Record label bosses probably do not hear the words "solo drum album" too often. Or if they do, judging by the paucity of such exemplars on the market, they likely only have to hear the phrase the once. After three impressive albums on Dave Douglas
' Greenleaf Music label, to wit, 303
(2014), Rise of Orion
(2016) and Flatbed Buggy
(2018), drummer Rudy Royston happily confounds expectations with a solo drum album. No overdubs, no electronics, just skin, cymbals and a whole lot of soul. All the proceeds from PaNOptic
will go to MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.
Recorded in 2013, these twenty-three tracks were culled from over three hours of solo drum improvisations, and range in length from thirty-second flashes to nearly five-minute-long improvisations. Royston pays homage to music heroes Elvin Jones
, Jack DeJohnette
, Ornette Coleman
, Thelonious Monk
and Bill Frisell
, invoking the spirit of these luminaries in an artful show of phrasing, timbre, rhythm and texture. Melody, however, is to the forefront, notably on "BlaCK-Bad-CoMPAny-BiRd," where Royston glides merrily from The Beatles' "Blackbird" to Bad Company's "Feel Like Makin' Love." It might sound corny on paper, but is it any different from Charlie Parker
peppering a solo with quotations from Louis Jordan
or The Gershwins? For Royston, like Parker, there are no boundaries, just feelings to respond to.
Just as influential on Royston's music have been the Pentecostal Church and the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Royston sings on the intimate spiritual "Coming Home," accompanied only by the ping and hiss of cymbals. There is a work-song vibe to "MOTHER KELLY and the preacher part 1," while "mother Kelly and THE PREACHER part 2sermon" sees Royston replicate call and response, with his rolls and bass drum kick growing in intensity like the contours of a sermon. Royston alludes to Langston Hughes' "Dream Deferred" on "defeRRed," moving between spare yet hypnotic groove to livelier exposition, punctuated by cymbal splashes. Royston's rendition of Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool" is as rhythmically hip as her brief poem is brilliantly evocative of the brevity of life.
On Bandcamp, two accompanying videos show different aspects of Royston's panoptic artistic vision. On "maXX," for Max Roach, Royston conjures Roach-esque patterns against the visual backdrop of a personal photo montage that captures moments in time. Closeups of nature, several portraits, landscapes both rural and urban, and socio-political images pertaining to #Black Lives Matter and the Covid-19 pandemic provide a ride as stimulating as Royston's stick work. The virus took Royston's ex brother-in-law Arnold, who the drummer honors on "mr. zoot suitebruh Arnold" with a soulful, dancing homage. The other video track, "oNe SnaP fingER," is an entertaining pairing of feisty drum patternsinspired by Herbie Hancock
and set to footage of a typically virtuoso Nicholas Brothers dance routine.
If there was ever a doubt, PaNOptic
reaffirms the drums' status as a powerful narrative and melodic instrument. In Royston's hands and feet, drums and cymbals emote, sound colors and moods, uplift on the one hand and invite meditation on the other. The combination of images, video and poetry, and Royston's far-reaching musical vocabularyone that embraces the blues, bebop and harmolodic jazz, church music, rock and popmakes for a wonderfully kaleidoscopic journey. It would also make for a hell of a one-man, multi-media show.
BlaCkBad CoMPAny—BiRd; bLUes; ciTy buS StOp; deferred; desire; foolish; intO ElVin; BilL; Jack, fIgHt oR FligHT; maXX; video; oWhNet; s'TRopHy; come; I'm Coming Home; MOTHER KELLY and the preacher part 1; mother kelly and THE PREACHER part 2; sermon; mr zoot suitebruh Arnold; oNe SnaP fIngER; PaNOptic; pANt 1; pANt 2; pop LOVE soNg (prinS-esh); We Real Cool.
Rudy Royston: cymbals, voice.