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Andrew Cyrille: Bringer of Forms

AAJ Staff By

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...I realized that we were doing something that was just a little bit different from what had been going on traditionally, but I always kept in mind that I wanted to make it an evolution of the tradition.
This article was submitted on behalf of Hank Shteamer.

Percussionist Andrew Cyrille is as self-assured an artist as one is likely to encounter. "[Art is] all about trying to bring a form to life," he explains, "or give life to a form." Much of Cyrille's best work falls in the category of the former. For years, he has specialized in lending a sense of order to the work of players like Cecil Taylor, whose torrential flow of musical information can seem daunting, if not impenetrable. Listening to Cyrille play, one hears a very grounded force, yet one that constantly vibrates in tune with the life around it.

Cyrille is a creator in his own right as well. Along with his peers, explorers like Sunny Murray, Milford Graves , and Rashied Ali , Cyrille developed a new form of jazz percussion that freed itself from the constraint of meter and paved the way for the advancement of the avant-garde musics of Taylor, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and others. A gifted educator with an awesome knowledge of the jazz tradition and its roots, Cyrille views his school of drummers not as iconoclasts, but as extenders of the language of jazz. His insight has allowed him to document himself and his peers in unique ways and to provide a holistic curriculum for his students.

As an innovator, documentor, and educator, Cyrille has always remained modest, adapting his expertise to the project at hand. This modesty may account for his limited recognition in the mainstream jazz community. Circa 2003, Andrew Cyrille continues to search for unique approaches not only to music-making, but also to making a living.

Cyrille was always a restless experimenter. He describes his early impulses to alter the conventional rhythms of jazz: "When I was with Mary Lou Williams [in the early ‘60s], I used to tell her that I'd like to find another way of playing the ride [cymbal], and she said, 'Well, if you do, you're not going to find anybody to work with.'"

Fortunately, Cyrille was able to find associates whose music accommodated, if not demanded, a freer style. "The person who allowed me to bring that idea, that concept [of ametrical drumming] to fruition was Cecil Taylor," he reveals. "Working with Cecil, that was what we did! If I wanted to play some stuff in meter with him, I could have. I think on occasion I did, but most of the time it was outside meter."

Cyrille was quick to recognize that he was not alone in his desire to rethink the role of the drum set in jazz. Here, he describes his various collaborations with his drummer peers: "I heard Sunny Murray playing free meter with Cecil Taylor, Milford [Graves] playing ametrically with [multi-reedist] Giuseppi Logan, and then of course too, I heard Rashied Ali playing with Coltrane on Interstellar Space. So around that time, I got the idea that I wanted to document us as a generation of drummers, and one of the best ways to do that was to have a drum choir."

"I remember Milford and I had gotten together to play, and then we decided that we wanted to expand the duet; so we got Rashied, and we called it "Dialogue of the Drums". Then in the early '80s, I thought of the idea of trying to - I hate to use the word 'legitimize', but at least show the evolution of our concept of drumming as it related to bebop, and I asked Kenny Clarke to do something with me and Milford and [Art Ensemble of Chicago drummer] Famoudou Don Moye. (This quartet recorded Pieces of Time for Soul Note records in 1983.) So the collaborations started once I realized that we were doing something that was just a little bit different from what had been going on traditionally, but I always kept in mind that I wanted to make it an evolution of the tradition."

In addition to having a remarkably deep understanding of the tradition of jazz drumming, Cyrille understands the various cultural roots that underlie it. He has released numerous records with African themes, such as Nuba (1979, Soul Note) and Ode to the Living Tree (1994, Evidence), the first jazz session ever recorded in Senegal, and he is able to trace a clear line between the rhythms of jazz and traditional African drumming. "I hear a lot of African music, and I hear something similar to the ride cymbal beat, 'dang, dinga-dang, dinga-dang,'" he notes. "Most of the jazz compositions that we know and love are based on that ride beat and all kinds of variations on it.

"You get the ride beat, and then you start playing certain things with the left hand on the snare drums, and you begin syncopating certain things with the bass drum, and the sock cymbal is involved. So, to me, it's almost like a choir of drummers each playing a different instrument and a different rhythm but all coming together in an ensemble. So when you put that kind of feeling and projection together with a lot of European information - in terms of rudiments, sticking, march beats played with a certain feeling - you get what we know as jazz and jazz drumming."


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