By Wally Schnalle Originally published in the June/July 2000 issue of DRUM! Magazine
“I’m a drummer. I love all types and styles of music. I’m comfortable with whatever I play and I really love doing many different things. I never went into music to play just one style of music. I hate to be labeled as a funk drummer. I hate to be labeled as a fusion drummer. I hate to be labeled as a rock or pop drummer. I’m just a drummer, and I love to play and listen to all styles of music.” These words come from Dennis Chambers, a man who has both the talent and musical pedigree to back up such lofty ideals.
From his work with P-Funk in the early ’80s to his explosion into the world of jazz-fusion with guitarist John Scofield, Chambers dazzles audiences with deep grooves as well as undeniably awesome chops. He can be sensitive in a straight-ahead jazz session with saxophonist Bob Berg or take care of business in the slick world of Steely Dan. He’s right about labels; his musical legacy, so far, attests to the fact that he is a true musical chameleon.
For most of us, the challenge of playing in a variety of demanding situations carries responsibility: copious hours of practice. But for Chambers, the exact opposite is true. “I used to practice a lot when I was 17 and 18 years old but somewhere around my 19th birthday I just stopped practicing.”
Chambers didn’t stop practicing because he wasn’t serious about drumming. On the contrary, he was almost too serious about it. “I was playing a lot with P-Funk, but I was frustrated because what P-Funk and I were into were two different things,” he says. “They were into the hard-hitting funk groove-’til-you-drop kind of music. I was into that too, but being young I was more into chops and playing the most technical things possible. That’s what I was learning and I wanted be able to express myself in that way. I was very frustrated because I couldn’t display any of the things that I like to do.”
When you see or hear Chambers play it’s hard to believe that it doesn’t take some amount of practice to do what he does. But he says he feels much better since he gave up the time-consuming routine. “One thing I noticed about not practicing was that I wasn’t as frustrated as I was when I practiced a lot,” he says. “The reason for that is that when you practice a lot, and you’re playing a lot, you go out and do the gig and play exactly what you practiced. At a certain point your mind becomes like a computer – what you put into it is what you get out of it. That became frustrating to me because I was hearing all this other stuff but I couldn’t apply it. When I stopped practicing it freed me up from feeling that way.”
He makes a good point, although it never hurts to practice a lot and have a large dose of talent. Strong evidence of those early years of rehearsal is apparent whenever Chambers picks up the sticks, but we took particular note of a recent release by bassist Bunny Brunel entitled Cab. This chops-infused rock/jazz/fusion trio CD features Chambers and Brunel with guitarist/keyboardist Tony MacAlpine. Contained within these ten tracks are numerous jaw-dropping Chambers solos. The transcription on the following pages takes a closer look at the title tune “Cab.”
The piece opens with a strong half-time shuffle groove that brings to mind groove master Bernard Purdie (Ex. 1). “That groove is just something I do, however I used to listen to a lot of Purdie too, just like the rest of the world,” Chambers says. “When we rehearsed the tune, that groove is what I heard that fit there, but the influence probably came from Purdie.”
Sandwiched between the measures of groove, in classic fusion tradition, are unison lines played by the entire trio. Chambers explains the learning process for less-than-intuitive lines: “Bunny gave me a CD demo that he had put together so I could learn the tunes. There were no notes with it telling me that I was supposed to learn those lines. I heard them but I thought I was supposed to keep the groove while they played them. Then when I got to rehearsal – we only had one day – Bunny said, ’No, man I want you to play those.’ I was like, ’Great! Now I got something else I gotta learn.’” One listen will attest to the fact that Chambers is a quick study.
At 4:30 minutes into “Cab,” Chambers is unleashed to solo over a vamp by Brunel and MacAlpine. It’s a perfect example of his power, full of fast chops and tantalizing rhythms. And even though Chambers doesn’t practice anymore, he was kind enough to share some ideas on how to develop the kinds of skills that are at work when he solos over a vamp. “I’m listening to the band and just playing around it. When I used to practice I did that with drum machines. I would program a rhythm into the drum machine and play with it, play against it and play around it. I recommend working with a drum machine because with a drum machine it’s like playing with somebody else. Some people find playing with a drum machine very hard to do because they’re used to being the leader of the rhythm section. They’re used to everybody following them. With the machine you’ve got to follow it and play with it, and you know whatever happens the drum machine is going to be right.”
Then you just go out on the gig and let the wacky rhythms fly, right? Not exactly. “The band has to know what they’re doing, especially when you get to the drum solo,” Chambers warns. “I’ve played in a lot of bands where the drum solos were very constricted and in time. I’ve done so much of that it’s become boring to me, therefore I try a different approach which is to play against the beat, play around the beat, play on the ahs, the ands, and stay there for a while. If I’m playing with a bunch of musicians I’m not familiar with, that can throw them off. And the reason it throws them off is that they’re not used to hearing things that way.”
So how do you keep your place when the rest of the musicians on stage aren’t? “Usually the left foot keeps time for me,” he says. “But sometimes if I’m playing with a rhythm section that I’m comfortable with, and I know that whatever happens they’re going to hold it down, I’ll let the hi-hat play in whatever time I’m thinking in, like five or eighteen or twenty-one or whatever.”
Chambers may not need the practice to stump the band, but many of us mortal drummers do. If you are one of the unlucky lot that still practices, the following transcription will either enlighten or baffle you. Don’t worry, though. You aren’t the first drummer to stand in complete and utter awe of Dennis Chambers.
Hey, we know that the solo Chambers plays in the video above (recorded at a rehearsal) doesn’t match the one he recorded for Cab’s debut album, which we transcribed. But it’s still fun to watch him burn through it, without changing his deadpanned expression.