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James Cammack: Where You At?


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Oftentimes, it's only the passing of time that can offer true perspective. In years to come, bassist James Cammack may look back on 2012 as the year when—after over 30 years in the business—he truly began his musical adventure in earnest. After 29 years playing bass in the ensembles of piano legend Ahmad Jamal, Cammack was, much to his surprise, let go. The signs had been on the cards for awhile, when Jamal had started using bassist Reginald Veal the previous year, but Cammack was called upon once again by Jamal for the spring '12 tour, culminating in a concert in Martinique on May 29, 2012. Jamal's quartet since then has featured Veal, thus, for Cammack, severing a partnership that began, in unlikely, almost fairytale manner, in 1983.

However, one door closes and others open. Forced to get out there and play to keep body and soul together, Cammack has developed a series of musical collaborations in his adopted home of New York with up-and-coming artists like pianist Joe Alterman and singer Alexis Cole. And having toured with the likes of singers Nancy Wilson and Youssou N'Dour, it's difficult to imagine that Cammack will ever have to struggle for gigs. Cammack has just released his debut recording as leader, Both Sides of the Coin (Self Produced, 2012), an impressive offering of original compositions featuring killer playing. It's a new dawn for Cammack, and one that already shows much promise.

Some of the material on Both Sides of the Coin has origins as far back as the late 1980s, and Cammack is the first to admit that writing does not come easily: "It takes me a long time to write," he says. "I don't have great keyboard skills, otherwise things might have been done in a quarter of the time it took me," he laughs. "It was very difficult to implement a lot of the things I was thinking, though I stayed true harmonically to what I wanted to hear." As difficult as the process may have been, Both Sides of the Coin displays a fine three-way balance between compositional depth, melodic lines and improvisation.

Most of Cammack's playing on the CD is on electric bass, which may come as a surprise to many people, though as Cammack explains he has played both from the beginning of his career: "People don't know I play electric bass. When I played electric bass years ago they had no idea I also played upright bass. Then after playing with upright for a while with Mr. Jamal people assumed I played nothing but upright," he says laughing. Cammack doubles on keyboards, from which he draws an array of sounds, and he is responsible for most of the keyboard parts on Both Sides of the Coin.

Cammack also got more than a little help from the recording program, Logic: "Almost everything I wrote was initiated with Logic, he explains, "It's an Apple product and for me it's a tremendous program. A lot of these songs I started up with electric bass and keyboard with loops that helped me formulate different parts; then I would break the loop away and bring in an actual drummer."

There's some truly great playing on the CD by drummers Steve Haas and Kim Plainfield, guitarists Robert Baglione and Norman Johnson, saxophonists Paula Atherton and Ken Gioufree, and pianists Leandro Lopez-Varady and Alan Eicher. "I've played with every one of them to some degree," says Cammack. For this album I created the environment I wanted, messed with it, mixed it and then I sent the tracks to those guys. I called them and explained what I was looking for. Then I took what they did, mixed it and edited it." Cammack, however, doesn't want to take all the credit, and is quick to acknowledge guidance of engineer and friend Norm Johnson: "Norm helped me through a lot of this," says Cammack.

All the compositions have deep significance for Cammack and if there is a common thread it is characterized by emotional release. "Nomad" represents Cammack's thoughts on his mother and father. "They were here just for a minute and then poof, they're gone," states Cammack. "They were great parents at a time when segregation was heavy duty down in Birmingham, Alabama where I was born. I love my parents for what they did for me. The little they had, the little they offered us was much for me, and it put me in a good place. The solo on "Nomad" is especially heartfelt."

"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 number—no doubt fueled by the spirit of New Orleans legend Muhammad—is 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."

Cammack also played a lot with classical/jazz pianist Frank Richmond: "He was a great, great friend of mine," recalls Cammack. "Frank Richmond I have to say was the biggest educational foundation for me of a lot of music I learned. He was a tremendous influence on me and a source of a lot of music, learning about a lot of jazz, learning a lot of songs. It's priceless the experience I have from working with Frank. It helped me to learn how to play in a duo setting. It helped me to learn to listen to the focal point at any time which is the soloist, and to move my listening in different directions. In the process" states Cammack, "it helped me and prepared me for dealing with Mr. Jamal."

Richmond played at the hotel Fairer which was located on WestPoint, where the two musicians would play together as a duo. "I would finish work at the band and Frank would call me and say: 'Hey man, come on over and let's play.' So I'd carry my upright bass over and we would just play like crazy, play anything we felt like playing. We did so much playing together we just got locked on really well."

One day, Cammack had just arrived home from a gig with the marching band and was unwinding when the phone rang: "I'll never forget it," laughs Cammack. "Frank says: 'Guess who I was just hanging out with? I've been hanging out with [drummer] Jack DeJohnette and Ahmad Jamal.' Cammack was suitably impressed as Richmond went on: "Yeah, we've been talking about music and I played a little bit for him. He says he needs a bassist and he wants to meet you.'"Cammack thought his good friend was putting him on, but Richmond, Cammack relates, was insistent:"'No really man, he wants to meet you. I gave him your phone number, he's gonna call you in about twenty minutes.'"

Cammack, however, was tiring of the joke: "I said, 'Yeah, okay Frank, I'm hot and sweaty, I'll see you later.' And I hung up. I thought, Ahmad Jamal's not gonna call me. He's got every monster bassist out there: Rufus Reid, Ron Carter, Ray Brown, all the monsters, he doesn't need me. I can't play bass."

Richmond called again, to alert the doubting Cammack to the fact that Jamal would call in fifteen minutes, but Cammack paid little heed to his friend and jumped into the shower: "So, fifteen minutes later I get another call. I said: 'Frank man, if you don't stop bugging me...' It's Ahmad Jamal. I jumped out of my socks," says Cammack. "I stood up to attention so fast I didn't know what hit me. I said: 'Er, sorry sir.' Ahmad says: 'This Frank Richmond guy says you're some kind of bassist. Well, I tell you what, I want you to come up to my house whenever you can. You got a bass? Come up.' Oh Frank, man, what have you got me into?" laughs Cammack recalling the shock. "What in the world has just happened?"

When Cammack told his friends that he had an audition with the great Ahmad Jamal, the next day, they rushed him over all the Jamal vinyl they had between them and Cammack started cramming. As it turned out, it would be better preparation for the gigs that would follow than for the actual audition: "I went up and played with him, and we just played whatever came off the top of his hat. He started playing and I followed him. I played all upright at that time but I brought my fretless bass too. And we played man, god almighty; we played for about four hours just straight. Just goin' at it. Man, I was in shock. I didn't know what to do but I just played. Then we took a break and his beautiful wife Laura made a ridiculous dinner for us."

"After a further ten or fifteen-minute session," continues Cammack, "Mr. Jamal said: 'What's that?' I said: 'That's my fretless bass.' He said: 'Play it; let's see what it sounds like.' So I played it and he said: 'Stay right here, I'll be right back.' So he went into the back of his house," relates Cammack, "and I'm scared. I'm thinking, what the hell is going on here? I've got no business in this man's house. I'm not a bassist, man. He comes back out and stands next to me and he's looking at me, and he's got this big calendar in his hand, and he says: 'I got this, this, this and this.' And he looks big in my face says: 'You want 'em?' I jumped out of my skin, I said: 'Yeah! I'll take 'em!' Shoot yeah!' I didn't know how I was gonna' do it 'cause I was in the army band. I didn't know what to do."

"As I was leaving, Mr. Jamal said: ''Bring that thing with you too.' That was my fretless bass. I ended up playing my fretless, electric bass with him for eight solid years, man. I didn't play upright bass at all, I played all fretless bass. I left saying: 'Thank you sir, thank you." Cammack left in something of a state of shock: "I just got a gig with Ahmad Jamal. What's goin' on here, man?" laughs Cammack. "I really didn't feel like I deserved the gig, but I was thankful to God for the opportunity. Even if I only played once or a couple of times with him it would be a tremendous privilege to play with this master of piano. Nobody else has got his voice and nobody else has got his thought process."

Cammack went on to play perhaps a couple of thousand times with Jamal, and is uniquely placed to give an insight into the musician that critic Stanley Crouch rates as being as influential as Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver and John Lewis.

"What's special about his approach to the small ensemble?" asks Cammack, offering up the answer without pause. "It's completely orchestral. The trio to him is like a big-band. It's not like a jazz band. Most jazz groups play from top to bottom. They play the tune then they go into the improvisation section, then they go in to the ensemble section, they come out with some more solos and then they end the tune. Ahmad starts with the ensemble section, then he goes into the improvisational section, and we may never hear the melody or anything that resembles the top of the tune until maybe near the end of the song. And when he finishes he continues to play a rubato," laughs Cammack, "fiddling and diddling. He's scary man with that stuff."

Jamal's' approach to ballads also kept Cammack on his toes: "The challenge is to decipher what he's going to do to the arrangement and which direction we're gonna go. He's remarkable at dictating how the ensemble plays the arrangements. Some of the most amazing things I've ever heard him play are things he's done in rubato; solo in ballads. His ballads are stellar. Nobody can nail that stuff like that. His manipulation of the inner voicing of songs is just unmatched. You listen to "Easy to Love' and it's just ridiculous, it's just gorgeous."

"What's funny about it is that Ahmad does it on the fly," laughs Cammack. "Ahmad conjures up an arrangement, a compositional thought, the whole process, on the fly. Every time we play "Poinciana," man, it's got an edge of 'I'm gonna do something different with this.' Before, I didn't know how to take it," explains Cammack. "I thought, 'Crap man, I thought we were gonna play like that, no? Now we're gonna play like this?"

Cammack admits his frustrations in the early days at Jamal's preference for rehearsing a song and then playing it in a different way in concert, but those frustrations were short- lived: "Then I thought, hold it, this is what Ahmad is about. That's what this stuff called jazz is about. It's about improvisation, it's about on the fly, it's about the excitement of not knowing what you're gonna do next. Ahmad is genius enough to put it all together where the end product sounds like a complete symphony."

On the subject of Jamal's rhythmic approach, Cammack has this to say: "His rhythmic concept is widespread to the point where it's almost like world music. It's not like strict jazz, although we play that. It's not strict Afro-Cuban or Latin or funk, it's every bit of it. It is the combining of all those musics from the planet in one pot called music. American classical music as he calls it. I like playing that way because there's a special energy about playing Ahmad's music. You almost can't put it in any category. Sometimes we get put in straight ahead category because of the nature of the song; not because of the nature of the group."

Of his musical relationship with Jamal, Cammack observes: "Ahmad has a very strong sensitivity towards what the bassist is playing and how the bassist interacts with him. The bass part is a part of Ahmad's musical exploration. Choice of notes is imperative to make Ahmad's music work the way he wants it to work. I have to be able to conceptualize the bass part, a walking bass part, an ostinato bass part, as though Ahmad wrote it," Cammack explains. "Even when we're improvising and just playing on the set of changes I try to play in a way that matches what he's thinking, in a sense."

"The bass line is important to him and that motivates him to play a certain way. It motivates him to write a certain way and it motivates him to arrange his music on stage on the spot in a certain way. It influences him greatly and he loves to hear that interaction of bass and piano, in the midst of keeping my role as a bassist solid."

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 sudden—I'll never forget it—poof! 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 trio—often 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.

"It was an extraordinary project," says Cammack." I'll never forget it. I had no idea how great this project was going to be and I was so glad to be a part of it." Cammack first met N'Dour in New Orleans, where the bassist was recording part of the documentary with Muhammad. "That was right after Katrina had been through" explains Cammack," and things were still in pieces down there." Muhammad and Cammack were rehearsing in a rock club where there was a piano when N'Dour showed up. "We stopped and he said: 'No, don't stop.' He started singing some line over what we were playing. It was incredible how great this guy was. He improvised beautifully," recalls Cammack. "This was my first encounter with him."

Without a doubt, the most moving part of filming was on the small island of Gorée. Situated two kilometers off the coast from Dakar, Gorée—A UNESCO World Heritage Site—is home to the House of Slaves, a museum and memorial to the slaves uprooted from Africa and deported to the French, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese colonies of the Americas. Gorée has aroused a degree of controversy, with European academics questioning the importance of the island as a center of deportation, but regardless of the actual numbers who were held captive there and either died or were deported, historians generally agree than anything between nine and twenty million African slaves were deported between the 16h and 19th centuries. Little wonder that African and African-American historians have labeled this enforced exodus as an African holocaust.

For Cammack, visiting Gorée was a highly emotional experience. Cammack describes one experience, listening to the House of Slaves curator Boubacar Joseph Nidaye recount the history of the island: "He was explaining how they piled people in there like animals," recalls Cammack. "They shackled them in balls and chains. This gentleman—who passed away a couple of years ago—put this ball and chain in my hands just to see how heavy it was. It destroyed me, "says Cammack. "When he put that in my hands I felt the weight, the burden and the suffering of those people and I cried. I gave it back to him and I walked away in tears. I had to get away from everybody. The magnitude of the devastation of the African people back then was just massive, and debilitating to our African societies. It left an impression on me."

The filming on Gorée included two concerts, with a band including N'Dour, Muhammad, Cammack, pianist Moncef Genoud harmonica player Gregoire Maret, guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel, singer Pyeng Threadgill and trumpeter Ernie Hammes: "The two concerts were really fantastic," says Cammack. "What a playing environment! You know, all those years I've been playing with Ahmad, and playing with him is a little restrictive 'cause you have to really follow him. Being pulled out of that environment and placed into another where I was allowed an extraordinary amount of freedom of speech, so to speak, was so much fun."

It's a little ironic, that Cammack should discover a newfound musical freedom at a place where so many were enslaved. "I've never played like that in my life, man," says Cammack. "Idris and I together? It was like wildfire. I was grinning from ear to ear." And 15 years after first playing with Muhammad, Cammack had new insight into his rhythm partner: "We were so very free, but so very sure of what we were playing. I really saw the essence of what Idris is all about in that environment with Youssou." Cammack was mightily impressed with N'Dour, someone he freely admits to knowing next to nothing about prior to this project: "Youssou N'Dour is a monster singer," raves Cammack." His ability to articulate his music was so powerful he would just yank the band in his direction. Being a part of this documentary was very influential for me," acknowledges Cammack.

And life goes on. Cammack is developing a bunch of musical partnerships in New York, some that date back a few years and others that are new. One such musician that Cammack enthuses about is pianist Joe Alterman, with whom Cammack recorded on the pianist's debut as leader, Give Me The Simple Life (Miles High Records, 2012): "Joe's a fantastic pianist from Atlanta. There are a lot of killing harmonic monsters coming out of the woodwork, kids of 15, not to mention all the extraordinary young guys that have already hit the scene like [pianist] Christian Sands but Joe plays different from that," Cammack says. "Joe has an old style, old-style harmony, and that style is fueled by a whole lot of heart and soul."

Heart and soul is what Cammack's playing is all about, too, though he'll be pouring both in new directions and new projects. There's more to come from Cammack as a leader and there's an exciting recording in the works with violinist Zach Brock and veteran pianist Phil Markowitz, due for release in 2013. In spite of his high- profile gig with Jamal, there's still a tremendous modesty about Cammack: "Man, I'm not a star. I would love to have the star ability and genius of some of these guys like Christian McBride and John Patitucci but I can only do what I do and I try to do the best I can. I'm still trying to grow as a musician," he asserts. No matter where Cammack pitches up, he'll give—as he gave to Mr. Jamal for 29 years—110%. .

Selected Discography

James Cammack, Both Sides of the Coin (Self Produced, 2012)

Joe Alterman, Give Me The Simple Life (Miles High Records, 2012)

Larry Coryell, Montgomery (Patuxent Music, 2011)

Ahmad Jamal, A Quiet Time (Dreyfus Jazz, 2010)

Ahmad Jamal, It's Magic (Dreyfus Jazz, 2008)

Youssou N'Dour, Retour à Gorée (DVD, 2007)

Ahmad Jamal, After Fajr (Dreyfus Jazz, 2004)

Ahmad Jamal, In Search of Momentum (Dreyfus Records, 2003)

Howard Johnson & Gravity, Gravity Right Now! (Polygram Records, 1998)
Ahmad Jamal, Nature: The Essence Part 3 (Dreyfus Jazz, 1998)

Ahmad Jamal, Big Byrd: The Essence Part 2 (Dreyfus Jazz, 1996)

Ahmad Jamal, The Essence Part 1 (Dreyfus Jazz, 1995)

Ahmad Jamal, Live in Paris (Birdology, 1992)

Ahmad Jamal , Pittsburgh (Atlantic, 1989)

Ahmad Jamal, Crystal (Atlantic, 1987)

Ahmad Jamal, Rossiter Road (Atlantic, 1986)

Ahmad Jamal , Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival 1985 (Atlantic, 1986)

Photo Credits
Page 1: Jos L Knaepen

All Other Photos: Courtesy of James Cammack

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