By Devon Wendell
Paul Chambers or “Mr. P.C.” was one of the most prolific and inventive bassists to emerge from the hard-bop era. His presence was so strong on classic albums by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, J.J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Art Pepper, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk, (to name only a few) that his aggressive playing often rivaled the many jazz icons he “backed up.” He never overstepped his boundaries and he could be a very subtle player. But like bassists before him such as Oscar Pettiford, Milt Hinton, Ray Brown, and Percy Heath , he helped to bring the bass to the forefront of jazz. Chambers was young and hip. He took chances which gave him an edge that was relentlessly burning.
On May 12, 1960, Chambers lead an all-star band (Wynton Kelly, piano, Lex Humphries, drums, Curtis Fuller, trombone, Yusef Lateef, tenor saxophone and flute, and Tommy Turrentine on trumpet) for what turned out to be his last studio session as a band leader. The results were fantastic.
Lateef wrote all of the material for the album – 1st Bassman – (with the exception of Cannonball Adderley’s “Who’s Blues.”) Chambers creates some of the hardest swinging, funkiest grooves imaginable. On “Melody” and the modal “Bass Region,” Lateef’s tenor lines are tasteful and wonderfully original. Lateef had already established a style that was unique and that could fit in both hard-bop and more avant-garde settings. Humphries’ drumming is subtle and in the pocket, in the vein of Art Taylor or Kenny Clarke.
Fuller and Turrentine play melodically, dancing around the beat. Wynton Kelly always finds a way to explore new harmonic possibilities that fit perfectly within a given arrangement and composition. And Chambers’ solos are adventurous without losing sight of the grooves.
“Retrogress” and “Mopp Shoe Blues” feature Kelly, Lateef, Fuller, and Turrentine all soloing around Chambers’ bass lines. Lateef’s horn arrangements have a big band feel to them. Chambers is the man in front and on top and everyone present knows how to swing elegantly in orbit around him.
“Blessed” is a gorgeous ballad featuring some of Chambers’ most inventive and soulful bass bowing. The delicate horn arrangements glide softly below, punctuating some of Chambers’ masterful phrasing. Lateef’s flute solo is gracefully melodic and perfect. Turrentine’s muted trumpet solo and Fuller’s trombone lines are brief and poignant. Wynton Kelly’s piano solo is thematic and wonderfully complex.
The album finishes with “Who’s Blues,” a pure, slow blues that opens up even more room for everyone to solo. Cannonball Adderley makes a special guest appearance here (not credited because he was under contract with Riverside Records at the time) and plays one of his trademark hard swinging blues-bop solos on alto sax. Chambers’ leaps from the lower register of the bass to the upper with ease as Kelly’s rollicking solo takes you right to the heart of the blues. Everyone is cooking here and they know it.
1st Bassman is a unique album on all levels. Chambers reprograms the listener into not only accepting the bass as a lead instrument of a jazz sextet, but also makes it feel as though this is how it should be and that nothing else could be as hip. This album is an underrated gem that should heard by all music lovers.