Foundations – Paul Chambers
Fifteen albums recorded as part of Miles Davies’s group, fourteen with John Coltrane, eleven as his own band leader, plus a further one hundred and nineteen(!) albums in which he played alongside such jazz greats as Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Lee Morgan, and Theolonius Monk – not to mention being responsible for the most famous bass line in the whole of jazz, the sublime ‘So What’. This is an incredible achievement in anyone’s reckoning, yet the fact that Chambers had accomplished all of this before his untimely death at the age of just thirty-three makes it all the more remarkable.
Chambers was born in Pittsburgh in 1935 where he learnt to play the baritone horn while at school. Following his Mother’s death in 1948 he moved to Detroit to live with his Father and, by 1952, he’d abandoned the brass section and was playing double bass in his school’s symphony orchestra. Alongside his formal training, he developed a taste for jazz and – like all of the players of the period – found himself inspired by Duke Ellington’s formidable bassist, Jimmy Blanton. He began playing in Detroit’s jazz clubs as a teenager and in early 1955 toured as part of Paul Quinchette’s group. It became evident to Chambers that if he wanted to establish his reputation, he had to move to the hotbed of contemporary jazz – New York – and, following that tour’s conclusion, he relocated to Brooklyn and swiftly found work in the clubs of Greenwich Village backing saxophonist Jackie McClean. News of the arrival of this young hot-shot, out-of-town bassist quickly spread and soon they reached the ears of Miles Davis who invited him to join his recently formed quintet. His reputation as a solid and imaginative sideman quickly grew, making him one of the most in-demand players in New York although he remained working with Davis for the next eight years, playing on some of his greatest albums.
Chambers earliest recorded walking basslines at first seem deceptively simple, yet his measured, even-paced playing has a delicacy and almost playful sense of timing. Listening to his first studio outings such as the ‘Red Garland’s Piano’ album, ‘Introducing Kenny Burrell’, or on his initial recordings with the Miles Davis Quintet, such as ‘Workin’ and ‘Cookin’, and one is immediately struck with the fluidity of his energy-filled playing. However these performances – as impressive as they are for so youthful a player – sound tame in light of what was to come. Move forward a year to his playing on John Coltrane’s ‘Blue Train’ or with the Sonny Clark trio’s eponymous album and there is a joyful abandonment to his rhythms. His soloing, particularly when using the bow – a notoriously difficult technique for jazz, especially in the fast-flowing Be-Bop and Hard-Bop styles in which Chambers excelled – is mercurial and imaginative.
Yet it’s the releases under his own name that allowed him the most freedom and in which his most flamboyant playing may be found. He issued eleven solo albums in total but best of them all is 1957′s ‘Bass on Top’ which has become his most revered work.
The opening duet between Kenny Burrell’s electric guitar and Chambers’ bowed bass that starts ‘Yesterdays’ is at once both startlingly modern and yet timelessly classical, a melding of the jazz be-bop form with a traditional string soloist, like a collision of sixteenth and twentieth century musical cultures. For the second track, a version of Cole Porter’s ‘You’d be so nice to come home too’, Chambers displays a dazzling inventiveness as he weaves around the extended melody line before undertaking an elongated and ingenious solo. Whether it be ‘The Theme’s wild, soaring bowing, ‘Dear Old Stockholm’s subtle sensuality, or the straight-ahead walking jazz of ‘Chamber Mates’ (a variation on the ‘Straight No Chaser’ riff he’d recorded with Davis just a few weeks earlier), with this album he set the standard to which all double bass players had to aspire, something which is as true today as it was in 1957.
His other solo album from that year, ‘The Paul Chambers Quintet’, runs this disc a close second as it equally demonstrates his melodic capabilities. From the skittering, spider-like flow of ‘Minor Run-Down’ through ‘Softly as in a Morning Sunrise’s carrying of the full melody, or ‘Four Strings’ superlative bowing, Chambers improvisational inventiveness never ceases to impress.
If 1957 was the year that established Chambers reputation, further consolidated by his 1958 outings with Davis, Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley among others, it is the following year’s work by which his legacy is best remembered.
1959 is now considered to be a landmark year for jazz with the release of three of the most influential (and best-selling) jazz albums of all time, and Chambers played on two of them, Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ (in which he even provides the closing cut with its title – the sprightly ‘Mr. P.C.’) and Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ (the third being Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’).
With ‘Kind of Blue’, Chambers was faced with the dilemma of what a bass player is supposed to do when vast chunks of the tune they are playing sit on a single chord. It’s the way he makes those walking patterns continually interesting and the variations he chooses which make his performances on this record all the more remarkable (for example on ‘Freddie Freeloader’). Keeping a sense of swing when the beats are so slow, whilst simultaneously creating as much open space as possible, as he does on ‘Flamenco Sketches’ , whilst appearing deceptively simple is not easy to pull off effectively either. Plus – of course – there’s two of the most instantly recognisable basslines in all of jazz in ”All Blues’ and the sublime ‘So What ‘.
Chambers continued playing with Davis until 1963 when – it is said – arguments over money saw him quit, although – as was common among the jazz community at that time – his substance abuse may have been a likely contributory factor. He continued to record and perform with Benny Golson, Wynton Kelly, Kenny Dorham among others, but by this time his best work had already been completed.
Sadly Chambers died of Tuberculosis in 1969, brought upon by his addictions to heroin and alcohol. However the recordings he made remain the template for every jazz bassist since and you can hear echoes of his playing in everyone who came after, from Ron Carter through to Christian McBride, they all owe a debt to ‘Mr PC’.
Richard Scarr([email protected])