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James Cammack: Where You At?

Ian Patterson By

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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.'"
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