard to watch his technique closely (I was about twenty feet away), and it was incredible how little his arms moved. At times he was playing at light speed and his wrists weren't even moving--all the velocity came from his fingers.

He told a few stories, and they were just as remarkable as his technique. He played onstage for the first time when he was four (with a real band), and he played with Albert King when he was fourteen.

His philosophy about the drums was also interesting. He said "my job is to make things happen for the band." He said there was plenty of room to be challenging and enjoy what you're playing without disrupting what the band is doing. Given his staggering level of ability, that kind of unselfishness was something I didn't expect.

On the drive home, I was thinking about drum lessons and Rock Band, and I was thinking how much I'd enjoy a more challenging and instructional environment in the game than just playing songs at different speeds. That made me think about Rock Band 2 and the drum training module, so I poked around and found this video ("Rock Band 2 Drum Trainer@ E3 2008").

Again, Harmonix is inside my brain. There's instruction in playing basic rock beats, and you'll be able to learn some basic technology that I only picked up through my drum lessons. Plus, one of the features I really wanted in practice mode was to be able to play faster than 100% speed, and that's a new feature--playing at up to 120% in the drum trainer.

If you've played the game much, you know why: it rewires your brain. I'll always warm up with a very fast song, because after that, anything else seems slow in comparison. So being able to play beats at 120% is really going to improve our ability.

There's one other practice feature I was hoping for, and given that Harmonix is always in my brain, maybe it will be added someday. I want the option to play with more rigorous note timing than the default. "Championship" timing, for lack of a better description, because I think it would greatly improve our skill level. I don't know if limitations on controller input would make this not possible technically, but if it can be done, I think it's another tool for improving our ability to play.

Oh, and now I'm listening to Thrust, and even on the first two songs, it's pretty amazing how the drums on this album come from the core (in terms of compositional focus) instead of the back.

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