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“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview”

Greg Chambers


JazzMonthly: “Can’t Help Myself” is your third album, how is this one similar, and how is it different from your previous two?

GC: I think each of my albums has it’s own personality, reflects where I was at the time of creating it, and is the manifestation of the goals or decisions I had in mind. My self-titled CD was an exploration of different soundscapes, ranging from jazztrance, techno, acoustic singer songwriter,and there’s even a song called “Street Noise” which is a tribute to David Sanborn and the smooth jazz sound of the ‘80s. At the time, I was trying to do some adventurous things while learning to produce and mix, as well as explore new ideas and sounds. The next CD, “After Hours”, was kind of my first foray into collaborating with other artists like Jonathan Fritzen, Paul Brown, and Darren Rahn and using some “in demand” session musicians like Ross Bolton and Roberto Vally. It was through “After Hours” that I really learned how to construct music that would fit the mold for smooth jazz radio format and take my music to the next level.

I was also listening heavily to the local R&B station KBLX and rediscovering albums like Boney James’ “Ride”, Paul Taylor’s “Pleasure Seeker” and Steve Cole’s “Stay Awhile”, so I’d say the general vibe of the album seemed much more rooted in R&B. With “Can’t Help Myself”, I wanted to create an album that was a combination of catchy, upbeat tunes (first half) and sexy slow jams (second half). I was also curious to see what a few seasoned producers could do with me and my material as well, as I knew some amazing ideas would be brought to the table. I think, “Can’t Help Myself” is probably the best representation of who I am at this moment: I took as much care and time as I possibly could into crafting each song, welcomed collaboration and input, and tried to ensure that my personality emanated from not only my playing, but this record as a whole.

JazzMonthly: You graduated with a classical music degree, and are a highly acclaimed woodwind instructor, yet you are an all-around jazz performer and composer too. Were you always interested in jazz, even when you were studying classical music?

GC: I have always loved jazz my dad passed on his love of big band and WWII era jazz to me early on. He ran a 20 piece swing band and had me join when I was in middle school. Later on, I discovered and started studying the music of jazz greats like Charlie Parker and Coltrane. I’d learn tunes and solos and play to recordings for hours and hours. But I also loved the classical side too. Something about the refinement, precision, and aesthetic beauty of the saxophone tone and overall approach has always captivated me. I enjoy continuing to study and perform in a classical setting I find myself pulling out the Dahl Concerto, Albright Sonata, and Ibert Concertino quite a bit still. And I continue to play with orchestras every now and then too (I recently played Milhaud’s “La Création du Monde” with a chamber orchestra here in the Bay Area), although much less frequently than when I was in college!

JazzMonthly: You have some highly esteemed producers partnering with you on your latest record. Tell us about them... and how this latest project came to be.

GC: Darren Rahn had mixed a handful of the tunes from my “After Hours” CD and he is good friends with Nate Harasim and Paul Brown. He and Nate work with a lot of the same musicians, sometimes sharing mixing and production duties and, after hearing Phil Denny’s “Crossover” and some other Trippin ‘N’ Rhythm CDs Nate had produced, I knew I wanted to enlist him to produce at least some of this album, if not all of it. In the beginning, I’d get the melody sketched out and recorded, would lay down some supporting ideas (sample drums and keys) and send everything over to him in Detroit. It kind of gave him an idea of which direction I’d like to go with each track, but in the end, I’m not sure he needed it. Nate has a gift for knowing how to make a recording develop it’s own personality and identity. It was through Nate that I was introduced to Matt Godina too. I initially reached out to Matt just to track some guitar work for “It’s On”, although he quickly showed me what he was capable of as a producer and co-writer, and the rest is history.

JazzMonthly:  I noticed how musically generous you are as a leader. You really let your fellow musicians branch out and radiate on your record with their solos. Was that a conscious goal of yours?

GC: Absolutely. I think a recording is only as good as the sum of it’s parts and players. I thought it was really important to collaborate with guest artists, allow others to step out into the spotlight, and to highlight other musical personalities on this record. I’ve always found myself going back to albums by Brian Culbertson and Dave Koz largely because of the variety from track to track, the magic that happens during musical interaction between them and their guests, and the creative energy they bring to an album as a whole.

JazzMonthly:  Tell us a little bit about “All My Life” which is such an intense and sensual performance by you and your crew.

GC: I’ve always loved this song. It came out when I was in 8th grade and I remember hearing it while slow dancing at awkward middle school dances. But it’s also one of the quintessential wedding/love songs of my generation and one that everybody knows, so Nate Harasim and I knew that we couldn’t stray too far from the original. Jalen did an amazing job covering the rich “churchy” harmonies in the chorus and I tried to make sure that there was a nice balance between solo saxophone and harmonized or doubled sax parts throughout. I think the magic that happened on this tune started from Nate’s programming too. When things are right at the start, it’s so easy to lose yourself in the performance.

JazzMonthly: One thing that really stands out on this new album is how tight and “together” you all sound on every track. How were you able to capture that overall feeling?

GC: I think having a number of personnel involved with this CD who understood or had experience on the production or engineering side of things, as well as a strong command of their own instrument(s), contributed greatly to this overall sound. Paul Brown, Nate Harasim, Matt Godina, Julian Vaughn, Nils and myself have all produced or co-produced either our own music or music for other instrumentalists/vocalists. All of these players understand how to shine without overplaying or overstepping their bounds? how to create parts which compliment and enhance what is already there? how to play with sensitivity, personality, and feel while adapting and listening to one another? and how to create amazing music from the ground up.

JazzMonthly: When you embark on this kind of a jazz project, do you ever get ideas or also draw from your classical foundation?

GC: Once in a while I do. I think my classical background has helped me most in terms of writing chord progressions to my own songs and to rely my knowledge of voice leading when writing synth parts or recording pads. There are so many harmonic progressions we were required to play in keyboard fundamentals classes, as well as pieces we’d analyze in music theory and history classes, and I know that that this education has given me some tools to work with and inspiration along the way. I’d say on my “Greg Chambers” and “After Hours” albums, I put my keyboard skills to work so much more than on “Can’t Help Myself”. In fact, I did all of the keys and part writing on my previous albums. On “Can’t Help Myself”, most of the songs were co written with Nate Harasim or Matt Godina and I wanted them to do their thing, which often meant revamping some of the more banal harmonic ideas I had for parts and progressions that were more complex, tasty and colorful. I do find myself listening to a lot of classical music though my wife is a freelance/orchestral clarinetist, so even if I wanted to get a break from listening to it, I don’t know if I’d be able to!

JazzMonthly: Going back in your life, what song or performance is the first you recall hearing and being influenced by?

GC: When I was 9 or 10, I remember loving every Michael Jackson song that’d come on the radio. I’d record it directly to a cassette tape and keep an archive of all the songs I liked, which I’d bring along on weekend car trips to Monterey or San Jose, camping or fishing trips, etc. But I also really liked Garth Brooks songs too, so I’m not sure how acute my musical tastes were at that age in my life. I can certainly recall the recording which made me want to pursue smooth jazz, which I bought from a record store when I was quite a bit older. I was a senior in high school and a friend suggested checking out Dave Koz, so I picked up a copy of “The Dance”. I’d already listened to and studied lots of music from Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, and others? and I of course knew most of Kenny G’s work, but instantly this record grabbed me. I’d never heard the saxophone played with that kind of gusto, sensitivity, personality and expression all at once. Nor had I ever had any music speak to me in that kind of a way. For me, it was this recording that opened up a new realm of musical possibilities.

JazzMonthly:  We know that you continue to perform live with your group. How have some of these newer tunes been received by your audiences?

GC: I feel incredibly lucky that our longtime fans are so supportive of everything we do and that the new audiences we play for seem to be quick converts. We played a few big shows this year opening up for Evelyn “Champagne” King and Howard Hewett on separate occasions for audiences ranging from 500-1000 people in Stockton, CA. We hadn’t yet played shows in this area and 99% of the audience had never heard of us, but it amazed me how quickly everyone got up to dance, pull out their phones to record footage of the show, tweet and post about the concert, etc. When “Can’t Help Myself” was first released, some of our loyal fans who’ve come to hear us play at local spots over the past 3 years would hear a tune off the new album maybe for the second or third time (not long enough to be able to pinpoint where they had heard it before) and ask if it was a Dave Koz or Grover Washington Jr. song.
At first I was disappointed that it wasn’t recognized as one of my†songs, but I realized I should take it as a huge compliment. I think the hardest thing for an artist who is putting out a second or third or fourth recording is that you’re going to encounter some people who, for whatever reason, love a previous effort more. I’ve had a small handful of people profess their preference for “After Hours” but, at the end of the day, I’m just grateful that I gave them something that they love and feel attached to.

JazzMonthly:  How do you think you have grown as a composer and musician over the years? Are you inspired by the same things now as you were back then?

My musical tastes have changed so much throughout the years, and I think that the more music I encounter, the more ideas I get. Igor Stravinsky famously said “lesser artists borrow, great artists steal”, and I certainly think it’s crucial to learn to apply effective musical techniques that others use to your own music. Although I did get exposed to a lot of classical and jazz music throughout college, I find myself listening to a wider variety of things now. I listen to a lot of current and old school R&B, LOTS of smooth jazz, and quite a bit of funk and fusion jazz. As far as inspiration goes, there are certainly a few albums which always get me thinking creatively. Paul Taylor’s “Pleasure Seeker”, Dave Koz’s “Saxophonic”, Brian Culbertson’s “It’s On Tonight”, and Julian Vaughn’s “Breakthrough”. I do think I’ve evolved quite a bit in my songwriting and playing over the years? I’ve learned to track more supportive backing saxes, create more interplay between supportive parts, establish a deeper groove, come up with more creative melodies and harmonic changes, and take more risks in the recording process.


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