den­nis cham­bers

From break­ing out of Bal­ti­more to con­quer­ing the world stage

Rhythm - - CONTENTS - Words: David West pho­tos: Joby Ses­sions/press

“Billy Shee­han, he’s stomp­ing on the floor, try­ing to make sure he’s right where he’s sup­posed to be. I’m laugh­ing my butt off and when it’s over he’s go­ing, ‘Phew!’“

When Den­nis Cham­bers was just 13-years-old and gig­ging around his home­town of Bal­ti­more, he was al­ready so pre­co­ciously tal­ented that he was asked to join James Brown’s group. Cham­bers’ mother turned down the of­fer on her son’s be­half as Brown wouldn’t pay for a tu­tor for Den­nis while on the road; Cham­bers has no re­grets.

“Thank god I didn’t play with him when I was 13 be­cause he prob­a­bly would have ru­ined my life and what I mean by that is that James had a lot of demons,” he says.

“[Par­lia­ment-Funkadelic] were like Spinal Tap, drum­mers would just dis­ap­pear or weren’t cut­ting it be­cause of the [drug] abuse...”

The drum­mer cred­its his mu­si­cal­ity to his mother, who was a Mo­town back­ing singer be­fore mov­ing back to Bal­ti­more where she formed a band. “They used to re­hearse in my mother’s apart­ment or my grand­mother’s back­yard and that was the only thing that would keep me still, sit­ting there watch­ing the drum­mer play,” says Cham­bers whose real name is Mil­ton. “Some­body called me Den­nis the Me­nace and the name stuck.” In the 1970s, Cham­bers joined George Clin­ton’s Par­lia­ment-Funkadelic be­fore be­com­ing one of the most in-de­mand fu­sion drum­mers in the world, work­ing with ev­ery­one from John McLaugh­lin and John Scofield to Greg Howe and Mike Stern. In 2014 it ap­peared Cham­bers’ drum­ming days might be over when he fell gravely ill on tour, but af­ter a year’s hia­tus he picked up right where he left off. Rhythm catches up with him at Ron­nie Scott’s, where he’s dis­play­ing his mind­blow­ing blend of tech­ni­cal mas­tery and cre­ative grooves with Vic­tor Wooten.

What was it like join­ing Par­lia­ment-Funkadelic as a teenager?

“They were like Spinal Tap, drum­mers would just dis­ap­pear or they just weren’t cut­ting it be­cause of the abuse they were go­ing through with drugs. Me be­ing a young guy, I didn’t do any drugs, still don’t, I had the stamina, the en­ergy to play three-and-a-half/four-hour gigs be­cause that’s how long the shows were back then. When they brought me in I was play­ing with a group called The Brides Of Funken­stein, an off­shoot of Par­lia­ment-Funkadelic. Back at that time, George had the Horny Horns, Bootsy Collins, the Brides Of Funken­stein, the Par­let band, the Sweat Band and he had Sly Stone too. I joined them when I was 18 in ’78 or maybe the be­gin­ning of ’79. Try to imag­ine, I’m play­ing at a jazz club one night, five days later I’m at Madi­son Square Gar­den, all I can see is peo­ple andI can’t even hear my­self count off be­cause all you hear is [im­i­tates a crowd roar­ing]. I had goose­bumps all over the place. It took me a minute to get over that.”

You went from Par­lia­ment-Funkadelic to play­ing with John Scofield?

“Well, no. The tail end of my thing with Funkadelic, I got plugged into Sugar Hill Records, so I was do­ing a lot of rap stuff. I ended up play­ing with Grand­mas­ter Flash, I did ‘The Mes­sage’ and ‘White Lines’, and by be­ing plugged into that, there were so many rap artists that were a part of that, you end up do­ing a lot of dif­fer­ent things with all th­ese dif­fer­ent peo­ple. I would come up from Bal­ti­more, go right into Jer­sey, and we would start record­ing. We would record the whole day and even at night. Some­times, we’d come out of the stu­dio at day­break the next day. We were just com­ing up with grooves, not know­ing where they were go­ing to go. Doug Wim­bish, the bass player from Liv­ing Colour, was part of that and he was the one who brought me into that whole thing.”

Was it the gig with Scofield that put you on the map as a fu­sion player?

“Funk-fu­sion, yeah. That’s my take on it. I be­lieve that’s what it was be­cause the whole time I’m play­ing with Par­lia­ment-Funkadelic, which was a big band as far as recog­ni­tion. We were head­lin­ing sta­di­ums and that’s how the mu­si­cians knew who I was. With Scofield, he brought me to the au­di­ence.”

You’ve played with Mike Stern and John McLaugh­lin, two se­ri­ous heavy­weight gui­tarists. What do they want from a drum­mer?

“Mike Stern wants a guy who can sup­port his mu­sic and make it feel good. Some­times I’ll have dis­agree­ments with some of the stuff he comes up with, where he feels things should go this way and I feel it should go that way. It ends up me pretty much telling him, you play gui­tar, I play drums. I don’t tell him how to play gui­tar, so don’t tell me how to play drums. John McLaugh­lin is a beau­ti­ful guy to work for. You can’t play enough drums for him. I re­mem­ber when I joined his band, he would send me tapes, be­cause I don’t read mu­sic and it sounded like four drum­mers play­ing on it. I would call him up: John,‘ I got the tape, which di­rec­tion are we go­ing with here?’ ‘Denny-o,’ (he called me Denny-o) ‘Hey, man, you’ve just got to find your own way. I’m not go­ing to tell you what to do. If you hear it, go with it. The tape is just a guide sheet, what­ever you feel. If I don’t like it, I’ll tell you.’ And that’s the way he was. I’d come up with things, he’s over there laugh­ing. A few times at re­hearsal I had to stop: ‘What are you laugh­ing about?’ ‘Man, it just sounds so f**king great!’ He’s beau­ti­ful, man. I re­ally miss play­ing with him. He’s one of the few guys that won’t tell you what to do. George Duke was an­other one. He wouldn’t tell you what to do. He’d hire you for your brain and your heart. That’s how John is.”

How do you ap­proach solo­ing?

“I don’t read mu­sic, I don’t write out things, I just do it when it hap­pens and some­timesI hear some­thing that may not have any­thing to do with that song at the

mo­ment, be­cause some­times I think of beat dis­place­ments and rhythm dis­place­ments and I just go with it. Or I hear the melody ofColtrane or Holdsworth or John, some­times I hear ‘The Dance Of Maya’ and ‘The Dance Of Maya’ has noth­ing to do with what’s go­ing on on­stage at that time butI’ll just play that. By do­ing that, if the thing is in 4 and the bass player is play­ing the vamp, it throws them for a loop be­cause they’re try­ing to fig­ure out where I am and they can’t hear where I am be­cause they don’t have the depth of mu­sic that I lis­ten to. I lis­ten to ev­ery­thing. Some guys do have the depth but they try to fig­ure out how I ar­rived at that from what’s go­ing on in re­al­ity and how do I make that work. They sit there count­ing, like Billy Shee­han, he’s stomp­ing on the floor, try­ing to make sure he’s right where he’s sup­posed to be. I’m laugh­ing my butt off and when it’s over he’s go­ing, ‘Phew!’”

Is it true you told Mike Stern not to lis­ten to you while you’re tak­ing a solo but to just play the vamp?

“Just play the rhythm, yeah. And it worked. He learned that you just can’t lis­ten to me. Even with Vic­tor [Wooten], if you lis­ten to me, you’ll get thrown off. If you lis­ten to me and you’re not con­cen­trat­ing on where you’re sup­posed to be, then you get lost and you stop and you throw up your hands. Vic­tor’s done it a cou­ple of times, some bass play­ers just

“When mu­si­cians, es­pe­cially younger mu­si­cians, walk into a band set­ting, the only thing they think about is them, be­cause they’re self­ish”

throw up their hands, they couldn’t fig­ure out where they were be­cause they got lost by lis­ten­ing to me. You can’t lis­ten to me. The only peo­ple that can lis­ten to me are the au­di­ence, the peo­ple that are not up there per­form­ing.”

You al­ways look very bal­anced and poised be­hind the drums. How do you stay so re­laxed?

“I used to take mar­tial arts when I was younger. Back then I used to jog a lot. When you’re jog­ging, in or­der to main­tain stamina you have to breathe a cer­tain way, same thing with mar­tial arts when you’re deal­ing with Tai Chi and stuff like that. In or­der to gain en­ergy you have to breathe a cer­tain way and I used the same ap­proach with drums. Of course, I gave up mar­tial arts at a very young age and I don’t run any­more, I don’t even ride a bike any­more, but with drum­ming, I used to sit with a mir­ror in the room and look at my­self when I play. I wanted to be bal­anced, back straight, don’t de­velop bad habits like lean­ing over, and I was prac­tis­ing with phone­books un­der my arms just to keep the arms down. The only times my arms come up is if I’m go­ing to play the cym­bal or hit the crash but any­thing re­lated to hit­ting the drums, the arms stay down. Af­ter do­ing this for 50-some­thing years, it bet­ter be easy.”

You played with San­tana for over a decade, was it a chal­lenge to leave enough space for the per­cus­sion­ists?

“No and the rea­son why is be­cause I’m deal­ing with two ge­niuses. Karl [Per­azzo] is a ge­nius at the tim­bales, Raul Rekow, I love him to death, he’s like my brother, he died not long ago, he was an ab­so­lute ge­nius at the con­gas. When mu­si­cians, es­pe­cially younger mu­si­cians, walk into a band set­ting, the only thing they think about is them, be­cause they’re self­ish. When I walk into a band set­ting, it’s not about me any­more, it’s about how do we make this work? That’s what mu­sic is about. How do we make it work? How do we make it feel good and how do we make it en­joy­able for our­selves to do it? When I walk on­stage or in the stu­dio, I’m lis­ten­ing to what’s go­ing on around me that will make me re­spond and make this thing feel great. The same thing with them. Karl and Raul, some­times we’d leave big holes and we’d laugh be­cause Karl thought I was go­ing to take it, I thought Raul was go­ing to take it, Raul thought Karl was go­ing to take it and we just bust out laugh­ing. Mean­while, Car­los is look­ing back, ‘What the hell hap­pened back there?’

In the be­gin­ning it was a lit­tle chal­leng­ing be­cause Karl has a way of play­ing where he takes the lead on a lot of things and at that time, he didn’t leave spa­ces too much. He learned very quickly that I’m not there to prove any­thing, the only thing I’m there to do is make this feel good, make this en­joy­able for every­body around us on that stage. Once he fig­ured that out, and it didn’t take him long, it was cool. Right from day one Raul was on­board. We’re in the stu­dio, I’m look­ing at him play­ing, he’s smil­ing and laugh­ing, I’m smil­ing and laugh­ing, it’s a blast.”

What’s Car­los San­tana like as a band­leader?

“Man, that’s a good ques­tion. He’s a great band­leader.

He can be con­fus­ing some­times, and I think the con­fu­sion is be­cause he lis­tens to a lot of mu­sic. Some­body like him, he can’t just open his door and go out and have no­body bother him. He’s al­ways be­ing both­ered, so when he re­ally wants to go out, he’s got a body­guard with him or some­body around him to keep peo­ple away from him. With that be­ing the way it is, it’s a drag for him so he’ll sit in his ho­tel room and lis­ten to mu­sic all day or read books. He’ll throw stuff at the band on the day of the gig, four or five songs. Ev­ery day that there’s a gig, there’s a re­hearsal and that’s when he throws this mu­sic on you and you’ve got to learn all th­ese things be­fore the con­cert. Now you’re not back­stage be­ing loose, hang­ing out and laugh­ing, every­body’s sit­ting there try­ing to learn mu­sic and then the gig starts and half the time we don’t even play that mu­sic.

“He’ll make a set-list up, 18, 19 songs, two-and-ahalf hour shows, the first three songs are etched in stone. Af­ter that, that set-list is a set-list of lies. You can’t fol­low it. By the time you get to the songs that you think he’s go­ing to call, the ones you re­hearsed, even he for­got how to play it. Thank god! But he’s a beau­ti­ful cat, man. He’s one of those guys, he’ll give you the shirt off his back if he re­ally digs you. He’s got a big heart. A lot of peo­ple don’t know what he does for kids, he gave away a lot of money.”

Is there a cer­tain pres­sure that comes with be­ing a ‘drum­mer’s drum­mer’? Do you feel un­der a mi­cro­scope?

“Well there’s cer­tainly no pres­sure from me be­cause I don’t think of my­self as a drum­mer’s drum­mer. How­ever, I am aware of what I con­trib­ute to the drum com­mu­nity and a lot of times with drum­mers, they come to see what you do that they can’t do, or just to say, ‘Well, I can do that, what’s the big deal?’ Or they come to see you fail. I’m one of those guys that re­fuses to fail – so far. Even af­ter be­ing sick and not play­ing drums for a year – a whole year I didn’t touch the drums, in fact, I didn’t think I was go­ing to play drums again. Then Mike Stern of­fered me the gig at The Blues Al­ley in DC. That was the first time I’d touched drums in a year and I wanted to see how it felt if I was go­ing to play again, but the place was packed and I no­ticed there were a lot of my so-called friends who would never come out to see me play. They came out to see me fail be­cause they knew I had a big drum kit set up in my liv­ing room for a year and I never touched it.

“I do un­der­stand there are some guys stand­ing off the side of the stage just watch­ing me to see what they can get from it. You’re un­der a mi­cro­scope at that point but hey, man, I was the same way when I was a kid watch­ing Tony Wil­liams or Billy Cob­ham. Some­times, I look over and I see Billy Hart or Billy Cob­ham, Lenny White, my peers, but I know the rea­son they’re there. In their heart, they’re there to sup­port me not to crit­i­cise me. If I make a mis­take they may give me a lit­tle rib punch for it, but they’re good-hearted peo­ple and they’re there be­cause they love me and I’m there be­cause I love them.

“When I see Vin­nie [Co­laiuta] play, Vin­nie’s the same way, Dave Weckl, great-hearted peo­ple. There’s no an­i­mos­ity, none of that crap. Some peo­ple ask me ques­tions about what’s the re­la­tion­ship be­tween you and Dave, or Vin­nie, or who­ever. I’m a big fan of the drums and drum­mers, that’s it.”

Den­nis per­form­ing at the Par­adiso, Am­s­ter­dam in 1995

Bass play­ers be warned: don’t lis­ten to Den­nis, just play the vamp!

Play­ing By Mus­cle Mem­ory“Once I play some­thing, I re­mem­ber it, or my mus­cle mem­ory re­mem­bers. It’s weird,” says Cham­bers. “I would go and hear P-Funk, I haven’t played with that band since the 80s, and they want me to sit in. They call the song, I can’t re­mem­ber what it is. They count if off, I come in and play that song just like I played it when I was with the band.”

Den­nis Cham­bers: “I don’t think of my­self as a drum­mer’s drum­mer”

Cross-sticks: Cham­bers’ con­fi­dence comes from 50 years of play­ing A-list gigs

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