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Rivers, Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson. Chambers was so busy that, when Blue Note’s Alfred Lion gave him the chance to record his own music as a leader, he turned down the offer. “I definitely wasn’t business minded at all,” he laughs. “That would have seemed to be the perfect opportunity to jump. But I was content to be recording as a sideman. I was working around with everybody, touring. I said, ‘No man, I don’t wanna do nothing. I’m content to do what I’m doing.’”
On 1965 albums like Hill’s Compulsion!!!!!, Rivers’s Contours and Shorter’s The All Seeing Eye, Chambers was helping to forge a new musical language that extended the possibilities of hard bop, introducing ambitious conceptual frameworks, complex arrangements and bursts of controlled freedom that, while leaning towards the avant garde, never fully embraced the formlessness of free jazz. “All of those people that I was recording with, we had similar backgrounds,” he explains. “We were used to playing chords, form and time. A lot of those dates were pretty way out that I was on with Bobby Hutcherson and Wayne Shorter. Live, we would go pretty far out. But you play ‘in’ first. You play the pulsation, play it to a point, and then you abandon it. Coltrane was doing that on those long cuts he was making, “Chasin’ The Trane” and “Impressions”. Those were hard-swinging tunes but, live, they would play it for a while and then they would abandon tempo. Then they would be ‘out’ – outside time. We would do that, play and get to a point where we would just go out. But then we’d come back to the time.”
It was, of course, a strikingly different approach to the drums than that being pursued by his contemporary, Milford Graves: “Milford, as a drum player, was never interested in playing ting-tingka-ting behind anybody. He had his own approach to playing the drum set – and Rashied Ali is another one – they played in a circle. They played with motion. That is, around the drum, in textures. Everything has time, but you don’t have to state time. You can imply time, which is what he did. He implied time around the drum set. I appreciate what he was doing but I never wanted to play the drum set like that. I played R&B coming up. I was always playing a beat. The people I was playing dates with, we had to swing. And the music itself was pulse oriented.”
He warms to the theme of playing free. “We didn’t abandon the changes like the free jazz people. I remember we were talking about Ornette Coleman, and Lou Donaldson said – and Miles Davis said the same thing – ‘Well, I don’t know, I can hear chords in their songs but they abandon the chords in the improv.’ That was one thing about that period. Those people had their camp, and what we were doing, we had our camp. They had their places where they worked and we had ours. And that was that.”
The closest Chambers ever came to being part of the avant garde was recording a clutch of mid-60s albums with Archie Shepp, including the 1965 live LP New Thing At Newport, a split featuring John Coltrane’s quartet on the other side. But, even here, the music is still firmly and recognisably rooted in the blues. Even so, it’s clear that what Chambers and his Blue Note associates were doing was radical in its own way. Certainly, this appraisal of their innovations suits the revisionist tendencies of some critics and historians – and fuels potentially divisive opinions that, to a degree, Chambers himself buys into. “The writer Stanley Crouch said one thing to me, not that long ago, he said, ‘The real avant garde was what you guys were doing because you all played chords, you could hear the changes, you could hear the swing, you could hear blues feeling – and you extended upon that.’ I don’t want to say anything derogatory but people like Albert Ayler, Giuseppi Logan, John Tchicai, I think that that was all that they could play. The musicians we were recording with around that time, we could get jobs on Broadway if called upon. Or work behind singers, which I did.”
In this spirit, one of the more accessible tracks on Samba De Maracatu is a rendition of the standard “Never Let Me Go”, a song previously recorded by the likes of Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington, here performed by Stephanie Jordan. “Having a singer is part of the tradition of jazz that goes way back,” Chambers says. “You had singers like Sarah Vaughan singing with the bebop cats. That’s something I was always interested in – having a singer who can connect with the group.”
“That was an intense period in the United States,” Chambers reflects on his mid-to-late 60s heyday. “The heart of the Civil Rights movement. The Vietnam War. It was intense. Maybe like today. Max Roach was always into reflecting on social situations in his work and he made a lot of important records like We Insist!. One thing about the so-called avant garde, there were some of those people who were tied to Black Nationalism in their thought process and reflected in the music. That was one reason for the idea that ‘we don’t need to study, we don’t need to learn the Western chords’, that was a big part of that.”
Chambers’s first album as a leader, The Almoravid, released in 1974 on the Muse label, was a percussionheavy date that touched, even if only subliminally, on these political issues. “Did you see the movie El Cid?” he asks. “Those Moors were the Almoravid. You wouldn’t know that unless you researched the Moorish invasion into Spain in the tenth century. I thought I would put the word out – but it leads people into thinking you are a certain way: Oh, you must be a Muslim.”
Since then, he’s mostly let the music do the talking. In the 70s, he co-led a band with Larry Young, he worked with Chet Baker in the 80s, and he continued his close association with Max Roach into the 90s. He’s released around a dozen albums as a leader including, in 1998, his belated debut for Blue Note, Mirrors, featuring trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist Mulgrew Miller, saxophonist Vincent Herring and bassist Ira Coleman. With Chambers providing drums and vibraphone, it was a clear precursor to Samba De Maracatu. “I’m back where I belong, I guess,” he sighs.
Moreover, he’s more committed than ever to reaching new audiences and keeping creative music alive. He tells me with a chuckle about a recent conversation with a DJ in Philadelphia who wanted to feature a track from the new album. “He wanted to play “Circles”. I said that’s nice but I’m actually trying to build or rebuild an audience – a new audience – why don’t you try playing “Never Let Me Go” or the ballad “Visions” or even “Ecaroh”? I’m trying to build people, I’m not trying to run people away. We’ll see what happens.” Joe Chambers’s Samba De Maracatu is released by Blue Note
34 | The Wire | Joe Chambers
“Eric Dolphy called me. He told me to come to rehearsal for Out To Lunch and bring music. Freddie Hubbard looked at “Mirrors” and said ‘I’m a play this’. So we recorded it on Breaking Point”
Joe Chambers | The Wire | 35
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