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Joe Chambers is the first to admit it: He messed up big. Having participated in recording sessions for some of Blue Note’s most forward-looking artists of the 1960s — Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Andrew Hill — the drummer-composer was offered a deal of his own with the venerable jazz label. He turned it down. “I was spaced!” says the 78-year-old Chambers, a khaki baseball cap slung low over his bespectacled visage during a Zoom conversation in March from his home in Wilmington, North Carolina. “I didn’t even follow up on it. I was recording all the time, I was touring, I had gigs playing around with other people. So I was content. I didn’t have any business sense at all.”Although he built a solid discography on other labels, Chambers wouldn’t record an album under his own name for Blue Note until 1998. More than 20 years would pass before he’d record another for the iconic imprint, his latest release, Samba de Maracatu. Featured in a trio with pianist Brad Merritt and bassist Steve Haines, Chambers plays drums and percussion, and overdubs vibraphone throughout. And while the roots of the rhythms are anchored in Brazilian soil — including the contemporary Bahian form known as maracatu — the music imparts a flavor rather than aiming for cultural authenticity. “It’s not Brazilian jazz,” Chambers affirms. “It’s just an overlay. In fact, my maracatu is not really a strict maracatu; it’s a variant. It has a little bit of Cuban guaguancó in it. But the maracatu rhythm is still there. So the idea was to hint at that, or infuse that, with the jazz.”
Following the publication of a 2019 interview on Udiscovermusic.com — a site that promotes Universal Music (and by extension, Blue Note) artists — detailing his extensive history, Chambers approached Don Was, the president of his former label, about releasing his next album. He’d already had the concept for Samba de Maracatu, although he says the proposed budget for the project steered him toward a trio rather than a larger ensemble. Initial plans to record in New York were thwarted by the pandemic. Instead, he opted to record in Wilmington and recruited area jazz standouts Merritt and Haines. Chambers laid down his drum tracks on Samba de Maracatu with the rhythm section then went back and recorded his vibes parts. The method presents its own challenges, as the players must leave space for the missing instrumentation. “If I’m laying down trio tracks, OK, I know — since I’m writing everything and making the arrangements — there’s a fourth voice that’s gonna be coming in, which will be me [on vibes],” he says. “So I play as if I’m playing with a fourth voice.”Extending his trap set, Chambers employs the surdo, a bass-drum-like instrument, and the repinique, a two-headed drum similar to a tom-tom, both of which are used in Brazilian music. The distinctive percussion lends a Carnivalesque feel to Chambers’ composition “Circles,” as well as to a read of Wayne Shorter’s “Rio,” which briefly dips into a bossa nova rhythm.
[caption id="attachment_38759" align="alignleft" width="1200"] Photo: Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images[/caption]
Chambers’ ear became attuned to Latin music at an early age. Growing up just outside Philadelphia, he remembers hearing pianist Joe Loco, who had a huge hit with a bongo-driven read of “Tenderly” in 1952. “There was always Latin music being played [on the radio], because there were Latinos in Philly and especially in New York,” he says. “Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans. I had heard Afro-Cuban music from very young, and I always liked it, I always connected with it. The Brazilian music came later. It has the same connection.”But his real education in Latin rhythms began during his tenure with Max Roach’s percussion ensemble, M’Boom, in the ’70s. Percussionists Ray Mantilla and Steve Berrios schooled the other members on how to play the music authentically. This was also where Chambers picked up the vibraphone. And, quite naturally, he had absorbed plenty of information about the instrument’s dynamics during his association with another Blue Note legend, Bobby Hutcherson, who provided generous space for the drummer’s compositions on a string of recordings. The drummer honors the late vibes master on Samba de Maracatu with a version of his composition “Visions.” Chambers nods to another major influence with Horace Silver’s “Ecaroh,” which he introduces with a shiver-inducing vibes solo. “To me, Horace Silver’s one of the great arranger-composers in any idiom,” Chambers says. “Horace wrote a lot of what I call ‘juke box hits.’ But he also wrote these extremely [complex pieces]. If you slowed ‘Ecaroh’ down, it would be like playing a Chopin sonata.”The drummer holds Shorter and Henderson in similar esteem. “It got pretty far out with Wayne Shorter,” he says, citing 1967’s Schizophrenia. “No juke box potential at all.” Same could be said for the challenging music he recorded with Sam Rivers, Andrew Hill and a young piano player, who, like himself, was making a name for himself in the mid’-60s. “I had been seeing and hearing Chick from when I first came to New York [in ’63],” Chambers says of Chick Corea, who died in February and with whom he played in trumpeter Blue Mitchell’s band. Corea invited Chambers to participate on the 1966 sessions for Tones for Joan’s Bones; displaying great drive and sensitivity, he proved the perfect drummer for an album that still sounds startlingly fresh.Chambers continues to inhabit a territory that straddles modernity and tradition. He likes using vocalists, and Stephanie Jordan offers a haunting version of “Never Let Me Go” on Samba de Maracatu. He also contracted rapper MC Parrain — like Jordan, out of New Orleans — to perform on “New York State of Mind Rain.” This was at the urging of his son, Fenton Chambers, who wrote lyrics to the track, which has a complicated history. In 1994, the rapper Nas had sampled Chambers’ composition “Mind Rain” for his track “New York State of Mind.” Chambers reclaims it with the “so-called sequel,” his vibes and the rhythm section holding the line for deep jazz expression. “I don’t have too much respect for sampling,” he says, still rankled by what he perceives as token payment for his intellectual property. “I have a guy who’s working the hip-hop market for me and he says [“New York State of Mind Rain”] is taking off; they like it. Chuck D likes it, buh-buh-buh-buh. Yeah, OK.”What would really excite him is another shot at bringing M’Boom back to the stage or studio. A 2019 concert at the Kennedy Center, with a full orchestra, whet his appetite. “And I still envision that concept,” he says. “But things have to open up.”Now PlayingWilliam Parker Mayan Space Station (AUM Fidelity)
Bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver add rhythmic muscle and ingenuity to the raunchy textures and deft ministrations of guitarist Ava Mendoza on the aptly titled Mayan Space Station. (If such a thing existed, Parker’s music is surely what it sounded like.) A disciple of Fred Frith with a penchant for Sonny Sharrock and Ornette Coleman, Mendoza exhibits a startling command of effects, somehow managing to make them sound completely organic as she sculpts tones that reference avant predecessors as well as surf and garage rock. Parker and Cleaver supply atavistic beats that race the pulse, conjuring ancient ritual and primal menace. Feature photo courtesy of UDiscoverMusic.com