By JOHN STATON, Wilmington StarNews
WILMINGTON, NC (AP) — When it comes to jazz, legendary label Blue Note has long represented the pinnacle of musical form, releasing albums by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and many other jazz icons.
Earlier this year, Wilmington-based composer and percussionist Joe Chambers – who has performed and recorded with Davis, Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea and many others over a nearly 60-year career – released his own album for the world-renowned Blue Note label.
“Samba de Maracatu” was recorded last year in the Wilmington area with North Carolina jazz musicians, perhaps becoming Port City’s first product with a direct Blue Note connection.
The album, produced by Chambers and on which he performs, includes both original (“Circles”, the title track) and Chambers-arranged renditions of existing jazz compositions by Horace Silver (“Ecaroh”), Bobby Hutcherson (“Visions”) and others. “Samba de Maracatu” effortlessly blends traditional jazz styles with a mix of Cuban, African, and especially Brazilian rhythms that Chambers explores on drums, vibraphone, and other instruments.
The album’s title track has nearly 100,000 views on YouTube.
For Chambers, 79 — he moved from New York to Wilmington in 2008 to become the Thomas S. Kenan Professor Emeritus of Jazz in UNCW’s music department, a position he retired from in 2013 — the return to Blue Note is in a way a full moment of a circle.
When he moved to New York in 1963, “I was thrust, almost immediately, into the Blue Note business,” Chambers said in a telephone interview. “It’s something that just happened. I was pretty busy recording with people in the ’60s,” including respected progressive jazz artists like Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson.
He was so busy, in fact, that when Blue Note asked him to record an album as the band’s frontman in the 1960s, he turned down the label.
“No business sense,” Chambers said with a chuckle. “I always say I was spaced out, which I was, spaced out. But I was very busy recording and playing and touring with bands and stuff, and I said I wasn’t ready to do that.
Not that the decision would prove fatal to his career, exactly, as Chambers would go on to play and record with the best of the best in the jazz world, including a stint with Max Roach’s groundbreaking percussion ensemble M’ Boom.
He also continued to record solo albums for other labels, including Blue Note in 1998, making his solo debut for the label with “Mirrors”.
Still, Chambers said, his history with Blue Note played a big part in his drive to return more than 50 years after first playing with the label, which is now part of the Universal Music Group conglomerate and features big-name artists. like Norah Jones. .
“It means a lot” to be back, he said.
In 2019, after UDiscoverMusic published an article about Chambers’ work with Blue Note, producer Don Was, who runs the label, caught wind of the story and gave Chambers the green light for a new album. .
The original plan was to record in New York with New York musicians, and Chambers traveled to the city in February 2020 to rehearse in preparation for studio dates in March of that year.
“Then the pandemic hit,” Chambers said. “I got out, really, just in time. I left town just before the pandemic took over.
“I was definitely not going to go back to New York,” he added. “So I told them I was going to do it here in North Carolina.”
Chambers enlisted bassist Steve Haines, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro whom Chambers first met in New York, and longtime Wilmington pianist (and practicing dermatologist) Brad Merritt, whom Chambers calls “one hell of a player.”
“Samba de Maracatu” was recorded by JK Loftin of Wilmington at Mike’s Music Studios in Rocky Point and Cape Fear Studio in Wilmington.
What’s striking about the album is its effortless intricacy, with Chambers driving the action with his drums and laying down the shimmering melodies of the vibraphone.
“I’m still a percussionist,” Chambers. “But people forget, vibraphone is percussion. Vibraphone and marimba”.
He doesn’t exactly do fusion, but he fuses different elements of music throughout his career. In that sense, it’s a massive album. Chambers’ arrangement of the jazz standards ‘You and the Night and the Music’ and ‘Never Let Me Go’ – the latter made famous by Nat King Cole, and here features the singer’s voice from New Orleans Stephanie Jordan – is a nod to mid-20th century jazz forms. The hip-hop-infused “New York State of Mind Rain” (which mixes Nas’ 1994 hip-hop hit “NY State of Mind” with Chambers’ own “Mind Rain”) is perhaps leaning towards the to come up.
Other tracks are rhythmic explorations of the type Chambers says he’s been fascinated with “ever since I was little. As for the rhythmic aspect of what I do, I’ve always leaned towards syncretic rhythms” that mix the musical traditions of Cuba, Africa, Brazil and other countries. “It swings harder than anything.”
Chambers said he worried about the future of jazz, in part because of the concentration of music in academic circles.
“Jazz has become like a museum piece in a sense,” he said. “Schools are good, of course, but you can’t really learn to play jazz in a school. And I taught in a school.
Yet there are signs of life. The 2020 Pixar film “Soul” was a popular film with a jazz-driven story, and Chambers said he sees promise in players like Wilmington saxophonist Benny Hill, who is “a great player.” It needs to be heard,” Chambers said. “He could be in New York.”
As for Chambers, he is looking forward to some European dates he has planned for 2022. He has also long wanted to perform at Thalian Hall in Wilmington, a city Chambers has called home for over a decade now.
“What kept me here? Property taxes,” Chambers said with a laugh. “It’s the housing situation. But it really is a nice place to live.
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