Mosaic Select: Paul Chambers
Paul Chambers is no stranger to the retrospective hand of Mosaic: In 2001, the late bassist shared a spotlight on The Complete Vee Jay Wynton Kelly-Paul Chambers Sessions 1959-61, an impressive six-CD set. This time around, reissue producer Michael Cuscuna has condensed four solo albums and a few stand-alone rarities onto three discs-and the resulting box, although half the bulk of its predecessor, provides a more comprehensive portrait of Chambers' gifts.
As an instrumentalist, Chambers was legendary in his own time for hard-driving bass lines, uncannily nimble pizzicato solos and a singing arco tone. True to form, he hits all three targets dead center here-so much so that it's nearly impossible to single out highlights among the 30-odd assembled tracks. Still, some performances do stand out: Chambers' bowed manifesto on "Tale of the Fingers" (a retread of "Strike Up the Band") is nothing short of dazzling, and his plucky choruses on Benny Golson's "Minor Run-Down" amount to a lesson in bluesy swagger.
The real lesson here, however, is Chambers' unfaltering composure as a leader-a condition surely abetted by the company he keeps. Disc one consists of two separate 1956 sessions featuring the not-so-common denominator of Chambers, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and drummer Philly Joe Jones. It's impossible not to hear these sides through the prism of the contemporaneous Miles Davis Quintet, which featured all three players. In fact, "Trane's Blues," best known for its appearance on Davis' Workin', was recorded several months prior by Chambers, at a sultrier pace. On that track and others, Coltrane is a natural scene-stealer-but Chambers truly does stand toe-to-toe. And on the latter of the two sessions, trumpeter Donald Byrd and guitarist Kenny Burrell acquit themselves to the frontline with flying colors. (Byrd's assertive performance on his own tune "Omicron" is a high-water mark, as is Burrell's on a cyclical Coltrane piece called "Nita.") Another session, on the set's second disc, features an ensemble with Byrd, Clifford Jordan on tenor, Tommy Flanagan on piano and a still-developing Elvin Jones on drums. Although more conventional in harmonic approach, the group delivers a strong set of well-chosen tunes that deserves placement alongside the classics of hard bop.
This being a Mosaic set, there are some curios, although not as many as one might hope for. "Trane's Strain," which opens disc two, was originally released on a Transition Records sampler, and reissued on a 1976 LP. Contrary to the title, Coltrane sounds perfectly at ease on this 12-bar blues, playing alongside baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams and trombonist Curtis Fuller (who makes his recording debut here). This group also contributes the cool-toned "High Step" and "Nixon, Dixon and Yates Blues," which aren't impossible to find on disc but are nevertheless welcome in this box.
More impressive, perhaps, is a pair of tracks featuring Chambers alone with Art Blakey. Issued previously under Blakey's name, these simple Tin Pan Alley interpretations make an airtight case for Chambers' solo instrumental skills. It's fitting that these tracks are placed at the tail end of disc three, which otherwise features Chambers against a backdrop of Burrell, pianist Hank Jones and drummer Art Taylor. That session, originally released with the title Bass on Top, long ago proved that for one such as Chambers, an inversion of the natural order can be a beauteous thing.