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Artist Profiles

Andrew Cyrille: Bringer of Forms

By Published: May 12, 2003
Cyrille views knowledge of the jazz tradition as a key to self-discovery. "I'm more about people finding themselves rather than being a clone of mine," he says when asked about his philosophy of teaching. When discussing the techniques of his early mentors, he speaks of a similarly open-ended approach that went beyond conventional lessons: "I used to hear Philly Joe Jones quite a bit. The interesting thing about it was that even though I would have liked to take a continuous series of lessons with him, it never really happened that way. You know, I'd hang out with him, and maybe on the subway, he'd show me something on his leg or something like that. So it was almost like he was the guy that put his arm around my shoulder, and he would talk to me and let me watch him, rather than saying, 'This is a lesson; study it for a week, and then come back.'"

One area of the tradition that Cyrille has helped to expand greatly is the drum solo. He first honed his solo technique by playing for dancers, an experience which Cyrille categorizes as "another outstanding chapter in my life as a drummer insofar as making music with the drum set so that people felt comfortable moving their bodies." His experience in this area was extensive and fruitful. "Every day I played two different classes," he recalls, "and that gave me the strength and imagination to play drum rhythms; and as a consequence, it wasn't that difficult for me to hold an audience playing solos."

Indeed, Cyrille's drum solos are totally captivating, not to mention unique in the world of jazz. On landmark recordings like 1971's What About? (BYG-Actuel) and 1978's The Loop (Ictus), Cyrille demonstrates a concept of percussion that incorporates breath and other subtle uses of the voice as well as uncommon instruments such as the slide whistle and, of all things, a newspaper.

"Sometimes you can get inspiration from anywhere," he explains. "I might think of body and soul and how I could express that in a musical way. So on that What About? album, when I conceived of the piece called "From Whence I Came", it had to do with that concept of body and soul. So the body was the sounds that you hear on the drums and my breath was the soul. I would breathe and play rhythms around the breathing.

"There was one thing I did on The Loop called "The News", where I put a newspaper on the drum set and played on the newspaper. And at the end of the composition to bring into focus what I was trying to say, I rolled up the paper and you hear that noise like when you ball paper together [makes gurgling sound in imitation and laughs]."

Such experiments reveal an eccentric and indefatigably curious musical mind. To Cyrille, though, they are simply a way of processing the information one gleans from everyday life. He elaborates: "Sound, even though we can't see it, is related to all the other senses. And as human beings, for the most part all of us deal with the five senses. So how do you relate in sound what comes through your senses? Writers and poets experience the same kinds of things except they express themselves in that medium. It's all about trying to bring a form to life, or give life to a form, which is art."

By always helping to elucidate the natural form of a given piece rather than imposing his own style, Cyrille has distinguished himself from a long lineage of "star" drummers in jazz whose virtuosic styles have at times threatened to overshadow the music of their ensembles. "I would think of what I felt was appropriate at the time for the music," Cyrille explains, characterizing his approach to playing with Cecil Taylor, "and that would be my contribution. It was always something that would inspire - I hoped - something that would give the music a voice, an extension of sound through the drum set."

AAJ CD Review of Open Ideas .

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