One of the great virtues of the long-running KSDS concert series "Jazz Live," is the opportunity to bear witness to performances by genuine jazz legends in the intimate confines of the acoustically pristine Saville Theatre on the San Diego City College campus.
The Jan. 13 appearance by percussion master Joe Chambers proved to be an indispensable experience. Chambers came into the jazz limelight in the 1960s, serving as the virtual “house drummer” for the iconic Blue Note record label, and making important sessions with saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, pianists Chick Corea and Andrew Hill and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, to name just a few.
Nowadays, Chambers mostly concentrates on the vibraphone, an instrument he plays with precise economy and elan, and the group he led at the Saville, with bassist Rob Thorsen, pianist Josh Nelson and drummer Duncan Moore, clearly relished the opportunity to commune with the master.
Chambers led off with Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” an appropriate vehicle for his limber exploration which glided effortlessly on the muscular pulse of Thorsen, whose own solo demonstrated supreme pizzicato logic. Moore concluded the tune with a series of controlled explosions -- ratcheting up the excitement quotient exponentially.
Next up was the Sonny Rollins classic “Airegin,” taken at a bright, bouncy clip, where Chambers seemed to stream through a fountain of ideas, followed by Nelson’s relaxed essay, which despite the tempo, proved to be “rush-proof.”
One of the signs of mature virtuosity is the ability to navigate a ballad, and when Chambers grabbed four mallets and steered Nelson into a languid duet that became “Never Let Me Go,” one could hear a pin drop as Thorsen’s moaning whole notes and Moore’s swirling brushes complimented the extreme sense of reverie. That is what jazz is supposed to sound like.
The group launched into Monk’s “Epistrophy,” and, after sterling vibes, bass and piano solos, Chambers relieved Moore at the drumset and proceeded to deliver a master-class in jazz drum history; his groove and ride-cymbal beat sourced with such conviction that my jaw began to drop. He then dove into a solo that literally brought the house down.
Chambers remained behind the kit and kicked off a furious tempo for “Just One Of Those Things,” where he transformed the standard “ting-ting-a-ting” jazz beat into a glorious symphony of dynamics . Nelson finally let his prodigious chops fly with an ornate, almost baroque solo, and Thorsen walked fast enough to qualify as a sprint.
Whether on vibes or the drum kit, Chambers exemplified total mastery of groove and the ability to tell a compelling story on every tune. One of those nights I won’t soon forget.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.