Dennis Chambers has Victor Wooten on the ropes.
With a gleam in his eye, DC takes control of the out vamp and thrills the Blue Note crowd with a flourish of sweeps and displaced beats, as Wooten furiously nods his bass along to the drummer’s spatial modulations. Dennis the Menace is back, for sure, and in this heightened musical moment with Wooten’s trio, it’s hard to imagine that less than five years ago he lay near death in a hospital in Alicante, Spain. Waking from a coma, Chambers didn’t know if he would ever play drums again. First he had to think about staying alive.
One of the most influential drummers of his generation, Dennis Chambers has been thrilling and confounding listeners almost since he began playing at the age of three. His mother sang in nightclubs in the Baltimore area, so Dennis got an early look at the musician’s lifestyle. He began soaking up sounds like a sponge, studying bebop drummers when other kids were reading Dr. Seuss. He became a Sugar Hill Records session drummer, and at the age of eighteen took a gig with George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. Seven years later, in 1986, he joined guitarist John Scofield’s band, turning the fusion world on its ear with the Loud Jazz and Blue Matter albums. Gigs with Mike Stern, Maceo Parker, Bill Evans, the Brecker Brothers, John McLaughlin, Niacin, and Steely Dan would follow, as well as Tone Center Records dates with Bunny Brunel and Tony MacAlpine (CAB), Uncle Moe’s Space Ranch, Greg Howe and Victor Wooten, Boston T Party, Scott Henderson and Jeff Berlin, and Steve Khan.
Chambers took over the drum chair in Santana in 2002 and stayed with the band for a dozen years, playing on 2005’s All That I Am, 2010’s Guitar Heaven, and 2012’s Shape Shifter. Chambers’ last appearance on a Santana album was 2014’s Corazón, on which he shared drum duties with Cindy Blackman-Santana.
The drummer has recorded a handful of solo albums as well, most recently 2013’s Groove and More, featuring Brian Auger, Patti Austin, Stanley Jordan, Dora Nicolosi, Scott Henderson, and Gregg Kofi Brown. “I wanted to make the most that I possibly could out of the music on the album,” Chambers says. “To tell you the truth, I was really surprised how it turned out, but I had two great producers that I learned to trust.”
The following July, while on a European tour with Mike Stern, Chambers suffered massive bleeding from the lining of his esophagus. With the support of his family and friends like Lenny White, Billy Cobham, and the late Alphonse Mouzon, Dennis recovered his health. And now he’s back playing shows and recording with Mike Stern—2017’s Trip is named for the guitarist’s own recent physical mishap—and for the last two years he’s been part of bassist Victor Wooten’s trio with woodwind player Bob Franceschini. The trio has been touring widely behind the highly entertaining Trypnotyx album; the long, syncopated flow of “Dc10,” the face-puckering funk of “Liz & Opie,” the cross-stick conviction of “Cruising Altitude,” and the flawless flourishes closing “A Little Rice and Beans” are all evidence of a curious, dedicated drummer back at the very top of his craft.
MD: Michael Shrieve, Graham Lear, and you have had the longest runs of all the drummers in Santana—and there are a number of other great players who’ve also worked with the band.
Dennis: Yeah, twelve years with Santana—I don’t know where to start with that. It was a very interesting ride when I was there, and it was pretty cool. But I always said to Carlos, “You know, you’ve got to be happy.” And it seemed like the way it ended, he wasn’t happy with me being there. So I took it upon myself to remove myself, because at the end of the day he’s got to be happy.
MD: The Guitar Heaven covers album is interesting—did you listen to the originals for inspiration? “Sunshine of Your Love” is way different from the original, and “Back in Black” with Nas is ripping.
Dennis: Yeah, some of them I did listen to, and other songs I didn’t because Carlos wanted to change them a bit.
MD: Shape Shifter has some beautiful instrumentals.
Dennis: It was typical—Carlos had us all in at the same time, and we all played live right to the track. No overdubbing or anything like that. He called a song, and we just played it.
MD: Had you been playing those songs live?
Dennis: We’d been working them up. And there was some stuff that he brought to the studio. He would play and he’d say, “Hey, check this out.” And then we’d learn it and record the pieces. With Carlos, every day we performed there was a rehearsal. And some stuff he would bring to the gig and say, “Hey, I need you to learn this.” The day of the gig, he would bring two or three songs into soundcheck—which was also our rehearsal, by the way—and say, “Learn this.” We’d learn the songs, and sometimes we’d play them, and sometimes we wouldn’t. I’ve got about sixty CDs of music from over the years that I had to learn but that we didn’t play.
You know, Carlos always wanted to keep it moving. He wanted to keep the band sparked, I guess. He never wanted to sound boring. Sometimes you’d be getting ready to count a song off, and he’d wave you off and play something else. So he always kept you guessing. The first three songs on the set list were etched in stone, but after that you didn’t know what was going to happen—which is good.
MD: On “Macumba in Budapest” and “Erin la Luz,” it sounds like you’re playing kick, hat, and cymbals, leaving it more open for the percussion.
Dennis: When I join a unit, the first thing I want to do is to figure out how it’s going to work. With [percussionists] Karl Perazzo and Raul Rekow it was very easy, because basically we’d just play, trying to leave spaces and holes. It was pretty easy for me because all I had to do was sit and listen. Play, of course, but sit and listen, and then pick where you can do certain things. All three of us have got chops, but sometimes Carlos wants certain things from the drum chair, and it was kind of hard to do at first because I was still learning the music and trying not to step on Karl and Raul’s toes. I learned later that they were doing the same thing for me.
It’s like working with Don Alias, rest his soul. You could throw Don into any situation, and he’d just make it work. His history ran deep with drummers—Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Billy Cobham, Jack DeJohnette. It doesn’t get any deeper than that. Plus he played mad drumset. You find other guys that are genius percussionists, but they can’t play with a drummer because they’re too busy trying to do it all. They’re trying to be a percussionist and a drummer at the same time, and that’s where it becomes a problem.
MD: You and Raul and Karl were like one person.
Dennis: Well, that’s the way the music had to present itself. Despite what they thought they knew about me—which was that I was a guy with mad chops, a total groovemaster or whatever—my thing was like, “Let’s throw that aside and figure out how we’re going to make this work.” The answer was very clear: you’ve got to listen to each other. That’s a problem with a lot of young guys now—they just don’t listen. They walk into a room and it becomes their show—but it’s not. You’re hired to deliver a certain quality of music, of percussion, and you can’t do that if you’re back there soloing all over the place. That’s when you’re not listening. Or you’re listening for how to make it work for you, when you can do the craziest drum fill so other drummers in the house can go, “Oh my God, that was crazy.” It wasn’t like that for us. Carlos Santana’s name was on the bill. He’s paying us to play his music, and that’s what we did.
MD: The track “Oye 2014” on the Corazón album features Pitbull, and you do some nice snare work on it, with more of a straight-up feel than the original.
Dennis: That’s all a big blur to me now. The only thing I remember from those recording sessions is it was the last time I recorded with Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo and my first time recording with Herbie Hancock. But I really miss Raul, man. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that guy. He left us too soon.
MD: We almost lost you in 2014.
Dennis: Yeah. It was interesting waking up in the hospital in Spain, not knowing how I got there. I was like, “Where am I? Who am I?” Everybody was moving in slow motion, speaking broken English, and they were trying to tell me how close to death I was. Because what they’d told Mike Stern and Bill Evans was that they couldn’t do anything else for me, that it was up to me whether I wanted to live or die. I didn’t know. So I came out of the coma, looked around, and tried to figure things out.
Mike was telling me that they found me on the floor in my hotel room, in my blood. So I was bleeding out. I had holes on my esophagus and didn’t know it.
MD: They thought that they’d treated you for that, right?
Dennis: Yeah, it all came from acid reflux. I suffered with it in my teenage years, and it just got worse and worse. It got to the point where I couldn’t eat anything with tomato sauce or apple juice—even orange juice would get me. If I wanted to eat pizza it would have to be at a certain time of day. Sometimes at night I would wake up running to the furthest bathroom in the house, so nobody could hear me. I’m in there throwing up, and I’m thinking that’s how they’re going to find me, slumped over a toilet, because I couldn’t breathe. It would just come up and go down the windpipe, and the next thing, you’re choking. They cured me of it, but the damage was done. I had all these holes in my esophagus lining because of the acid reflux.
MD: All of us fans appreciate Mike’s persistence in looking for you.
Dennis: Yeah, normally he worries a lot. But on this one he nailed it right. Hotels don’t normally give you the key to somebody’s room, but he got them to open the door, and there I was, lying there. And by the time they found me, they said my skin was turning grey.
MD: And there was a good bit of recovery involved.
Dennis: I didn’t play drums for a year. In fact I didn’t even know if I was going to play drums again. I had no desire to play. Pearl sent me this yellow see-through Crystal Beat kit. I had them set up in my living room, and every morning I would walk right past that room, look at that drumkit, and not play it. I’d call friends over to play it, just so I could hear what it sounded like. And then one day Mike offered me the gig to play at Blues Alley down there in Washington. I took the gig, played it, and Mike, Bob, and everybody else was saying that I sounded better than ever. And that’s after not even touching the drums for about a year. The only thing I can say is maybe it’s because I had all that time to just think about—or clear my mind of—rhythms. So therefore when I sat down I had a fresh approach.
I had another look at how to play the drums, actually. Or what I was hearing, I just heard it in a different way. I had a lot of time to think about it. I would sit there and listen to somebody like Nate Wood, just to try to hear where he was—or Steve Jordan. Chris Dave, too. Listening, it makes me think of it differently, and I’m going to play differently. I hear something, I go with it, and whatever happens, happens. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen, but most likely it does.
MD: How did you know that you were ready to get back to playing?
Dennis: Well, I was going to just play and let the hands fall where they may. You know, to see if they were ready. If they weren’t then so be it. But it worked. The place was packed. People knew that I hadn’t played in a year. They wanted to find out if I still had it. Some people came to see me fail! [laughs] It was really weird.
MD: Was it a challenge endurance-wise?
Dennis: Yeah. My hands felt rubbery at first. The first three songs felt strange—then they would just come back.
MD: You used to play long shows, like with P-Funk. Have you ever had to think about pacing yourself before?
Dennis: No. When [P-Funk leader] George Clinton came to town, I would go see him, and I kind of imagined myself doing that gig again. He would go out and play everything they know, six-hour shows, and [eventually] I was like, “Man, I can’t do that anymore.” Although Santana was some long gigs. But you know, when you’re doing it, eighteen, nineteen, twenty pieces of music goes by really quick. Every night, as soon as we finished, someone would bring me the CDs of the gig to listen to. So I’ve got quite a big collection of Santana’s live music.
MD: Did everybody get one to check out?
Dennis: No. Carlos wanted me to hear them, just to tell him what I thought of the mixes.
MD: That shows respect.
Dennis: Yeah, and it’s vice versa. I’ve got a lot of respect for him, too, as a bandleader, a guy who’s been doing this since the ’60s. And he’s still moving, although I haven’t seen the band with Cindy yet. But I can imagine that’s going to be interesting. I would like to see it just to see what spin she’s got on it.
MD: Longevity isn’t guaranteed in this business. Is it a challenge to stay busy and relevant?
Dennis: Well, a gig is a gig. I mean, I remember even Tony Williams would say to me, “Hey, man, if you need me to sub, call me up.” And I was playing with P-Funk then—imagine that! I just try new things, man, try to keep it going. There’s nothing new about any of this; even the styles come around every twenty years. So I listen to people that capture my ear, like that group Kneebody with Nate Wood on drums. Nate’s a bad man—he’s kicking butt. There’s a video where he’s playing drumkit, bass guitar, and keyboard, all at the same time. I like Nate. Really interesting. People like him and Steve Jordan—Jordan always captures my ear because he’s thinking way outside the box. And then you have Chris Dave, who’s another interesting guy.
MD: Your drumming keeps expanding. Are there other people that you enjoy hearing?
Dennis: Yeah, there’s Mike Mitchell, who used to play with Stanley Clarke. He’s a bad boy, and I like listening to him. And of course Lenny White will still catch my ear. He’s got this record that I’m in love with called Anomaly. There’s a lot of great stuff on it. Then there’s Thomas Pridgen out there on the West Coast, and Ronald Bruner. I like to check out those guys. Mike Mitchell’s band played the second show at the Blue Note when we were there, and they were killin’.
MD: What do you mean when you use the term “linear playing”?
Dennis: It goes all kinds of weird ways for me. Sometimes I don’t even think of what time I’m in. I hear a melody, and I’ll go with it, but it may not be in the same tempo as what’s going down at that moment, you know. Sometimes I think in terms of splitting the hands up, playing a dotted 8th note on the ride cymbal and all kinds of crazy things with the left hand going totally against what’s on the right hand. And my feet are doing different things.
Sometimes I test myself just to see how far I can go, and sometimes it’ll fall apart. But when it falls apart, I’m learning from this. Like I’ll play seven on the right hand, five on the left, maybe nine on the bottom half, to, you know, see where the cycles would go, how far the thing would go before it lands on 1. Sometimes I try it and it works; sometimes it doesn’t.
MD: Are you talking about beat displacement and time modulation?
Dennis: Yeah. It’s funny to watch the other band members when you’re going through it—how they’ve got to keep it together. Sometimes, playing with Victor, he’s looking, and then he can’t look. He’s got to look away and concentrate on where he is.
MD: You and Victor must have a great musical bond.
Dennis: Yeah, you can’t pull it on just anybody, you know. You’ve got to be very careful who you play with when you’re doing this. I mean, I’ve played with some guys, and they’ll just stop.
MD: When you’re presented with a piece of music by Victor or Mike that’s challenging, would you ask what the time signatures and arrangement are, or just find the pulse yourself and work it out?
Dennis: No, if it’s a new piece they’ll tell me what it is, and then I’ve got to figure out what to do with it. When I played with John McLaughlin, he would throw some stuff on you; a song would be in like nineteen or twenty-one, whatever. He’s going to tell you what it is, but you’ve got to figure it out. That’s one guy I really miss playing with, because he just kept your mind constantly going.
MD: And then you’ve got to make it sound relaxed.
Dennis: Right. Well, after a period of time with John, people would say that everything that I played sounded like it was in 4/4, even though it wasn’t. It just felt good to them. It’s like they weren’t thinking about counting anything; they would sit there listening to it and grooving to it. And I’m not counting. I remember one night he said, “‘Purple Haze’ in fifteen.” And I’m thinking, Okay, well, there’s a lot of different ways you can play fifteen. I let him start it [and I listen for] where he played the melody, so I could hear where he was dropping the 1.
Fifteen is easy anyway. It’s just three fives. But the song is in four. So I look at him, forgetting that John counts everything straight out. He doesn’t subdivide anything too much. His foot is constantly moving, and what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing are two different things. So when he gets into these weird time signatures, like a lot of those Mahavishnu pieces…that one song that was in twenty-one, he didn’t subdivide it, whereas everybody else was subdividing all over the place.
One night we played “You Know, You Know,” and I’m trying to play it the way Billy [Cobham] played it. John says to me, “Why are you doing that?” I’m like, “What do you mean?” He says, “Yeah, he never played that song right.” I’m like, “Well, on all the tapes I have, it sounded to me like he played it right.” He said, “Well, the song is in four.” I’m like, “In four?” The way Billy played it, it didn’t sound like it’s in four. I thought it was in another time signature. But when John told me it was written in four, it all made sense.
MD: I see you switching back and forth between matched grip and traditional grip—mid-song sometimes. Is that a conscious thing?
Dennis: No, it’s something that I feel in the moment. I do know the difference between those two grips and what it does for me and how it feels to me. When I’m playing with traditional grip, it’s more of a focused sound, and I have more control. If I’m playing matched grip, it’s more for power. If I’ve got to play hard then I’ll play open handed, or matched grip. You shouldn’t notice that I’m using the two different grips, though. The sound doesn’t change.
MD: You have good posture. Does that help you relax in your playing?
Dennis: When I come out, I always approach the kit slowly. I sit there and get a feel for where the kick is and where the hi-hat stand is. And from there I sit straight, because I believe there’s a center of that drumkit. Like if I sit there and that bass drum pedal is off to the right or the left a little bit, I’m going to feel that. Or if the hi-hat stand is too far to the left, I’m going to feel that. So when I sit there, even though I did soundcheck already, I make sure the pedals are where they’re supposed to be, and I look at the center of the bass drum where the rack toms are, making sure that my 12“ and 13“ toms are in a certain spot where there’s an easy flow to the kit.
Sometimes when guys get a rack system, their tom-tom, either a 12“ or a 13“, is in the center of the bass drum, and I don’t think they know that that’s a bad habit. For me, wherever that snare drum is, that 12″ has got to be right up in front of it. Therefore when you roll around, there’s a flow to it. If you’ve seen videos of me from above, it almost looks effortless. It just looks like I’m sitting in my living room, because of the flow of the drumkit. I’m sitting there looking like I’m reading the newspaper or something, because the kit is easy for me to play due to the way it’s set up. I know where everything is, and I don’t have to stretch to hit things. The only thing I have to stretch for is that 18“ floor tom.
MD: Do you ever hear drummers and think, Hmm, that sounds familiar.
Dennis: Yeah, I’ve had that experience, where I heard somebody play something and I’m like, That’s interesting; I did that twenty years ago. There’s this one thing called the Baltimore Sweep, or the Sweep, or whatever they call it now. It’s two beats on the bass drum, one beat on the snare and floor tom, and you go back and forth. It sounds like a paradiddle.
Especially with the gospel players, I hear it. I just have to chuckle. That’s how it goes. I’m sure that Billy Cobham probably hears things from me that I got from him. He’s probably sitting there chuckling, too. I’m not afraid to say it. I learned a lot by listening to people like him and Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, Lenny White. Those are my favorite guys, man. Alphonse Mouzon. But Billy Cobham and Tony Williams: they really pushed the envelope. I mean, people still can’t…drummers don’t play like that now. I’ve got tapes of Billy with Mahavishnu, and some of that stuff I listen to and think, This guy was on another planet. Same thing with Lenny White.
MD: Trypnotyx is great. “Caught in the Act” reminds me of Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof.”
Dennis: I always wanted to play “Actual Proof.” I brought the song to the band and they shot me down, but Bob Franceschini said he had a song that sounded like “Actual Proof,” and that’s “Caught in the Act.”
MD: I can hear the Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks influence on “Liz & Opie.”
Dennis: Victor doesn’t come up with any drum parts. He just says, “Here’s the music—play.” So I’m there sketching stuff out like a painter. We recorded that album in pieces. Victor had come up with this idea of having bass, drums, and saxophone—I mean, who would have thought of that? When he told me about it, I was thinking, I don’t know about this, not knowing what he had in mind, you know, what he was going to do with this unit. Bob is a bad boy, he can play. And watching Victor every night, where he goes through all of these different things, flying stuff in with a foot switch. While you’re hearing bass you’re also hearing organ or flute or strings…. They’re really deep people; they think outside the box.
MD: Are you referring to the Wooten family?
Dennis: Yeah. Regi, Roy, Joe—they all think outside the box.
MD: You can make odd times, like on “Dc10” from Trypnotyx, sound like 4/4. And not like an exercise, but like music.
Dennis: I don’t count it; I just feel it. After playing with John McLaughlin, nothing with odd time signatures fazes me. Gadd’s like that, too. I’ll never forget this: I was in New York one night, and I went to see Gadd play with Michael Urbaniak and Anthony Jackson. These guys played everything but 4/4, and it was really amazing. But everything sounded like it was in four, even though we knew it wasn’t.
MD: Anything with Anthony Jackson and Steve Gadd is going to be good.
Dennis: Anything with Anthony and anybody is going to be good. Anthony, and Steve Ferrone.
MD: I hear that you’re doing clinics again.
Dennis: I kind of took myself off the clinic scene, because I noticed that drummers had the wrong idea of what drumming is about. Some guys look at this like a sport, like who can burn who. And some of the stuff that they’d say about other drummers…it showed a lack of respect.
So I kind of took myself off the clinic scene, mainly because I saw where it was heading. But then somebody told me that what they’re [seeing played in clinics now] is coming from people like Billy Cobham, Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta, and me, as far as the chops and the speed. So I’ve put myself back on the clinic scene to explain it.
The first thing that I like to talk about is the role of a drummer. I didn’t pick this instrument to pull girls, or to turn it into Dennis Chambers Day every time I walk into the studio. It’s not that. And I try to explain to them that if you’re a reader and somebody throws a chart in front of you, it doesn’t have your name on it. And the reason is that anybody can play that music. It doesn’t say Steve Gadd, it doesn’t say Vinnie Colaiuta, it doesn’t say Dennis Chambers or Billy Cobham. You know, nobody’s name is on the chart. It’s just…drums.
Drums: Pearl Masterworks Series with maple shells
• 6.5×14 Dennis Chambers Signature snare or Masterworks Series Maple model
• 8×10 tom
• 8×12 tom
• 9×13 tom
• 14×14 floor tom
• 16×16 floor tom
• 14×20 gong drum
• 16×20 bass drum
• 13” Mastersound hi-hats (two bottom cymbals)
• 16” K Custom Dark crash
• 17” K Custom Dark crash
• 18” K Custom Dark crash
• 13” Mastersound aux hi-hats (two top cymbals)
• 22” Custom ride
• 20” Oriental Crash of Doom or 20” K Prototype China
Hardware: Pearl, including Icon straight rack and P2002C double pedal
Heads: Evans G2 Coated snare batter and Clear 300 snare side; G2 Clear tom batters (for rock and fusion gigs) or Coated (for jazz) and Genera Clear resonants; EMAD Clear gong drum batter; EMAD Clear bass drum batter
Sticks: Zildjian Dennis Chambers Signature wood-tip model
Accessories: PureSound B1420 Blaster series snare wires, Evans EQ Pad bass drum mufflers, Evans magnetic drum key