One of the cool things about my job is that, every once in a while, I get to clue people in when historically important musicians come to town, especially the ones who aren’t exactly household names but should be.
In this instance, I’m talking about drummer Mike Clark and percussionist Bill Summers, two members of the Headhunters, the explosively creative quintet that backed multiple Grammy-winning keyboardist Herbie Hancock on a series of genre-busting albums that pretty much defined the fusion of jazz and funk in the 1970s. They’ll be at Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley on May 9.
Their debut album, 1973’s Head Hunters, is one of the best-selling jazz fusion records of all time. In addition to listing it among the 500 greatest albums, Rolling Stone magazine, describing it as “a burbling, riffy ultra-groovy funk odyssey,” further honored it as No. 32 on its list of the 40 greatest stoner albums.
More officially, the Library of Congress deemed it one of the most “culturally, historically or aesthetically important” albums of the 20th century, adding it to its National Recording Registry in 2007.
Even the cover, by Marin poster artist Victor Moscoso, is hip. Inspired by African masks from the Ivory Coast, Moscoso created an indelible image using electronic dials and knobs and meters used in recording records in those days.
I played that album to death when it came out, then did the same thing with the follow-up, “Thrust,” the next year. Both albums were recorded at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco. On “Thrust,” Clark, who lived in San Rafael for a time, replaced Harvey Mason on drums. On the track “Actual Proof,” he turned in a performance that is considered the gold standard in jazz-funk-fusion drumming.
To me, his tour de force became even more mind-blowing when he told me the story behind the track.
Going for a mainstream hit with a danceable back beat, the producer wanted a standard funk rhythm. When Clark, already an accomplished jazz drummer, objected to dumbing down the tune, he was allowed one shot at the more complex drum part he wanted to play. As history attests, he nailed it.
“It doesn’t sound so stretched out now,” he said, speaking from Summers’ home in New Orleans. “But at the time it was revolutionary.”
Clark’s intro to the tune “God Made Me Funky,” played with his longtime rhythm section bandmate, bassist Paul Jackson, has been sampled by just about every hip-hop DJ in a Kangol cap. But, at 67, he’s more frustrated by that than flattered.
“I’d rather have the bread than the cred,” is the way he put it.
The 65-year-old Summers was a student and a teaching assistant at the University of California at Berkeley when he met Hancock, who invited him to sit in with his band on percussion, an invitation that led to a regular gig with the Headhunters.
As an original member, he brings its vaunted space jazz down to earth with his Afro-Cuban, Latin jazz influences.
“No bands at the time were using percussionists unless you were a Latin band,” he said. “But percussionists weren’t on straight-ahead jazz or mainstream American music. So, at that particular time, since nobody was using percussionists, me getting a job with Herbie is what you would call a miracle. Obviously, he was saying, ‘How can I be different.'”
Hancock and the Headhunters were different, all right. An innovative jazz group with hit records that were played on the radio was unheard of. But because they were able to cross over into the pop mainstream with tunes like “Watermelon Man,” “Chameleon” and “Sly,” they opened the ears and the minds of a lot of then young rock fans, myself included.
At the end of the ’70s, the Headhunters phenomenon began to fade and Hancock and the band drifted off into other projects. In 1998, they reunited for an album, “Return of the Headhunters.” Since then, Clark, who’s lived in New York since 1978, and New Orleans-based Summers have continued to tour and record under the Headhunters banner with differing aggregations of musicians.
For the Sweetwater show, they’ll be joined by post-bop saxophonist Donald Harrison, classically trained jazz pianist Stephen Gordon and noted New Orleans bassist Chris Severin. They’re working on a new CD.
“Bill and I have been together a very long time, but when we were recording that stuff with Herbie, I didn’t think we were making history, I thought we were just playing,” Clark recalled. “It was early on, so there were no rules, no road map. We made it up. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were one of the forerunners of the whole thing that’s going on now. We’re part of its roots. We made our mark. Our legacy is strong. It’s not egotistic; it just went that way.”