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Charles Rumback: Singing Structures of Rhythm

Jakob Baekgaard By

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Great drummers are able to make their drums sing just like anyone else. You hear some drummers with a wide open resonant sound, or maybe their drums are tight, but the cymbals are washy. Or maybe all of it’s tight, it doesn’t matter. It’s just like any other instrument, different personalities bring out different elements —Charles Rumback
Versatility, personality and musical empathy are qualities that a modern drummer needs, and Charles Rumback has them in abundance. Based in Chicago, Rumback has accompanied adventurous singer/songwriters like Caleb Willitz, Steve Dawson and Ryley Walker, played jazzy electronica with Colorlist and explored the classic format of the piano trio with bassist John Tate and pianist Jim Baker. The list of projects and jobs as a sideman grows all the time and Rumback's name has shown up on some of the finest independent labels of today, including Clean Feed, Thrill Jockey, Serein, ears&eyes and Astral Spirits. No matter what he does, Rumback emphasizes that "drummers are part maintenance workers. We help make the shiny stuff happen."

Rumback has certainly made a lot of things happen as a vital part of the vibrant music scene in Chicago. He has found his true musical love in the drums, but music was in his life from the beginning.

All About Jazz: Could you tell about your earliest experience of playing music?

Charles Rumback: There were so many people who helped me learn how to listen. My dad has a deep relationship with music. He listens to music constantly and it was like that as kids. Before the lights came on in the morning, we knew we had to wake up when the stereo came on. We grew up valuing music. We were raised with music being a constant presence of joy in our lives. So even before I really played an instrument, I was able to hear it and experience it on a deep level.

My grandfather was a really great musician. He taught himself how to play the fiddle, the guitar, and the piano. He found an old Wurlitzer electric piano at the dump and fixed it up enough to use on his back porch. I used to sit back there for hours listening to him play. I think he was happy to have the audience. He wouldn't teach me how to play piano because he wanted me to learn the right way. He learned scales off of the black keys and then translated it to the white keys. He grew up playing in a working band with his brothers. He didn't have a formal language around the music. Besides I think we both understood that I could learn way more by just listening to him play than anything else. So when I asked him for lessons he said, "I learned how to play backwards. You need to learn how to play the right way."

My little brother Mike and I listened to the music that our friends and their older brothers and sisters liked. But we would also go check out records from the library, go home and listen, read the liner notes and go try more out. Blues records, but also lots of jazz and old school rock and roll. Even radio shows on cassette and things like that, all kinds of stuff. Movie soundtracks...It was around that time that we found my parents' 45 collection. So we were getting into all kinds of weird music. My brother was two years younger than me and he was turning me onto new music. We listened to Thelonious Monk, Nirvana, Curtis Mayfield, War, Doc Watson and the Wu Tang... Haha it was all over the place.

AAJ: So how did the drums get into your life?

CR: Growing up, there was a snare drum around the house that belonged to my mom when she was a kid. I used to try and bang out beats by ear on it. I think the first beat I really got the feel right on was 'Wild Thing' by Tone Loc.

Around that time, I met my hometown hero and my first real musical mentor, Ralph Brown. He taught me so much about music. We had a weekly gig at Finnigan's in my hometown every Sunday night. We played every week for two and a half years from when I was around 14-17 years old. Funny enough that's where I met my wife Lorena, so I have this music to thank for that too.

AAJ: What is the best thing about the drums as an instrument and the worst thing?

CR: Levon Helm called the drum chair, "the best seat in the house." Can anyone argue with that? And if you look at it like that, I don't know, what could be the worst thing? Maybe someone put gum under your seat if you're playing house drums. What's the worst thing about the best seat in the house? I'm trying to be positive in these trying times.

For real though, the worst part of drums, is just like the worst part of everything else. Judgments. If you get down and really sit with the ugly parts for awhile, you start to realize all of it is unique and beautiful. As drummers we get to see the inner workings of the music. Good drummers understand.

AAJ: Do you play other instruments? Or do you think of yourself primarily as a drummer?

CR: I kind of play other instruments. I teach basic piano. If it's my music, and it's a really simple piano or guitar line I might play it myself to save time. But I think I really hear the music through drummers' ears. Don't get me wrong, there are other roles and perspectives that come into play, but the drummer part is always there.

AAJ: How do you think of the drums in relation to other instruments?

CR: In terms of how drums relate to other instruments... Great drummers are able to make their drums sing just like anyone else. You hear some drummers with a wide open resonant sound, or maybe their drums are tight, but the cymbals are washy. Or maybe all of it's tight, it doesn't matter. It's just like any other instrument, different personalities bring out different elements. At the same time, there is a responsibility as a drummer to be able to glue things together. No beautiful tone, or fancy chops matter if it doesn't fit with the music. Drummers are part maintenance workers. We help make the shiny stuff happen.

AAJ: Do you use the drums as a tool to compose and do you think your compositions are influenced by the drums in the way they are composed? For instance, Steve Reich has a very rhythmical approach to composition.

CR: There still isn't really a specific process that I lean on to get started. The biggest thing for me is catching the original spark when it shows up. It's like a dream. If I write down as much of it as I can remember in the moment, I can work backwards from that. Lately, more and more of these ideas are coming from the drums. I used to work only at the piano to write. But with the drums in my mind, I might have a specific feel that's not necessarily notated in the music. It's just a part that I hear while writing a melody or bass line. Working a lot with John Hughes has helped free me up from the standard jazz approach of making records. Over time I've gotten a little bit better at 'editing' and narrowing things down, but the original idea for a piece of music can kind of come from anywhere. Maybe it's a concept, or a feeling, a sound, anything.

AAJ: Some musicians think of compositions as a way of documenting their learning process about music. Do you also think about it this way and is there an example of a composition that documents a new way of thinking about music for you?

CR: Inevitably when you look at a composer's output, you can always see that person's process if you can zoom out and look at the body of work. I don't always think of it from the jazz ethics of everything has to be live, even though a lot of my projects are centered around live playing. Those types of live albums are a snapshot of how those performers are developing at that moment. On other recordings though, the process might be different. While composition is a way to expose the bare bones and document the process, sometimes we are crafting the music in a different way. Where we are presenting a recording. The last Colorlist record (Full Circle, Serein, 2018), and the last duo thing with Ryley Walker (Little Common Twist, Thrill Jockey, 2019) are both examples of this. We did those with John Hughes and the processes evolved as the recordings came together. Like collage or sculpture, but collective.

John Hughes and I have been finishing up a new project that is very different from my usual jazz leader recordings. The album has a lot of layers, with a lot of different musicians involved. This one really represents a new way of thinking compositionally and in the way the music is arranged. It's a very collaborative album, working with a lot of the musicians I usually work with, but also featuring Krystle Warren, Ron Miles and Ohmme.

AAJ: As a writer, I often find it difficult to describe the drums as there are so many parts of the instrument and they sound so different. How would you describe the different aspects of the sound of drums?

CR: Describing the drums is hard. It really depends on the person. How do you describe Billy Higgins? Yeah, he might be playing brushes and you can talk about the tone and technique of what he's doing. But there's no way to put Billy Higgins' feel into words. Same thing with any great musician. So I understand what you're saying.

AAJ: Is there a specific part of the drum set that you like the most, and do you use a small or big setup?

CR: My drum setup is pretty minimal. It's also very standard. A standard 4 piece drum set. A snare, bass drum, one rack tom and a floor tom. For cymbals it's usually these old zildjian 15" hi hats with two rides and a crash ride, or three rides. I have two different bass drums that I rotate between. But I mostly use the same thing for everything.

AAJ: Could you talk about how you work with space and coloration in your music? The reason I ask is because I sense that you are very aware of the textures of the drums and how to use pauses and silence.

CR: For some reason, it seems like some people forget to get a nice sound out of the drums. Drums are just as textural as any other instrument or sound for that matter. So yeah, I mean I pay attention to that, and like anything else, I do my best to make the sound of my drums as good as I can. In terms of playing, even more so. There's nothing better than hearing someone like James Gadson play a repetitive groove that never even crashes a cymbal or plays a fill. It lets you really hear how much space he has, and how much pocket at the same time. But also how much dynamics... His right hand can be rock steady and feather light, while his left hand lays it down with power. And the bass drum is the only thing kind of changing in intensity and adding syncopated things to the mix. It's incredible. Somewhere I heard that about John Bonham too. That he would play his drums loud and his cymbals soft, to try to balance things out. Some people tend to think of Bonham as a blasting kind of drummer, but listen to those recordings. His feel is beautiful.

AAJ: I would also like to hear about some of the other drummers you admire. Could you describe their style and what you have learned from them?

Jim White

CR: A few years back I started doing some work with Nina Nastasia. Even though I had been a fan of her work for a long time, I hadn't really sat down to learn how to play her music. When I listened in that way, it revealed even more about how heavy Jim White and Jay Bellerose are as drummers. Almost everything on Nina's records has one of those two drummers. And the parts Jim and Jay write are so beautiful. More than most, Jim's playing is impossible to describe. A forward motion, but not flashy... Just beautiful. Listen to the duet album he and Nina Nastasia made called You Follow Me (FatCat, 2008). There is no one who plays the drums like Jim White.

Nasheet Waits

Nasheet Waits is one of the only New York "Jazz" drummers who I hear play things in a fully absorbed, non-literal way. Marcus Gilmore too. I'm forgetting others I'm sure, but anyway, to speak more on developing together with other musicians over time, Nasheet is someone who has these types of relationships. His work with Jason Moran has gotten so deep over time. In college, the Mark Turner Dharma Days (Warner Bros., 2001) album was one making the rounds and I love that music. But the heaviest thing I ever heard Nasheet do, was hearing him play with Andrew Hill. I saw that quartet twice. Once at the old Jazz Showcase and once at the Iowa City Jazz Festival. The band was Hill on piano, Greg Tardy on tenor sax, John Hébert on bass and Nasheet. Inside and out at the same time. I don't even know how to describe it. I wish that band made a record. It was like future music.

Brian Blade

Brian Blade is one of the drummers I look to who transcends 'genre.' He serves the music always and is naturally versatile because he can hear from so many different perspectives. It's wild. When you watch him play... There's no one who listens harder than Brian Blade! Who else can split a record with Jim Keltner? (Bob Dylan -Time Out of Mind, Columbia, 1997) AND be in Wayne Shorter's band?

Avreeayl Ra

Avreeayl Ra is one of the heaviest musicians of all time. From when I first arrived in Chicago to now, he's still maybe my favorite drummer that I hear regularly. He's a positive spirit, and as a player, he always brings an unexpected angle. And is there anyone else who worked in both Professor Longhair AND Sun Ra's bands?

AAJ: Elaborating on role models. Who have been your most important musical mentors?

CR: Ron Miles has become a mentor over the years. Jason Steele introduced us years ago in Colorado. I've been a huge fan of his music ever since. We first played together on Jason Steele's album Some Wonderful Moment (ears&eyes Records, 2007) back in 2006. Ron was also the guest on a Whirlpool album we made called Dancing on the Inside (ears&eyes Records, 2015). In 2016, I was invited to play at the Chicago Jazz Festival and that was the first time I had worked with Ron on my own music. The professionalism and class he brings to every situation is really unparalelled. And as a musical mind, even more so.

Ralph Brown taught me how to listen without borders. I grew up playing with Ralph in an anything goes band. We played Charlie Parker songs and Steel Pulse covers. I was just a kid at the time, and my mind was blown wide open. Playing with Ralph and Viktor and Shaun at that time taught me how to find what fits in the music without learning 'styles' first. It's just music. We just played what we were hearing.

AAJ: Your project Colorlist involves the use of electronics. Could you tell about the origin of the project and its aesthetic?

CR: Charles Gorczynski and I started Colorlist as a studio project with two of our friends who were recording engineers. We had unlimited studio time, so we started layering our music and stretching what was possible with our otherwise acoustic instruments. Charles was making music with loops, then samples, then we both started using synths, drum machines and found sounds. Looking back on it I guess it all just came about naturally. We were more interested in collaborating with electronic artists like Josh Eustis (Telefon Tel Aviv) and John Hughes than most jazz with a capital J kind of people.

We never really thought of it as an aesthetic, but as time went on, the music just evolved more and more in that direction. Now John Hughes is the third member of the band. The latest album we did, Full Circle (Serein, 2018) is the first one that we have done in several with no guests. It's just the three of us and even though there is a lot involved in the process of the music, I think it's our simplest record in a way. So in my experience, electronics have been a part of the process that sometimes comes more to the front, sometimes more in the back...

AAJ: You have been involved in many kinds of projects and collaborations. Could you talk about some of them, including your collaboration with singer/songwriter and guitarist Ryley Walker? Perhaps you could also tell about your latest record with Ryley?

CR: Ryley Walker and I made a duo album a few years back called Cannots (Thrill Jockey, 2016). That recording is an example of that type of record we were talking about a minute ago. It's a snapshot of what we were kind of doing live together around that time. For the new record, Little Common Twist (Thrill Jockey, 2019), John Hughes produced the album over several recording sessions. It really came together differently through that collaborative spirit.

Bill MacKay, Doug McCombs and I have a band called Black Duck that we are hoping to record this year. We played at the Big Ears Festival last year and have done a handful of shows over the last stretch. Everyone is busy so lining the schedules up is tricky, but we'll make it happen when the time is right.

Later this year Cuneiform is putting out the new Stirrup album. Stirrup is a collaborative trio with Fred Lonberg-Holm and Nick Macri. If you have ever seen one of Fred's Lightbox Orchestra performances, you know it's something special. Fred assigns a light to each performer, and other big poster cards, or on the fly conducting cues to improvise an arrangement from a large ensemble of improvised musicians. For this version, Fred used songs from the Stirrup book as the starting point, and added six more improvising musicians to the mix.

AAJ: Have you always been drawn to collaboration or is it something that has evolved through the years? What is a good collaboration to you?

CR: Collaboration has always been a huge part of what excites me about music. It makes me very happy to be able to play with musicians who I love and respect. It can be something that pushes people out of their comfort zones into new territory, or maybe it's a relationship that develops over time and there's something special in the subtleties of what they do together. It's how language evolves.

AAJ: You move between many different genres and play music that is improvised and composed, but do you think of yourself as a jazz musician and what is jazz to you?

CR: I don't really think in terms of genres, but I can't deny that I've learned a lot through the jazz lens. I have a degree in jazz composition and I kind of have 'jazz musician values.' The values of authenticity, working together, long game development. Plus how I think of rhythm and harmony is a pretty jazz way of thinking. But I'm not trying to be the rock and roll guy or the jazz guy. If you carry the title of drummer, in my mind that comes with responsibility to be an accompanist. I'm trying to just feel what the music needs. Being an Artist can be a little different, but my favorite drummers are usually both.

AAJ: How do you see the relation between composition and improvisation in your music and do you find that there are some of your projects that leave more room for improvisation than others?

CR: That's always something I'm interested in with the music I love. The music I write does have some specific things about it that sometimes I might want to hear as a composer, or I might feel like I need to hear for the song to come through. Some pieces more than others, but when I write it, I try to leave it open as much as possible. Once the music feels comfortable, everyone bends it how they're hearing it. So the faster we can get there, the better. I've become very careful about who I work with now. In my own music, almost always I'm working with people who I have worked with for a long time.

AAJ: You have done some work in the definitive jazz genre: the piano trio. What is the origin of your trio with bassist John Tate and pianist Jim Baker? How did you get together and how would you describe the aesthetic of the trio?

CR: The trio with Jim Baker and John Tate came about because I wanted to have a band that could play inside or out. A band that we could expand with other musicians, or work as a trio unit. Another element I wanted to accomplish with Baker and Tate, is the ability to have a core, local unit that could develop independently of several of the out of town artists I love working with. Instead of all of it being this dauting task, we can work efficiently and bring folks in as it makes sense. So the trio is kind of becoming the center that I work around musically speaking. So far it's been working well I think.

AAJ: I would also like to hear about your new record with the trio June Holiday that is coming out on Astral Spirits. Please delve into some of the compositions on the album and how the music relates to what you have previously done in the trio.

This time everyone brought music to the recording session, so we had material to choose from, but also it's more representative of the whole band. In that sense, this record feels more like a band than before. It's our third album as a band, but it's the first thing we've recorded in the studio as a trio. Ken Christianson recorded it and got an incredible sound. Nate at Astral Spirits was excited about putting it out, so we couldn't be happier.

On June Holiday, I wrote three of the songs. Jim Baker wrote three and John Tate wrote one. The first one of mine on the album is called 'Burning Daylight.' I wrote several pieces around the time I wrote this that are really short forms. The trio with Jim and John has been super fun because anything I bring, no matter how minimal, those guys make it work in an interesting way. Tate and I recorded this song as a duo years ago, Jim takes it to a very different place on this version.

'Here and Now' is an even older piece. Over the years, I have recorded several versions of this, but we never really found a version I was happy with. When I wrote this one probably over a decade ago, I had some specific ideas I was trying to execute compositionally. We played it with the trio and I found that there were some specific things about the written material that I was more married to than was necessary. Once the band just got used to how we were each hearing it individually, we were able to bend it into place collectively. But it took like ten years for me to finally loosen up my ears to hear it naturally. Jim and John once again helped me do that.

So while this piece wasn't written with this trio in mind, (I had never even played with them at that point) the J's have definitely made it their own. Playing collaborative, improvised music like this, it really makes you appreciate the musicians you work with. Without them, these compositions would not come to life. At least not in the same way.

AAJ: Your discography sports an impressive list of some of the most exciting independent labels on today's scene, including ears&eyes, Astral Spirits, Thrill Jockey and Serein. How did you get in touch with these labels?

You know for as much hustling and sending demos around, it's kind of like your question about musical collaborations. This side of the collaborating has always worked out through natural relationships. Matthew Golombisky, who runs ears&eyes records is an old friend of mine. We played together in the early 2000's with a lot of different people. We did another collaboration with his band Tomorrow Music Orchestra and with a singer/songwriter I've worked with a lot over the years, Via Tania.

Nate at Astral Spirits is an old friend who I met working on the Pitchfork Festival years ago. I only started working with Thrill Jockey recently, though I've known so many people on that label and in that family for a long time. Thrill Jockey has always been one of my favorite labels, even since I was living in Kansas. So I'm really feeling happy to be a part of that team and I hope we can make the most of it.

AAJ: Where did you release your first record and how did it happen?

CR: The first record I did as a leader came out in 2009 on Clean Feed Records in Portugal. We recorded it in the back of the Ice Factory in Chicago, which was a great DIY loft venue here in the early/mid 2000s, ran by some of the guys doing Home Room now. I called some of the people I loved working with the most at the time, Greg Ward, Josh Sclar (who I knew from Kansas) and Jason Ajemian on bass. We holed up for a couple of days and made some music. It was very stripped down and raw.

AAJ: I think of you as closely connected to Chicago. What is your history with the city and the music scene?

CR: It's interesting because in some ways I feel like a total part of the community, and in other ways I feel like an outsider. We moved here in 2001 from Kansas. So much was happening at the time in the city. It was a really exciting time to be in Chicago. Tortoise, Isotope 217, The Sea and Cake, Fred Anderson, Ed Wilkerson, The old Velvet Lounge, Hamid Drake, Jeff Parker's Tuesday night trio gig at Rodan with Nori Tanaka and Jason Ajemian. The Ratchet series at the Skylark, the Hideout series, Fred Lonberg-Holm's bands... The Lonesome Organist. The Rainbo Club, The Green Mill, 3030, The Hungry Brain had started their series not too long after that. Cafe Mestizo had a jam session where I met David Boykin and Mike Reed. It's a different city now, but it was a different city then, from what it was before.

AAJ: How would you describe what is going on right now in Chicago. I know you already have a deep knowledge of the roots of the scene. I enjoyed your video-post about some of the most significant Chicago scene records on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OcHH0T3PfYs

CR: There's so much happening in Chicago. Before the scenes were kind of apparent, but there was tons of overlap. Now it's a bit more fractured, but there are definitely some people and places where things come together... the jazz and improvised music scene, the Blues scene, lots of amazing indie rock bands and venues, the Gospel and world music festivals and communities. Some of the Chicago indie 'institutions' are still going strong; Drag City, Empty Bottle, Thrill Jockey, Steve Albini and Electrical Audio, the AACM. Then there is Wilco and the whole circle around that scene. A lot of the people working there are working on so many other things at the same time. Jim Elkington, Nick Macri, Ohmme, Ben LaMar Gay and the International Anthem scene. And there are younger camps of musicians coming up all the time. There's the Pitchfork Music Festival, Constellation and the Hungry Brain, as well as the scene of improvisors surrounding that. Chicago has a music community like no other city. It's really a unique and loving family.

AAJ: Which venues would you recommend in Chicago and where is it possible to hear you live?

CR: The Hungry Brain is one of my favorite venues. Some of the first and best gigs I ever played was there at the Hungry Brain. At the time, Mike Reed and Josh Berman booked the series at the bar on Sunday nights. The rest of the week it was whatever variety kind of bar stuff. Honestly none of us really even knew what went on the rest of the week, but the improvised music series on Sunday nights was always jam packed. Mike and Josh still run the series now, nearly 20 years later. But Mike now owns the place, and the music programming is a big focus. Around the corner is Constellation, the best jazz venue in town. The legendary Blues jam session at Rosa's still happens weekly. And there are more formal venues like the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago that are world class venues on par with anything it's size in the world.

AAJ: Finally, will you tour the new records with the trio and Ryley Walker, and do you have any future projects or plans you can reveal something about?

CR: Ryley and I have been working on putting some shows together. It's been a little tricky now that we're not in the same city, and he tours a ton on his own music. We plan to do some shows later this year.

For the trio, I'm hoping to play a few cities we haven't played as a band before. It depends on the timing of everything and now with all of the cancellations because of COVID-19, it's hard to say, but touring is something I'm working on for the trio. We have some work we would like to do with people in different cities, so hopefully we can tie some of those ideas together.

There is also this new recording I mentioned earlier. Krystle, John Hughes and I are still working on finishing post-production on it. It's a very collaborative album with some of my favorite musicians and best friends. There are vocals on some tracks. It's very different than anything else I've done. More on that very soon.

Selected Discography:

Charles Rumback with Jim Baker & John Tate, June Holiday (Astral Spirits, 2020)
Charles Rumback w/ Jim Baker, James Singleton & Greg Ward, Cadillac Turns (Astral Spirits, 2019)
Charles Rumback & Ryley Walker, Little Common Twist (Thrill Jockey, 2019)
Colorlist, Full Circle (Serein, 2018)
Charles Rumback with Jim Baker and John Tate, Tag Book (ears&eyes Records, 2017)
Charles Rumback with Jim Baker and John Tate, Threes (ears&eyes Records, 2017)
Paul Bedal, In Reverse (Bace Records, 2017)
Caleb Willitz Band, Home (Piece of Coal Music, 2017)
Stirrup, Cut (Clean Feed, 2016)
Charles Rumback, In the New Year (ears&eyes Records, 2015)

Photo Credit: Dan Maksym

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