Ken Clark Organ Trio
January 1, 1970Just one story again this week, yesterday's profile of jazz organist Ken Clark. Look for a profile of the great jazz singer-pianist Mose Allison next week.
A few new photos of Abe sampling his first solid food are up on the newsletter page this week as well.
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Clark's tasty sound has organic ingredients
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | July 16, 2004
BEVERLY — "I always liked the tone of the organ," says Ken Clark, whose namesake Ken Clark Organ Trio performs its high-energy mix of jazz, blues, and R&B at Ryles tomorrow. "I think I've always been kind of picky about tone."
No matter that synthesizers would seem to have rendered the classic Hammond B3 passe by the time Clark, 35, was coming up as a young pro in the 1980s. Clark started out listening to Gregg Rolie play organ with Carlos Santana and Billy Preston do the same with the Rolling Stones. Then he moved on to jazz organists such as Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, and Larry Young.
He was too picky, and pigheaded, to switch allegiance.
"I can't play synthesizers for a long period of time," he explains, seated in the North Shore apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Mary Melilli. "They give me a headache. I'm not saying that just to be funny or cute. They really bug me."
"Actually," Clark continues, "I don't mind playing a Moog, which is a traditional analog synthesizer that is meant to sound like a square wave. But I always think of using a synthesizer as kind of like, you know, if a recipe calls for garlic, fresh chopped garlic, but you put garlic powder in it, it's not going to taste quite right. It doesn't matter if you get the best garlic powder. It still is not as good as fresh garlic."
A quick glance around Clark's music room confirms his insistence on authentic '60s-era instrumentation. A Hammond A100 organ (same as a B3, but with internal speakers) and a Fender Rhodes electric piano sit along opposite walls, and an acoustic guitar and a Wurlitzer electric piano are tucked behind a chair near the front window. Clark's B3 is out of sight but goes with him in a van.
Lately, especially, there have been a bunch of gigs to drive to. Last week, for instance, the trio played in Clark's Vermont hometown (South Hero, an island village on Lake Champlain, north of Burlington) on Thursday; Keene, N.H., on Friday; and Methuen on Saturday. On Sunday, his working day began at Unity on the River church in Amesbury (one of Clark's two semiregular church jobs), followed by an afternoon AIDS benefit in Gloucester with his trio, and wrapped up with him backing blues singer-guitarist Mike Welch in Newburyport.
It's not just Clark's preferred instruments that are a throwback to an earlier time.
"Playing the organ is an old-fashioned thing for sure," he notes. "The other thing is being able to play whatever kind of music you have to play to cut the gig. A lot of people now, they want to be an 'artist.' But the craft of just being able to play whatever you've got to play in order to make a buck is gone.
"I've had long career playing professionally," he adds. "It's not like I'm a guy who teaches. And I've gone through doing just about everything I've had to. I've played classical church organ. I've played in rock bands. I've played in blues bands."
Some highlights — besides his own group's pair of CDs, the eponymous "Ken Clark Organ Trio" and "Eternal Funk" (a third is due out in January) — are a slew of recording sessions as a sideman, among them "Wake Up Call" with blues singer Michelle Willson and "Hotcakes" with jazz guitarist John Stein. A lowlight was an early '90s bookings dry spell with a previous group that resulted in Clark's busking at T stops on acoustic guitar and harmonica.
It was around that time that Clark ran into his onetime Berklee College of Music classmate, guitarist Mike Mele, near Porter Square. (Clark moved to Boston to study theory at Berklee in 1986, but dropped out two years later.)
"Ken had a group playing original material but not really jazz," recalls Mele, "and I had a jazz group together that was not playing anything except straight-ahead jazz. The short version — neither one was working out exactly, and we were playing together a little anyway. So I said, 'Why don't we put our heads together and make a jazz group out of this?'"
A dozen years on, they're still together, drummer Steve Chaggaris having come aboard a few years back. Originals by Clark and Mele dominate the trio's set lists, along with covers of jazz and R&B classics. Some of it makes people get up and dance, which is fine with Clark.
"I like playing dance music," he says. "But I don't like playing dance music that you can't listen to."
Vineyard Vibes: Berklee is sponsoring its fourth summer of Martha's Vineyard concerts featuring faculty, alumni, and students starting Thursday, when singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn plays the Hot Tin Roof in Edgartown. Newly retired Berklee vice president Gary Burton and pianist Makoto Ozone follow the next night at the Performing Arts Center in Oak Bluffs, with trombonist-professor Phil Wilson bringing his quintet to the Offshore Ale House in Oak Bluffs July 24. The Berklee College of Music Reverence Gospel Ensemble will wrap things up on July 25 at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. Call 508-693-0305 (or visit www.vineyardvibes.com) for times, ticket prices (which range from $20 to $30, depending on the event, or $80 for a pass to the whole event), and other details.
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company