James Cammack: Where You At?

Ian Patterson By

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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."



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