James Cammack: Where You At?
"Where You At?" is another track inspired by an important relationship in Cammack's life, his rhythm section partner in Jamal's ensemble for over fifteen years, drummer Idris Muhammad. "We'd be playing our butts off," relates Cammack, "and I might be a little tired on the set and I might lag behind him just a little, not noticeable but ever so slightly, and he'd look up and go, 'where you at?' I'd burst out laughing and go, 'I'm right here man.' I always remembered that phrase, and when I started thinking of this song, I started thinking. Where are you going in your life? What's motivating you in your life? Are you taking care with what you're doing? Cammack's solo on this numberno doubt fueled by the spirit of New Orleans legend Muhammadis particularly exuberant: "I just went hog-wild," Cammack says laughing.
Hog wild tells only part of the story, for throughout Both Sides of the Coin Cammack displays not only considerable chops, but equal finesse. There are few better or more intuitive bass accompanists than Cammack, though surprisingly perhaps he received little formal tuition, taking a couple of master classes with Dave Holland and Peter Ibbetson and a couple of lessons with Richard Davis: "Richard Davis is a monster," exclaims Cammack. It tickles Cammack to think that he and the venerable Davis were both born on April 15th, and in a further piece of symmetry, Davis had performed with Jamal some sixty years ago.
Davis also played regularly in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis orchestra at the Village Vanguard, and trumpeter/arranger Jones also made a large impact on Cammack: "Some of my all-time favorite bass parts written for a big-band are by Thad Jones. The bass parts on the charts were absolutely perfect. It was composed inside the harmonies and written in conjunction with what was happening in the horn sections. It was a very specific bass line, which I always observed, and being a young bassist it really influenced my thinking; I felt the urge to encourage, to emphasize what was happening harmonically at certain points; not all the time, but a lot of the time, whether I was playing behind singers, behind horns, behind a soloist and playing in Ahmad's trio."
In conversation Cammack often references Jamal, hardly surprising given his three- decade association in the pianist's small ensembles. How did Cammack, a completely unknown bassist at the time, come to join Jamal? All these years later, Cammack laughs incredulously about his good fortune one strange day in '83. Back then Cammack was in the West Point Army Band, having joined in '74 at the age of 18. Cammack takes up the story: "I was learning electric bass, but I was playing trumpet in the Army band. The Army Band was great because we played piles and piles of charts. So I was reading my butt off. And not only reading charts but I was reading Thad Jones charts, I was reading Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and all these big band charts and all these small group charts. Being in the band, that was my education."
In the '70s, Cammack was listening to Return to Forever, bassists Stanley Clarke and Ray Brown, but he cites bassists Milt Hinton, George Duvivier and Israel Cosby as his biggest influences. "I love listening," says Cammack. "Our biggest education as musicians is listening," he affirms. "It's listening to the vocabulary and assimilating it. Not just studying it but assimilating it, getting inside it and finding out what it's about. I'm still in the middle of that."
Cammack picks up the story again: "I was part of the Hellcats playing bugle and trumpet for the marching. There was a jazz band called the Jazz Knights and I was the alternate bassist. If the regular bassist wasn't there I'd do a lot of combo gigs, a lot of parties for the officers and stuff like that around WestPoint." Cammack cut his teeth after hours: "After that I'd go and gig my butt off outside," he says. "You know it's funny, I didn't get to the New York scene at all, I was mostly up in Hudson valley. I was doing a lot in the Catskills, I got into show bands up there and I did a lot of subbing for bass players. Between that and playing electric bass gigs, rock gigs, jazz gigs and funk gigs I was doing a lot of stuff. I was doing a lot of studying on my own."