Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Mr. P. C. The Life and Music of Paul Chambers - Rob Palmer

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Jazz musicians are their music. Absent that, they're just people making a living, eating meals, paying bills — no different from cops or politicos. But that's just the point: the music can't be subtracted: it's the defining essence, which sets musicians apart, makes them special and ultimately a little mysterious. Makes their various complexes and misbehaviors interesting to writers, chroniclers, fans.”
- Richard Sudhalter, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contributions to Jazz, 1915-1945

Since Jazz musicians are their music,” what better way to write a biography of a Jazz musician than to centered it on the musician’s music as it appears on his recordings?  This is especially the case when the subject it being treated retrospectively without the benefit of an interview.

And this is exactly what bassist Rob Palmer has done in his comprehensive overview of the career of Paul Chambers - Mr. P.C. The Life and Music of Paul Chambers [Bristol, CT: Equinox Publishing LTD, 2012]. Valerie Hall, the Editorial and Marketing Manager at Equinox is offering JazzProfiles readers a 25% discount using the code Jazz when ordering from the Equinox website.

Rob explains how and why he chose this format in the following Introduction to his book:

Miles Davis, Relaxin'
Miles Davis, 'Round about Midnight
Miles Davis, Miles Ahead
Miles Davis, Porgy and Bess
Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain
Miles Davis, Milestones
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
John Coltrane, Blue Train
John Coltrane, Giant Steps
Jackie McLean, Capuchin Swing
Hank Mobley, Soul Station
Hank Mobley, Workout
Sonny Clark, Cool Struttin'
Wynton Kelly, Kelly at Midnite
Joe Henderson, Four
Oliver Nelson, Blues and the Abstract Truth
Wes Montgomery, Full House
Wes Montgomery, Smokin' at the Half Note
Art Pepper, Meets the Rhythm Section
Sonny Rollins, Tenor Madness

“The above list could easily be representative of every interested forty-something’s top twenty favourite jazz albums; a panoply of hard-bop, be-bop, orchestral and modal jazz. There will be very few genuine jazz enthusiasts who do not own at least a small handful of the recordings mentioned above and there are more than a few that will have all of them on their shelves at home. The list incorporates some of the most listened-to and talked-about jazz of the 1950s and '60s, if not of the history of the idiom itself. Kind of Blue is one of, if not the, best-selling jazz albums of all time (depending on your definition of jazz), with sales of the numerous re-issues and re-mixes reportedly exceeding the three million mark. It was the most commercially successful recording of Miles Davis's career. Although many precedents had earlier provided the opportunity for players and listeners alike to explore the potential of this particular sub-genre, it is this Miles Davis classic that is often credited as introducing the concept of modal playing into the mainstream field of jazz.

Giant Steps the title track of the second of Coltrane's three celebrated masterpieces (the first being Blue Train and the third A Love Supreme) is a further example of ground-breaking innovation in the field of jazz music, albeit of a very different kind. This recording, while involving more than one of Miles Davis's sidemen from Kind of Blue, was, in Alyn Shipton's words, "the antithesis of simplicity.' While occasionally acknowledged as the pinnacle of expression in terms of melodic invention around the use of complex forms, this track, at the very least, drew the music community's attention to a specific and demanding sequence of chords that is still referred to by musicians as "Giant Steps changes" despite the fact that the sequence had been heard before in more than one setting. Even today, in many circles, a musician's ability to negotiate these particular changes freely and creatively is considered a fundamental measure of competence.

It is not widely known that the recording sessions that produced Kind of Blue and Giant Steps were undertaken within a matter of weeks; Miles entered the CBS recording studio on Thirtieth Street, New York, on 2 March 1959, with some small scraps of paper on which he had scribbled the material that was to become part of Kind of Blue while most of the material on Coltrane's Giant Steps was recorded on 4 and 5 May 1959, around eight weeks later (although earlier sessions that featured the material Coltrane had prepared for that LP were under way by 1 April). There were several other classic recordings that took place during the early months of 1959 and it would not be unreasonable to suggest that, creatively speaking, the spring of that year could be described as a fertile period in jazz history.

Miles Davis's recordings of the material for the Columbia LPs Sketches of Spain (1959 and 1960) and Porgy and Bess (1960), both orchestrated by composer/arranger Gil Evans, are still two of his best-loved works, even amongst less committed jazz fans. The origins of these two works, neither of which was originally conceived as "jazz" in any conventional sense, both benefit from what could be considered an informal relationship with mainstream popular culture. For the layman, this allows each piece a degree of familiarity that, in turn, renders the Davis/Evans versions exotic and interesting rather than alien and inaccessible.

At the time of his Tenor Madness recording in 1956, Sonny Rollins was considered to be one of the most respected tenor saxophonists in jazz. His reputation as one of the idiom's most advanced thematic improvisers was all but unassailable. His status amongst jazz musicians was, and remains, legendary and his periodic withdrawals from live performances (1959 to 1961 and 1969 to 1971) leave little doubt that Rollins was one of the most
uncompromising performers recording at that time and "a man of unquestioned artistic courage" The music recorded on Tenor Madness pays testimony to his reputation and provides evidence of his talent.

The recording of Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, another classic album from the period, took place shortly after Pepper's release from prison in 1957. It is interesting to note that the publicity department at Contemporary Records, the producers of Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, saw fit to package Pepper's post-sentence "re-launch" (one of several) on the basis that he had been teamed up with the rhythm section of the day and not just a rhythm section. The fact that this release was marketed on the basis that Pepper's improvisations were accompanied by the personnel that the great Miles Davis was then using as his rhythm section is testimony to the esteem with which these three musicians were held at that time. It is apparent, from his biography, that Pepper was thrilled at being afforded the opportunity to record with what was generally agreed to be the greatest rhythm section of its day. His delight at the quality of the music produced during the session and subsequently released is also a matter of record.

Among the albums listed above, we can hear the work of at least five trumpet players, around eight saxophonists, six pianists and at least five drummers. The list, however, represents the work of just one bass player. What makes this list of iconic jazz recordings special is that it amounts to only a tiny part of the immense discography of the work of a single man: the double-bass player Paul Chambers, the young musician who inspired Coltrane to write his legendary minor blues, the evergreen jam session staple, Mr PC Red Garland to pen The P.C. Blues and Tommy Flanagan to compose his own Big Paul.

Chambers recorded over 300 LPs for record labels as varied as Columbia, Riverside, Blue Note, Savoy, Veejay, United Artists, Prestige and Impulse. He played with almost every great instrumentalist from the mid-fifties to the late sixties, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Stanley Turrentine, johnny Griffin, Wayne Shorter, Clark Terry, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, Art Blakey, jimmy Cobb, Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Roy Haynes and Paul Motian. The list is extensive. Chambers played bass on some of the top-selling jazz albums in the history of the music and contributed significantly to some of the most critically acclaimed and historically important LPs of all time. As one critic said: "Even when you couldn't hear Paul Chambers, ... it was clear that everything was built around him".

Like many bass players in the history of this music, Paul Chambers has often gone unnoticed in the discussions around these recordings, the emphasis remaining on the so-called front-line players like Davis, Coltrane, Rollins and Monk. The purpose of this book is to pay homage to the unsung heroes of jazz, its bass players, and to specifically explore the life of and contributions made to this most noble of musics by the quiet legend that is Paul Chambers.”

In the ensuing ten chapters, Rob takes us through the highlights of Paul Chambers recording career which began in 1954 and ended in 1968 [Paul died on January 4, 1969 from complications associated with tuberculosis.]

Upon reflection, it is amazing what Paul accomplished in a performing and recording career that lasted a mere 13 years.

Two constant and recurring elements or themes in Rob’s examination of Chambers’ work in all of its stages are contained in the following excerpts:

[1] “Paul Chambers was an ordinary man, a man who took a raw talent and worked hard with that talent to become the best musician that he could possibly be. He wasn't good because he was black. He wasn't good because he was from Detroit. He wasn't good because he knew Doug Watkins or Ray Brown or because he bathed in the glow of legends like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. He was good because he worked hard, because he invested considerable time and effort, blood and sweat, in developing the techniques required to master his chosen instrument. There is no magic here, no folklore; these skills were earned the hard way, through hours of systematic practice, day after day, night after night, week after week and year after year. Chambers spent time processing musical concepts, considering harmonic theories, learning and practising chord sequences, playing solo bass etudes with a bow, building up his strength and his calluses, talking to his peers, wheeling his bass across Detroit and New York, jamming with other musicians, some younger, many older, listening to those who influenced him both live and on record, immersing himself, body and soul, in the music they call jazz and investigating elements of the classical repertoire.

The skills that allowed him to hold one of the most prestigious bass chairs in the world were not handed to Chambers on a plate. He had to go looking for them himself. Chambers was no autodidact - he had at least three teachers of considerable experience and ability - but there are no shortcuts to acquiring the skills made evident throughout his thirteen-year professional career. His concept of swing was not made available through his genes or his cultural heritage but through work sustained over nearly twenty years as a practicing musician.” [pp.335-336]

[2] “Paul Chambers's contribution to the development of the bass is not easily defined. He was not an innovator in the conventional sense. His time playing finds precedent in the work of Ray Brown and Wendell Marshall. His arco soloing is an extension of the work of Slam Stewart and Major Holley and there are, in any event, some credible sources that are critical of this aspect of his playing. His bebop soloing has its origins in the work of Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus, Red Mitchell, Ray Brown and Red Callender. To suggest that Chambers was an entirely fresh voice on the instrument does not bear close scrutiny. What he did do, however, was to consolidate a series of important but independent innovations, bring them all together in the person of a single musician and introduce some of those concepts to the listening public for the first time.

Chambers was an extremely skilled and competent journeyman bass player, a musician who could deliver on all areas of his instrument to a consistently high standard and, most importantly, to the benefit of the music being performed. Much of his work, however, was that of a professional craftsman, able to deliver a consistent product to order. There were moments of supreme excellence, many of which have been discussed here, but to deify the man as a unique voice is to distort the real contribution he made to the idiom. Nevertheless, Chambers's contribution to the development of his chosen instrument cannot be entirely dismissed. As is so often the case with the history of an instrument's role in any musical genre, its innovators and groundbreakers are not necessarily its most renowned practitioners.” [p. 331]

Rob’s observations about Paul’s style and his place in the scheme of things form underlying themes as he follows the evolution of Paul’s career from its earliest years on the “Motor City Scene” [Detroit, MI] to his years as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet from 1955-1963, to the after Miles years which included touring with pianist Wynton Kelly and drummer Jimmy Cobb and becoming involved in “the session work that was starting to role in.” [p. 276].

Of particular interest to me as Rob takes us through Paul’s recording career as a sideman and as a leader is the way in which he brings in other bassists to describe what Paul is actually doing on bass and how many of the tunes that he plays on are structured. He offers a kind of insider’s perspective on how Paul played as well as what is going on in the music.

Here’s an example of the former with bassist Peter Washington commenting on a technical aspect of Paul’s playing:

“It's hard technically to play like Paul... It's just hard in a different way. It's very hard to play melodically in half of first position which Paul did. And make it clear, and make it ... you know, all those interesting intervals he plays. I think it's hard to do that as it is to do what Scott LaFaro did, in a different way... A lot of Paul's solos, you can play without moving out of half position, and when you think about how melodic it is, his hand is just like this the whole time. Pretty amazing! And that's why he's very clever to play like that. Because when you play like that, you get consistency of power in the sound. And you are playing things that are in the character of the bass ... The power of sound that Paul had, and play low on the bass, and clearly. That's something else ... He had a complete unity between what he wanted to do creatively, and his mastery of the instrument. Everything he learned about playing the bass technically served his creativity. I mean, he knew that to play most of the songs in one position is going to give him a stronger, more consistent, clear sound.” [pp. 105-106]

And more of the same, this time from bassist Christian McBride:

“... the first record I heard Paul Chambers on was Kind of Blue. Just the overall feeling of the way he walked, his pulse, the combination of his sound and his feeling, particularly his sound. I was 11 years old and I'm thinking "Wow, this guy has to be one of the greatest bass players in the world". I later heard him on a bunch of Blue Note records, like John Coltrane's Blue Train and Kenny Dorham's Whistle Stop, Sonny Clark's Sonny's Crib. There are so many records I heard Paul Chambers on after that, but it all started with Kind of Blue.” [p. 182]

Chuck Israels, bassist with the Bill Evans Trio amongst others, had another take on Chambers’s playing:

“Chambers would sometimes find some notes in between the note..., putting four pitches in a line in which there was only room for three. For example, if he had to get from D to F and he had to play four notes in there and he happened to be going chromatically, he would go from a D to a flattened E flat to a sharpened E flat to an E to an F. Maybe he played the D on the downbeat of one measure and wanted the F to be the downbeat of the next measure and didn't want to break the chromatic nature of the line, so he made the line even more chromatic, micro-tonally chromatic. It was a very beautiful thing.” [p. 176]

Bassist John Goldsby comments on Paul work on Giant Steps from the Coltrane Atlantic album by the same name: “Chambers negotiated the bass lines with great grace and aplomb, while playing lines that outlined the jagged [chord] progression’s root movement.” [p. 191]

Rob also includes comparisons between bassist styles to help elucidate how Chambers evolved his own, distinctive style:

“Although Chambers was influenced by Ray Brown's playing a lot, each one had his own identity. Both Brown and Chambers know the instrument so they use all the notes from the lower to higher register on the bass fluently. In Brown's case, he uses open strings more often in his bass lines so he is in tune more of the time; also he could jump from note to note and come back with less risk, and his using open strings mixed with other notes (including harmonics) became almost patternised sometimes. His plucking would be much harder when he swung madly with the band, especially in mid-tempo. He varies the mood by using different rhythmic variations - triplet, irregular accents on the beat, and sixteenth note figures especially on ballad tunes, which Paul doesn't do much - during his walking bass. On the other hand, Paul hardly moved his left hand - he would play all the notes in one hand position; also he keeps the consistency of every note he plays. His tone may have seemed rather blunt because of the length of notes - rather short - and rare slides on the bass, but it was pure. [p. 176 as drawn from S. Shim, “Paul Chambers: His Life and Music,” 1999 Masters Thesis, Rutgers]

As someone who has always been interested in what makes a Jazz special and interesting, one of the outstanding aspects of Rob’s treatment of Paul’s recorded career are his descriptions of the structure of the tunes on the seminal albums listed at the beginning of his Introduction.

In addition to the 341 pages of text that make up the body of his work, Rob provides a select bibliography and a listing of footnotes per chapter. The book is particularly notable for the inclusion of a 64-page discography.

If you are a fan of Jazz from this era, you simply can’t go wrong using a copy of Mr. P. C. The Life and Music of Paul Chambers as your aural narrative through the music associated with Paul’s career.

It’s not often that a book about Jazz comes along that offers both a cogent and coherent biography of one of the principals of the post World War II Modern Jazz movement, as well as, an illuminating [and easy-to-read] guide to what’s going on with and within the music.

Rob’s book on the life and music of Paul Chambers is one of those rare occasions when this hoped for alignment occurs and, as such, you may wish to include it on your gift list for the upcoming holiday season.

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