James Cammack: Where You At?
"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."