James Cammack: Where You At?
For more than fifteen of the 29 years Cammack played with Jamal, Idris Muhammad held the drum chair, in what was one of the greatest of all modern piano trios. Muhammad, who retired in 2010, is held in enormous regard by Cammack: "Idris, boy, what a drummer! You'll never see that again," states Cammack. "I always felt a great respect for what he was doing. His time-keeping, his judgment of dynamics and his sensitivity to what Mr. Jamal was doing was extraordinary, and he would always pull me in."
" I love grooving my butt off," Cammack continues, "but I feel like there's something else that has to happen too, something that creates a sense of 'ensembleship' between the pianist, the bassist and the drums, and anything else that's happening. Idris is that kind of player also, and it's from him that I really learned so much about flexing towards people, towards the piano, towards the saxophonist. He would not only groove his face off, but you could feel that he was encouraging you to follow him, not dictating, but encouraging. He would gravitate towards you, he would gravitate towards the soloist. Idris was my mentor. Every time we played together it was a learning experience."
When Muhammad "went a-fishin' instead of just a-wishin" as Jamal put it, the drum chair was filled variously by Kenny Washington, Troy Collins, James Johnson and, to this day, by another New Orleans master time-keeper, Herlin Riley. Riley's arrival was a homecoming of sorts, as he had previously played with Jamal and Cammack from 1984 to 1987. Other than a one-off sub appearance with the trio a few years ago when Muhammad was unavailable, Cammack hadn't played with Riley in almost a quarter of a century: "I had been hoping Herlin would step in when Idris went," says Cammack, "and all of a suddenI'll never forget itpoof! Here comes Herlin. He's such a tremendous drummer. It was great to play with him in that environment again. He's an extraordinary drummer and I played great time with him"
Whether the triooften a quartet with percussionist Manolo Badrena was performing with Muhammad, or latterly with Riley, one of the most striking things about watching a Jamal concert is the closeness of the musicians: "We sit close to Mr. Jamal because we need to be able to catch his cues," explains Cammack. "We need to be able to smell what happens next because sometimes we don't know what's gonna happen. So, that allows us good clear visual contact and immediate contact. He's saying 'ok, we're gonna go over here.' Boom! Gone. And it's in split second timing that it happens."
Cammack has habitually stood to the left of Jamal: "I'm at his left hand, not that I'm watching his left hand, but I'm sensing what he's gonna do next. I'm listening directly to the piano, not just the sound system or what's happening in the air, to hear what's happening next. In that way I can stand back and relax. If you get to far away you could lose contact. The visual is important but I've got to the point where I put my ears way up in there because the music floats above us too. I not only listen to him directly but to keep a good ensemble sense I kind of throw my ears into the atmosphere above us and make sure my part is in the proper place."
Though Cammack is in no doubt that he was fired by Jamal, he is at an evident loss as to why: "I gave 110% every time, man." However, if Cammack feels any bad blood towards his former employer he's keeping it to himself. Cammack retains tremendous dignity when discussing his dismissal and he hasn't a bad word to say about Jamal. On the contrary, Cammack is still humbled by their long association: "Ahmad is not your normal, so-called jazz pianist. He is completely different to anybody. He is unbridled. He's not a traditional pianist, no, no, no. He's 82 years old. He needs to be seen by everybody before he decides to stop doing it. It's important for the music world to catch a whiff of what this man is about. I felt so privileged to be a part of it every time."
Cammack's long-standing commitment to Jamal left him little opportunity to record or tour widely with other musicians, but one project in particular has left an indelible mark on him. Director Pierre-Yves Borgeaud's moving documentary, Retour à Gorée (2007), with Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour, follows the trail of African slaves to America and the roots of jazz that they brought with them. Cammack was pulled into the project by Muhammad, and filming took place in Senegal, Atlanta, New Orleans, New York and Luxembourg.