Dennis Chambers has powered a veritable Who’s Who of the jazz world and beyond for over half a century. His multistratified bio to date features synergies with the likes of stellar guitarists John McLaughlin and John Scofield, the Brecker Brothers, rock-Latin jazz giant Carlos Santana, jazz fusion-funk keyboardist George Duke and the Parliament-Funkadelic collective to mention but a few.
The 63-year-old drummer says that for him it is all about the experience and spreading his net just about as far and wide as he possibly can. “To me, funk music is an attitude, a vibe and, if it’s serious, you feel it in your soul. That will make you move. Fusion music is a mixture of all styles of music – the blues, jazz, funk, rock.”
All of which course irrepressibly through Chambers’s silky percussive work and will be on display when he takes the stage at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat (November 10-12), along with United States-based Ukrainian-born Israeli pianist Ruslan Sirota, bassist Gilad Abro and percussionist Gadi Seri.
Chambers has been at it practically since he was old enough to walk and talk. He says his first point of percussive reference was a drummer called Bonnie who played “a four-piece champagne sparkle Gretsch kit. It was the only thing that would keep me still by watching this guy play and especially hitting these round gold-looking things that look like flying saucers, called cymbals.” Suitably inspired the youngster carried on from where Bonnie left off. “I would pick up anything to hit with and try to mimic him. I must’ve been three and half years old.”
He must also have shown talent, even at such a young age, as his parents opted to invest in a drum kit by the time he turned four. There was no stopping the kid. “I would practice by listening and mimicking records. So, for me, my lessons were just listening and mimicking all the greats that came before me,” he explains. Not a bad learning way to go. By the tender age of six he was a regular on the gigging circuit in the vicinity of his hometown of Baltimore, mostly playing soul music.
He also caught some of the iconic jazz cats doing their thing live, right before his dilated wondering young eyes. When he was just eight he was taken to see a gig fronted by legendary trumpeter Miles Davis. At that age, he was unable to fully appreciate the quality and the finer points of what was being rolled out from the bandstand. However, he certainly got the essence and dug the musicianship, particularly of the drummer. “I was too young to understand it but I knew I was seeing something great and I could not take my eyes off of [drummer] Tony Williams. It almost sounded like it was Tony Williams’s band featuring Miles Davis, [saxophonist] Wayne [Shorter], [bassist] Ron [Carter] and [pianist] Herbie [Hancock],” he says about Davis’s mid-1960s band known as the trumpeter’s Second Great Quintet.
“Tony played like the cops were outside waiting for him and that would be the last time he would play the drums. I had never seen anybody play like that before. A guy who can get in the way without getting in the way, and talking about such control and how he swung that band with a ride cymbal was pure genius. But you see somebody like [bebop founder feather] Max Roach and Alan Dawson influenced him.”
CHAMBERS HAPPILY borrowed from his seniors – the ones he met in his locale and others he heard on radio or vinyl – and hungrily imbibed from their experience, incorporating that into his own rapidly evolving style of playing. “The only mentors I had at that time were on record,” he recalls. “But I have to say it, I had some unbelievable local drummers at that time who took me under their wing and gave me great pointers.”
All that may be well and good but at some stage, you have to – as they say in jazz circles – find your own voice. You can hone your craft and achieve technical heights but that isn’t worth much if you don’t have your own way of telling the musical story. For Chambers that initially proved to be something of a double-edged sword. “I think I found my own voice when I realized I had a different way of feeling and hearing music. It was a curse at first because – as what we all go through playing in bands – there are other band members who want you to play like somebody else before they get a chance to really hear you.” Chambers stuck to his guns. “All I try to be is just be honest with myself, with what I hear and what I feel,” he states.
During the course of his 50-plus-years career to date, Chambers has demonstrated an ability to adapt and go with the flow across a range of genres and styles. The star acts he has worked with include the rock group Steely Dan, whose signature soul-tinged sound has predominantly been rhythm-driven since the band’s inception in 1971. Chambers got hooked on the group’s numbers as a youngster and occasionally landed in hot water as a result. “Well, I first heard Steely Dan when I was in my teen years. I remembered every morning right when I was getting dressed for school they would play [the title track from the 1977 album] Aja at a certain time every morning. And I would listen to that track every day before school. Some days I would miss the bus just listening to the genius work of [drummer] Steve Gadd’s solo at the end,” he chuckles.
Fast forward a decade and a half, and there is Chambers pumping out the decibels and beats as Steely Dan puts together its first live record in over 20 years, Alive In America. “Never in a million years did I think I would end up playing with these guys,” he laughs. “What an experience that was.”
Funk-jazz guitarist John Scofield and multi-directional British guitarist John McLaughlin also feature prominently in Chambers’s bulging bio. The drummer says he has reaped rich creative and professional rewards from both. “I love playing with John Scofield because he presents you with some music and, pretty much, you have to find your own way through it. He is just a free soul. To tell you the truth, I never heard anybody play like him and never heard him repeat himself twice the whole time I played with him. It was mind-blowing.”
He says he also had to play his own course with the Brit, a former Davis sideman. “My brother John McLaughlin is another one of those souls that will present music and, again, would not influence you to be anything other than yourself. The only thing he requires from you is to play for the gods and everything else will fall in place. All you have to do is just be honest with the music.”
That sounds like a wholesome approach to the business of performing music to the best of one’s ability and providing the audience with a show to remember. No doubt, Sirota, Abro and Seri will enjoy that line of thought, as will the crowd down in Eilat.
For tickets and more information about the Red Sea Jazz festival, visit: www.redseajazz.co.il.a