Jazz Icon Joe Chambers Returns to Blue Note On “Samba de Maracatu” (Album Review)

Yes, sometimes things do come full circle. And yes, musical exploration has more than its share of coincidences. This writer picked up the classic Blue Note release, Joe Henderson’s Mode for Joe, recorded in 1966, during the holidays, noting that the drummer was Joe Chambers. That same Joe Chambers, who began his career at Blue Note in the fertile period of the mid to late ‘60s on such other notable albums as Wayne Shorter’s Adam’s Apple and Etcetera, Bobby Hutcherson’s Components and Happenings, Freddie Hubbard’s Breaking Point, Joe Henderson’s Mode for Joe, Sam Rivers’ Contours, Andrew Hill’s Andrew!!!, Donald Byrd Fancy Free, and many more – is back! To be more accurate, his debut as a leader on Blue Note dates to 1998’s Mirrors, so Samba de Maracatu marks his second as leader on Blue Note over twenty years later.

Chambers, who now enters his sixth decade, has vastly expanded his impressive drummer resume to become a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, and educator. When he first came up, he was so busy as a sideman and session musician that he politely declined recording opportunities as a leader with Blue Note but along with playing in Max Roach’s groundbreaking, percussion-only ensemble, M’Boom, Chambers did record his own acclaimed albums as a leader on the Muse, Candid, Savant labels. Samba de Maracatu shares similar characteristics with his previous 2016 album, Landscapes (Savant), on which Chambers overdubbed himself playing drums, vibraphone, marimba, piano, congas, bongos, and synthesizers while interacting with bassist Ira Coleman and pianist Rick Germanson. While crafting Landscapes, Chambers took inspiration from Bill Evans’ 1963 LP, Conversations with Myself, on which he created multiple contrapuntal piano lines by overdubbing himself. On Samba de Maracatu, Chambers’ applied a similar approach this time with the accompaniment of pianist Brad Merritt and bassist Steve Haines — two exceptional North Carolina-based jazz musicians.

A newer generation of jazz listeners would walk away from Samba de Maracatu pegging Chambers as a vibraphonist.  Throughout the album, he uses the vibraphone in layered effects of echoing notes as the lead melodic and improvisational voice that often converses with Merritt’s remarkable piano accompaniments and solos. The title track, a Chambers original, highlights both his mastery on the vibraphone and his affinity for Brazilian rhythms. The song’s title references the syncretic Afro-Brazil rhythms, originated from Brazil’s Pernambuco province. The rhythm also has roots in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion. While it’s not a Brazilian jazz album in this strictest sense, Chambers utilizes various rhythms and indigenous Brazilian percussion instruments on several pieces. On the revisit of “Circles,” a suspenseful composition he wrote for M’Boom in the early-70s, Chambers drives the momentum with an abstraction of Brazil’s bione rhythm, while on the adventurous take on Wayne Shorter’s “Rio” he employs an infectious bossa nova rhythm toward the end.

Chambers mixes in familiar standards as well. The album begins with a delightful reading of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s Broadway standard, “You and the Night and the Music.” Later, Chambers invites New Orleans-based vocalist Stephanie Jordan to sing lead on a lovely rendition of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ “Never Let Me Go,” an enduring classic, made famous by Nat King Cole.  He also renders a cinematic take on Karl Ratzer’s 1998 modern jazz composition, “Sabeh el Nur (Blues to Her),” leading with the vibraphone but offering some of the album’s most intricate drumming.

Those sixties Blue Note recordings gave Chambers plenty of opportunities to play alongside one of jazz’s premier vibraphonists, Bobby Hutcherson, undoubtedly an enduring inspiration for Chambers on the same instrument.  So, it’s only natural that Chambers would nod to his mentor with a stirring interpretation of Hutcherson’s “Visions,” originally recorded with Hutcherson in 1968 (released on Spiral), and his faithful reading echoes Hutcherson’s dreamy melody and haunting rhythm. Chambers also nods to Blue Note icon Horace Silver with his take on “Ecaroh,” one of Silver’s more experimental compositions that has been a fixture of Chambers’ repertoire over the past decade. Episodic in nature, the pulse gracefully moves between slow balladry, mid-tempo Latin shuffle and sauntering blues, while the harmony shifts between minor and major chords. Merritt’s glimmering piano is especially impressive on this one. 

 There is an outlier of sorts too with Rapper MC Parrain appearing on “New York State of Mind Rain,” an intriguing mashup of Nas’ 1994 hip-hop staple, “N.Y. State of Mind” and Chambers’ 1978 piece, “Mind Rain,” from his Double Exposure (Muse). DJ Premiere sampled portions of “Mind Rain” to construct Nas’ classic, and MC Parrain’s rhymes provide the historic context between the two tunes while the rhythm fluctuates between straight-ahead jazz swing and hip-hop backbeat.

Chambers no longer teaches, opting now to refocus on his career as a jazz instrumentalist, composer, and bandleader, even reconvening the M’Boom percussion ensemble for a few live performances. Samba de Maracatu makes for a splendid re-entry to the label where it all began for Chambers. We opened with a cliché and will close with another one – “You can go home again.”


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One Response

  1. I spent three days with Joe Chambers last June at the recording session, back in the woods, in a double wide, retrofitted trailer with a state of the art recording system, in Rocky Point North Carolina. It was in the middle of the pandemic, but we were in good hands, because there was a doctor in the hospital. Pianist Brad Merritt is a physician in North Carolina, and he plays with surgical precision. It was truly a great experience!

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