JazzTimes – The Big Picture

Want to get a rise out of Joe Chambers? Characterize him as just a drummer.

Sure, he’s best known for being an in-demand house drummer for Blue Note Records during its exploratory mid-to-late-’60s period. He played on some of the label’s most stirring LPs, led by such iconic musicians as Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Sam Rivers, McCoy Tyner, Andrew Hill and Wayne Shorter. Later, he participated in Max Roach’s percussion collective M’Boom, and in Tommy Flanagan’s Super Jazz Trio with Reggie Workman.

But now, as Chambers says in early August at a coffee shop on Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill, “I no longer have the desire to play drums as an accompanist for anyone.” Chambers is in fact a superb multi-instrumentalist who performs expertly on an array of mallet instruments. (He knows his way around the piano, too.) Then there’s Chambers the composer. Again going back to his Blue Note years, he penned some of the most intriguing compositions Hutcherson ever recorded.

Chambers, now 70, is seeking greater recognition for his writing and arranging, and that pursuit became clear in June at Washington’s Atlas Performing Arts Center, where he conducted a 17-piece big band composed of D.C.-based musicians. The ensemble performed music from his latest disc, Joe Chambers Moving Pictures Orchestra (Savant), a project featuring a four-part suite Chambers created in 2003 on a commission from Jazz at Lincoln Center. In D.C., Chambers reprised the performance form the album, which was captured live in September 2011 at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York City.

The Atlas ensemble did Chambers’ material justice, cresting on the suite’s third movement, “Ruth,” a gorgeously melodic, wistful ballad filled out by cerulean woodwind colors. Chambers demonstrated his vibes chops that evening, and on Count Basie’s “Theme from ‘M Squad,'” he soft-pedaled an economical drum solo. He later engaged Tony Martucci in vigorous drums-and-hands-percussion exchanges during the suite’s fourth movement, the two-part “Clave de Bambe.”

Brade Linde, saxophonist, educator and jazz curator at the Atlas, organized the musicians. Rehearsals began in early April with Chambers traveling to the District from Wilmington, N.C., several times. “Joe really made the effort,” Linde says. “He didn’t mind going into his own pocket by coming up rehearsing the band so that he could convey his vision.” He describes Chamber’s charts as “very detailed and harmonically interesting” before praising how Chambers delved deep inside each section of the orchestra to create beautiful and intricate textures.

“We weren’t reading things that were challenging just for the sake of being challenging,” adds saxophonist Brian Settles. “But there was definitely enough to practice.” Then, Settles hints at some of the rehearsal’s snafus. “He expects each musician to bring a certain level of intuition to the music,” he says. “I sensed his frustration working with younger musicians who aren’t accustomed to his approach.”

“D.C. has always had a good-to-great musicians,” Chambers notes. “But when you leave New York City, the level of musicianship goes down. That’s just the fact of it.”

The New York incarnation of the Moving Pictures Orchestra presented titans such as pianist Xavier Davis, trombonist Steve Davis, bassist Dwayne Burno, saxophonist Graig Handy and trumpeter David Weiss, who recruited the musicians. “He conveyed his vision to us,” Weiss says, “but with a little fear, which is a good thing. Kids today don’t get scared enough by grumpy old men.”

Weiss maintains that Chambers came up when the “bar was much higher,” noting that he shared the bandstand with John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Charles Mingus. “Older musicians always have a way of reminding younger musicians of this, or conveying it in their expectations,” Weiss explains.

Chambers projects the imposing physique of a linebacker, and in conversation he boasts a no-nonsense sagacity. He’s not necessarily a curmudgeon, but he’s far from cuddly, and his answers can be curt or circuitous. He becomes effusive and earnest, though, when detailing the role drums have played in American history, their overall acceptance in Western music and, ultimately, why he’s so over being depicted as just a jazz drummer.

“They banned the drums,” he explains, “which has a very important role in the spiritual psychology of black America.” He explains the origin of the drum kit, then argues that because of the country’s Westernized perspective, most people view the drums as inferior to the piano or woodwinds. “[Drums] were the enemy; they’re still the enemy in the mindset of anyone of a Eurocentric fame reference,” he contends. To him, all of that trickles down to drummer’ difficulties securing recording and performance opportunities and reaping commendation as bandleaders.

The district makes an ideal setting to discuss Chambers’ professional trajectory. While touring in 1960 with R&B sensation Bobby Lewis, an 18-year-old Chambers played in D.C. and decided to stay. Soon he began jamming with local heroes, notably the JFK Quintet with saxophonist Andrew White and bassist Walter Booker, six nights a week at Bohemian Caverns. “Everybody who was coming to the Howard Theatre – Miles, Trane, Cannonball, Art Blakey – would alter come down to the Caverns,” Chambers recalls.

When Hubbard visited the Caverns, he heard Chambers and encouraged him to move to New York. In 1963, Chambers took his advice. After more sideman work with the likes of Huge Masekela, he finally got a call from Hubbard for some gigs. Those dates eventually led to Chambers drumming on Hubbard’s landmark 1964 LP, Breaking Point!, an album that caught the zeitgeist of the mid-’60s as some hard-bop musicians began nudging their music toward the avant-garde.

Hubbard played fast, and Chambers struggled at first; his chops had diminished since arriving in New York. “I really couldn’t play those tempos,” Chambers explains. “What I did was break up the rhythms and play around the time.” He employed similar strategies during the session for Breaking Point! “When I heard [my playing] on record, I said, ‘Oh, shit! I’m gonna keep this,'” he says, “this” referring to the early developments of his signature style. Later Chambers reveals more heroes, including Philly Joe Jones (as an accompanist) and Max Roach (as a soloist).

Breaking Point! introduced Chambers the composer, too, with the inclusion of the evocative ballad “Mirrors.” Written while Chambers was still living in D.C., he says the tune was an exercise demonstrating “mirror writing,” wherein the composer juxtaposes themes.

Chambers always aspired to be a composer, even as a student at Chester High School in Chester, Pa., right outside of Philadelphia. “I was studying fundamental orchestrations, arranging and music literature back then,” he recalls.

As one of five children, Chambers moved with his family to Pennsylvania from Stoneacre, Va., when he was only 2. All of his siblings played music; they even had a family band. His late older brother, Steve, aspired to be a classical composer. After high school, Chambers continued his formal studies at the Philadelphia Conservatory and American University in D.C. In New York, he studied composition under Hall Overton and John Corigliano.

Chambers’ compositional sensibility became intrinsic to his drumming. With his eyes on the bigger picture, he insisted on reading the piano charts for tunes instead of the drum parts. “When I was playing an arrangement, I knew when the bridge was coming or when the cutoff was coming; I knew of all the different turns,” he says. “I was always thinking in terms of the total composition.”

As Chambers thrived as a drummer for various Blue Note artists as well as Archie Shepp, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea–he performed on the pianist’s historic 1967 leader debut–and others, his prominence as an imaginative composer also rose. Of all his Blue Note cohorts, he struck his most prolific partnership with Hutcherson. Hutcherson’s first two Blue Note LPs, Dialogue and Components (both 1965), prominently showcased Chambers’ idiosyncratic writing; in fact, Chambers’ work made up the entire second side of Components. He also contributed the title track to Hutcherson’s 1967 LP, Oblique, and wrote the lion’s share of songs on the follow-up, Patterns (which wasn’t released until 1980). When saxophonist Harold Land entered the fold alongside Hutcherson as co-leader, Chambers once again contributed the title track to Spiral (a 1968 session that wasn’t released until 1979). On Hutcherson’s 1969 LP Now!, Chambers co-wrote one its most beloved pieces, “Hello to the Wind,” with Gene McDaniels.

Many of Chambers’ compositions for Hutcherson, such as “Dialogue,” “Juba Dance” and “Irina,” possess widescreen structures, melancholic melodies and odd time signatures, yet they remain accessible, even comely. Hutcherson likens Chambers the composer to Miles, Trane and Mingus, because his works are so unlike his personality. “Joe was always a very straightforward person; he said what was on his mind. He was very strong-willed, full of pride,” Hutcherson explains. “When I heard his compositions, there was his other side, which was of softness and delicacy.”

Chambers’ compositions for Hutcherson helped align the vibraphonist with such individualists as Rivers, Hill and Shorter. Those more experimental Blue Note dates are still regarded as some of Hutcherson’s best albums, even if Chambers questions their validity in hindsight. “It’s curious how they let me record some of the things that I was doing,” he ponders. “A lot of stuff, especially Components, was really immature.  It’s the type of thing that young people do. It’s amazing that they let me record that shit.”

Given Chambers’ prolific output as a drummer and composer during Blue Note’s fecund ’60s period, it’s baffling he never recorded an LP for the label then as a leader. It wasn’t until 1998’s Mirrors that Blue Note issued a date under his name. According to Chambers, Alfred Lions did approach him about recording as a leader, but he never followed up on Lions’ offer. “I was content with doing what I was doing. That’s how un-businesslike I was,” Chambers says, laughing. “I was just glad to be drumming.”

Chambers didn’t release an LP as a leader until 1974’s The Almoravid on the Muse label. Four years prior, he’d joined Roach’s M’Boom ensemble including other intrepid musicians such as Roy Brooks, Warren Smith and Omar Clay. In 1970 Chambers took a yearlong sabbatical to rehearse with M’Boom. “We had to play not only the drum set, but timpani, hand drums, congas and all of the mallet instruments–properly,” he says.

Working with Roach amplified Chambers’ compositional ambitions, too. He admired Roach’s versatility and creative reach, which encompassed orchestras, vocal choirs and string quartets. M’Boom’s influence is noticeably heard throughout The Almoravid, particularly in the inclusion of marimba, congas, timpani and miscellaneous percussion provided by Clay, David Friedman and Ray Mantilla. The LP also featured trumpeter Woody Shaw, pianists Cedar Walton and George Cables, and bassists Richard Davis and Cecil McBee. “I loved that record,” says Joe Fields, founder of Muse. “At the time, the album was not in sync with a lot of what was happening. It didn’t really sell. But that wasn’t the point at that time.”

After releasing New World (1976, Porter), on which Chambers played drums, piano, marimba and vibraphone, he returned to Muse to release 1977’s Double Exposure. It captured him following his headstrong spirit in a duet setting with organist Larry Young, with Chambers conspicuously playing more piano than drums. Two years later, Denon issued Punjab, Chambers’ daring solo piano outing. Chambers has tinkered with the piano ever since he was a kid but dismisses any notion of being a bona fide pianist. “I play what you’d call ‘arranger’s piano,'” he clarifies. “Most good musicians play a little piano. I may play a little bit more–enough to get around.”

Although Chambers seemed determined to distance himself from the pack of other jazz drummers as a leader, the gambit proved detrimental to his career from a commercial standpoint. Even while continuing to perform with M’Boom, Mingus and the Super Jazz Trio, he slipped into obscurity. “My wife teases me, ‘Well, I took care of you during the ’70s.’ She kind of did,” Chambers claims. “I worked, but I wasn’t out there hitting. During that time, I began to see this whole thing of drummers being pushed back and neglected.”

Nevertheless, Chambers soldiered on throughout the following three decades, working with the likes of Chet Baker, David Murray and Steve Grossman and playing on the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s 1986 breakout film, She’s Gotta Have It. Chambers’ records and concert dates as a leader, however, became scarcer, even during the full stride of the neo-bop renaissance. He found refuge as an educator at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where, in 2008, he became the first Thomas S. Kenan Distinguished Professor of Jazz.

Noted jazz producer Michael Cuscuna argues that Chambers has yet to receive due recognition. “I think it’s partly because he came up in the ’60s,” Cuscuna theorizes. “In terms of being a drummer, he was very much overshadowed by Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. But a closer attention to his work reveals that he’s absolutely one of the most musical drummers you could ever want to hear.”

Fields cites other factors: “Joe is not an outgoing guy. He’s not the life of the party. He’s a very serious person. Joe calls it as he sees it, and I guess some people didn’t embrace that. Also, he’s never been a big self-promoter.”

Since reuniting with fields at the savant label, Chambers has released music with more frequency, beginning in 2006 with The Outlaw, followed by Horace to Max in 2010 and this year’s Joe Chambers Moving Pictures Orchestra. Chambers is trying to take advantage of the momentum. With strong marketing and media strategies sprinkled with some grant support, he could experience a latter-career renaissance like Joe Henderson and Andrew Hill did, respectively, in the previous two decades.

(Chambers still faces certain obstacles that Henderson and Hill didn’t. He doesn’t have the marketing muscle that Henderson had with Verve, and unlike Hill, isn’t touring regularly with a dedicated group of musicians. Also, Chambers has yet to find a young, attention-grabbing champion like Hill found in Jason Moran or Rivers found in Steve Coleman.)

Now that’s he’s concluded his tenure at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Chambers wants to fully concentrate on orchestral works. As a charter member of M’Boom, he’s working on a large-scale piece that will feature M’Boom with the Wilmington Symphony. He’s also penning orchestral arrangements for “The Outlaw” and “Ecorah”–two of Horace Silver’s lesser-known compositions–and hopes to reconvene the Moving Pictures Orchestra at Dizzy’s to record again. “One good thing about teaching is that I’ve accumulated a nice nest egg. I’m not rich. But I can take some chances.”


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