Joe Chambers: Urban Grooves

[18 December 2003]

By Robert R. Calder


This set might have been better named, but needs no packaging. If I’ve any real complaint, it’s maybe about the misspelling of Wynton Marsalis’s name in the notes. At least the company did concentrate much more than adequately on the music side. Mini-moan two: I’m a little wary of even the very sensitive use of the synthesizer (mag’ ich kein Moog!) sparingly on two or three titles. Presumably somebody thought the single horn needed a little help to complete a sort of orchestral ensemble effect. The danger of that device is that, instead of filling in or preventing a hole, the machine’s spread of sound can forfeit musical definition. You can wind up in a sort of with-strings overflow. Judged at any reasonable or moderate standard, this takes only a little of the edge off what’s in places jazz of the highest order.

Actually, I wish Joe Chambers had been prevailed upon to apply his genuinely original talent on vibes and/or marimba instead of using any electronics. He’s a great drummer (using “great” in a very precise sense and not as a vague and emotive expression of personal enthusiasm). I haven’t heard enough of his vibes and marimba playing to say whether he’s anywhere near as great on those instruments, but the interesting thing is how far from directly percussive or “drummerly” his approach is on both. He has a real feel for texture, and a delicate line, letting the notes resonate not with an ethereal sort of shimmer but more the sort of drifting sound which went from Lester Young into the cool. Chambers is a melodist, and his compositions on this eminently recommendable CD have a melodic beauty rare these days.

Gary Bartz’s range of sound here on alto does at times echo Lee Konitz’s, in the way that, say, Harry Allen on tenor sometimes finds areas of sound Konitz’s great and underrated contemporary Herbie Steward ranged into. The music’s not monochrome.

It’s especially interesting to hear Gary Bartz on Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood”, where the bridge usually points to a swelling of tone such as Johnny Hodges mastered. Bartz takes it with a gentle wry smile, lightening his alto sound and in a unison blend with the pianist. Elsewhere his soprano playing is very remarkable, helping heal scars I still feel from hearing recent abuses on the same sort of horn.

After a first track mostly given over to exercises in rhythm and dynamics, The harmonic invention which opens the second track is a curtailed version of an old Errol Garner trick: playing around with motifs compiled from what’s to follow. You don’t know what’s coming (Eric Reed sounds nothing like Garner, I should insist) and the surprise of what finally opens up must avoid the crassness of a joke. It must also make sense of the striking harmonic creation which came before, and which returns in Eric Reed’s accompaniment as a lingering strange atmosphere. The sheer energy and propulsive drive of Rufus Reid’s bass here defy belief. “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise” emerges with its European colours spelled out. The third title opens with a fragment of synthesiser, Bartz like Konitz on some of the wilder though quiet things he did with Lennie Tristano, the leader’s marimba playing few notes; then there’s a delight of delicate interplay. Everything coheres as they all move into an explicit theme statement of “Sid’s Ahead”, having travelled separately and come together at one of the milestones which gave the name to the Miles Davis album on which that tune was premiered..

“In a Sentimental Mood” is an exercise in “that medium tempo at which interesting things happen”. The piano trio “Stella” opens with Rufus Reid as frontline soloist; the pianist solos with an old quote at the beginning and near the end a strong hint of how many notes per minute Eric Reed can play if he wants to. He contrives by quieting down to lift Rufus Reid’s bass to the fore. There’s a sort of interplay between the two which demonstrates an astonishing rapport, and usually happens rather on live dates than in the studio. Reid has a wonderful tonal range—his bass can sing with a blooming fullness, especially when as on “Stella” a pianist’s tender quiet playing allows such unforced prominence. After that the pianist takes over, lets his imagination play and by coming to the edge of (for want of a better word) Debussy, he almost brings the performance to a dead stop. Whereupon in walks Reid with millisecond-perfect timing.

“Surrey with a Fringe on Top” has an extraordinarily frisky stallion of a bassist challenging the men with the reins, first Reed, getting in control before he lets the critter pick up some pace, and hands over to the drummer. They’re racing, and then everything’s brought back without mishap to the paddock.

Chambers’s “Irina” is dreamy; he wrote the tune for Bobby Hutcherson, but is his own man on vibes behind Bartz. “Portia” opens with atmospheric synthesizer and percussion behind the alto lead. The piano takes over with delicacy, and what was once an electronic Miles Davis theme becomes more like Gil Evans. Bartz sits out Chambers’s “Afreeka”, which opens like George Russell back at the creation of the world. Reed playing in unison with Bobby Sanabria’s percussion raises Caribbean oil-can drums from the void, and then without abandoning his own sound he makes a fist of trying to terrify Monty Alexander. Rufus Reid adds leaven to the ecstatic then galloping drums which over Sanabria’s percussion bring this splendid introduction to a new label to a nice ensemble close. I would like to hear more of this band; my musical reservations regarding this disc concern mainly the opening track and the penultimate “Portia”. They do go on a bit without very obvious development, but maybe the ears need a rest when confronted with a CD which at times made me think of some superlatives. I’m still thinking of these superlatives—some of this music is very, very good.

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