Intimate D.C. Concert Showcases Chambers as Composer by John Murph

The Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, D.C., capped off its first “Jazz At The Atlas” series on June 13 by presenting the incomparable and under-celebrated multi-instrumentalist and composer, Joe Chambers. The performance came off as afterglow of city’s Eighth Annual D.C. Jazz Festival, which ended earlier that week.

Indeed, both the rare appearance of Chambers and the forward-thinking programming of Jazz at the Atlas speak to how revitalized D.C.’s jazz scene has become over the last couple of years. With the Atlas located in the city’s H Street, N.E. corridor, which is now undergoing exciting gentrification, the performance center is becoming yet another major hothouse for the city.

Chambers, 69, had already planted some roots in D.C.; he spent his formative teens performing in the city, before moving to the Big Apple in 1963. At the Atlas, Chambers channeled that connection by featuring all D.C.-based musicians for a sumptuous performance of material from his latest disc, Moving Pictures Orchestra (Savant). Like that disc, which was recorded in New York’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, the concert focused more on Chambers as a composer, rather than Chambers as a drummer, pianist and vibraphonist. That’s not to say that Chambers solely fronted the orchestra with a baton in hand. When he did shift roles—sometimes leaving drummer’s chair for Tony Martucci—it was done with a sleight-on-hand ease, either with Chambers on vibraphone or just directing the ensemble. When Chambers played drums, he often passed the cueing duties to alto saxophonist Brent Birckhead.

Chambers performed almost the entire Moving Pictures Suite with the first three movements leading off the first half. The D.C.-based musicians, who play regularly at Bohemian Caverns on Monday nights, handled the material admirably. Mike “Bags” Davis got the proceedings started with a robust solo on the trumpet. Soon after, the rest of orchestra enlivened Chambers’ lush, deceptively simple arrangements, which were characterized by zigzagging riffs, shifting rhythms and evocative harmonies. Even in the ’60s, when Chambers was recording with the likes of Bobby Hutcherson, Andrew Hill and Joe Henderson, he displayed a strong affinity for Afro-Latin rhythms. That certainly came into play on the fanciful “Prelude” and especially on the closing “Clave de Bembe,” on which he and Martucci, on percussion, engaged in a delightful, if cerebral dialogue that gave way to a sweeping orchestral tour-de-force.

Chambers composes stunning ballads too. And at this concert, they proved to be the most alluring. “Ruth,” the third movement of the Moving Pictures was simply divine, with stirring timbres of clarinets, flutes and bass casting a dusky spell behind a haunting melody. Chambers exhibited his mastery of vibraphone, carefully meshing his sparse, melodic improvisation inside Harry Appleman’s piano accompaniment to the point where the two instruments sounded nearly inseparable.

Other highlights included a festive and timely rendition of Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s “Mendacity” on which guest vocalist Jessica Boykin-Settles’ imbued the lyrics with just the right amount of vinegary righteousness. On “Theme From ‘M’ Squad,” Chambers showed his love for the blues and he soft-pedaled the orchestra with a barrelhouse groove that never lost its intensity despite his rhythmic delicacy.

Chambers played to a relative small but extremely attuned audience. Maybe had he brought along some of star power that played on the disc, a larger crowed would have attended. Nevertheless, his performance with the D.C.-based musicians gave spoke volumes to his compositional prowess as well as the jazz musicianship that thrives and resides in the District.

—John Murph

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