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Rudy Royston: Little Steps, Big Pictures


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I kind of grew up in church. You know, the thing that church teaches you more than anything is how to play music that moves the soul – that moves the spirit of the room.
—Rudy Royston
Everybody needs a helping hand now and then. Rudy Royston understands that. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused gigs to completely dry up for all musicians, and with that, their main income stream. Yet there are still mortgages, rents and bills to pay, and children to feed. It says something about the precarious finances of a jazz musician's life, that Royston, one of the music's most in-demand drummers of the past quarter of a century—a trusted collaborator of Ron Miles, JD Allen, Dave Douglas, Linda May Han Oh, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bill Frisell—was feeling the pinch no sooner had the pandemic struck.

Royston applied for and was the beneficiary of a number of supportive grants, which have kept his head above water for a while. Grateful for the support, Royston wanted to give back in whatever way he could. In 2013 he had recorded a solo drum album and had sat on the tapes. COVID-19 was the trigger for their release. Royston approached Dave Douglas, on whose Greenleaf Music label the Texas-born, Denver-raised drummer had released his first three albums as leader, to wit, 303 (2014), Rise of Orion (2016) and Flatbed Buggy (2018), to seek the album's release, with all the proceeds going to charity.

With Douglas' support, Royston has finally been able to release his solo drum album, PaNOptic (Greenleaf Music, 2020), a fascinating collage of rhythms, melodies and textures, woven together from one long, improvised session. On PaNOptic, Royston pays intuitive homage to musical heroes such as Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Max Roach and Bill Frisell, as well as to the pop, poetry and church music that have been just as influential in shaping him as a musician. Behind the music are mediations on nature, art and politics. It is a highly personal snapshot of a fertile imagination, in a very particular period of American history.

All About Jazz: Rudy, your new album PaNOptic is obviously a real departure from your previous recordings as leader, being a solo drum album, but I think we should begin by mentioning the fact that all the proceeds from the recording are going to charity; could you tell us why you decided to make such a generous offering, and a little about the beneficiary charity, please?

Rudy Royston: MusiCares is affiliated with the Grammys and it's an organization that helps musicians in need. I have friends who've had doctor's appointments or dentist appointments taken care by them, but whatever you need help with, you know, rent, or whatever, you can contact them. They also work a lot with kids, bringing kids into music, or keeping music programs going, so it's really cool.

I didn't know much about MusiCares before I chose them, but after February when I lost every single gig, I had applied for a bunch of grants and one day they sent me a check in the mail. I knew I wanted to help, and I thought, okay, these are the people, because I know they're doing what they say they're doing. You know, I'm just one guy in Jersey and I get a check from MusiCares, so that's great.

Music is a community. You really feel it here in New York, and I'm sure you feel the same way in England or Germany or the rest of Europe. Even if we don't all know each other we've heard of each other. It's kind of like a family. I received a lot of grants; I received the Louis Armstrong grant, I got MusiCares grant, Newport Jazz Festival's grant, a couple of other ones. My needs are taken care of, until about the end of August, which is cool. When I received that help, I felt, 'okay, I'm not alone.' Just knowing that there are other people with you... there's the peace that comes in knowing that you are not alone, but we're all in need right now. We're all in this together, so let's find a way that I can help people out in the meantime.

AAJ:That's a great sentiment Rudy. The financial support is very important, but so too the emotional and psychological support for those who have lost love loves, like your own family. I know your brother-in-law died from Covid-19, so I'd like to extend my condolences on behalf of All About Jazz.

RR: When my brother-in-law caught the virus, you know, not even a week later he was gone. But I had my whole Colorado family who I could talk to and get some support from. I couldn't go to Colorado because I had to say here, so that emotional support felt very, very helpful. I kind of got that same sense when I got the help from the charities—someone knows that I'm here in this place, worrying about money, you know what I mean?

AAJ: I guess Greenleaf Music was sympathetic to idea of releasing PaNOptic with all the proceeds going to charity?

RR: Yeah. I asked Dave Douglas [Greenleaf founder/director -ed] and I didn't know how he would take it because it's a solo drum record and people don't really jump at solo drum records [laughs]. Dave understood what I wanted to do, and he wanted to do that too. He said: 'This is a great way to help people, let's put it out.' So, he donated his time, the mastering guy donated his time, the publisher—it's all donated time and all the money goes straight to MusiCares.

AAJ: PaNOptic was recorded in 2013; was a solo drum record something that you had wanted to do for some time before that?

RR: I was getting there. I was conflicted because I didn't want to do a drum record that everyone else was doing. I didn't want a drum record that had loops and samples, and electronics, you know? For me, that wasn't true to what this record was. I just wanted it to be drums, just as earthy and authentic as possible. Just the instrument, me and the cymbals and voice. I have a lot going on in my head on the drums. All the melodies and textures and all the other sounds that I'm hearing, I'm trying to play them on the drums in a way that translates.

I wanted to do the album, but I was like, "Ah, man. I don't know," but then I got those new drums from Canopus [laughs]. I went to the studio with my first record, 303 but the studio had double-booked me by mistake, so I had to find another studio for that record. But the guy at Tedesco Studio said: "Come back and do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to." He did me a good thing, so when I got the new drums I thought: "I'm gonna go and do this drum solo record and I'm gonna play straight for three or four hours. Just play."

AAJ: And it has turned out great. There isn't a whole heap of solo drum records out there, only a couple spring to my mind right now; were there any in particular that served as reference points for you?

RR: Yeah, it was Ronald Shannon Jackson, "Puttin' On Dog" [from Pulse (Celluloid, 1984) -ed]. That was the one. When I heard that it was like, "Man I wanna do this. This is beautiful." You just play drums and be yourself, and you don't have any responsibilities for a band. Drummers spend so much time supporting. When I'm on drums I can overwhelm a tune pretty easy, and you spend all your time trying not to ruin the music, you know? When you do a solo drum record you don't have to think about anything. It's just me.

AAJ: Ronald Shannon Jackson was amazing. On that track "Puttin' on Dog" from Pulse, he recites that poem by Sterling Allen Brown. I know you studied poetry as part of your Bachelor of Arts; was Sterling Allen Brown a poet that inspired you?

RR: I was into some of the Harlem Renaissance poets, and actually some English poets like Wordsworth and Chaucer. But it was Langston Hughes who brought me to poetry. I was in school studying music before I doubled in poetry. I started reading some Langston Hughes poems in an English Freshman class and I could feel that they were just so musical. It's like a solo, like a tune. I could feel all this history when I was reading his poems. Man, I was feeling I could hear Coltrane playing in these words, so that sort of pulled me into the poetry world.

Langston has been a huge influence for me, so I put his "Dream Deferred" on the record. I like all poets really. It's just like music for me—I don't like one style of music, I like whatever music has a beautiful melody, especially if I can't play it, because I want to find out how to play it.

AAJ: With PaNOptic on Bandcamp you make great use of video on the track "maXX," and a beautiful filmed photo montage with the track "oNe SnaP finger," so in a way, with the poetry as well, it is a kind of multi-media project; have you ever thought about a one-man show, playing drums to video, pictures and poetry? It could be really great.

RR: You know, I thought of that a while back, but then I stopped thinking of it [laughs]. It is something that I would actually like to explore a little more. For the average person they may not realize that there is a composition going on in some drum solos, but in solo drums we're actually thinking of something, we're not just playing drums. We're actually thinking of melodies, or of a picture, a texture or a color. It would be great if people could actually experience that. When you hear a drummer playing by himself, he's not playing drums, he's playing music. That would be a great connection to have a solo show with multi-media so people can hear the music and the intention behind the drums and the cymbals. That would be cool.

AAJ: I would love to see it. I think a lot of people would. Could you talk a little about your approach to playing on the tribute tracks on PaNOptic? You tip a wink to Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Max Roach and Bill Frisell.

RR: With those tributes on the record what I wanted them to do was to bring that person to mind, sort of. The worst thing to do would have been to play a transcribed Max [Roach] solo. First of all, you will not sound as good as Max [laughs], I would just embarrass myself. I wanted to invoke. You know, sometimes Max will play a cluster of fast notes, but then he'll stop. You know, his phrasing is very long. I was just trying to bring that whole thing to mind -how Max would phrase and breathe in his phrasing.

AAJ:The photo montage with that track "maXX" is very interesting because the photos, and I understand you took all of them yourself, are so varied. You have nature, urban landscape, portraits, socio-political commentary, #Black Lives Matter, Covid-19, and I love the huge wall painting of David Bowie—what dictated your choice of photographs to accompany this track?

RR: The photos were sort of how I was feeling at the moment. There was a lot going on and I wanted to have some kind of social stance as well. I didn't play a tune particularly for Bowie, but Bowie's a big influence. I am saying what the music is about in those photos. Some of the photos are just about the beauty of the moment. There's some sacred music on the record so I have some photos that are sacred in nature. I was trying to illustrate with those photos the realm of scenery and flavor that is on the record.

AAJ: Is photography a big passion of yours? Does it feed into your music often?

RR: It is now. I've been taking photos for about twelve years, but in the last three or four years I have been studying it and trying to do some more legitimate photography. A photograph is a composition, or a story. It is going to give you voice in a world of many different voices. Sometimes I'll edit a photo and I'm looking at the music in the photo, like, there's not enough treble, there's not enough mids, there's not enough bass. The darks are bass, the whites are treble, you know what I mean? Photos are little music compositions. I'm getting better at it, but sometimes it's like a terrible tune that just doesn't work at all [laughs].

AAJ: The photo montage works really well, and I love your playing in sync to the video of the Nicholas Brothers on "oNe SnaP finger." Those guys are about the greatest dancers I have ever seen. Just incredible. What is hard to pull that track off?

RR: No because you know that piece is so full of short bursts of rhythms. It's moving, but the rhythm is dense and then it gets light, then dense then light again, and in any Nicholas Brothers routine there are just a million clusters of rhythms that they're doing if you just watch their feet. So, it's pretty easy because anything you play is going to line up with them, you know? They're doing so much. I was just trying to play the mood.

AAJ: It's funny you should say that because a month or two ago I was watching an old Cab Calloway video on YouTube, which feature the Nicholas Brothers. It's the one with the really famous stairs routine where they leap and do the splits landing on each step as they dsescend. It's an insane routine. Then after I watched your video from PaNOptic I was listening to Led Zeppelin, a live recording of "Rock 'n' Roll" from 1975, while watching that same Nicholas Brothers routine with the stairs, muted, and I imagined that John Bonham's drumming fitted their dance rhythms perfectly. Maybe it does. It was weird.

RR: [laughs] That's great.

AAJ: There are a couple of powerful photos in your montage that record the BlackLivesMatter movement. From my vantage point in Ireland, where we also had demonstrations in the aftermath of the Minneapolis police killing George Floyd, the #Black Lives Matter protests feels like the current manifestation of the Civil Rights movement, though on a more global level. Are you optimistic and strengthened by what is going on, or is it depressing that these problems still exist in 2020?

RR: Here in America it has never stopped. We've been conditioned to sort of live with it in a way -not live with it satisfied, but we know that to get depressed about it, that is not an option. Nothing would ever come from that. We've been depressed and we've been complacent, we've been calm and said "Okay, let's just wait and things will get better"—we've done that for a century. The thing that lives within us every day that makes us sick, that makes us die of heart failure and high blood pressure and diabetes—we just held in this condition in which we have to live, and it just kills us in a lot of different ways.

The encouraging thing about this now is that it is a little bit more global. It's like somehow a global consciousness has opened up about this kind of treatment and this kind of relationship. For us I think that is knew. It has never really happened on this scale before, seeing people in other countries protesting and bringing awareness of their own black situation in their own country. For me, that's encouraging because it presents a great opportunity for the entire globe to become better human beings. We have a chance now to be more equitable, more compassionate, and more understanding human beings—as a race. We can do this. That's very exciting.

Now, the other part is I don't know how excited to get. Not because I don't think we have the capacity to do it, as the human race we can all do this, but black people have known what it is like to endure something for centuries. I hope that white people can understand that this is not easy. This isn't something where you can say: "Okay, we said #Black Lives Matter, so now things are better" -this is going to take a long time and a lot of work. This country has never been equal. We don't know what that means. I'm just concerned that it will lose its gas after a while because of the immensity of the task. It seems like it's so big when really it's just the daily decision—just be consistent with the daily decision that you will not be a part of any kind of sub-treatment of anyone else, or being lost in your own privilege. Just make that decision every day and we can get there.

AAJ: That's a really great answer Rudy. Thanks very much for that. I was reminded of an interview I did in 2008 with Eddie LockeColeman Hawkins's drummer for quite a few years—and I spoke to him the day after Barak Obama became President of the United States. Eddie was so excited, feeling it was the dawn of a new era, but the eight Obama years proved that change doesn't happen overnight. It takes a generation, or generations, like you said, of day to day decisions to bring about real change.

RR: Yeah, and when we look back on it, you know, centuries from now, we'll see what Obama meant. Civil Rights was the first step, and Obama was another step. These are steps that we're taking when you look at a larger picture. With our generation I would have thought those steps could go really fast, you know, "let's go, let's move it, I don't wanna die with stuff like this." But we're on our way. It might not be there for my generation but it's definitely gonna come. It's about taking many tiny steps, but this was a pretty big step for me. If we can stick with it this is a pretty good-sized step.

AAJ: We hope so. Coming back to the music on PaNOptice, I love the way The Beatles "Blackbird" slips into Bad Company's "Feel Like Makin' Love" on "BlaCk—Bad CoMPAny—BiRd" and it made me wonder what you grew up listening to?

RR: Man, I love my brothers. I love my childhood because I never knew that there was bad music. I'm the youngest. My father and my mum divorced and then my father remarried a white woman in Texas. My brothers smoked weed every day [laughs] and they checked out any kind of music that you could possibly imagine, and it was all cool. They were just music lovers. And when I'd go visit my dad, I had a whole white family, and I would listen to all the music they were checking out.

I just grew up with Charlie Pride, Led Zeppelin, Teddy Pendergrass, 'Trane—everything was cool. It's not black music, it's not white music, it's just good music. I was the youngest, so I had no choice, I had to listen to whatever they put on the radio, but it was great, man. That, with some instruments in my hand, and I just sort of grew up playing along with everything.

AAJ: That's the most rewarding way to be -open-minded to everything, isn't it? I was thinking about your track where "Blackbird" bleeds into "Feel Like Makin' Love" and it's probably the equivalent of, say, seventy-years ago, Max Roach going from a bebop thing into a Louis Jordan lick, or something like that.

RR: Yeah, yeah. That's a great way to put it.

AAJ: It also underlines, and it's that quotation from Bruce Lee that you have at the bottom of your email: "Don't think, feel," because your playing throughout PaNOptic feels so intuitive, so spontaneous and so organic.

RR: Yeah. I didn't even notice that but that is exactly what I mean when I say "Don't think, feel" [laughs]. I love "Blackbird," and in the studio, midway through, I felt "Feel Like Makin' Love"—"Let's go man, run with it."

AAJ: It works so well. Obviously, the music of the church is a big presence on PaNOptic, particularly on "I'm Coming Home" and the two-parter "MOTHER KELLY and the preacher." These are spirituals; could you tell us how church music has shaped you?

RR: I kind of grew up in church. You know, the thing that church teaches you more than anything is how to play music that moves the soul—that moves the spirit of the room. If you just play it top to bottom in a church it doesn't work, because there is too much dynamic stuff going on in the room. There's excitement over here, and then it may jump high or it may come low. There is just so much going on, so you really have to be in touch with what's going on all that's around you and in the music and how to make that work. Like, how to make a music moving and not just a static tune. The tune has to live and one of the main things that church taught me was how to do that, and how to capture the most soul out of a tune that you can. You gotta keep in touch with everything that is going on.

Really, it's about that sensitivity. I play with a lot people here and some of them say: "Man, it feels like you know what we're going to do before we do it." I learned that in church; I can tell where this is going to go and having listened to so many different kinds of music, I can pretty much hear what they listen to. "You're a yacht rock kind of person, like me" [laughs]. Or, "you're a funk kind of person." I can hear that. Church taught me a lot of that kind of stuff.

AAJ: You've talked about some of the tribute tracks on PaNOptic, there are a couple to Elvin Jones, one to Jack DeJohnette, but I wanted to ask you about "BilL," your tribute to Bill Frisell, because you're on his new album Valentine [Blue Note Records, 2020], which is a really beautiful record; when did you first cross paths with Frisell?

RR: We had done a Ron Miles record, Women's Day in '96 or something [Gramavision, 1997 -ed]. I was playing a lot with Ron Miles in Denver and Bill came to town. Joey Baron couldn't make a gig with Bill so Ron got me to play on the gig. That was the first time I played with Bill. It was in Denver in 1995, I think. Even then, Bill said: "Man, that's it! That's it!" and I understood what he was saying when he said, "that's it." The piece on the record, PaNOptic is kind of about that—these arrival points.

Bill has a way of playing, and this is one of the reasons why his playing is so great, because it's constantly releasing, it's going "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" Usually that happens once or twice in a song, but with Bill it is constantly happening like that, because he has these points where it's just like, "Let's arrive here together," and then we have a conversation, then "let's arrive here together" and then we have more conversation, so his shaping is constantly arriving. The first time we played in Denver we connected like that. I could feel what he was thinking. On PaNOptic there is a little of that sense of arriving, I'm sort of hearing him. There's a tune that sort of inspired me off Beautiful Dreamers... [sings the melody] ...I don't remember the name.

AAJ: Yeah, I know the tune, it's a classic Frisell tune, but the name escapes me now. [it was "Winslow Homer"-ed]. Although Frisell has played a lot in trio settings, he hasn't actually recorded too many trios under his own name. Valentine, with you and Thomas Morgan is really great. I hope you guys go on to record more together.

RR: Man, I hope so too. It took us long enough to do this one [laughs]. Bill just has so many things that he's doing. Even with this one I think he wanted to do this trio a long time ago. We would do a tour and then he'd have another band. We took about six months of being together for this one. We'd done two weeks at the Village Vanguard and a tour of Europe before that, so we were pretty in sync with each other. I think this is one of the best records I've ever played on, because it was so unselfish on all of our parts. We just played great music.

AAJ: The interplay is outstanding. It feels like a live album to me, probably because you had come out of the Village Vanguard and straight in the studio. It has a very similar energy to a live gig.

RR: Man, that's a great observation, because you know how sometimes you go in the studio and it's like, "okay, take one," "take two, that was good," it was more like we would play a tune and then go outside and drink and talk, then we'd play a tune and then go eat. It wasn't like a studio session; it was like we were playing for a group of people in Bill's living room. It was kinda like that.

AAJ: That relaxed vibe really comes across. Rudy, PaNOptic was sitting in the can for seven years before you released it. Do you have any other projects waiting in the wings?

RR: I had some things I was thinking about but then the pandemic stopped that train of thought. I think I'm going to do another Flatbed Buggy record with that band.

AAJ: That's a beautiful album. I imagine I can hear a fair bit of Bill Frisell's influence on that music. Is that fair to say?

RR: Yeah, there's a lot of Bill's influence on that. Bill and Ron Miles were the main influences for that one.

AAJ: Well, we'll look forward to that. Any final words?

RR: I just want to encourage people because things will be better. Even if they don't change, we will change, so it will be better in one way or the other.

AAJ: That's a great final note. Thank you very much Rudy.

RR: Thank you Ian. Thank you, brother.

Photo: John Rogers

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