Dennis Chambers: The Return of Rhythm

The master drummer rebuilds and reignites

Mike Stern (l.) with Dennis Chambers (drums), saxophonist Bob Franceschini and bassist Richard Bona, c. 2002
John McLaughlin (l.) with Dennis Chambers in 2015

A large nine-piece Pearl drum kit dominates Dennis Chambers’ living room. Its shells, from the giant protruding kick to the gong bass drum that looms over everything, consist of clear yellow plastic, a garish clash with the room’s tasteful white and earth-toned décor. Strewn about the gray couches and brown coffee tables nearby are snares, drumheads and cymbals, some still in their boxes. “I had a nice-looking living room at one time,” says Chambers, laughing in his home in the Baltimore suburbs. “Now there’s a bunch of drum gear in it!”

Chambers is one of the world’s greatest living drummers, renowned and sought after by musicians from all genres. Playing professionally from the age of 6, he joined Parliament-Funkadelic at 19 but jumped in the mid-1980s to John Scofield’s band. There he attracted the attention of the fusion world, and has since played with most of the genre’s biggest names, from John McLaughlin to George Duke to Stanley Clarke. But he has also logged touring and recording time with Sly Stone, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, the Sugar Hill Gang, Santana and Steely Dan. At the time of our interview, he’s just returned from a European tour with saxophonist Maceo Parker. “That’s one of the reasons why I don’t have my own band; I really enjoy playing all these different styles of music,” he says. Fusion, however, is his favorite.

“Dennis has a particular style,” says trumpeter Randy Brecker, who employed Chambers in the early ’90s reconstitution of the Brecker Brothers. “A pocket with a more R&B style, and lots of chops. It’s the heavyweight division.”

Heavyweight or not, Chambers doesn’t usually keep drums in the living room. This kit resides here partly because his basement is already full of instruments-drums as well as various other pieces he’s collected over the years. But the kit also arrived while Chambers was recuperating from a serious ailment that sidelined him for much of last year and into this one. “It came right at the top of me being down,” he notes, adding that he was at such a low ebb that “it took me two, maybe three weeks just to put it together.”

But his strength slowly returned, as did his stocky build-at one point in his illness, Chambers was down to 144 pounds. His muse is also back. He’s playing music fulltime, and his friends and colleagues agree that he’s at the top of his game. “I played with him this past spring in Albany. Before that I played with him in D.C., in January, and he was killin’,” says guitarist Mike Stern, who saved Chambers’ life in the summer of 2014. “And I went, ‘Wow!’ He’s a hundred percent.”

“Whatever it was, he’s back full throttle,” agrees Brecker, who played two nights with him at Boston’s Regattabar in May. “I have to say, I thought it would take him a couple days to get going, but he was just slammin’ from the first beat. He was playing stronger than ever and he looked great-like the old Dennis.”

Chambers remembers being in St. Moritz, Switzerland, on July 16, 2014, on tour with the quartet featuring Stern and saxophonist Bill Evans. His next memory is of opening his eyes and finding himself strapped into bed. “I didn’t know where I was,” he says. “I was trying to figure out what this place was I’m in; then I realized it must be a hospital. Which city? Country? I was gone, man.”

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It was Alicante, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast; a week had passed since playing St. Moritz. Chambers had already been unwell. Unbeknownst to him, a decades-long struggle with acid reflux had perforated the lining of his esophagus, a condition that came to a head in March of 2014, when Chambers slipped and fell at LAX Airport. “I held my breath [to brace for the fall], and my esophagus lining expanded,” he says. “The holes opened up. So by the time they got me to the hospital, I was throwing up blood.” He was in the hospital for a week while doctors repaired the damage they found, then went home to Baltimore to recover before hitting the road again.

Under doctors’ orders, Chambers, who’d always maintained a portly but strong-looking figure, began slimming down-at a rate that alarmed those around him. “Everybody thought he was fine until he lost a lot of weight,” says Stern. “I didn’t think he was so fine then. I thought, ‘Well, maybe something’s going on and it’s gonna build up eventually over time.’ I guess that’s kinda what happened.”

The Alicante gig was on July 18. When the band assembled in the lobby to go to sound check, Chambers didn’t show. “Mike Stern knew, when I wasn’t down there, there was something wrong. Because I’m normally the first one there,” says Chambers. “So he called my room, he called my cellphone and I wasn’t answering. And he just had a feeling.”

“I banged on his door, and he didn’t answer,” says Stern. “And that’s when I went downstairs and got the receptionist.” Entering the room, he found Chambers lying in a pool of blood.

Chambers’ doctors had fixed the damage they’d seen in his esophagus, but they hadn’t checked for damage they couldn’t see. Stern had luckily found him before he bled to death, rushing him to the hospital and calling his wife, Renee, who flew in immediately. But Chambers had lost enough blood to keep him in a coma for three days. “Try to imagine coming to, waking up and nobody speaks English,” he says. “They’re giving you pills, doing stuff to you and nobody can tell you what or why. So thanks to my wife: She was the only one who kept me sane. ‘Cause I would have lost it, man.”

By the time Renee boarded the plane for Spain, rumors were flying across the Internet. Dennis Chambers had had a stroke. His liver was inflamed. He’d overdosed on heroin. He was on life support. He was dead. “Even my friends!” says Chambers, shaking his head. “There were people who had my phone number; they wouldn’t call me. They’d just go with rumors! Something of that importance and you can’t call?”

In addition, some friends and fans took to demanding details about him. “So many people when Dennis was ill were calling me, and writing to me, and wanting to know what I knew and what happened,” says guitarist Steve Khan. “I tried to be really careful about what I said and who I said it to.”

Finally, Renee circulated an open letter from Alicante. “I do not, and will not, give out any specific information to anyone concerning Dennis’ health, and trust that all of you who may know more than others will do the same,” she wrote. “My children and family members have been very upset about the information that has been spread.

“Dennis is a very well known, respected and successful musician, but he is also a very private family man. … What is it that you could do if you knew more about his health besides gossip about it? What benefit would it be for you or for him? We have had enough of accusations and people analyzing him.”

It had the desired effect. Even a year after the fact, with Chambers fully recovered and speaking frankly about the incident, close friends like Stern and Khan are extremely reticent to discuss it-even for this article. “I consider Dennis to be one of my closest friends. I wouldn’t ever want to do anything that would be upsetting to him,” says Khan.

On the other hand, a number of musician friends knew of Chambers’ malady because they stopped through his hospital room on their own European tours. “I felt like a tourist attraction,” the drummer says, noting that after his wife, the first people to see him were Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea, then a deluge. “The same promoter who booked me is telling everyone, ‘Dennis Chambers is here!’ Like I’m part of the jazz tour-instead of seeing me onstage, you can see me in the hospital!”

He was there for three weeks before his friend, drummer Simon Phillips, helped them charter a flight home. “I had no strength-I had to have help to get in my own door,” Chambers recalls. “So I get in, take a shower and I lay down. I’ve got a serious massage chair in my family room and I just lay back there for, like, days.” He also had to see a specialist, and underwent multiple procedures to repair his esophagus, keeping him in and out of the hospital for nine months. For all that time, as far as music was concerned, Chambers was out of commission.

It wasn’t just a matter of physical recovery. Chambers, following his trauma, lacked the desire to play. The two or three weeks Chambers took to assemble his kit are evidence of this, and once finished, he didn’t play it much. “I banged on it from time to time,” he recalls. “Sit and just stretch, do the stretch exercises going around the drums coming back, from that snare drum, that first rack tom, down to that last floor tom.”

The kit includes three rack toms and three floor toms, a very large setup. Chambers’ basic stretch exercise itself suggests a remarkable facility. (“His technical ability is amazing,” says Stern.) But Chambers is keen to stress that this nine-piece configuration isn’t uncommon in fusion; Billy Cobham’s kit, he says, is similar to his own. “He’d probably be the first to admit that [his style] grew out of Billy Cobham’s original style,” says Brecker. “Billy literally invented that style of fusion drumming.”

Chambers does acknowledge Cobham’s influence. But the drummer he speaks most highly of is Tony Williams, whom he saw playing with Miles Davis at a Baltimore club when he was around 8 years old and still aping the R&B drummers of the day. “That was brutal,” he says. “Watching Tony, man-the stuff was so far over my head that I didn’t know what I was listening to! But I knew I was seeing something great.”

Yet Chambers rode the R&B foundation into his musical career, going from high school directly into George Clinton’s Brides of Funkenstein, which opened for Parliament-Funkadelic in concert. “When they played their set, we were all backstage getting dressed, playing cards, whatever,” recalls Maceo Parker, who was a member of P-Funk’s backing group the Horny Horns. “But then we’d say, ‘It’s about time for that new young drummer to do his solo,’ and the whole band would drop what they were doing and go into the wings to watch.” It wasn’t long before Chambers had moved up to the big league.

He remained with them until 1985, when guitarist John Scofield hired him. “John heard me play, liked what he heard, and wanted me to do some recording with them,” Chambers says. “I said, ‘Sure.’ And the next thing I knew I was in the band.”

Chambers worked with Scofield for several years and moved on to Gary Thomas’ band, then into the Brecker Brothers and John McLaughlin’s Free Spirits, freelancing on countless tours and records in between. He’s never led a group, but he has released six albums under his own name, the last being 2006’s Boston T Party.

For all his virtuosity, Chambers doesn’t read music. He plays instead from an astonishing eidetic memory, learning his parts from demos that bandleaders send him. “When you look at how many bands Dennis has been in, every band has a book of music, and Dennis has all those books in his brain,” says Khan. “He just has to go access it and he’s ready to play again.”

Even without reading, Chambers plays with phenomenal precision. “Let’s say [a song’s A section] took 38 seconds to play,” says Khan. “And you go to the end of the song, and there’s another letter A. With Dennis you go, ‘Oh, my God, it’s still 38 seconds.’ No metronome, no nothing. You could probably count a handful of people in the world who can do that.”

That history and virtuosity was, for a while, lost to the world-and even to Chambers himself. But as he healed, and received encouragement from friends and colleagues, both the passion and the energy gradually returned. He did spot gigs with Brecker, Stern, McLaughlin and Paul Reed Smith, did clinics and a Canadian drum camp and, this past summer, went on tour with Parker.

On a sweltering evening in August, Chambers is working with Mike Stern at Washington, D.C.’s Blues Alley. Though casually dressed-orange longsleeved jersey, flip shades, black baseball cap-it’s apparent as soon as he perches behind the kit that he means business.

He starts off swinging on Stern’s “Out of the Blue,” but pivots to heavy funk for the tune’s crescendo. Then it’s back to swing, though Chambers loosens and tightens the rhythm on a dime. He has a long feature on the next tune, “KT.” Stern and bassist Tom Kennedy vamp, and the drummer works up into some uncountable subdivisions of the beat-then mutates it across four or five change-ups in the groove.

This is a device that Stern has gotten used to. “He almost plays a different song-it’s like metric modulation times 10,” he explains. “You’re in the tempo of the tune, like you’re playing a vamp in 4 that’s static, and he’ll break it up and do a slower feel, or something in 11, in his solo. It’s tricky because you’ve gotta hold the regular time-you can’t listen to him. And he told me that: ‘Don’t listen to me. Just play the vamp, and I’ll do what I do and I’ll get back to you.’ And he always does it, man!” At Blues Alley, just as the polyrhythm threatens to become completely incomprehensible, Chambers slides-with no crashing cymbal or count-in-back into the groove that Stern and Kennedy are vamping. Two tunes later, he’s moved to the other end of the spectrum, playing a fragile, beautiful line with brushes.

His friends and colleagues aren’t just cheerleading: Dennis Chambers is back. His health, his chops, his instincts are as robust as ever. If that’s good news for him, it’s equally so for the musicians who revere him. “With Dennis, you have this sense that he breathes a sense of self-confidence into the rest of the band,” says Khan. “It’s great to have that feeling that somebody back there, without having to gnash his teeth over it, is gonna hold it together and everything is gonna be OK.”

“Every musician I know loves Dennis,” says Stern. “He’s special.”

JT Essentials: Dennis Chambers

John Scofield
Blue Matter
(Gramavision, 1987)

This album, Chambers’ debut with guitarist Scofield’s band, made the fusion scene sit up and take notice, and for good reason: Though the synthesizers and the production, including echo-soaked drums, sound badly dated today, the drummer’s virtuosity in rock, funk, jazz and blues grooves remains apparent from the first downbeat.

Gary Thomas
While the Gate Is Open
(JMT, 1990)

Drummers who have played in the M-Base milieu frequently call it the most difficult work of their career. The apparent ease with which Chambers handles the brain-twisting polyrhythms behind M-Base pioneer Thomas would be enough to place this disc into the top flight of his recordings. That he plays swing on the record as well, and with equal aplomb, elevates it higher still.

John McLaughlin
The Heart of Things: Live in Paris
(Verve, 2000)

McLaughlin’s concept of jazz fusion is an idiosyncratic one, freely incorporating elements of straight-ahead acoustic jazz, experimental electronics, funk and psychedelic rock. Chambers proves more than adequate to the whiplash shifts it requires. Delicate cymbal taps give way to head-nodding grooves that give way to chopsy workouts. And all of those touches figure into a six-and-a-half-minute spotlight solo on “Tony,” a tribute to Chambers’ hero Tony Williams.

Dennis Chambers
Boston T Party
(Mascot, 2006)

Chambers’ most recent album under his own name seesaws between greasy blues-rock and spaced-out, synth-based fusion jams. (The two styles overlap more than once.) Groove becomes the current running through all of the music, however, and Chambers never lets it get away from him. His blinding speed and rhythmic intuition on the snares and cymbals are undergirded by a steadily flowing kick drum that, even through headphones, thuds in the listener’s chest.

Steve Khan
The Suitcase: Live in Köln ’94
(Tone Center, 2008)

Broadcast live on German radio, this concert was widely bootlegged until its legitimate double-disc release in 2008. The entire trio (guitarist Khan, Chambers, bassist Anthony Jackson) is in peak form and equal in the mix, which gives the drummer a remarkable platform. Every hi-hat, every subtle snare triplet is crystal clear and unproduced, elucidating his approach to the groove and his real-time responses to his bandmates. MICHAEL J. WEST

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