Charles Fambrough: City Tribes

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I was fortunate. My goal in life was to play with McCoy Tyner. My goal in life was to play with Trane if he was alive. And Art Blakey.
[ed. note: We're celebrating the life and music of bassist Charles Fambrough who passed away on January 1, 2011. This interview with Kimberly Barry was conducted in April 1996.]

In his thirty-year career, bassist, bandleader and composer Charles Fambrough has played with McCoy Tyner, Grover Washington Jr., Art Blakey, Flora Purim and Airto Moreira, the Fort Apache Band, and Egberto Gismonti, among others.

He is a prolific composer whose songs have been recorded by the Jazz Messengers, Roy Hargrove, Stanley Turrentine, Craig Handy and Joe Ford. Fambrough's love for contemporary African-American, Latin and Brazilian music has been evident from his first recording as a leader, The Proper Angle (CTI, 1991).

His forthcoming release for New Groove Records features a diverse aggregation of styles and players—from Washington, Jon Lucien and George Duke, to modern straight-ahead pianists Mulgrew Miller and Bruce Barth. Fambrough is the consummate musician unencumbered by labels or limitations, and refuses to confine his creativity to the jazz mainstream.

In this interview from April, 1996, Fambrough discusses his 1995 Evidence release, City Tribes.

All About Jazz: James Williams once said you do everything "with a lot of taste." You're a great composer and arranger and the interesting thing about this album [City Tribes]—and a common thread in all of your composition—is a strong Latin and Brazilian influence. We also know how much you love funk and rhythm and blues. The great thing about this record is the way you fuse these elements.

Charles Fambrough: A lot of contemporary Brazilian beats incorporate a type of fusion or funk-suggested rhythm in their music. So I just reversed it; I put funk down as a basis and applied those rhythms above the feel.

AAJ: You told me you woke up one morning and had the tune ("City Tribes") in it's entirety in your head.

CF: I heard the vibe of it; I got the idea of the tune from a rhythm that Marlon Simon showed me on the congas. They're two rhythms; a funk rhythm in 4/4 and a guaguanco rhythm that's played against that... I'm sure it's been done before, but it's a very tasty concept. What I did is take a very basic line—that tune is based off a bass line—and put the horns around the bass line. What makes it move is the polarities between funk and the guaguanco. What really makes it interesting is the Brazilian influence. There's a counter to the guaguanco which is on the other side of the rhythm. So you have three atmospheres going on at the same time. I contribute that to the musicians.

AAJ: You play more electric bass on this record that anything you're previously recorded before. Was it because you brought a new bass [to the session]?

CF: Probably. It felt so good in my hands I couldn't get rid of it! It was the adventure of finding out the different parameters of it... it wasn't premeditated. I had no intention of playing electric bass on any of this record.

AAJ: "Add-A-Lessons" is a play on the word "adolescence." When you gave me the tape for this, I immediately noticed a melancholy undercurrent to the song. Tell us about what inspired it.

CF: I was all over the place in my adolescence. I was studying classical music, and my true goal was to be a jazz musician. I was kind of torn with the idea of playing classical music. I was dedicating my time and energy to studying it. At that time in my life, the picture of a jazz musician was so bleak. I had people around me constantly reminding me of that. The beauty of it was that it was truly the concept that I loved to play jazz. In spite of all the other opinions, I chose to play it, with a lot of adversity. It wasn't easy. Every day it was "get a job, work, go back to school," because I left a full scholarship to play jazz. One day I was reflecting on those times and I wrote that tune. That tune is like a struggle between yin and yang, I guess. But I'm glad I made this decision. It gave me a sense of wholeness.

AAJ: Why did you use two percussionists [Cafe and Marlon Simon] on this record?

CF: They're both different. One is an Afro-Cuban percussionist and one is Brazilian. Although they're based from Africa [the rhythms] they have different flavors. Cafe is a master of accessories, like the berimbau, bells and shekeres. Marlon is familiar with all the lines in Afro-Cuban music.

AAJ: The composition "Canto De Guebra," that's capoiera music. Tell us about the genesis of that tune.

CF: That was a tune where we were going for an ethnic, real raw sounding vibe. The singing obviously is raw [laughs]. It was a little different because very rarely do you find the upright bass in that scenario. The berimbau is featured. I knew exactly what that storyline was. It tells about how Cafe came here and he's integrating with the musicians in this region and his story of how he came from Brazil.

AAJ: The last two records you've recorded, Keeper of The Spirit and City Tribes, have included authentic original Afro-Cuban or Brazilian compositions. Was that by accident?

CF: It's sort of like a window. It's like you're searching beyond the realms of the need to write music. It's more a search for information. I hope to always put something on my record that is from an authentic nature. My natural instinct would be to put something that stretches beyond the realm of what I normally do.

AAJ: Does that influence comes from working with Airto?

CF: Airto showed me how to play the berimbau. When I used to work with Airto and Flora Purim, we used to start our gig with him playing the berimbau and singing alone. It seemed very significant; it seemed to connect all the spirits that were on stage. I didn't realize how significant it was. What I tried to do was connect all the spirits from that date [City Tribes] to one place.

AAJ: How did the Afro-Cuban arrangement of Wayne Shorter's "Dolores" evolve? Originally you arranged it as a ballad.

CF: The percussionists were on a roll. We'd just finished playing "City Tribes" and they said "What else can we do?" They were on a roll. At this point, my intention was to play this song on piano solo and put synths on it. I wrote these elaborate chord changes which are not really in that arrangement. I was going to do it as a ballad. I was going to do it as a trio with tenor saxophone; [the percussionists] were inspiring. I attribute the switch of attitude to them.

AAJ: We've been talking about the percussionists, but you also have a very fine drummer on this release.

CF: Ricky Sebastian is a thread that weaves between those two percussionists, and he's almost transparent. That was an amazing job; all of the percussionists were, but Ricky was amazing. You never have to worry about the time. You can go away and have coffee, come back and he's still there.

AAJ: He's a pretty versatile guy. Isn't he from New Orleans?

CF: Yes. He and Cafe played together for years so they have a bond. Those guys are very open, so Marlon just fit right in. There was no vibe on that date. A lot of times when you have these sessions, musicians come in with extra baggage. Usually it's their egos. Once you get past that point...

AAJ: IF you get past that point...

CF: ...you can create. But on this date, I have to say that there was no problem with egos. Everybody was really cool and everybody was there to make the music better.

AAJ: I know Wayne Shorter is a very important influence compositionally. What attracts you to his music?

CF: For me, the combinations of voicings that Wayne Shorter uses, even to date, are very progressive. Wayne has the ability to write very profound harmonies. The structure that he and Herbie Hancock use, a lot of musicians tend to overlook. Serious musicians at some point have to investigate Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. Especially in today's settings. I'm not taking anything from anyone else, but they contributed a wealth of knowledge that really hasn't been exploited as far as musicians go. There are tunes like "The Sorcerer" and "The Collector," and different tunes that you have to be able to play and be on another level of knowing harmony to really deal with [the tunes]. They're are standardized ways of playing; you can't standardize your way through those types of tunes. You have to have a deep understanding of what you're doing. I know a lot of great musicians would crash and burn on those tunes because they don't listen to them. They just dismiss those musicians [Hancock and Shorter]. It's a drag that we don't celebrate them more while they're alive. I don't understand it.

AAJ: People say that your music is complex. I have a photocopy of the lead sheet for "Life Above The Means" in my office. One of my musicians friends looked at it and said "Charles wrote that!" because it was complex and difficult to play. My musician friends agree that your tunes sound simple on the surface, but when they actually try to deal with them, the tunes are quite complex. Obviously that comes from listening to and being inspired by, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.

CF: I try to go in that direction. I try to make a melody that you can sing, but once the melody is gone, you have to know what you're doing. If not, it's over. You can't "hear" it; you have to "know" it. There are musicians who have great ears who can hear anything, so it can be dealt with. There are certain things, it's better to know. That way you can elaborate.

AAJ: That's to your advantage if you're writing music that's complex. That way you know you'll always have the baddest cats in your band.

CF: Or try to go for the baddest cats the budget will allow.

AAJ: "Laura Marie" is one tune on which John Swana plays trumpet. I don't hear anyone else playing the EVI (electronic valve instrument) like him.

CF: He's very lyrical.

AAJ: It's really beautiful. I'm getting to the point where I'd rather hear him play the EVI than the trumpet (no offense John). Why did you have him use the EVI so much for this album?

CF: It naturally happened; it wasn't planned that way. The tunes called for more of an EVI sound. Basically the EVI meshed better with the flow of this record. I use John on muted trumpet a lot because it's a good combination with the EVI.

AAJ: He's also a very good composer. He wrote that beautiful tune, "Secret Hiding Place" for "Keeper of The Spirit" and this one as well.

CF: John is really undiscovered as far as I'm concerned. A lot of people play one percent of what he plays and get a lot of recognition. But we can't worry about that. We just have to keep moving ahead.

AAJ: Dave Valentin is a special guest on this record, and he really adds something wonderful.

CF: I just love the way he plays. Bill O'Connell plays with Dave a lot, and Bill suggested I call Dave because he fits the scenario. Dave was the most enthusiastic person in the whole crowd. He was cheering us on and telling jokes. He was a delightful ingredient. He contributed more than just music; he contributed spirit and attitude. I love Dave Valentin ; I used to go see him when he played at the Village Gate with the Latin All Stars.

AAJ: From The Proper Angle to your current projects, I see continuous growth. Someone with a closed mind would listen to City Tribes and say, "Well, he's gone commercial" or "He plays too much Latin music."

CF: Well, the thing about being a musician—through the eyes of a musician—you can't be concerned. The musicians that I aspire to, the record company is insignificant to them. Their development, individual growth and viewpoint [is important]. They may not sell as many records, as someone who's forced on selling records. To be quite frank and honest with you, the music I put on my records is what I want to hear. If I find myself making music for money then I would go make music that would make tons of money. It would be a business venture.

My albums are like puzzles. It's up to the audience to see how they piece together. They come from playing on the road for 25 years, with different people: Art Blakey and McCoy Tyner; Airto. Playing opposite George Benson, opening for Earth Wind and Fire; Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. Everyone has a goal. My goal is not to mix my concept of music with a monetary attitude. My view of music is purely a view of my aspirations toward people like Trane and Miles that I aspire to. People like Bobby Durham and Shirley Scott, who helped me learn music. They are the inspiration I aspire to.

AAJ: It seems to me that you've realized a lot of your dreams and aspirations.

CF: I was fortunate. My goal in life was to play with McCoy Tyner. My goal in life was to play with Trane if he was alive. And Art Blakey. They were my goals, to play with these individuals. If I was offered a lot of money, I don't know if I would replace that.

Selected Discography

Charles Fambrough, Live at Zanzibar Blue (Random Chance, 2002)

Charles Fambrough, Upright Citizen (Nu Groove, 1997)

Charles Fambrough, City Tribes (Evidence, 1996)

Charles Fambrough, Keeper of the Spirit (Audioquest, 1995)

Charles Fambrough, Blues at Bradley's (CTI Records, 1993)

Charles Fambrough, The Charmer (CTI Records, 1992)

Charles Fambrough, Proper Angle (CTI Records, 1991)

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