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Adam Cruz: Making Some Room


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Playing drums with some of the finest musicians around, touring the globe with them, and teaching music can be a lot on the plate of a person fortunate enough—and talented enough—to find themselves in that situation. In fact, that's a solid career.

But for Adam Cruz—a much sought-after drummer on the New York City scene when he's not touring with Danilo Pérez or David Sanchez and doing other projects of that ilk—there was always more. Composing and pursuing his own artistic vision was always important. Now, at age 42, he hopes that is rising to the top.

He never felt the need to rush into leading a band or putting himself out front. But for a couple years he's worked on his very first solo recording. Milestone (Sunnyside, 2011) emerged as a strong statement and is aptly titled. "It's a big step, an achievement, to manage to finally get something together with my composing and put a record out under my own name," says Cruz. "Milestone is that type of achievement."

Cruz has already showed his musical prowess by being a member of the Mingus Big Band in the 1990s, being a key cog in the Pérez trio for more than a decade, and playing with musicians like Chick Corea, Steve Wilson, Tom Harrell, Chris Potter, Pharoah Sanders and Paquito D'Rivera. But the new album is taking him elsewhere. It features eight original compositions, performed by colleagues and friends who are all exceptional. They bring the drummer's compositions to life in wonderful fashion, and that's a dream for Cruz, who says there has always been a composer side to him, ..."who was not getting a chance to live and stay active. It was more in my imagination. Something I was aspiring to do, but not actually doing. It was kind of a calling to do more writing as my career progressed, but I was caught up with all the different groups I've played with and toured with for all these years. This [new CD] was about making time, I suppose."

In more recent years he made a commitment to develop music and with a group in mind. "As it started to come together, it started to be clear to me there was something there. I got to see pretty clearly who I'd want to play. It felt right for a next step, to move into that territory."

The star-studded group includes alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon, soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, guitarist Steve Cardenas,pianist Edward Simon and bassist Ben Street. They've played together in various combinations and are serious, dedicated musicians. They create superb music on Cruz's recording.

"That's the fortunate thing about being in New York all these years and having the opportunity to play with different people, so many great musicians. I had knowledge of their work. So as I'm writing, it was like, 'Chris would sound amazing soloing on this tune.' Steve Cardenas and Ed Simon, they both have such a fine-tuned sensibility about harmony and taste and I was sure they would sound great together. I don't think they played together ever before; I thought it would be great to put those guys together. Ben Street and I, that was the easiest call because we play so consistently with Danilo Pérez's trio that I know how it feels with him and that he will bring new things to the bass line that I probably couldn't write. Which was great. Miguel and Steve, they're people I've had relationships with. I have a sequencer I work with at home, so as I was listening back and just imagining the music, it was fun plugging in the people in my mind. 'So-and -so would be amazing here.'"

All the musicians involved are in demand, so it was hard to get the recording scheduled. But worth the effort.

The album opens with Cruz laying out the rhythm and Simon comping the chords; Potter and Zenón join in and both play and harmonize the melody. "Secret Life" is off and running and the band forms a creative atmosphere that permeates the entire disk. Potter shows his soaring sense of adventure and burnished sound, while Cardenas' interplay with Simon is a thing of beauty. Zenón and Wilson's statements are always on target, with great expression and character.

The music came to Cruz from different times and different inspirations. "At least half of the pieces I would keep visiting and revisiting over a period of years," says Cruz. "It's a great thing to do. If you take some space from it, you have a whole new perspective. I'm able to pull it in a different direction, bring some new material to it that, if I had tried to do it two weeks before—when I was in the midst of working on it for a couple hours—wouldn't have happened. Something about that process of going away and coming back to it helped me to write it and keep it fresh. Then there are a few pieces that, as the deadline was getting closer to the recording, I felt I needed to balance the material out, so I was putting myself under the gun to write something more on-the-spot."

It was recorded with the musicians all in the same room to give it a live feeling. There was no one separated in booths, no overdubbing and minimal takes. There is no feeling that the drummer/leader is pushed forward, his band a supportive afterthought. This is cohesive music where each participant Adds a color and helps Cruz showcase his outstanding music.

"It was amazing. Everybody was so on. I couldn't have asked for a smoother session," says Cruz. "For me there's a question of expressing my identity as a drummer. But I've been doing that and I do that with other groups. And I do that here too, but I also felt it was important to put emphasis on my identity as a composer. Letting that be the focus. I didn't write a drum-heavy record. Because I was so involved with thinking about everybody else's part—arranging the harmony and deciding how many times we'll play this or that—maybe it didn't leave me as much time as I might have in a different group to consider the drumming. I was a little more pressed for time and more focused on the whole. Which is great. It probably made me play in a different way. If we had a tour or a week in a club somewhere, maybe I would have found other things on the drums, just from having more time with it. My focus was really on the whole and on the arrangements."

Milestone is a strong statement.

"I hope I'm starting another phase. I'm starting to write again," he says thoughtfully. "It's easy to get caught up with touring. And teaching, as well. I teach at City College in New York; I also teach at Princeton in New Jersey. Between that and touring with Danilo, or going out with [bassist] John Patitucci's trio this year, and different freelancing in New York, it could be easy to let the inertia of not being a leader, of falling into my work and letting Milestone be it for a while." But Cruz is not going to let it fall. He'll be looking for gigs and opportunities to get musicians together to play his music. "I don't imagine transitioning to being a bandleader exclusively. But it's definitely a dimension I'd like to add."

Cruz always had drums in his family and adapted naturally to them growing up in New York City where his father, Ray Cruz, played timbales in the 1970s with Mongo Santamaria and a salsa band called Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz. "He's known as a Latin percussionist, but he was really intrigued by jazz," explains Cruz. "He was obsessed with studying the drums and studying jazz. He was focused on players like Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey and Tony Williams and Elvin Jones. When I was a little kid growing up, I had this father who was a Latin percussionist, but also very intensely studying the drum set. I picked up on it right until my parents split up. He left me a drum set at the house. It became my passion when I was a teenager to pick up where he left off."

Cruz was playing as far back as he can remember, under his father's guidance. There are photographs of him sitting in front of a practice pad with drum sticks. He was exposed to jazz early on, but when he began getting serious about the drums as he grew older, he also listened to music of his day. "The Police. Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, with Harvey Mason, playing 'Chameleon.' I loved [drummer] Steve Gadd as a kid. Billy Cobham. Guys who were in more of a fusion direction. t was when I got to college that I kind of reconnected with more acoustic jazz. Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes and Tony Williams and Philly Joe Jones and Art Blakey were, and are, my heroes. I was at an age where the profoundness they play with and the depth that they bring, I was able to digest it."

Being in New York, he was able to consistently see some of the masters on the instrument and his appreciation for them is still profound. "There's something with the older guys. A way of playing. The touch on the instrument. The sense of swing. I find it has a value that speaks so clearly. Even in more recent years, guys I really cherish being able to hear are Billy Hart, whom I'm glad is playing around New York pretty frequently these days. Paul Motian, who we just lost but who was playing really consistently. Another guy from that generation is Albert Tootie Heath. Hearing him play the cymbal, you're feeling the cymbal that goes back to Kenny Clarke. That's something I find a lot of inspiration and value in—hearing these older guys."

Cruz speaks in true awe when he says, "I think about Billy Hart every day. There's something about Billy that's really striking a chord with me. Every time I see him play there's something about the way he manages the expansive amount of tradition that he carries. And the language and vocabulary of the ancestors—the masters—while, at the same time, being so uncompromisingly in-the-moment, and a fiercely creative in-the-moment artist. His work speaks so loudly to me these days. I try to go see Billy whenever I can. I go to his house when I get a chance, just to talk with him. He's an encyclopedia of knowledge of jazz drumming, all drumming. He's an inspiration."

He adds, "Roy Haynes is someone I feel lucky to get to see. Tootie Heath. Paul Motian was that, for me, too. Those guys give me a lot of sense of purpose about what I'm doing and something to strive for."

His study of the drums took him to college, where at Rutgers University he was under the tutelage of Keith Copeland. He then attended the New School in New York City and studied with Kenny Washington, Joe Chambers and Victor Lewis. Lewis was playing with the Mingus Big Band at the time, and at one point couldn't make a gig. He recommended Cruz for the spot. "I still play with the Mingus Big Band to this day. Victor made that connection for me back in the early '90s."

"Joe Chambers was great, because he often talked about piano harmony and composition, more often than the drums," recalls Cruz. "Joe was very quiet. He didn't say a lot, but he showed me things. He played vibes and answered my questions about harmony and composition. That was great. Joe is a great musician. I also studied with some Brazilian percussionists, because at that time I got offered doing a gig with Paquito D'Rivera. He's Cuban, but he was playing music from all over Latin America and quite a bit of Brazilian sambas and things. I felt like that was something I wanted a greater understanding of. So I studied with two great Brazilian percussionists, Porthino and Vandalay Hererra."

At Rutgers, meeting David Sánchez from Puerto Rico became an important happenstance. The fine saxophonist was already playing with Eddie Palmieri and Dizzy Gillespie. "We connected at school and he started recommending me to different people in New York, so I started getting calls to play. Mostly at that time it was more Latin jazz. Hilton Ruiz, the pianist, he's the first one I went to Europe with. I met Danilo Pérez through David. Danilo had a sextet. I played in Boston with him. I even played with a salsa singer called Willie Colon. I had to make a choice because Willie was getting busier. There was a conflict with a gig with Danilo and I had to make a choice. I chose to play with Danilo because I felt more of a calling and an affinity to being a jazz musician more than a Latin musician or salsa musician. I was in my early 20s, in the early '90s, when I chose that path."

"In the mid-'90s, when I was finishing school and graduating and being in New York, I was touring with David Sánchez's quartet quite a bit. Also the Mingus Big band. I was doing those two things simultaneously. That and a brief stint with Chick Corea. When I was playing with David we were opening for Chick. Chick called me for the first formation of the band Origin. We made a record and played at the Blue Note and toured a few places. Another great experience was I played in a duo with Charlie Hunter, the guitarist. We toured around for a year-and-a-half playing duo. That was great, being in that pared-down situation."

After 2000, playing with Pérez became his main work. He was influenced in many ways and it has helped shape some of his own compositions. It's a musical association that remains and he will be doing gigs with Pérez this year, as well as performances with Patitucci. There will be other sideman work as well.

But Milestone succeeded in stoking the fire for this remarkable drummer. "I'm excited. It feels like it's time. I turned 40 around the time that I was making it. I'm 42 now. It feels direct, like it's an environment I need to further explore [about] my identity. It's not that the drums aren't enough; it's just that I feel there's some identity to learn about in my character and my artistic process to writing and leading as well. So I'm glad I managed to get it going. And I'll try to keep doing the work."

Selected Discography

Adam Cruz, Milestone (Sunnyside, 2011)

Danilo Pérez, Providencia (Mack Avenue, 2010)

David Sánchez, Cultural Survival (Concord, 2008)

Chris Potter, Song for Anyone (Sunnyside, 2007)

Ed Simon, Simplicitas (Criss Cross, 2005)

Danilo Pérez, Till Then (Verve, 2003)

Steve Wilson, Soulful Song (MAXJAZZ, 2003)

Tom Harrell, Paradise (RCA, 2001)

Chick Corea and Origin, A Week at The Blue Note (Stretch, 1998)

Mingus Big Band, Gunslingin' Bird (Dreyfus, 1995)

Photo Credits

Pages 1, 3: Steven Sussman

Page 2: Dave Kaufman

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