Musician Refashions Career As A Producer He Helps Others Record Their Jazz.

Posted: August 27, 1995

As he putters in his closet, bassist Charles Fambrough pulls out two stacks of compact discs - nearly 20 CDs in all - and sets them on a desk. These aren't recordings the veteran jazzman has jammed on. They are the CDs for which Fambrough has acted as producer, overseeing the entire recording.

That pile of CDs, which is growing monthly, represents a change for the 45- year-old musician who lives in Doylestown. Known as a player's player, Fambrough was the bassist in Wynton Marsalis' first band in 1984.

This month he is marking the release of his fourth recording as a leader, Keeper of the Spirit, on AudioQuest Records.

But Fambrough has turned increasingly toward producing, fashioning tunes and recordings for nearly a score of artists from the young lion pianist Joey Calderazzo to the newly arrived singer Vanessa Rubin.

Fambrough spent virtually an entire week in mid-August closeted in the Forge Recording Studio in Phoenixville to oversee a recording by the Philadelphia-based pianist Dennis Fortune and his band.

Sitting in his Doylestown townhouse, which he shares with his wife, Dolores, and three daughters, Fambrough said he has gotten into producing partly for practical reasons. Like many of his peers, he is tired of the road. He has been touring for 26 years.

He is also interested in producing artful sessions.

"I'm developing a sound," he says in an interview in his crowded second- floor music room, two-and-a-half blocks from the county courthouse. The room is stuffed with his instruments: a couple of electronic keyboards, a Macintosh computer, a digital-tape player and two massive Italian basses, both more than 200 years old.

For years, those resonant basses gave Fambrough his principal identity. As a seventh grader, Fambrough began 10 years of bass studies with Neil Courtney of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

A West Philadelphian, Fambrough went to school with the quintessential electric bassist Stanley Clarke. Fambrough was married to Clarke's sister for 17 years and continued to gig with his fellow bassist as recently as this summer. (Fans can check out Fambrough's most recent group in a free performance Aug. 29 at 8 p.m. at Wiggins Waterfront Park, Mickle Boulevard on the Delaware River between the aquarium and the entertainment center in Camden.

Fambrough will share the bandstand with tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and violinist John Blake.)

Fambrough's education on the bandstand dates from at least 1968, when he played bass for the Mike Douglas Show, then headquartered in Philadelphia.

Fambrough, who always attracted the attention of strong leaders, was a mainstay of Grover Washington Jr.'s band for three-and-a-half years starting in 1970. Their bond continues. Washington appears on Fambrough's Keeper of the Spirit.

Fambrough also served long stints with masters such as pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Art Blakey, who relished calling Fambrough by his nickname, ''Broski."

As one of Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Fambrough met and befriended Marsalis.

Fambrough has had equally distinguished mentors in the art of production. He helped make four recordings with Rudy Van Gelder, the legendary sound engineer who did much to fashion the Blue Note sound of the 1950s and 1960s and who now in his 80s continues to produce excellent work.

Frambrough also drew inspiration from Creed Taylor, the commercially astute producer whose CTI label, starting in 1991, has released Fambrough's first three recordings as a leader: The Proper Angle, The Charmer and Blues At Bradley's.

"They're both highly skilled," Fambrough says of Van Gelder and Taylor. ''They don't waste any time or any energy or even very many words. They know exactly what they're doing."

Like Van Gelder, Fambrough takes great pains in capturing the tone and timbre of saxophones, trumpets, basses and flutes.

"I listen to the sound of the instrument in its natural environment and try to replicate it as closely as possible," he says.

And like Taylor, Fambrough seeks to create a popular synthesis of acoustic and electric instuments. Fambrough generally favors the inherent richness of acoustic instruments, but his work is sprinkled judiciously with electric keyboards and electric trumpet. His most recent CD even includes some jazz recorder from Philadelphian Joel Levine. "I've never heard jazz recorder before," Fambrough says.

His goal is to spice the mix with electronic elements, giving it a more modern cast. "When it works, it's a beautiful marriage," he says.

Fambrough, who spent two years with the Brazilian percussionist Airto and singer Flora Purim, also likes to use Brazilian forms along with Latin rhythms. Fambrough's new CD pulses with samba-like tunes flavored by Afro- Cuban rhythms from percussionists Joe Gonzalez and Edward Simon.

The stylish result is eminently danceable. Fambrough feels that jazz has gotten too far away from its dance roots. He loves that his work can incite even couch potatoes to shimmy a little.

Doylestown might seem an unusual place to ply his craft, but Fambrough loves the area. "I'm away so much I like to know that my girls are safe," he says of his daughters, 3-year-old Andrea, 5-year-old twins Carla and Maria, and Alycia, 12.

Fambrough can catch a bus within a block of his house that takes him to New York in under two hours. And, he says, his collaborators often come to him to play amid the woodland scenery of Central Bucks.

Fambrough has a deal with a Warrington friend and ardent jazz fan, Brian DeCristofano, who lets Fambrough and his mates practice in the woods near his house. The canopy of trees is more scenic than a smoky club any day, Fambrough says.

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