Category Archives: Muhal Richard Abrams

For Eddie Harris’ 80th Birth Anniversary, a 1994 WKCR Interview

In 1994, I had an opportunity to host the sui generis saxophonist Eddie Harris (October 20, 1934-November 5, 1996), who was performing in town, on my afternoon program on WKCR. Among other things, he spoke at length about his early years in Chicago. The transcript, posted below, has been available on the internet for more than a decade on the Jazz Journalists Association website.

Eddie Harris
June 29, 1994, WKCR-FM New York

[Music: “Freedom Jazz Dance” (1964)]

Q: “Freedom Jazz Dance”  became famous after Miles Davis reworked it for his own uses and recorded it. How did Miles get hold of the tune?

EH: Ron Carter came over to him. He came by and offered Ron more money while I was working at the Five Spot for a month. And I said, “Ron, you should take it. It’s more money.” And he took the tune over there, because we were playing it at the Five-Spot, and the rest is history. Miles recorded it, and all of a sudden I was hip. [Chuckles]

Q: So it was a working band that recorded your first Atlantic dates.

EH: Yes.

Q: You go and Cedar Walton go back to an Army band from the 1950s.

EH: Yes. Cedar and I were outside of Stuttgart, at Vahingen(?), and we had a Jazz band out of the orchestra that had formed. It was quite a jazz band. Leo Wright was head of the jazz band, people like Lanny Morgan, Don Menza was in the band . . . It was a very good band.

Q: Was this a band that was set up for the recording, or had you been working?

EH: No. These days it’s very seldom that you get quintets, quartets, sextets, octets as working bands. You generally get duos or trios as working bands. That’s where the business has gone. So I came in and recorded with this trio, and they had been working together. That made it easier for me.

Q: Were your originals composed for the date?

EH: I wrote two tunes for the date. Other than that, there’s a situation going on in Japan where they have some kind of deals with standard tunes in which they want you to play standard tunes. So I don’t mind. As long as they raise the ante financially, I’ll play all the standards they want.

[Music: There Was A Time: Echoes of Harlem, “Lover Come Back To Me”]

Q: I’d like to talk to you about your background in Chicago, Illinois, where you spent a good chunk of your life and developed as a musician. Your beginnings in the music are what? On piano? Saxophone?

EH: I started on piano first. Then I was singing.

Q: Where? In the church? Home?

EH: Yeah, in the church. The church. I mean, they used to stand me up on a table, because I could sing right in tune, in time, and I was only like five years old. But when I was four, my cousin was teaching me piano. She played for the church.

Q: What church was it?

EH: Shiloh Baptist Church. Later on, I was singing at Ebeneezer Baptist Church.

Q: Which I think was the largest church on the South Side . . .

EH: Well, they were very large churches. And my mother was a big wig there at that church, until she died; and she lived until 1991, and she was 91 when she passed on.

Q: Were your parents born in Chicago or did they come there?

EH: My mother was from down south in New Orleans, and my father was from Cuba.

Q: And when did they come to Chicago?

EH: I don’t know. They met in Chicago. I imagine they came in the teens, or maybe . . . I think they came in like 1913. He worked in the stockyards, and my mother worked in the laundry. And they weren’t particular about me playing music. Of course, my father didn’t really care. He died when I was a young guy.

Q: So your mother raised you.

EH: Yeah, my mother. I really took care of my mother and three aunts.

Q: How did the music develop for you? You obviously had an immediate facility for it.

EH: Well, really, Ted, I wanted to play sports. I was quite a sports advocate.

Q: All sports?

EH: All sports. And I could really play — football, basketball, baseball. To be honestly frank with you, because I was taught at such a young age, as I got older I didn’t particularly care for a lot of the people that played music. Because a lot of musicians were, like, too timid: “Oh, I hurt my hands, I can’t do this . . . ” I ran with the gangs, and used to even box at Nichols’ Gym, and I didn’t think about my hands or my embouchure or mouth. Musicians, I couldn’t really take ‘em. I didn’t dig it.

Q: When did you start finding people you could relate to on a musical level?

EH: Well, after I got up in the teens. When you get in the teens, you start meeting guys, like the late Charles Stepney . . . There became a group of us. Muhal Richard Abrams, Raphael Garrett, James Slaughter, Walter Perkins, Bill Lee. There was a small group of us who were on the same wavelength in trying things. And that was interesting to me, to try things, not just sit down and play an Ellis Larkins run or a Duke Ellington run — which could easily be done, because we’d deal with music all day. But these guys, we all wanted to try some different things. You see, most guys didn’t want to try different things. They just wanted to sound like whoever was happening at the time. Now, as young guys, we were listening to the guys that were coming off the JATP, the Jazz At the Philharmonic, which was Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and that group of guys, who was a little older than we were, that was playing some strange type music!

Q: So when did music become a thing that you were doing all day? Because you can’t be playing sports all day and be playing music all day?

EH: Why not?

Q: Well, maybe you can.

EH: [Laughs] When I say playing sports all day . . . What do you do as a young guy? In those days you had clubs on every corner. I mean, you could play somewhere in the evenings. So then you could rehearse, and when you’re not playing with guys, you can play ball. See, it’s not like it is today, where most young guys are trying to lobby for a recording. Well, all we wanted to do was play! Heh-heh. That was a vast difference.

Q: When you were coming up in Chicago, there was also a community of older musicians on a world-class level. Who were some of the people who really impressed you and that you modeled yourself after?

EH: Well, I was quite a pool shooter. I would go into different cities on a bus, go in and collect up some money until they’d get hip to me. And I found, from going over to Detroit, down to St. Louis, over to Cleveland, that Chicago (you don’t realize it when you’re coming up in an environment) had more individualism than anywhere else. Anywhere else. See, in other cities you had great musicians, but the group of guys, they generally played in one vernacular. Whatever that city held, it was like that group of guys produced that type of music.

In Chicago, you could go from one club, and you could hear a Gene Ammons, you had Budd Johnson, and you had Tom Archia, Dick Davis — just dealing with saxophone. Then you had all sorts of piano players that were really. . .really different. You’d go to one club, and the guy sounds like he totally comes from somewhere else. He didn’t sound like a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.

You can imagine a guy coming up from Birmingham, like Sun Ra, playing there. People said, “Hey, they got Monk in New York.” We said, “Yeah, but wait until you come to Chicago and hear Sun Ra!” You know what I mean? Chicago had everybody coming . . . They said, “There’s a guy who can really play drums, man, Max Roach, man — he’s bad!” “Yeah. Wait til you hear Ike Day.” “This guy can play all kind of bass man, this guy is terrific playing bass, Raymond Brown.” And I said, “Wait til you hear Wilbur Ware.” See, we had guys like that in Chicago. Like you’re finally hearing Von Freeman, which was outside years ago. And people said, “John Coltrane.” We said, “Well, you should hear Von Freeman.” That’s the way I thought coming up.

Q: What do you think it is about Chicago that produced that type of individualism? Is it just an accident that all these people were there, or is it something about the culture of the city?

EH: I think it’s the latter. Because people came up primarily from the middle south; that’s Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana. The train came, and Chicago was the train center, so they’d get off there. You had the stockyards and people could get work, primarily the African-American people of that time.

And the people in general were just regular people. In other words, that’s why it was considered the blues capital. They were regular people there. In other words, when you were playing on the stand, guys would just come up and tell you: “Hey, man, I really liked that. I didn’t know what that was, but it’s all right.” If you’re playing something else, a guy says, “Hey, I don’t like that, man. Why don’t you stop playing that.”

See, they were just straight out. They weren’t like the West Coast or the East Coast. On the East Coast they said, “Let me analyze what this guy is doing.” The guy maybe had just been playing two years, but they’re trying to analyze something — the guy’s trying to put something over on them. The West Coast is just write it out, have it all organized. In the Midwest they said, “Hey, man, I spent my money. Come on, play something for me. That’s nice, you experimented now . . . ” It’s like I’d play with no neck on the horn. “Okay, enough of that. Let me feel something.” And will go upside your head if you didn’t!

So therefore, guys that come out of this particular area were more rounded out musicians. Because you would experiment, then you would stop and learn a song in its entirety, knowing the correct melody or the lyrics. Because other than that, you might wind up getting beat up or have to fight some people.

Q: In Chicago at that time almost every major cross-street had several different clubs, and some, like 63rd Street, were almost wall-to-wall with clubs.

EH: Well, this was true in other cities. It was true in Philly, it was true in Detroit. But the only thing I can be repetitive on, Ted, is to say they had different sounding groups in different venues. That was the shocking part about it. And when you come up in that environment, you don’t realize it until you go elsewhere. You’d walk out of one club, and you just heard the blues, jumpin’ up and down, then go down the street, there’s a swinging jazz group, then go down the street to the next club and say, “What is that?” It’s just like you went to another space or another time. Which I didn’t see in other cities.

Q: You also experienced the very intense teaching methods of Walter Dyett at DuSable High School. Can you say a few words about him, and the DuSable situation?

EH: Well, it was a time in which it was segregated times, and therefore African-Americans primarily only were able to go to, like, five schools. And you could imagine that many people in one area . . . Before they had (what is it called?) the high rises or these lower-income homes, they had kitchenettes. That’s a big apartment with one family in the front, one family in the middle apartment, and another family in the rear apartment. So you were like crammed.

Dyett was an instructor at DuSable High School. He had been a captain in the service. And he had to be rough. Because the guys who came to that school were extremely rough. In other words, say you hit that part wrong. Some guys would just tell you, “So what? Go on and play the music.” And he didn’t tolerate that. He would either go upside your head, have you bring your parents up to school. I remember one time I fell asleep. He kicked the chair out from under me, and I got up off the floor with my clarinet all sprawled everywhere! It was really strange.

John Gilmore was in class with me, Pat Patrick — the whole Sun Ra band, as a matter of fact. He had moved into the neighborhood when he came from Birmingham, and he took us out of Dyett’s band, because we could just read tremendously. Because Dyett taught us like that.

Q: Dyett also had bands that would allow his students to work out in the community, too, didn’t he?

EH: Well, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton — I got a chance to hear all these guys. They’d come by because they just couldn’t believe the Booster Band was that hip. That was the jazz band. And when you miss a note, you’re out the band. He’d pop his fingers: “You’re out the band. Bring your mother up to school.” And a guy in the back would take out his instrument, he’d come and sit down, and he was just as good if not better. I mean, it was that kind of competition you came up under, which really helped you. And he taught you other things about self-discipline, like do not have on polkadot socks when you have on a black suit. Heh-heh. Little things like that. Being on time, knowing the music, looking at the music to first see if it’s the correct tune you’re playing, then see what key signature it is. Understand where your repeats are. Little things that you should know in music.

[Music: E. Harris: “K.C. Blues,” “Salute to Bird,” “Hey Wado!”]

Q: The first thing Eddie Harris said to me on the phone when we were arranging this was that you had been a professional musician in Chicago for 14 years, I think you said, before “Exodus” was recorded and you were “discovered.” One of these liner notes says that your first actual gig was subbing piano with the Gene Ammons band.

EH: Yeah, that was my first what you’d call paying job!

Q: Do you remember what the club was?

EH: Well, it wasn’t a club. I played at the Pershing Ballroom. The next time I played it was another place, Baker’s Casino. I didn’t play clubs more or less with him. They had a lot of ballrooms around there, the Trianon, the Aragon on the North Side, and like that. I subbed for a guy named James Craig, who later became a policeman.

Q: He’s on the very early Gene Ammons recordings, if I recollect properly.

EH: Mmm-hmm.

Q: The Pershing Ballroom was part of a hotel on 64th and Cottage that was a real center of musical life on the South Side.

EH: I played there a long time opposite Ahmad Jamal. I played there Monday and Tuesday nights, and opposite him on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Q: As a pianist or saxophonist?

EH: Well, I really wanted to play the saxophone, but I had Charles Stepney working with me, and Walter Perkins and Bill Lee. Then Bill Lee left to go downtown, and Walter Perkins hired a guy from Evanston to play with us — you know him as Bob Cranshaw. So when we worked there, I played piano and Stepney played the vibes, then he doubled to go to piano and I would go to saxophone.

Q: I’d like to ask you about a few of the people that you mentioned, and some that you didn’t. You talked about Sun Ra being active in Chicago He got there in the late 1940s, and did dual duty as an arranger for the Club De Lisa, which included the Fletcher Henderson band, and having his own band of young musicians out of DuSable High School, who as you mentioned, were strong readers, and doing his own music.

EH: Right.

Q: What did his music sound like in 1950 or ’51 . . .

EH: Heh-heh . . .

Q: What was your reaction to playing those type of charts?

EH: I didn’t have any adverse reaction to it, due to the fact that I played in the orchestras; I played classical music. The big thing was looking at the way he wrote them. It was like orchestra music. You had scales, arpeggios, flamadas and like that. He would write a note and make a zig-zag line to another note, and within that time frame you played what you wanted to play. Which is modern writing today, but I wasn’t too hip to that, you know. I would have liked to stay along with him and played a lot longer, but I couldn’t go along with his teachings that he had after rehearsals and after playing, when he said, “I’ve been here before.” Because he was talking about “space is the place” and going on with that. I liked his music. I liked to experiment. But I couldn’t go along with the teaching. So not being with him, that’s when I more or less started playing with another group of guys, who I named earlier, where we did our thing.

Q: You mentioned drummer Ike Day, who was maybe recorded once, and the sound of the recording isn’t so great. A few words about his sound. Because he made an impression on everybody who heard him.

EH: Well, what can you say about an Ike Day? Who can I say that’s playing like he did? He was a combination like Max with his hands, or Philly Joe with his type of swinging. He was just a fantastic drummer. It was just unbelievable what this guy could do with just two sticks, playing on tables, on chairs.

Q: Someone told me they heard him do a solo with his toes.

EH: Well, I never witnessed that. [Laughs] But you can imagine a group of guys playing together like Dorel Anderson and Wilbur Ware, and then you’d have a guy like Ike Day sit in and play the drums. Dorel played drums . . . I mean, it was just extremely talented guys in that immediate area of Chicago, which was primarily the South Side. And I couldn’t understand why they weren’t recorded more, because it was right there. I mean, even though they had little mishaps of drugs and like that, but so did a lot of other people that were recorded!

Q: A lot of people also came through Chicago from other places. For example, Sonny Rollins a couple of times set up shop in Chicago, so to speak.

EH: Sonny Rollins worked there at a day job. In fact, they hired him, “they” meaning Max Roach-Clifford Brown. Clifford had brought me to the band to play at the Beehive, and he felt I was quite a player, that I could read the parts, I could play . . . But Max felt my tone was kind of funny.

Q: In some interviews you’ve talked about your tone. And I think in the interview for the liner notes of Artists Choice [Rhino] you said that you ran into Don Ellis in the Army, and he said that your tone was too light or something. Talk a bit about how you formulated a saxophone style.

EH: Well, the whole point of guys who were more or less envious and guys who were trying to bag on me, trying to bring down my arrogance and egotisticalness . . . Because you have to have this in order to play. You don’t have to be dogmatic about it, but you have to believe in yourself. And they’d say, “Oh man . . . ” This is prejudice times, now; this is the late ’40s or the early ’50s . . . the late ’40s primarily . . . “Oh, man, you sound like Stan Getz,” and that’s supposed to have been a putdown. I even had caucasian guys telling me that, because I played in caucasian bands. And they didn’t realize that really Getz was playing like Lester Young before he lost his teeth. Because if you listen to his old sound, “Taxi War Dance,” Prez and Hershel Evans, he played like that, with a lighter sound. As a matter of fact, any saxophone player that’s trying to play fast or trying to play skips or high notes, he or she becomes a lighter player, because you cannot play heavy and play rapido. But that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, they put me down. “Oh, man, you sound like Getz.” So I had to live with that. Then finally, I started challenging the guys back because I just got fed up with it. “Oh man, but you know, you did sound like . . . ” See, they wasn’t listening to what I’m playing. People are just hung up in sounds. That’s even today, a person’s sound. They say, “Oh yeah, he sounds like Trane.” But what is he playing? Yeah, but as long as I get that sound, I’m automatically in. But not in as far as I’m concerned. But so many people just go by the sound.

See, I was trying to play higher notes, I was trying to play skips like that. But I was using that timbre of sound, which was really the Lester Young school as opposed to the Chu Berry or the Coleman Hawkins way, and to use that and make articulate playing, utilization of tonguing at least every other note, which I get a brass effect. And quiet as it’s kept, only one guy ever told me, he said, “I see, you’re trying to play like a trumpet on saxophone.” That was the late Pepper Adams, who was playing on a big band. He said, “Man, you’re the first cat that really peeped that I was trying to do that. Now, you see, I can play five C’s now, and you see I can hit high notes, and I do a lot of phrasing — I hit things like Miles and Clifford and them on the saxophone.

Q: And subsequently, of course, you used different mouthpieces, trumpet mouthpieces on the saxophone, or saxophone mouthpieces on the trumpet . . .

EH: Well, I was doing that to get different sounds. I was always trying different sounds. The only reason why I more or less put that on the back- burner was electric came out; then I started dealing with electric.

Q: Your relationship with Muhal Richard Abrams goes back to high school. In 1960 or 1961, you and Muhal organized a workshop band that got together briefly, then subsequently you parted ways. This band was the core of what became the AACM. What events, as you recollect it, inspired its formation?

EH: It was a thing that trying to play around Chicago, you figured there are guys that never played first chair, there are guys that never played on a big band, and there are other guys that never had an opportunity to write for a large number of people, and there are people that wanted to sing, and sing in front of a band — “so let’s form a workshop.” There were three of us. There was the late Johnny Hines, a trumpeter from the West Side of Chicago, and Muhal Richard Abrams and myself. And we just got this together at the C&C, which was a lounge, a large lounge. And the musicians . . . It was surprising that so many musicians came! I mean, it was just amazing. I think we must have had about 100 musicians.

But then you have this class set of the musicians who were more or less our age or older, who were astute musicians, then you had the younger musicians — and the astute musicians were like, “Oh, I don’t want to play with these guys, they’re just learning.” So a guy like myself, I’ll take a few charts and pass it out to the guys, and put guys in precarious positions. Like a guy I know that can play a good first, I’ll give him a third part. Now he’s got to play lower. [Laughs] Then you stomp off kind of rapid, and the guys would be missing notes, and then make the younger kids say, “Damn, they can miss notes, too!” And the guys would be all uptight who can really play. Then that deflates their ego some. Then we can get on with the workshop.

Lo and behold, it was going pretty good. But I had to travel, because I had this hit record, “Exodus.” But I don’t know what happened; when I came back there were divisions. Johnny Hines tried to take the musicians more our age; he wanted to go into the Regal Theatre so he could have a band to really accompany all the stars that come in there. Muhal had taken the younger musicians and let them learn in reading on scales and playing with each other. So that’s how that came about. And Muhal eventually got together with the Association . . .

Q: They chartered in 1965 and set up that whole . . . .

EH: Yes, they set it up. But that’s how that came about.

Q: Let’s hear an extended piece, I guess collectively worked out by the band from maybe around 1970 or ’71. This comes from Excursions, a double LP issued on Atlantic in 1973. The track is “Turbulence,” featuring Eddie Harris on electric saxophone and reed trumpet; Ronald Muldrow on guitorgan . . . ?

EH: That’s right, guitorgan. That was a guitar with pickups under the fret- board to make it sound like an organ.

Q: Muhal Richard Abrams on piano. Rufus Reid, who was living in Chicago in that period, around the cusp of 1970, on bass, and Billy James on drums.

EH: That was a working band.

Q: And you played all over, in many different situations.

EH: All over these United States.

[Music: “Turbulence”; E. Harris/E. Marsalis, “Deacceleration”]

Q: How did this duo album you made with Ellis Marsalis come about?

EH: Ellis and I have played together numerous times down in New Orleans where he lives, so I come down there and I play with him. On other occasions I’ve come down and played with different groups. And this guy I played with several times named Dave Torkanowsky, he had studied with Ellis, and he really enjoyed playing with me. He had an opportunity to produce a record, and he said he thought it would be great if Ellis and I would do a duo. He called me up and had me fly down to Dallas, and we did it on the spur of the moment — no rehearsals, nothing.

Q: Let’s talk about the scene in Chicago as it developed in the 1960s.

EH: There were a lot of guys playing good music around there in the ’60s. There was Gene Shaw who played trumpet, who passed later on. Then of course, there was the guy who had a group called the Pharaohs, which you’d know later on as the Phoenix Horns.

Q: I’m under the impression, though, that the club scene kind of declined and there were a lot fewer opportunities to work around Chicago then — although maybe you didn’t directly experience that.

EH: Well, the club scene was beginning to decline because television was on the rise, and as more television, people were staying at home looking at more of the wrestling matches and roller derby.

Q: You mentioned in an interview that you spent a good amount of time in New York and were working a lot, but you chose to come back to Chicago.

EH: I came here, and immediately, coming up out of the subway . . . After I checked into the hotel, I went and rode on the subway up to Harlem, and I walked up, and I’m looking at the tall buildings of Harlem, because I thought maybe they might be a little smaller in Harlem, because it was residential — that’s what I thought my first time here, in the ’50s. And what happened? I ran into the trumpet man. “Dag,” he says, “you’re lost. Oh man! What are you doing here?! Hey, man, come and play with my band.” I said, “Really? “Yeah,” he said. “If you’re in town here, you can come and play with me.” That was . . . I’m getting bad on names, man. Because see, you’re going back in time on me. He wrote this tune, [Sings the first few bars of "Blue Bossa"].

Q: Oh, that’s K.D. you’re talking about.

EH: Yeah, Kenny Dorham. And I went and played with him, and I walked around town here, and all the guys would hire me, because I played piano, I could play trombone, read, you know. And I can play clarinet, the oboe, bassoon. My flute playing is sad. It’s still sad, because I don’t think that is a double. Of course, I have several flutes at home, and I can make it through an amateur part, but I don’t care to play it. But I worked nine nights a week. I worked afternoons playing piano for some people tap-dancing, and I could play in pit bands. But I never had any money! I was living with Cedar Walton and Sam Fletcher, the vocalist, and I said, “Hey, man, I’m going back to Chicago.” They said, “Man, you’re crazy. Guys don’t come here and work like you.”

I just went back to Chicago. And what happened? That’s how I made “Exodus”. I was scheduled to go back to Europe and play, because Quincy Jones was going to hire me to take a guy’s place named Oliver Nelson, and he had me to play with him when I was over in Europe with his band. He said, “Man, I’m happy to run into you. You can go back to Europe with me.” I said, “Okay.”

I stopped by to see my mother, and she asked me what was I doing, and she said, “I’m going back over to Europe with a guy named Quincy Jones.” She started crying. She just made a big issue out of this. I said, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” She said, “I understood you was going to make a record.” I said, “Oh yeah, I can do that when I come back.” She said, “It’s a shame. I’m ashamed to tell people that you play music. Because everybody’s made a record but you.” I said, “I don’t care nothin’ about that. I’m working. I’m playing.” She said, “Well, you ought to make this one record, because VeeJay asked you to make a record.”

But they’d asked me to record on piano, because they wanted me to sound like the guy down the street at Cadet Records which I used to show chords to.

Q: Not Ahmad Jamal!

EH: No, Ramsey Lewis. [Laughs] Yeah, Ahmad was down there. Of course, he’s an outstanding piano player. But this guy had the Gentlemen of Jazz, this Ramsey Lewis, and that was selling. So they wanted me to do that down the street at Vee-Jay. And I wasn’t particular about that, so I didn’t care nothing about making a record. But my mother said, “Oh, please make this one record, then you can go to Europe, Asia, anywhere.” I said, “But won’t nobody want me then if I stay here and make the record.”

So I went down to Chess, and I talked with them, and they said, “Well, we don’t want you to play the saxophone; you’re too weird.” And I told him where to go. Well, there was a guy named Sid McCoy, and a guy named Abner, who ran the company . . . It was actually Vivian and Jimmy’s company, V-J, and Abner was the president, and Sid McCoy was the a&r, artists and repertoire guy. Abner, who had gone down there to college with me, said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll let you play several numbers on saxophone.” I said, “Okay, that’s fair enough.” I told Quincy that. He said, “One record?! Oh, man.” And to this day, when he thinks about it, he says, “One record” — because that one record turned out to be “Exodus.” Isn’t that amazing? A million-seller.

[Music: “Love For Sale” (1965); “Harlem Nocturne” (1990); “God Bless The Child” (1959)]

Q: Eddie Harris said they used that version of “God Bless The Child” for a TV story of Lady Day’s life.

EH: Yes, yes. It was great. Billie Holiday was very instrumental in trying to get me to understand that I could not only swing, that I played melodically. I was playing at the Pershing Lounge opposite Ahmad Jamal, and played the off-nights. She had a club underneath, which at first she called Birdland, then the people in New York here wouldn’t allow her to call it Birdland, so she changed it to Budland.

She came down one time, when we were rehearsing during the afternoon . . . She came down to all these rehearsals, any time she could, and she directed the rehearsals. “Hey, don’t do that?” “Why don’t you leave me alone?” And she said, “You can really phrase. Your timing . . . ” — and she used a lot of four-letter words that I won’t use over the radio!

But the point is that she encouraged me . . . Because I’m basically a quiet guy, standing back, and all the guys, it seemed like they were hipper than me playing the horn because of the fact they played the Charlie Parker licks, the Sonny Rollins licks . . . well, whoever, you can play the Rabbit [Johnny Hodges] licks . . . And here I could read all these things and play, but when I go to play, I played more phrasing melodically. Of course, you had Gene Ammons around there who played melodically, but he wasn’t tackling the type of tunes we were tackling. We were trying to play like these other guys, but then trying to solo differently than the other guys. In other words, you play a Charlie Parker line, but if you take off on your solo you didn’t try to be Bud, or the bass player didn’t try to be Mingus, and the drummer wasn’t trying to be Max.

So she was telling me I should continue phrasing the way I was. I’ll tell you something, Ted. I’m saying this primarily for younger musicians out there, or people who might have kids that play. Sometimes you can do something that comes very easy to you, and you don’t think very much of it due to the fact that it comes easy to you. As a kid I could always play, and the house would swing, pat their feet. I mean, I didn’t need a rhythm section. I really didn’t. I could just hit a groove, and people would automatically…

But most of my colleagues couldn’t. So I was trying to play like them, playing off-meter, double-time, like that. And she was trying to explain to me, “Just play what you play, and people will just go berserk.” But I wasn’t looking at that, because you have your peers. The majority of the guys double up, run over the instrument, look like they can play faster than you. But they really couldn’t when we stomped off something fast. I could play fast, but I play in meter.

Q: When you play something like that, it almost has the quality of singing, and you said you were singing at a very, very young age.

EH: Oh, yes. But you don’t realize what you have, because you’re just swamped up by others. Because see, most musicians do not and cannot play in meter. And I didn’t realize this until later years. And I mean “in meter,” just have a guy play by himself, and he’s not playing one note, [sings one note sequence], but just trying to play — and you’ll see how his time fluctuates. In other words, a lot of people swing when they’re with swinging people, but are they swinging themselves on the instrument? In other words, you hear a guy phrasing, you can imagine if you were at the control room where you can douse the board and take the rhythm section out and hear this guy play. I mean, it’s nice. He’s making the changes, he’s making the modulations. But why did you stop patting your foot? Because he has no more support from the rhythm. Because he’s not carrying the rhythm himself — or herself nowadays.

This next piece is currently the way I’m playing, trio piano in Europe. I’ve just come back from 36 one-nighters, and playing piano with the bassist, who is Ray Peterson, and the drummer, Norman Fearington.

Q: This is the current working band?

EH: It’s the working band, yes. Ray Peterson is playing with Les and me down there. Of course, Norman had to go to Europe, so we have Ben Riley in place of Norman.

[Music: “Ambidextrous,” “Airegin” (solo sax)]

Q: We’ve heard you establish yourself as a player very much out of the esthetic of the period you came from, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and that end of it, as a rabid experimentalist, dealing with every type of imaginable sound, and always within a very functional situation. It’s amazing that you’re able to play with the reed trumpet or the clarinet with no neck in front of some very tough audiences and make it come off. And we’ve heard the high standard of virtuosic saxophone playing, some great piano playing, and some singing. We haven’t heard “Why Are You So Overweight,” but I guess we could do that, too.

EH: If you ever get a chance one of these days, try listening to “Oleo” on Excursions, and you will hear me play the saxophone with the trombone mouthpiece, which makes it sound like a valve trombone.

Q: I’ll do that. But just a word about your piano playing, which we’ve touched on. We’ve heard two examples now, one where you play “Our Love Is Here To Stay” in a very expansive, Tatumesque, Nat Cole type of style.

EH: Mmm-hmm.

Q: On the last you were playing a Chicago left-hand boogie-woogie . . . Piano was your first instrument, I take it.

EH: Yes.

Q: A few words about your relationship with the piano.

EH: Well, I was taught by my cousin when I was a very young age, at four, and then I came up playing in the church, and I played and studied piano at Roosevelt College, where I had an awful time.

Q: Why was that?

EH: Because they wanted me to go to Piano 104, not beginning piano. I was taught in a church, and I was slow reading, and I had incorrect fingering — and I wanted to just learn the piano when I was going to college there. They said, “No, you’re not going to take this credit, because you play too well.” And they put me in a class with people running over piano, reading things — [sings fast, dense passage]. They was gone! And I stayed in there for quite a while, because I could listen to people play and I could sit down and play it. That doesn’t mean I could read it that fast, but I was telling them I wanted to learn it. I had an awful time trying to convince people that I was really trying to learn piano in the correct way. But no, they said, “You play too well.” So consequently, I didn’t go take private lessons . . . I didn’t care about the piano anyway. I just was doing that while I was in college. And lo and behold, I’ve made more money playing piano, working, than I have saxophone. It’s amazing.

Q: A lot of your early gigs were piano gigs.

EH: Yeah. Even recently, out in California, I started a club, and I played solo piano, then it wound up a duo and a trio — and now it’s one of the top jazz places.

Q: What club is that?

EH: That’s Bel Age. It’s a hotel, the Brasserie. One time I was here in New York, and I stopped on 23rd Street in a restaurant to get something to eat, and they had a piano there. I said, “Hey, can I play some while I’m waiting for the food?” The guy said, “Yeah, if you can play, man. Don’t be messing with the piano if you can’t play.” I said, “I can play.” I sat down there and played. And this guy offered me a gig! He says, “Oh, man, I like your feeling, the way you played, you know tunes . . . ” I said, “I wish this was where I lived. I live in Los Angeles.” He said, “Really? Well, come on up here and live!”

It’s strange. People like my piano playing. I wish they would like my saxophone playing like that. I don’t know what it is. The piano playing, maybe it’s because I can groove, I get across to the average John and Jane Doe. The saxophone, I don’t know what it is. I’ve never had that happen.

Q: The saxophone seems to me almost a laboratory for you, like you’re always looking for some new effect or new way to get something over so as maybe not to get bored… 

EH: Maybe that’s it. Because at the piano, I just don’t care. I just play, I make a run, when I run out of fingers I cross my hand over and I hit it with the back of my hand!


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Filed under Chicago, Eddie Harris, Interview, Muhal Richard Abrams, WKCR

For the 84th Birthday of Muhal Richard Abrams, Two DownBeat Articles (2006, 2010), one Jazziz Article (2011), and a Profile for All About Jazz (2007)

Best of birthdays to maestro Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 84 today, and is doubtless following his daily regimen of practicing and writing music.  I’ve had the honor of writing three feature pieces about Muhal in recent years. The first in the sequence posted below was written in response to his election to DownBeat‘s Hall of Fame in 2010. The second features a dialogue between Muhal and Prof. George Lewis in 2006, in response to Streaming (Roscoe Mitchell’s voice is also heard, but as the piece focused on the in-person back-and-forth, it was complicated to incorporate his voice sufficiently). The third piece is a Jazziz feature from 2011, which includes extensive testimony not only from Prof. Lewis but also recent MacArthur grant designee Steve Coleman.

For further insights on Muhal, this link contains a dozen of Jason Moran’s favorites.

* * *

 Muhal Richard Abrams (Hall of Fame Article for DownBeat) – (1st draft):

“Interesting,” Muhal Richard Abrams said over the phone upon receiving the news of his election to Downbeat’s Hall of Fame. After a pause, he said it again.

Arrangements were made to speak the following day, and, in conversation at the midtown Manhattan highrise where he has lived since 1977, Abrams explained his laconic response to the honor, bestowed on the heels of his selection as an 2010 NEA Jazz Master.

“Well, why me?” he said. “There are so many worthy people. The only claim I make is that I am a pianist-composer.” He added: “I’m honored that people would want to honor me, and I have no objection, because people have a right to make the decisions they arrive at.”

It was noted that Abrams had communicated precisely the latter dictum forty-five years ago at a series of meetings on Chicago’s South Side at which the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts by which the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) continues to operate were debated and established.

“Oh, in terms of individuals being free to be individuals, of course,” Abrams said. “It is a basic principle of human respect.”

Informed of Abrams’ reaction, George Lewis, the Case Professor of Music at Columbia University, who painstakingly traced the contents of these gatherings in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press), hollered a deep laugh. “‘Why me?’ Are you kidding?” Assured of the quote’s accuracy, Lewis, an AACM member since 1971, settled down. “That’s Muhal for you,” he said. “He’s not an ego guy. Originally, the book was supposed to be about him. He said, ‘I think it should be about the entire AACM.’”

Lewis then opined on his mentor’s “Why me?” query. “Muhal transcends genres, categories, and the little dustups that often happen in the jazz world,” he said. “He’s his own person.  He spent his life reaching out to many musical constituencies. So it makes a lot of sense to have him represent a new way of thinking about the whole idea of jazz. Muhal’s major lesson was that you’d better find your own path, and then, once you do, learn to be part of a group of people that exchange knowledge amongst each other. He provides support for an autodidact way of doing things.”

“I don’t characterize myself as a teacher,” Abrams remarked. “It’s my contention that one teaches oneself. Of course, you pick up information from people whose paths you cross. But I’m mainly self-taught—I found it more satisfying to do it that way.’

It is one of Abrams’ signal accomplishments to have been the prime mover in spawning a collaborative infrastructure within which such AACM-trained composer-instrumentalists as Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Leo Smith, Amina Claudine Myers, and himself could conceptualize and develop ideas. Another is his own singular corpus, as documented on some thirty recordings that present a world in which blues forms, postbop themes with jagged intervals, and experimental pieces in which improvising ensembles address text, sound, and space, coexist in the same breath with through-scored symphonic works, solo piano music, string, saxophone, and brass quartets, and electronic music. His arsenal also includes formidable pianistic skills, heard recently on “Dramaturns,” an improvised, transidiomatic duo with Lewis on Streaming [Pi]—it’s one of five performances on which Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, grouped in duo and trio configurations, draw upon an enormous lexicon of sounds while navigating the open spaces from various angles.

“It’s a vintage collaboration,” Abrams said of the project. “Our collaborations date back to Chicago, and the respect that transpires between us on the stage, the respect for the improvised space that we use, is special. Of course, they’re virtuoso musicians, but I’m talking about silence and activity, when to play and when not to play, just from instinct and feeling and respect.”

Asked about influences, Abrams said, “I find different ways of doing things by coming out of the total music picture.” His short list includes pianists James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Earl Hines, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, and Herbie Nichols, who “individualized the performance of mainstream music and their own original music”; Vladimir Horowitz and Chopin’s piano music; the scores of Hale Smith, William Grant Still, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Scriabin, as well as Duke Ellington, Gerald Wilson, and Thad Jones. “So many great masters,” he said. “Some influenced me less with their music than the consistency and level of truth from practice that’s in their stuff.”

The influence of Abrams’ musical production radiates consequentially outside the AACM circle. Vijay Iyer  recalled drawing inspiration from Abrams’ small group albums Colors in 33rd and 1-OQA+19, both on Black Saint.

“Muhal was pushing the envelope in every direction, and that openness inspired me,” Iyer said. “The approach was in keeping with the language of jazz, but also didn’t limit itself in any way; the sense was that any available method of putting sound together should be at your disposal in any context.”

“I think my generation clearly heard the effect that the AACM and Muhal had on Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, who played with Muhal,” Jason Moran added. “We took some of that energy into the late ‘90s, and it continues on to today. He defines that free thinking that most jazz musicians say they want to have.”

Both Lewis and Moran cite the methodologies of Joseph Schillinger—whose textbooks Abrams pored over on set breaks on late ‘50s gigs in Chicago—as a key component of Abrams’ pedagogy. “It helped me break the mold of sitting at a piano and thinking what sounds pleasing to my ear, and instead be able to compose away from the instrument—to almost create a different version of yourself,” Moran said.

“Schillinger analyzed music as raw material, and learning the possibilities gave you an analytical basis to create anything you want,” Abrams said. “It’s basic and brilliant. But I don’t want to be accused of being driven by what I learned from Schillinger. I am the sum product of the study of a lot of things.”

This was manifest at the January 2010 NEA Jazz Masters concert at Rose Theater, when the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, encountering an Abrams opus for the first time, offered a well-wrought performance of “2000 Plus The Twelfth Step,” originally composed for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra. As the 15-minute work unfolded, one thought less of the predispositional differences between Abrams and Wynton Marsalis, and instead pondered Abrams’ 1977 remark: “A lot of people will pick up on the [AACM’s] example and do very well with it…who those people will be a couple of years from now, who knows?” Indeed, it seems eminently reasonable to discern affinities both in the scope of their compositional interests and their mutual insistence on constructing an institutional superstructure strong enough to withstand the vagaries of the music marketplace.

“It’s two different setups, but both very valid,” Abrams said, when asked to comment. “There’s no real underwriting for the music of the streets. Never was. It’s very important for an entity to maintain a structure in which work can be expressed to the public, whatever approach or style they use.”

For the AACM, he continued, “the organizational structure was necessary to the extent that we were involved in the business of music. But it did not supersede or overshadow the central idea, which was to allow the individuals within the group a forum to express their own particular worlds. There was no hierarchy. Everyone was equal. As time has shown, every individual from that first wave of people came out as a distinct personality in their own right.

“If you want a house with ten thousand rooms, you don’t complain because nobody has a house with ten thousand rooms to give you. You build it yourself, and do it with proper respect for the rest of humanity. You’re busy working at what you say you are about—doing it for yourself. When you take a different way, people often get the impression that you are against something else. That certainly wasn’t true in our case—we never threw anything away.

“I just go as far as the eye can see in all directions. There’s no finish to this stuff.”

[—30—]

* * *

DownBeat Article on Streaming, 2009

George Lewis’ light-filled office on the campus of Columbia University, where he is the Edwin H. Case Professor of Music, contains a metal desk, a file cabinet, bookshelves, and a wood classroom table at which he and Muhal Richard Abrams were awaiting Downbeat’s arrival.

On the table lay an open copy of Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo. “When you say ‘the beginning,’ I question that,” Abrams responded to Lewis’ paraphrase of Sublette’s assertion that Puerto Rican musicians were prominent in the early years of jazz. “Now, I don’t question people’s participation.”

“I think that’s all he’s saying,” said Lewis. “Just participation.”

“Well, he needs some other language then,” Abrams responded.

It was noted that Cubans flowed into New Orleans in the 1860s and 1870s, participated in Crescent City brass bands and orchestras, and played a vital role in the development of jazz sensibility.

“I disagree with the claim that Jazz started in New Orleans,” Abrams said. “New Orleans people think so. But it was in Mississippi and Alabama, too—that whole area. And who can account for what happened in Sedalia, Missouri? Or  what happened all along the Eastern Shore, in Baltimore and New Jersey, what Eubie Blake did and that crew of people before him, who we never heard of?”

It turned out that Abrams, a stride piano devotee whose answering machine greets callers with James P. Johnson’s piano music, had met Blake around 1974 in Chicago, when the rag master, then 91, was on tour with composer William Bolcom.

“Bolcom really didn’t have a feeling for what Eubie was doing, though he could play the notes, but it was cool, because he loved Eubie,” Abrams said. “I told him that I had been transcribing some of his music. He stared at me, then asked someone, ‘Did he really do that?’ and she told him that I had. I was shooting pictures, and the next time he noticed me, he thought I was a photographer. We talked a bit. He had boundless energy. You’d call his name from the other side of the room, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, what do you want?!’—he’d be right there.”

Abrams’ own boundless energy comes through on Streaming (Pi), a heady recital by Abrams, Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, who were, respectively, 74,52 and 63 at the time of the recording. Documenting the first meeting of these protagonists since a heady 90-minute concert at the Venice Biennale in late 2003, Streaming embodies the accomplishment of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians as fully as any recording in the canon.

Each man is a multi-instrumentalist proficient at deploying an array of extended techniques by which to extract a staggering array of sounds. They’ve codified and orchestrated these multiple voices, scored them into compositions spanning a global template of forms, and performed them on numerous concerts over the decades.

For this occasion, though, they chose to explore—and spontaneously chart—what Lewis calls “the open space” rather than work with a preexisting roadmap. Abrams played piano, percussion, bell, taxihorn and bamboo flute; from his arsenal of reeds and woodwinds, Mitchell brought a soprano and alto saxophone, as well as a generous selection of calibrated-to-the-sinewave percussion instruments; Lewis played trombone and laptop, generating samples and electronic sounds with Ableton Live, a loop-based digital audio sequencer designed for live performance.

Through three trios, one Mitchell–Lewis duet and one Abrams–Lewis duet, the old friends eschew collage and pastiche, shaping their idiosyncratic vocabularies, syntaxes and postulations into erudite, polylingual conversation.

“I’m trying to develop a language that will work in many situations,” said Mitchell over the phone from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. “Muhal and George are doing the same thing.”

“We’re organizing sound, and everything it takes to organize sound into what we call music—the structure, the melodious and harmonic component—in the same moment, through participating in a mutually respectful manner,” Abrams explained. “We produce what we are.”

Lewis contrasted the operative aesthetic on Streaming to that at play in his numerous meetings with first-generation European improvisers Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. “Derek and Evan wanted to open up their notion of improvisation to include the freshness of the immediate encounter—that is, someone with whom you’ve never performed,” Lewis said. “I became interested in that, and we built up a history of a lot of immediate encounters. Now I need to do what I can to renew and deepen already existing relationships. This project takes our existing collaborations in a new direction while also deepening the relationship.”

[BREAK]

Abrams and Mitchell first shared recorded space on the 1973 Art Ensemble of Chicago classic Fanfare For The Warriors (Atlantic), 12 years after Mitchell—just out of the Army and a student at Wilson Junior College—began participating in a workshop orchestra called the Experimental Band led by Abrams and Eddie Harris at a South Side Lounge called the C&C. Abrams, Mitchell and Lewis first worked together in 1971, initially documenting their exalted simpatico on Mitchell’s Quartet, a 1975 Sackville date with guitarist Spencer Barefield,  and subsequently on Lewis’ Shadowgraph (Black Saint, 1977), Mitchell’s Nonaah  (Nessa, 1978), and Abrams’ Spihumonesty (Black Saint, 1980).

“That was the first recording I was on with anybody,” said Lewis of Quartet.

“Why are you referring to the recording?” Abrams asked.

“It seems like we’re going too far back there,” said Lewis, whose exhaustively researched history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press) comes out in spring 2007.

“It’s important to accept how we view the basis of this,” Abrams said. “George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

“You know that alternate take on the Coltrane record of “Giant Steps,” where Coltrane says, ‘The cats be makin’ the changes, but they don’t be tellin’ no story,’ and then somebody says, ‘Well, I don’t want to tell any lies’?,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to do that. What I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration, the sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multiperspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Lewis returned to Quartet. “That first recording is part of the collective memory, and not just us, so maybe it’s not a bad idea to think about it for a moment,” he said. “I felt completely new to what we were doing. But everyone else seemed to feel they were new, too. For instance, Roscoe’s piece ‘Cards’ is a set of graphic symbols which we were reassembling on the fly. You were free to actuate your part whenever you felt the need to, in accordance with your own analysis of the situation. There was that sense of experimentalism, working with the unforeseen as a natural component, not working with received wisdoms or ideas that are already set up. I’d never seen anything like Roscoe’s card piece, and after doing music of various kinds with a great diversity of experimental composers, I still haven’t seen anything like it. Everybody was able to contribute and have their contributions accepted. The attitude that produces a recording such as this new one is that same sense that we are not in a space of hierarchy, of overweening authority by some individual.”

“It had to become equal,” Abrams said. “That happened because we all consented to perform Roscoe’s piece in the way that he preferred we approach it.”

“In the AACM there were diverse aesthetics, but there was a lot more agreement on the ethics, which is a larger point,” Lewis stated. “To get to how that basic ethics evolved and was maintained over the years is a pretty intense question. Having tried to write this history and make sense of it all, I have to say that Muhal’s sense of openness was critical. He had to fight hard to keep people focused on the idea of openness. A larger world out there is saying, ‘Well, what’s all this free thinking?’ Somebody has to provide an example. Jodie Christian said, ‘I went along with it because Muhal said it was good.’ Muhal had a lot of respect and people wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.”

[BREAK]

In an article entitled “Experimental Music In Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985,” Lewis noted the attraction of AACM composers to “collage and interpenetration strategies that blended, opposed, or ironically juxtaposed” the disciplines of composition and improvisation, “simultaneously challenging and revising various pan-European models, dialoguing with African, Asian, and Pacific music traditions.” Such a stance towards composition, Lewis continued, quoting theorist Kobena Mercer, “critically appropriates elements from the master codes of the dominant culture and creolizes them, disarticulating given signs and rearticulating their symbolic meaning otherwise.”

With the AACM, Abrams spawned an infrastructure within which nascent composer-improvisers like Braxton, Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and Lewis could assimilate and process such information in a critical manner, and provided them manpower with which to workshop and develop their ideas. The polymath attitudes towards musical expression that they represent in their maturity stem in great part from the inspiration of watching Abrams follow his own autodidactic predispositions.

“I was always curious, and I always felt I needed to make my own way,” said Abrams, a self-educated composer who studied Schillinger between sets on ‘50s Chicago gigs. “Get the information, but do it my way. I am sure this ultimately led to the Experimental Band, and the attraction of the Experimental Band led to the AACM. I could speak of the process in terms of historical tangibles, but I believe that things happen because they’re supposed to. The little routes that are taken to get there are like a bus process in a computer program, which takes the information where it’s directed.”

Was openness to new information always prominent within Abrams’ mindset? “Yes,” he said. “Over a period of time, it became apparent to me that in order to learn, I had to concede that my ideas are housed in my personal universe, and that another individual’s ideas are housed in theirs. To learn about this infinite setup of universes, I had to listen and be willing to learn from others.”

“Listening is dangerous,” Lewis added. “The problem is to channel it into fruitful paths. You encounter ideas you’re not prepared for, that you may not understand, to which you may respond negatively. You have to respond to input. You’re not free at that moment; you can’t just say whatever you like. You have to connect with other people, somehow become part of them, have a sense of acceptance about it. For me, acceptance is the hardest part of listening.

“In improvisation, the superficial aspects—instruments, notes, rhythms, harmonies, timbres, durations—are carriers for the much deeper signals with which we as musicians have learned to exchange meanings which are broader, but also much more direct than these elements. One meaning is this notion of a non-hierarchical ethics.”

“Any idea you encounter gives you an idea about yourself—or I think it should,” Abrams said. “If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll discriminate as to what stays and what goes, and proceed in your own manner, which I’ve always tried to do. It’s good to study something, but making a copy to lean on is another question.”

[BREAK]

“On this new record, I’m trying to hear what Muhal and Roscoe would like to do, how they see the situation, and whether they’re not doing anything or doing something,” Lewis said. “My primary approach is an instant hermeneutics, an interpretation of what is coming through the sound at that moment. This allows me to tell a lot about them. All of the history we’ve been talking about comes through the sound. As musicians, we learn to interpret these sounds, but we also learn to interpret them as human beings. If people could fall back on the fundamental primordial aspects of their own human nature, it would be a lot easier for them to understand and to hear this music. When Muhal plays piano, I know its sound like I know the sound of my dad’s or mom’s voice. I know what Roscoe’s instruments sound like. That hits me before anything. That history is undeniable. It got built up over years and decades. At the same time, I don’t know what that voice is going to say. I feel comfortable with that. It’s almost as if a door opens up, once you forget all the theories and start to concentrate on just what the sound is telling you.”

“I agree,” Abrams said. “The world of sound is an abstract idea. The word ‘musician’ depicts one who allows himself to be trained to organize sound and produce it in the form that we call music. But before it appears, it’s sound without preferenced organization. What does sound want? What does music want? Someone comes along hearing sound differently from anyone we’ve ever heard, and we wonder what causes that. What causes Ornette Coleman to sustain a note, change his position in the sound world and make you believe it changed? It’s the way he hears sound, which is special to him. What makes Cecil Taylor get the textures he gets out of the piano or the AACM people do what they do?”

This seemed a touch abstract. Was location, for instance, at all a launching point for the way Coleman (Texas), Taylor (New York) and the AACM people (Chicago) hear and organize sound?

“No, it’s separate; but yet, yes,” Abrams responded elliptically. “We have many possibilities, and each individual has different points in their time cycles that cause us to hear sound in the particular ways that we do.”

“It’s interesting to consider personal history situations and their impact upon particular directions of music,” Lewis said. “There’s a collective direction, but there’s also that individual space. We’re looking at the paradox that you want to have the history or experiences, but at a certain point, history becomes meaningless and should just not exist, otherwise you become its prisoner. That’s a common conceit. To be without history means you’re not responsible and can sort of do what you want. Well, from my standpoint, as a descendent of slaves, I don’t want to be that disconnected with that history, because people tried to erase it, and we spent all that time getting it back. But I want to be able to abandon it when necessary, to reach these other places that I want to go.”

Lewis began to parse Abrams’ comment about organizing sound. “You have to organize the sound that’s coming in, not just the sound that’s going out,” he said. “In fact, organizing the sound that’s coming in is more important, because what we’re organizing is not just how it’s going to fit technically, but more importantly, what it means, the organizing perspectives on the sounds, what the sound is really saying to us. That can also change—something we remember later in the piece can bring up a consequence we hadn’t considered when the sound came up. So call-and-response is a problem. I want to have call without response. The idea that we’re not stuck in that kind of motion, but are free to challenge even that so-called fundamental wisdom with a fundamental investigation-exploration, and find what we find. You may find situations where call-and-response is an inappropriate methodology, and prepare to take the consequences.”

“I consider each day different; each person is different every day,” Mitchell remarked over the phone, illuminating this issue. “Today I might touch on a sound timbre, tomorrow a rhythmic situation. I hear something and think, ‘Percussion with this,’ start with the idea, and move to what I need to do. It’s instant theme-and-variation. But there are so many levels of improvisation. You don’t want to follow or copy someone. One thing you can do, if you hear something you want to extend, is not use it until another time. Then you avoid the heaviness that happens when someone follows in an improvisation, and maintain your individualism. I tend to fare better if I keep refreshing my mind and go with that flow.”

[BREAK]

“I didn’t teach them how to be themselves, and I didn’t create a situation that caused them to be themselves,” Abrams said of his distinguished progeny. “I helped inspire other people to be themselves from my example: ‘I am going to be myself, and you have the opportunity to be yourself.’

Still, there remains the question of how Abrams, the autodidact, came to pass along his own non-didactic ethos of informed individuality. “There were two older musicians in particular from whom I learned quite a bit—Walter ‘King’ Fleming and William Jackson,” he said. “In  mainstream music, they taught me and allowed me to pursue my ideas, mistakes and all, and it caused me to grow and to eliminate the mistakes. Their kindness and benevolence infused me with that feeling. They brought out what I had. I passed on that continuum when I got to the Experimental Band or AACM situations. All of us created the atmosphere that was created. I realize that some of the musicians feel that this wasn’t the case, that it was me—and that’s OK. I was the first observer. I saw them when they didn’t see themselves. They did it.”

“This is not something you get for free,” Lewis said. “The dynamic does not appear without resistance. At a certain point you get the inspiration, you start to become yourself, and other people say, ‘What the devil are you doing?’ Then you realize that people are still doing it in the face of potential consequences, and that’s the real inspiration.” DB

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams in Jazziz (2010):

At noon on a warm June day, pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, who turns 81 in December, escorted me  up the stairwell of his midtown highrise to a second floor roof garden for a chat about core principles. “The fact and idea of individualism is important to talk about,” the 2010 NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Fame awardee said. “I also want to talk about life and sound.”

Having stated the ground rules, Abrams settled in under a shady pergola. He preferred not to discuss the particulars of his new recording, SoundDance [Pi], a double CD that documents an  improvised encounter from 2009 with the late Chicago tenorist Fred Anderson, and one from 2010 with trombonist-electronicist George Lewis. Instead, Abrams went straight to metaphysics.

“Individualism is a basic constant among humans—and animals, too,” he said. “Each person approaches a situation quite differently, which lets other individuals know it can be said or done that way. I’m not talking about a process of copying anyone. It’s the fact that we learn from each other because of our individualism.”

He warmed to the topic. “To seek one’s individualism seems to be limitless. There’s so much one can pursue.” He called the names of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, William Grant Still, Beethoven, Chopin, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. “Their pursuit of individualism—not their IDEAS—inspired me greatly to pursue my own.”

Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, his home until 1977, Abrams, a sports-oriented youngster who knew a thing or two about the street, was 16 when he decided to drop out of DuSable High School and enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University. After a while, he decided to study on his own. “I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things,” he told me a few years ago. “I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

As the ‘50s progressed, Abrams trained himself to fluency with Joseph Schillinger’s mathematically-based compositional formulas and analyzed Rosicrucian arcana; some years later, he assimilated several programming languages. The fruits of his determination to follow his own muse are by now well-known. For one thing, there’s his uncategorizable corpus, perhaps half of it publicly documented on some thirty recordings. Ensembles ranging from quartet to big band interpret elemental blues themes, hard-hitting postbop structures with winding melodies, textural soundscapes, and experimental collage pieces that address text, silence, and space; tabula rasa improvisations share pride of place with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and electronica.

Of equal consequence is Abrams’ primary role in embedding his principles within the bylaws and aesthetic guideposts of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a collective that coalesced in 1965. Within the AACM setup, he mentored, among others, such singular composer-instrumentalist-improvisers as Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph  Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins, and Lewis during their formative years. He focused his pedagogy on creating an infrastructure that offered to each individual an opportunity to critically analyze ideas from a global array of sources and refract them into original music, performed by ensembles comprised of AACM personnel in AACM-promoted concerts.

“During the week, we’d all show up at Muhal’s place,” Mitchell told me in a 1995 WKCR interview. “We studied music, art, poetry, whatever. It was a school. Muhal would be bothered with us for that whole week, and still come to the rehearsal on Monday with a composition for the big band.”

Abrams’ partners on SoundDance are more than passingly familiar with these principles, which manifest in different ways. An AACM member from 1965 until his death in 2010, Anderson customarily recorded trios and quartets in which he blew long, clarion lines over fast, rumbling grooves. In the first moments of their conversation, Abrams is sensitive to the outcat tenorist’s tentative, softly stated postulations as he attempts to orient himself to the wide open space. He presents ideas, listens as Anderson utters his own, [and] negotiates common ground via subtle sonic cues until, at a certain point, as if to offer a mnemonic signifier, he plays a hammering rhythmic figure, eliciting Anderson’s confident trademark roar, which remains operative for the duration.

The latter duo—which Abrams opens with variations on a four-note figure that begins in high treble range and concludes in the deep bass register, Lewis riposting with electronic tones—is epigrammatic and staggeringly erudite. Now the Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia University and author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, and himself a paradigm-shifter both in reshaping the sonic possibilities of the trombone and in creating software that improvises in real time, Lewis—then 19—met Abrams in Chicago in 1971. Thirty-nine years later, he and his mentor transition from one concept to the next—the range spans stride piano to post-Stockhausen—without a blink, as though two 18th century  philosophes were conducting a 45-minute colloquy on the sum total of human knowledge.

I asked whether Abrams’ shared background with Anderson and Lewis in any way inflected the music.

“No,” he responded bluntly. “The sound of that document had to do with what we did in that moment only. There is no shared background that comes to the stage when you’re performing. It’s the individual’s background. Each individual brings his or her path in to collaborate with the other individual’s path, and makes the choice as to how they contribute to the improvised space. That’s it. There’s nothing to reach for in the past or any place else.

“I listen to all kinds of music all the time. I practice all kinds of music, every day. I practice here”—he pointed to his head—“and here”—he unfurled his long, tapered fingers, each vertically imprinted from fifty-five years of incessant practice. “I write all kinds of music. So when I go to improvise, it’s just a continuum of how I feel in general through listening to all these things. I’m endeavoring to be continuously musical in the pursuit of organizing sound until I stop the improvisation.”

Lewis noted that Abrams’ ability to execute any idea he wants at any time, and to react to anything that anybody can throw at him, poses certain singular challenges. “In most cases, I feel that when people make the sound, their inner lives become an open book,” he said. “You read the mind through sound, or sonic gesture. I’ve never been able to do that with Muhal. Somehow, there’s a certain opacity. I’m not a big believer in pure spontaneity, but with maybe with Muhal you have to think differently about that. With him, you really shouldn’t rely on previous encounters, or make assumptions about what should happen, or about style, or method, or technique, or sound—not least because I think that Muhal is very good at detecting people who do that, and the banana peels will start coming thick and fast. You have to find your way moment by moment through an infinity of possibilities, before a path suddenly appears that you have to follow. If that path doesn’t happen to be the one you preferred, you have to make do. A lot of what goes on in improvisation, musical or otherwise, is a process of making-do, trying to work with and take a stance to the conditions you find, which are whatever sounds the other person is generating at that moment—pitch, timbre, a sense of the rhythm, the rate of change. It’s very prosaic.”

However prosaic the process of creative gestation, these instantiations of Abrams’ musical imagination are never dry or wooden. For one thing, even at 80, he accesses his immense database of sonic information with pentium quickness in the heat of battle. There’s his mastery of the universal laws of rhythm, which “he hears and then allows his harmonic style to infiltrate,” as Jason Moran wrote for http://www.jazz.com two years ago in a piece citing a dozen favorite Abrams tracks. He pulls his voice from the piano with an arsenal of attacks that span whisper to thunderstorm, infusing highbrow concepts with a blues sensibility developed in early career as a Chicago first-caller.

“Chicago was a blues town, so we all could play the blues real well,” Abrams says. “Playing the blues and playing jazz used to be one and the same; later, people separated the music into some that can sell and some that can’t. To say jazz is a deep part of who I am is fine. But not to say, ‘Well, he can play changes, so he’s all right. Not as a reference for the young people today who are doing all kinds of things, but don’t know anything about the mix I’ve been playing—they’d be confronted with something that might obstruct their approach.”

Abrams probably wasn’t referring to present-day movers-and-shakers like Moran, Vijay Iyer, and Steve Coleman, who regard him as a deep influence figure on their respective paths. In a long conversation about Abrams’ qualities, Coleman, himself a Chicagoan, noted Abrams’ penchant for rotating between the “inside” and “outside” factions of the South Side music community.

“Muhal played with cats like Johnny Griffin and Von Freeman, who you couldn’t get up on stage with if you didn’t know a certain amount of information from the tradition,” he says. “It impressed me that he had a wide-open concept that included cats from strong blues and R&B backgrounds who didn’t go through that tradition, some guys who initially couldn’t play anything. He didn’t impose those strictures on anyone. Muhal was like, if you’re sincere, and you have a burning desire, then we’re open to your coming in and experimenting. It wasn’t some shit like, ‘We want you to come in here and be a joke.’ But all these different backgrounds were able to come together and try to develop a common thing on which they could communicate. That involved a tolerance that I found interesting.

“Muhal has a Yoda quality, a sage kind of thing. You’re struck right away that this is an incredibly wise cat, whose breadth of knowledge goes way back. But he doesn’t lord it over you or come on egotistical or try to sell you something. I think people’s respect for him comes from that standpoint. Muhal can discourse with you about anything you want to talk about—esoteric stuff, whatever. Talk about walking down a street with somebody, and he can tell you how this relates to music.  He told me stories about being in Washington Park when he was a little kid, listening to elders debate all this metaphysical stuff; they’d pass the stick, and whoever had the stick would talk. Muhal grappled with these things early in his career, and thought deeply about them. He sees them all as connected. I can see why the AACM concept came up with him, because his playing has an unusually broad palette.”

Both Lewis and Coleman are clear that Abrams’ primary legacy will be situated not so much in the specifics of his musical production as the example he sets by it. “There are different kinds of ethos embedded in what people do,” Lewis says. “For some, it’s amazement at what they’re doing, how intricate and virtuosic it is. I don’t come away from a Muhal performance thinking about any of that. I come away thinking, ‘Boy, this certainly gives me a lot of work to do.’ Just when I thought I’d figured it out, there’s another facet of the puzzle which Muhal has brought out without pretending to solve the puzzle. It’s the confrontation with the puzzle which he encourages and exemplifies in his work—the puzzle of creativity, the puzzle of creation.”

That Abrams himself anticipates his ninth decade with a similar spirit can be inferred from his response to a hypothetical proposition that he play a ten-day retrospective of his oeuvre. “I probably wouldn’t do that,” he said. “I’m not interested in repetition. It’s not that I don’t like it. I use repetition, but in different ways. I’m interested in creating a new event that’s just right for the occasion that comes up. When I say ‘right for the occasion,’ I mean designing something that’s special for how I want to be musical at the time. That’s my focus.”
[–30–]

Five Muhal Richard Abrams Recordings:

Muhal Richard Abrams’ discography is so remarkably consistent that it’s complex to pick just five. On July 9, 2011, these seem like the ones to emphasize.

Sight Song (Black Saint, 1975): In duo with bassist Malachi Favors of Art Ensemble of Chicago fame, Abrams offers idiomatic, swinging meditations on ‘50s South Side associates Wilbur Ware and Johnny Griffin, before  proceeding to push the envelope every which way.

Lifea Blinec (Arista, 1978) A two-woodwind (Joseph Jarman and Douglas Ewart), two-piano (Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers), and drums (Thurman Barker) session that addresses the leader’s preoccupations with a cohesion and precision that anticipates such ‘80s signposts as Colors In Thirty-Third and View From Within.
Hearinga Suite (Black Saint, 1989): Hard to choose amongst Abrams’ big band recordings, which also include the Black Saint dates Blues Forever, Rejoicing With the Light, and Blu Blu Blu. At this moment I’m impressed with the unitary, narrative quality of this impeccably executed, seven-piece suite, which has a 21st century Ellington feel.

One Line Two Views (New World, 1995): On this masterwork, which opens with a soundscape and concludes with a blues figure, Abrams fully exploits the tonal and rhythmic possibilities of a tentet that includes violin (Mark Feldman), accordion (Tony Cedras), harp (Anne LeBaron), and an array of woodwinds and percussion.

Vision Towards Essence (Pi, 2008): A transcendent hour-long improvisation on which Abrams evokes the inner self. He traverses a 360-degree dynamic range, conjuring a stream of thematic ideas that don’t repeat.

* * *

Muhal Richard Abrams article in All About Jazz (2007):

 

At a certain point in the mid-‘60s—the exact date escapes him—pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams, a lifelong resident of the South Side of Chicago, visited New York for the first time, on a gig with saxophonist Eddie Harris at Harlem’s Club Barron.

“New York suited my energy,” Abrams recalled recently. “Of course. But I was already in that sort of energy. I had no doubt that I could be in New York. No doubt at all.”

Doubt seems to be a concept foreign to Abrams, 76, who moved to New York permanently in 1975. In 1983, he established the New York chapter of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, commonly known as the AACM, which launches its 24th concert season on May 11 with a recital featuring Abrams’ quartet (Aaron Stewart, saxophone; Brad Jones, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums) and a duo by Abrams with guitarist Brandon Ross at the Community of New York at 40 East 35th Street, between Madison and Park Avenues.

The institutional pre-history of the AACM began in 1961, when Abrams and Harris joined a West Side trumpeter named Johnny Hines to organize an orchestra where local musicians could workshop their charts. By Harris’ recollection, over one hundred musicians of various ages and skill levels attended. Although it disbanded within a few months, Abrams decided to begin another orchestra, which he called the Experimental Band. He recruited younger musicians like Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, who were interested, as Abrams puts it, “in more original approaches to composing and performing music.” Over the next few years, musicians such as Malachi Favors, Leroy Jenkins, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and Kalaparusha entered the mix to participate in the adventure. A certain momentum developed with the Experimental Band as the nucleus, and in 1965, Abrams, fellow pianist Jodie Christian, trumpeter Phil Cohran, and drummer Steve McCall convened a meeting towards the purpose of forming a new musicians organization devoted to the production of original music with a collective spirit. Thus, the AACM was launched.

Under the AACM’s auspices, Abrams mentored composer-instrumentalist-improvisers like Mitchell, Jarman, Braxton, Smith, Henry Threadgill and George Lewis in their nascent years. He also spawned an infrastructure within which each individual had autonomy to assimilate and process an enormous body of music from a broad spectrum of sources in a critical manner, and gave them manpower with whom to workshop and develop their ideas while evolving their respective voices.

The AACM first hit New York in May 1970, when cultural activist Kunle Mwanga produced a concert at the Washington Square Methodist Church with Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton, who had relocated from Chicago three months earlier, their AACM mates Abrams, Smith and McCall, and bassist Richard Davis, also a South Sider. At the time, Abrams had recorded two albums of his own music—Levels and Degrees of Light and Young At Heart, Wise In Time—on the Chicago-based Delmark label. Added to the mix by 1975 were Things To Come From Those Now Gone (Delmark), and Afrisong [Trio], the latter a lyric solo piano date. Once settled in New York, however, Abrams would record prolifically for the next two decades, with 16 albums on Black Saint, in addition to two dates for Novus, two for New World Countercurrents, and one for UMO. You can’t pigeonhole his interests—in Abrams’ singular universe, elemental blues themes and warp speed postbop structures with challenging intervals coexist comfortably with fully-scored symphonic works, string quartets, saxophone quartets, solo and duo piano music, and speech-sound collage structures.

Abrams resists the idea that location factors into the content that emerges from his creative process. “What affected my output is the opportunity to record,” he says. “In Chicago, if an opportunity presented itself, I created something for the occasion. When I got here, there was no difference. I am always composing and practicing for myself. Actually, it’s more like studying than composing; I research and seek and analyze music—or sound, rather, because sound precedes music itself—and things come up. When a recording or something else comes along, I put some of those things together, and it becomes a recording. Of course, in New York, I’m hearing more around me, but it doesn’t make me process things any differently. I’m still dealing with my individualism.”

The notion of following one’s own muse at whatever cost was embedded in South Side culture during the years after World War Two, when African-Americans were migrating en masse from Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama to Chicago for factory, railroad and stockyard jobs. As Harris told me on a WKCR interview in 1994: “In Chicago, you could hear Gene Ammons in one club, Budd Johnson in another, or Tom Archia or Dick Davis—just speaking of the saxophone. Then there were all sorts of piano players that were really…different.  You’d go to one club, and the guy didn’t sound a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.”

“You were expected to do whatever it is that you felt you wanted to do, and nobody said a word,” Abrams says of the ethos of the South Side’s world-class musician pool. “The jam sessions were like that. We played bebop and kept up with the geniuses like Bird. and them. But I was never that interested in copying something and then using it for myself. I was interested in copying it in order to analyze it. Then I would decide how I would use or do that same thing. Chicago was full of musicians who distinguished themselves as individuals.”

As an example he cites pianist John Young, best known outside Chicago for his work with tenorist Von Freeman, and a prominent stylist since the 1940s. “When you listen to John, you hear remnants of Fatha Hines,” Abrams notes, leaving unsaid Hines’ presence in Chicago from 1926 until the late ‘40s. “He was very influenced by Fatha Hines, but John  had his own way. We were impressed with the individualism from him, Ahmad Jamal, Von Freeman, Chris Anderson,  Johnny Griffin, Ike Day and Sun Ra and the Orchestra. People wonder how an AACM could develop in a city like that. It’s because you could do individual things, and nobody bothered you.”

Abrams himself is a self-taught pianist and composer. “I used to play sports, but for some reason, whenever I’d hear musicians perform, I had to stop to listen,” he recalls. “It fascinated me, and one day I decided that I wanted to be a musician. So I took off and started to seek out information about how to play the piano.”

Although Abrams attended DuSable High School, where the legendarily stern band director Walter Dyett held sway, he preferred sports to participating in school-sponsored music programs. But by 1946, he decided to enroll in music classes at Roosevelt University in the Loop. “I didn’t get too much out of that, because it wasn’t what I was hearing in the street,” he says. “I decided to study on my own. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a natural ability to study and analyze things. I used that ability, not even knowing what it was (it was just a feeling), and started to read books. From there, I acquired a small spinet piano, and started to teach myself how to play the instrument and read the notes—or, first of all, what key the music was in. It took time and a lot of sweat. But I analyzed it, and before long I was playing with the musicians on the scene. I listened to Tatum, Charlie Parker, Monk, Bud Powell and many others, and concentrated on Duke and Fletcher Henderson for composition. Later I got scores and studied more extensive things that take place in classical composition, and started to practice classical pieces on the piano, as I do now.”

Abrams documents all his New York performances. Still, the decade between 1996 and last year’s issue of Streaming [Pi], a compelling triologue between Abrams, Lewis and Mitchell, shows only one, self-released, issue under Abrams’ name. As of this writing, no releases were scheduled for 2007.

“That’s okay,” Abrams says. “I think things that are supposed to reach the public, eventually will. I understand that people want to be able to hear whatever is happening at any given time. However, the recording industry has ways that it does things, and sometimes this may not be consistent with what the musician wants to do. Business has a right to be whatever it is, and the artist has a right to be whatever the artist wants to be. I also think the fact that musicians can do these things themselves today because of technology causes output to come out a little bit slower. But the quality is pretty much equal, often higher, than it used to be, because the musician can spend more time preparing the output. It’s important for people to hear what I do, but the first point of importance is my being healthy enough to do it. I don’t worry about whether it gets distributed right away.

“I always felt that you need to be about the work you need to do, and that’s to find out about yourself. That’s pretty much a full-time job. You pay close attention to others, but the work that you have to do for yourself is the most difficult. I seem to move forward every time I reflect on the fact that I don’t know enough. If you feel you have something, it’s very important to get that out and develop it. Health is first. But your individualism I think is a close second.”

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Filed under AACM, Article, DownBeat, Jazziz, Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Coleman

For The 66th Birthday of Drum Master Thurman Barker, a WKCR Interview from 1985

When I started my 23-year run on WKCR in the fall of 1985, I made it my business to try to document the personal histories of many of the AACM musicians I had admired during the ’70s, when I lived in Chicago, and continued to follow after returning to New York City in 1979. One of them was drum-percussion master Thurman Barker, who turns 66 today. It’s been on the internet for 14 years on the Jazz Journalists Association website.

* * *

Thurman Barker
November 18, 1985 – WKCR-FM New York

copyright © 1985, 1999 Ted Panken

Q: Thurman is a product of Chicago, Illinois, and a founding member from a very young age of the AACM. It’s there really that the sources of his music are to be found. So I’d like to now start to talk about your early years in the music in Chicago, when you were coming up, even before you became a member of the AACM — how you picked up on the drums and began in music.

TB: Well, I first used to take tap dancing. That was my first exposure to a form of art, you know, was tap dancing. I really got into it. Of course, I’m in grade school now, and I’m taking these tap dancing lessons about three days a week. But during my eighth year in grade school, we used to have these concerts on Fridays. They called them assemblies, you know, the drama department would put on a show or something. This particular afternoon, it was a drummer, and he came up with a full drum set, and it was just him by himself. His name was Roy Robinson, and he left a very big impression on me at that point.

So when I started high school, I started taking private lessons. I studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, under James Dutton, who was head of the percussion department there. I feel I got a very good training, because for the first two years I really didn’t see a drum set. I worked out of these workbooks for harmony and learning the basic notation of music and things like this, and just working on rudiments on the snare drum. So I really didn’t see a drum set until later on.

Q: Were you also working with musicians your age, doing gigs?

TB: Well, sure. But at this time you’ve got to remember, the first couple of years I wasn’t really playing any gigs. But I was very active on the session scene in Chicago. Monday nights were the big nights for sessions. Club De Lisa, which was a very famous night-spot in Chicago, the Coral Club on the South Side, the C.C. Lounge at 66th and Cottage Grove — a lot of these places had sessions every Monday. In any other city, probably it would work the same. You would go down, you’d meet people, you’d get up and you’d play. So I was very active, and I made sure that I got there. Of course, I wasn’t thinking of working; I just wanted to play. Fortunately, the activity was there for it to happen. I got to New York in the fall of 1979. I don’t know if that kind of activity is still going on in Chicago. But at that time it was like a training ground for me.

Q: Let’s narrow down the years we’re speaking of right now.

TB: Oh, it was ’62, ’63, in that period. You had a lot of jazz clubs that were still very big at that time, which the most famous one, where Miles Davis recorded, was the Plugged Nickel . . .

Q: Which was on the North Side.

TB: Which was on the North Side. So I got very active on the session scene. Later on I started jobbing around with people. People would meet you at a session, and they would give you a Saturday night, a party to play or a wedding. One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, I started working with this saxophone player by the name of John Epps. He was a big local guy in Chicago that did a lot of parties. And that was my first steady employment, I would say, from music, was with this saxophone player. We used to work at a North Side Club in Chicago; I can’t think of the name. I was still young now. I was still in high school, you see, really my sophomore year.

Q: Who were some of the musicians in Chicago who you admired at that time?

TB: Well, Eddie Harris was a big idol of mine. Because my drum teacher used to work with Eddie Harris. His name was Harold Jones, and he was the drummer with Eddie Harris at the time. And Don Patterson, the organist, was around a lot. Of course, Von Freeman was very active. But I didn’t know Von; I knew his brother, George Freeman, who was a guitarist. So during those years I was pretty much working few jobs with George, and I didn’t get to meet Von until later on.

Anyway, so I had my first employment with John Epps, and we had this four- night gig on the North Side. I made $7 a night. And that was a big deal for me. In high school . . .

Q: This was pre-OPEC.

TB: So I had this gig, and my parents, of course, were into it, because they used to have to take me there, and go back home, and three or four hours later come back and pick me up . . . So it was a reassurance, of course, for my parents that I was getting active. Of course, for them they weren’t really concerned about the money I was making, but just the fact that I was getting active at something that they had taken some money to give me music lessons, and they were beginning to see it pay off. One thing led to the other, you know.

Q: You mentioned Eddie Harris. And in 1961, he and Muhal Richard Abrams began to form a rehearsal band that eventually became the core of the Experimental Band, and that became the core of the AACM.

TB: That’s right.

Q: This is a convoluted way of asking how you first encountered the Experimental Band and got into the AACM.

TB: At this time the Experimental Band was functioning. Of course, I didn’t know, but it was functioning. And how I got to meet Muhal was, when I was in high school, one of my best friends turned out to be Muhal’s son, and he knew that I was in the band in high school. And in high school, you know, you hang out together at lunch periods, and talk. Of course, I was a little different, and he wanted to find out what I was always doing after school. I was going home practicing, you know. And he told me that his father had a band rehearsal and was a bandleader, and for me to come down and check it out. So I said, “Wow!”

So of course, I took advantage of it. One Monday night he took me down to the rehearsal. Now, at this particular time the Experimental Band was rehearsing every Monday night at [the Abraham] Lincoln Center in Chicago. Lincoln Center is one of the cultural centers on the South Side. So they were in rehearsal. And that was my first encounter of the AACM.

Q: For people who don’t know, just describe what the Experimental Band was.

TB: The Experimental Band was a band put together of a lot of musicians on the South Side, including Eddie Harris, Phil Cohran, Roscoe Mitchell, Delbert Hill . . .

Q: And Muhal, of course.

TB: Muhal, of course! The Experimental Band was a band where musicians could come together and work on their own music. At that time there was a lot of energy among the musicians I just spoke of, Roscoe and Muhal, and they were at the point that they were doing a lot of writing. They were also jobbing around in Chicago and playing gigs and everything with big bands. Morris Ellis was one of the bandleaders around at that time that a lot of us worked with.

But this was a place, though, for everybody to come together and work on some of their original compositions that they normally wouldn’t get a chance to perform. It was run very orderly. Whoever had their composition up would direct it (of course, they would explain it first). Because we’re talking about people who had really gotten up into their music, man. In fact, they had changed the music notation. They used different music notation! At that time, you had a few people who just didn’t like the . . . Well, I’m not going to say they didn’t like it, but they just had their own symbols, you know. So they had to explain this, you see.

And of course, this was very different for me, because I’m a kid. For me, it was something really different and brand-new, you know. And I got such a big charge out of the fact that these people, not only was the music different, but they were serious about it. I mean, they could explain what they had on paper, and they had a feeling about what they were explaining and what they were doing.

Q: So you had musicians of different predispositions coming together in a rather unique situation. . .

TB: It was very unique!

Q: What do you think were some of the forces in Chicago that enabled this? Is it possible for you to say?

TB: Well, yeah. I’m sure a lot of it had to do with the fact that we were equal in terms of coming and discovering new ideas and new concepts of expressing and writing music. It’s funny how it seemed to all happen with everybody at once, you see. The period that I knew of was ’65. That was my first year of visiting the Experimental Band. So I think a lot of it had to do with, well, gee, nobody had any big record contract or nobody had 20 tours looking at him . . .

Q: It took some of the pressure off.

TB: It really did, I think. And the fact that we were all there together, and we were all equal in terms of discovering these new ideas. So there was no interference, I guess.

Q: Also there wasn’t that much work in Chicago at that time, was there?

TB: There wasn’t that much work.

Q: The urban renewal on the South Side.

TB: That’s true.

Q: The organ trios had changed.

TB: A lot of the clubs. . So it did affect the music. So right there at the Lincoln Center we were able to just start sharing these ideas, and it was like school, you know. Because I used to come down to rehearsal, and here was Henry Threadgill, Vandy Harris, Roscoe Mitchell and Delbert Hill, the first time I heard a saxophone quartet. I never even thought of it. Then I came down and hear these guys, four of them in a corner, going over these quartets, and it was just great! It was just something that I hadn’t seen.

But sure, I think a lot of the fact that it was easy for us to come together, there wasn’t a lot of work happening at that time, and it was just the opportune time for us to come together.

Q: Within the rehearsal band, there were different configurations and smaller groups that developed. I know you were playing with Joseph Jarman, and in 1967 you did your first records with Joseph Jarman and Muhal.

TB: That’s right, Joseph Jarman. Song For.

Q: Tell us how you met Joseph, and some of the connections with Joseph and with Muhal.

TB: Well, Joseph was right there in the woodwind section in the Experimental Band. Of course, he had a composition. Of course, by me going to school at the Conservatory, see, I had been introduced to playing mallets, like for tom- toms and tympany, you see. So he had a chart for mallets, you see. So we went through this chart, and he was a little amazed maybe, surprised that I had a touch for playing.

Q: You could play the charts.

TB: Yeah, I could play the charts. I could read.

Q: Your rudiments were very developed.

TB: Yeah, they were pretty developed at that point, that I could read, you see. And he had music; I mean, music for the drums. Of course, I had played all these other gigs with people, and there was no music. I would just go up and play. But here I come down to the Experimental Band, and these guys not only have music for the brass and woodwinds; they’ve got a chart for me. So that was in itself different.

But anyway, after the chart he came over and told me how much he really liked the sound, and what I was into. And I told him that, well, I would like to play some music, I’m not playing with anybody. So he asked me to come down and start rehearsing with his group. So I would get down on a Monday early. At that time in the Experimental Band there was a bassist by the name of Charles Clark. He was a very exceptional player, and he also was in the string section in the Experimental Band. Obviously, Charles had done some playing with Joseph before, because I could see that they knew each other, see. And Fred Anderson, a saxophonist in Chicago, also was in the woodwind section. So when I got to our first rehearsal, well, Fred Anderson was there, Billy Brimfield, the trumpeter who lives in Evanston, and Charles Clark and Joseph and myself.

Q: Was Christopher Gaddy on that also?

TB: And Christopher Gaddy, who was an exceptional keyboard player at the time. But we were all at this rehearsal, and that was the first time that I had got together with some people who were really playing some serious music, and I could see that it was just different. So I really wanted to be a part of that, you know.

Q: Let’s hear “Adam’s Rib” from the first LP on which you participated, Joseph Jarman’s Song For. Say something about the LP.

TB: First of all, I was going to say that after four or five months of getting really active with Joseph and playing some gigs around Chicago and the Experimental Band, the surprising thing came up one day that Joseph said, “Look, we’ve got a record date.”

Q: Had you been gigging? A few jobs here and there?

TB: We had a few gigs here and there. And it’s funny, my only experience with gigs were in clubs. All of a sudden, I look up and we’re playing in a bookstore. So immediately I knew that this music was going to take me in a different place. It was different, and it was exciting, you see. So just to make a long story short, I looked up one day, after I’d known Joseph four or five months I look up, and there I am in a studio making my very first record.

Q: Do you think that Song For is representative of the music that Joseph was doing at the time with the group?

TB: Yes, it is. Because the music that you’re about to hear is the music that we were playing during this period, and this is 1967 in Chicago.

[Music: “Adam’s Rib”; example of TB’S percussion music; Muhal Richard Abrams, “The Bird Song”]

TB: This is the stuff that was going in Chicago during this period.

Q: Programmatic music of all idioms.

TB: That’s true. Of course, during this time, we were doing this in clubs! We didn’t only do concerts at Abraham Lincoln Center.

Q: There were concerts at the University of Chicago campus.

TB: That’s true. There were a lot of concerts. I can remember most Fridays there were concerts at the University of Chicago. Also, the Student Union there used to put on a lot of concerts that the AACM members participated in. So we had some people that liked this music, and supported it, and wanted it to be heard.

Q: Meanwhile, the big band was still functioning.

TB: The Big Band was functioning every Monday. And believe me, no matter what happened, we all made that Monday night available for the Experimental Band. Because hey, that was the time that somebody got their music played, and that was a real serious and big deal then.

Q: Is Levels And Degrees of Light in any way representative of what was going on in the Big Band?

TB: Yes, it is. Because in the Big Band we had people like Henry Threadgill. Well, you know Henry, he’s really into theatre, you see. So for him to use the Big Band and use some recitation and some theatre, and be able to combine it, he definitely was one who would do it — and of course, Muhal. And Joseph was doing a lot of theatrical material. A lot of stuff.

So this was all a brand-new experience for me, and I had never seen it anywhere else. Of course, by the time of this recording with Muhal Richard Abrams, Levels and Degrees Of Light, my second record, I am really involved musically and, you know, as a group. I really felt I wanted to be a part of this movement here that was happening.

Q: I neglected to ask you about some of your musical influences outside the Chicago music scene? Who were some of the tough drummers who you thought well of?

TB: Well, the first guy that stands out is Cozy Cole. Cozy Cole was a very big influence on me, because in that period Cozy Cole made a solo 45 called “Topsy.” That was the very first drum solo that I memorized, beat for beat and rhythm for rhythm. I mean, I got that down. Because it just had a lot of emotion in it. So Cozy Cole was a very big influence on me at that time.

Also Roy McCurdy, who was the drummer with Cannonball Adderley. And of course, my drum teacher, Harold Jones. During the latter part of the ’60s there was a TV show that used to come on an educational station in Chicago, WTTW, a program that used to come on once a week called “Jazz Casual.” This was my first time actually seeing the music on TV. Of course, Ed Sullivan and all them people were on TV, but the band never really got featured. But here was a TV show that featured music, you see. So I was influenced a lot by, of course, Philly Joe Jones, Roy McCurdy with Cannonball, and Elvin Jones, who was with John Coltrane’s Quartet. I saw the original quartet on this show “Jazz Casual.” The host of the show I think was Ralph Gleason. Anyway, he ran this show once a week, and I saw Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley, the John Coltrane Quartet, the pianist Bill Evans.

Now, these people were coming to Chicago, but I could not get in the clubs. There was this one club that they used to play at called McKie’s on 63rd and Cottage Grove, right there by the El. The El train is the elevated train that runs in Chicago, for those who don’t know. But I used to catch there right at 63rd and Cottage Grove, and I used to pass by this club, and I would see these names in big letters: The John Coltrane Quartet, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins. And this was the club.

Q: And cats would be jamming there.

TB: Of course they might be jamming there.

Q: Gene Ammons might be strolling by and give a lesson for out-of-towners.

TB: That’s right!

Q: Were you playing in venues outside the AACM? Were you playing classical music at this time? I know you said you studied at the Conservatory.

TB: Well, mainly it was private training and ensemble classes at that time. At this time, ’66, ’67, ’68, those three years, most of my activity was with the AACM, with Muhal and Joseph Jarman. Those three years most of my activity was that. And we got some gigs!

Q: You went to Detroit, for instance, in 1967 and ran into John Sinclair.

TB: Yeah, exactly. John Sinclair was an organizer in Detroit who used to organize concerts at Wayne State University, and one year, I think it was ’67, he got us a big gig at the Ann Arbor Jazz Festival. And you know, this is my first big out-of-town gig now. Joseph Jarman, the late Christopher Gaddy, the late Charles Clark, and myself on drums. So this music that we’re hearing on Delmark is a very good representation of the music scene in Chicago.

Q: And you’ve filled us in most thoroughly on things that were happening.

TB: I hope so.

Q: We’ll progress now and move to events that happened later. TB: Sure. As If It Were The Seasons, that was my third album at this time. This was a session that was put together by Joseph Jarman. We have Charles Clark on bass and cello, myself on all kinds of drums, a vocalist named Sherri Scott, Muhal Richard Abrams on piano and oboe, a very good flutist who really never got any attention named Joel Brandon, and Fred Anderson is on tenor sax, John Stubblefield, who has a big feature here, is also on tenor sax, and the late John Jackson on trumpet and Lester Lashley on trombone. This composition is written by Joseph Jarman, entitled “Song For Christopher.”

Q: Everything changed in Chicago after 1969, because that’s when Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Steve McCall and the Art Ensemble left for Europe.

TB: That’s right.

Q: This, of course, would have had its effect on Thurman, who was still a very young musician.

TB: Well, Joseph in ’68 had gotten involved with the Art Ensemble, and they were really into some intensive rehearsals. So boom, there I was, the late Charles Clark had died, the late Christopher Gaddy had died — and these two people were like my brothers; we did everything together. So it was a real lonely period for me, because Joseph now, you could say the quartet had broke up, and Joseph had joined forces with the Art Ensemble . . .

Q: They were lacking a drummer, however. Did the possibility of your performing with them ever come up?

TB: Yes, it did. And it came up at a bad time. And I swear, it’s one of the biggest mistakes that I regret in my life. Because the group had gone to Europe, and you know, they were pioneering some areas. They didn’t have anything really guaranteed, and they had been to Europe for a few years now. We’re talking about the years 1970-’71. So they were in Europe. But at this time, I had gotten involved with theatre, you see. In 1968 I started doing the Broadway production of Hair. Q: As a musician?

TB: As a musician. I got a call, and I was playing percussion, okay, so the Broadway show Hair was in Chicago at the Schubert Theatre — and I looked up, and there I was in theatre now.

Q: With a good union job!

TB: With a good union job! And see, that was a big deal for me. See, my father is a retired union man, so he was very pleased and very happy. So here I was working downtown at the Schubert Theatre at this time, doing Hair. That job lasted two years, from 1968 to 1970.

Q: Naturally, you didn’t want to leave that for the insecurity of roaming Europe.

TB: Well, of course. So what happened was, I get this call in the wee hours of the morning, something like two or three o’clock in the morning, and it’s from overseas — and this was Roscoe Mitchell. And Roscoe Mitchell expressed, “Well, look, T-Bird. . .” That was a nickname that came from Roscoe. He calls me T-Bird, and now it caught on, and everybody calls me that, now, you see. But he gave me that name. And he said, “Look, we’ve been over here working, and we’ve been thinking about it a lot, and we would like for you to join the Art Ensemble.” So of course, the first thing I said was, “Well, look, do you have any gigs?” And Roscoe was really honest. He said, “Well, no, we don’t have any gigs, and we don’t know where our next gig is, but we’re working on some things that we’re pioneering, some new areas.” So I said, “Well, look, I’ve got a gig; I’m doing this show” — and I never knew! Well, I had this full-time job, and I didn’t think I should leave it.

Q: It happened to a lot of musicians in Chicago, what happened to you.

TB: Yeah! So I said, look, I couldn’t make it, but I would like to join them if they got back into town. So Roscoe said, “Okay, I understand.” And the next thing I knew, months and months up the road,they came back.

Q: They came back in ’71.

TB: They came back in ’71, and they had Don Moye.

Q: That was that.

TB: That was that. I kissed that gig goodbye, and that was that.

Q: What else was happening as far as gigs in Chicago after they left for Europe? You were playing with Kalaparusha [Maurice McIntyre]?

TB: I was playing with Kalaparusha, and I was doing a few gigs with Leroy Jenkins now. He was still there, you see, after the Art Ensemble had cut out and everything. So we had these gigs at clubs on the South Side. I’m trying to think of the names of some of these places; it’s been so long. But George Freeman, Leroy Jenkins, myself, and. . .

Q: George Freeman playing the AACM type of music?

TB: Yeah, he was into it. He plays guitar, and that was the first time that I saw guitar into the music.

Q: Was Cosey doing. . .

TB: [Guitarist] Pete Cosey was doing a few things. At this time, Pete along Sherri Scott. . .

Q: Who played with Earth, Wind and Fire . . .

TB: At that time she was rehearsing with Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, and he was getting the band off the ground. They were doing a lot of rehearsing.

But mostly in this period I had really gotten involved in theatre. Not saying that the AACM was not functioning. It was still going on. It was just that we were still doing our concert series. . . You know, a lot of people had left, like the Art Ensemble, but at the same time we were recruiting new blood. Like Douglas Ewart, who came in at that time. So we were getting new blood, and the organization was still moving on along with the times.

Q: And the Big Band was still functioning.

TB: And the Big Band was still functioning. And you’ve got to remember, even though we had this concert series happening, we were very, very supported by the community which we lived in and participated in. And I think that was one of the main differences between then and now, was the fact that. . .

Q: In New York City.

TB: Yeah, but . . .

Q: But then in New York City as well. I think New York City is just not that type of town.

TB: It just isn’t that type of town. And at that time in Chicago, we were very well supported by the community. And we used to even go outside and play outside and jam. I don’t know, this was with Muhal, Muhal would bring his clarinet out, and Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors, Kalaparusha, Charles Clark — We used to take our instruments out there in Jackson Park, which is a large park on the South Side, and just sit out there and play. For me it was like a rehearsal. Maybe for people like Roscoe and maybe Muhal, maybe they were thinking of, “Well, this is a way of getting this new music out to the people.” See, for me at the time, I had a comfortable gig, and I was getting gigs, and I was playing some music, and I was active.

Q: So you were active in theatre throughout the ’70s, is that it?

TB: Most of the ’70s.

Q: What made you decide to return to performing creative music, then? And let’s talk about some of the circumstances that led you to return actively to the scene.

TB: Well, one thing was that after playing in theatre, I had learned a great deal. Number one, I learned how to play with a conductor. I learned how to play in a section. Because in theatre, not only do you have a trap drummer, but you have two or three percussion players. And a lot of my training, and a lot of music that I was studying at that time, I’m having an opportunity to really try out now. But I learned a lot in the pit orchestra. And one of the main things was being able to play in a section.

So after, say, 1975-’76, I started getting back to the AACM, into that music. Because I had gotten all of this training, you see. And for the first time, I felt like I wanted to add something to the music of Muhal and to the music of Joseph Jarman and Roscoe, or whoever was doing something. The music took on a new meaning for me at this time, because I had the years from ’71 to ’75 to really think about all the music that I had performed in the late ’60s with Muhal and everybody. Because at the time I was performing it, I really had on clear idea of this new music, you see.

Q: I can think of an analogy. In the 1950′s, and in the ’60s, for that matter, a lot of musicians after their initial apprenticeships in the Army, and got their rudiments very much together in the Army by playing all the time.

TB: That’s true.

Q: And it sounds like this theatre job performed a similar function for you.

TB: It really did. And I was just able to sort of get a clearer understanding about the music. And keep in mind, I’m still studying, I’m practicing very hard. . . So when I returned in ’75, that was really a very progressive year for the organization, because everyone had really gone out and developed their personal concepts.

Q: George Lewis had hit the scene . . .

TB: George Lewis hit the scene in that year. So it was like a revitalization of everything, you know. And I think especially the Art Ensemble, Muhal, Jenkins, they all had had a taste of getting their music performed and recorded, and gotten a taste of the business, gotten a taste of the music scene outside of Chicago. Because you’ve got to remember, before that time nobody had left Chicago.

Q: And that was a time when musicians from all over the country began converging on New York.

TB: Exactly. Now, I must get in here that during the early Seventies, like ’72 and ’73, there was a collaboration of musicians from St. Louis, like for instance, Oliver Lake. Oliver Lake had formed a new music organization I think called X-BAG . . . I think that’s it; I’m not sure. But I do remember that there was a collaboration with the St. Louis musicians.

Q: I remember Julius Hemphill was coming to Chicago in the ’70s.

TB: Exactly. Julius Hemphill. We’re talking about Oliver Lake, we’re talking about Charles Bobo Shaw, Baikida Carroll. Who else?

Q: Joseph Bowie.

TB: Joseph Bowie, of course. So the AACM members even went to St. Louis. And they produced a concert in collaboration with both groups, and also we did the same thing for X-BAG, and Oliver Lake and Baikida and everybody came from St. Louis to Chicago to participate in a concert series that we did. And that was a real strong thing that happened in ’71 and ’72, or so.

Q: Let’s get back to some music.

TB: I was going to go with some more of my percussion duet record.

[Music from Muhal Richard Abrams, LifeaBlinec, “JoDoTh”]

Q: Now we’re in 1978, and in 1978 Thurman joined Anthony Braxton’s working band.

TB: That’s right.

Q: That was a very tight band.

TB: Yeah, it was. It really began in 1977. Anthony Braxton had come to Chicago, and I guess at that time he had just broke up the quartet that he had with Barry Altschul, Dave Holland and George Lewis that was his working band, they’d made some records for Arista. There was an AACM Festival I remember at McCormack Place.

Q: I remember that. Braxton played a gig all on clarinets, with you and Malachi Favors.

TB: He played a gig all on clarinets. And part of that concert was a quartet with Leroy Jenkins on violin, Leonard Jones on bass, Anthony and myself. After that concert, Braxton asked me if I wanted to join the band, and I was just thrilled. I was ready. So that’s the beginning of how that started. We went out. That was the fall of 1977. I remember my very first gig with the quartet out of town was the Quaker Oats Jazz Festival, which was in Philadelphia, I think. And that was my first big out of town gig with the Braxton Quartet. I must say, at that same time Ray Anderson also was very new in the band.

Q: Another Chicagoan.

TB: So Ray Anderson and myself were the new members of the quartet in 1977, and Mark Helias had joined the quartet a few months prior, so he had already played a few gigs. But for Ray Anderson and myself, the Quaker Oats Jazz Festival was our first gig.

Q: How did you like playing with Braxton? What’s the relationship of his music to a drummer, in some sense?

TB: Well, it was really interesting, because Braxton had a way, first of all, of notating his music. He gave me the same part that Ray Anderson had or that Braxton had, see. That was one of the big differences, see. It wasn’t a drum part. It was a part that everybody else had. So now for the time in playing improvised music, I could not only create my own drum part, but I could follow along with all the other instruments to see what they were doing. So it was exciting, it was different. In a way, it was a lot easier for me to adapt to his music, because this was, I would say, my first feeling how jazz and classical music could mix together. This was my first introduction. Because a lot of Braxton’s music had these sounds and compositions that were very close to classical music for me. So for the first time now, with all that training that I watched the percussion players play in the orchestra pits in Chicago, and watching my percussion teacher at the Conservatory. . . For the first time now, I was able to start executing a lot of the knowledge and strokes, and the finesse and touch on my drum set playing jazz.

Q: Did Braxton produce a lot of new music during that time?

TB: He was writing a lot during this time. And I think the way the band was going. . . I know we used to travel a lot. And he would be so occupied with turning out compositions every day, just for this band . . .

Q: And he’d play them on the stand that night?

TB: He’d play them on the stand that night.

Q: Nice for Braxton, to have a band like that.

TB: It was great for Braxton! I hope he had his ASCAP and all that stuff together. But it was great for me, for everybody, because we were not only playing some new music, but we were working, we were out on the road, and we had an opportunity to perform it that night, and to see how it would go for the first time.

So for me, for the first time now, I was able to start executing a lot of the percussion concept on traps. All those years with Joseph Jarman and Muhal, I didn’t really know how to. . . I mean, this music was brand-new. I was trying to find my way, you see. One thing about Muhal and Joseph at this time, one thing they did give me, and that was a lot of support. Even though I didn’t know what the hell I was doing — I was trying. But they gave me a lot of support. But by the time ’77 came around, I had a pretty clear idea about how I wanted to perform and how I wanted to construct.

Q: You were a mature musician at this time.

TB: Yeah, of course. Now I’ve learned a lot. I’ve played a whole bunch of gigs, and I’ve learned a lot. And believe me, that’s the best training you can get, is right there on the bandstand.

Q: Just playing.

TB: That’s true.

[Music: Braxton Quartet, “W6-4N-R6-AH0″]

TB: That recording was done while the quartet was on tour, so it was a real special time for me. Even though I had recorded with Joseph Jarman and Muhal, it was a very good time for me. Because to record with Anthony Braxton who at that time had risen to be a very popular figure in new music, and number two, he had a record contract at the time, so that was a little different.

Q: And later that year you recorded with Sam Rivers.

TB: That’s right. What happened was that the AACM gave its first concert on New York territory in 1976, right here at Columbia University. We were able to perform our first jazz festival right here in New York. And in the audience, of course, was Mr. Sam Rivers. I had performed with some of the groups and with the Big Band. So Sam was in the audience — and this was in ’76.

A few years later, I get this call right out of the blue. It was Sam Rivers, and he was asking me to come to New York and to make a record. Of course I was floored! I said, “Sure, when are the rehearsals and when can we get together, because I need to learn your music.” He said, “Look, we’ll just rehearse in the studio. But can you be here by this particular date?” I said, “No problem.” So my very first contact with Sam Rivers was in the studio, and we made the record that we are about to hear called Waves on Tomato Records. Of course, I am now very familiar with Sam Rivers in terms off what he’s done, and all the Blue Note records that he appeared on with Andrew Hill and Tony Williams — the early Blue Note dates.

Q: Not to mention that he had used Braxton’s previous bass and drums.

TB: Exactly. Now here I go, I’m beginning to think that I’m in a circle here, because somehow Anthony Braxton’s rhythm section went with Sam Rivers — and we’re speaking of Barry Altschul and Dave Holland. At the time I joined Sam, Dave Holland was still there. This recording features Joe Daley on brass, Dave Holland on bass and cello, and myself on drums and percussion, and Sam Rivers. Like I say, I was really back, because this was my first contact with Dave Holland and Sam, and here I am getting ready to make a record. So it was quite a special event for me.

[Music: S. Rivers, “Surge”]

Q: Thurman, you played a gig this past weekend in Boston with Sam Rivers as guest artist.

TB: Exactly. It was my gig. I was able to get two nights at a club in Boston called Charlie’s Tap, Friday and Saturday, the Thurman Barker Trio featuring Sam Rivers. Anyway, I had an opportunity to be able to join forces with an artist who I was able to learn a lot of music from, and we played a lot of gigs. As a matter of fact, after the Waves record, we went on tour. Contrasts was also done while we were on tour. Sam did spend a lot of time in Boston, studying at the New England Conservatory, and then throughout the ’50s.

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Filed under AACM, Anthony Braxton, Drummer, Interview, Joseph Jarman, Muhal Richard Abrams, Sam Rivers, Thurman Barker, WKCR

For Andrew Cyrille’s 74th Birthday, a 2004 DownBeat Feature , and Several Verbatim Interviews

For Andrew Cyrille’s 74th birthday, I’m posting my “director’s cut” of a DownBeat feature, as well several contemporaneous interviews, an interview that appeared in the liner notes for one CD of the double set Anthony Braxton & Andrew Cyrille: Duo Palindrome 2002, and the proceedings of a WKCR interview  from 1997.  Additionally, here’s a link to a previously posted Blindfold Test from the early ’00s, and an interview i conducted with the maestro in 2001 for a piece on Cecil Taylor. (http://tedpanken.wordpress.com/tag/andrew-cyrille/)
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Over a fortnight in July, Iridium, the upscale mid-Manhattan venue, presented two very different bands comprised primarily of hardcore survivors of the ‘60s “New Thing.” The common denominator was drummer Andrew Cyrille, who fed and stoked the simmering fires that, back in the day, had led the cohort to try to change the world with music.

During the first week, Cyrille participated in open-ended tabula rasa sets with Henry Grimes and Perry Robinson, who were joined for one night apiece by Dave Douglas and Gary Bartz and for the final four by Bennie Maupin. On week two, Cyrille and bassist Reggie Workman propelled outcat avatars Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd through 12 sets of their own programmatic music. Cyrille addressed each circumstance with the finesse and power of a master tennis player, instantly intuiting intentions, recalibrating dynamics and rhythmic shape, volleying back deadly accurate, complementary responses to every salvo and deploying an enormous lexicon of beats and timbres to keep his postulations fresh. In the consistency of his creativity and unfailing professionalism, Cyrille epitomized the discipline and exhilaration of speculative improvising at its highest level.

These qualities are no secret to Cyrille’s peer group. Attracted by his ability to mold a multitude of drum dialects into a continuous  stream of ideas, composer-improvisers like John Carter, Muhal Richard Abrams, Leroy Jenkins, Oliver Lake, Don Pullen, David Murray and John Lindberg employed him extensively on projects during the ‘80s and ‘90s. During the past 15 years, he’s partnered with Workman and Lake in a coop trio, and on numerous gigs and recordings with Mal Waldron, Horace Tapscott, Dave Burrell and Finnish saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen. In the ‘70s and ’80s, Cyrille expressed his compositional voice with Maono, a quartet featuring David S. Ware and trumpeter Ted Daniel, and over the past decade he’s led more consonant, groove-oriented ensembles that articulate the rhythms and melodies of the African diaspora. These followed the pioneering 1969 solo drum recital What About [BYG] and a 1972 percussion dialogue with Milford Graves entitled Dialogue of the Drums. Over the past quarter-century, Cyrille has documented a string of extemporaneous encounters with such diverse artists as Jimmy Lyons, Irene Schweizer, Richard Teitelbaum, Vladimir Tarasov, Borah Bergman, Peter Brotzman, Odo Addy, James Newton, Peter Kowald, Greg Osby and, recently, with Anthony Braxton.

In a conversation for the liner notes of Duo Palindrome: 2002, Vols. 1&2 [Intakt], documenting the Braxton-Cyrille meeting, Braxton, whose 1979 duets with Max Roach are classics of the idiom,  illuminated Cyrille’s extraordinary resourcefulness at musical conversation. “Andrew has his own special rhythmic logics and sense of time, and he hears everything in the music,” he said. “He has a very clear understanding of what constitutes an idea. He works with devices that he’s evolved to suit his own needs that give the illusion of time in a very strict way. He’s a conceptualist who is able to respond to the moment in a dynamic array of syntaxes and propositions, while at the same time, his work is very mature and he goes to the HEART of the problem.”

“Andrew is a very sharp-minded individual,” says Grimes, who recalls first breaking bread with Cyrille on a Brooklyn gig with baritone sax legend Harry Carney in 1963, and toured with him and David Murray shortly before the Iridium engagement. “We develop forms playing with each other. I think the important thing to remember is that we both learned to do that playing with Cecil Taylor. You never forget those things.”

* * *
“I didn’t know that,” Taylor laughs, upon being informed that Cyrille, his regular drummer from 1964 until 1975, was preparing at the time they first met to matriculate at St. John’s University as a chemistry major. Born in Brooklyn in 1939 to Haitian immigrants, Cyrille learned his rudiments in a junior high school drum-and-bugle corps from instructors like Lenny McBrowne, Willie Jones and Lee Abrams, all established jazz drummers of the day. They brought the aspirant to see Max Roach, himself a son of Brooklyn, rehearse at a bar called the Putnam Central  around the corner from his school, and told him about Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke and Shadow Wilson. By 16, Cyrille, who had bussed dishes at a Horn & Hardhart cafeteria and rolled carts of ready-to-wear around Manhattan’s Garment District after school, was earning pocket money on local dances and social functions with a trio that included guitarist Eric Gale. Soon, he was swinging on gigs with eminent beboppers like pianist Duke Jordan and baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne.

One afternoon, trumpeter Ted Curson heard Cyrille rehearsing, and came in from the street to listen. “When the rehearsal was over, Ted said he was going to Times Square to rehearse with this piano player,” Cyrille recalls. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come on over? You never heard anybody play piano like this in your life.’ I took my snare drum. We went to the school, and I met Cecil Taylor. Cecil let me sit in, and then we took the train uptown and played some more at a club on Amsterdam Avenue around 154th Street where I’d gone several times for sessions.”

“What I remember about Mr. Cyrille,” says Taylor, “is a session at a place on 158th Street called Branker’s. I think it might have been Mal Waldron’s gig, and he allowed me to sit in. At one point Andrew sat in with me, and played a rhythm that made me stop playing. I looked at him, and I asked him, ‘And what is that?’ He gave me that wonderful Haitian smile and said, ‘Well, you want me to try it again?’”

That year, Cyrille, daunted by the difficulty of studying chemistry by day, gigging at night, and doing both to the best of his ability, opted for music and transferred to Juilliard. There he “learned the literature and materials and theory of music,” and began to accrue the strains that comprise the sum of his mature tonal personality. “My head was into jazz, and that’s what I wanted to get together,” he says. “My teacher told me he’d prepare me to work in one of the symphony orchestras, which was not what I had in mind. So I went out and found people who would help me – like Nellie Lutcher, Mary Lou Williams, Illinois Jacquet, Hank Mobley and Kenny Dorham. The first drummer Freddie Hubbard played with when he came to New York was me, at the Turbo Village in Brooklyn. Same with John Handy; we played a gig at the Shalimar in Harlem, across the street from Sugar Ray’s by the Hotel Theresa.”

Extracurricularly, Cyrille gigged and recorded with Sudanese bassist-composer Ahmed Abdul Malik and Babatunde Olatunji’s drumcentric ensemble, and began the process of internalizing the rhythms of the African continent and extrapolating them to the drumset. He played for classes at the June Taylor School of Dance for emerging choreographers like Michael Bennett, Jamie Rogers, and Claude Thompson. “That taught me a lot about playing drums in an independent manner, and making music from the drums,” he states. “I drew on that experience in making solo percussion records. Someone would tell me, ‘Make my body move,’ and I had to play the rhythms and accent things in a way that would do that. I also learned the way Africans visualize some dance component when thinking about the music. When I began working with Cecil, he would ask me what informed my playing, and one thing I told him was that dance did.”

As Cyrille accumulated knowledge, he became restless with the musical status quo. Throughout this time, he remained in touch with Cecil Taylor. “Cecil wasn’t who he is now,” Cyrille states. “He was a guy who was practicing and wanted to get his thing together. We’d run into each other, or he’d hear me play, and say, ‘Yeah, man, sounds like you’ve been listening to Philly Joe Jones.’ I mean, Cecil had his ear to what was going down. We developed a spiritual relationship through our musical attraction until we began to work together regularly.

“I had never heard anyone play the piano that way – the speed, the alacrity, his passion for the music, the information he had, the way he notated his music, what he asked from each of the musicians who played the music in rehearsals. With Cecil I could do whatever I wanted. I think only twice during the eleven years I played with him did he ever say, ‘Play five beats of this’ or ‘give me three beats of that.’ He’d say, ‘Man, you know how to play the drums. Do what drummers do.’ So it was incumbent upon me to make sure that my integrity was as true-blue as Baby Dodds or Zutty Singleton!  I did not want to do anything against the tradition of those guys, and the people from whom I learned, like Max and Art and Philly Joe, in case people might say that it wasn’t it wasn’t blue-blood, so to speak. I got my information together on every aspect of the drumset – the independent coordination, the foot-play, the dropping of the bombs, being tasty, playing in the spaces, accompanying – and I brought my information to the table. But it was my own sense of how to do it. It wouldn’t necessarily be the same kind of rhythms my mentors they would play or the way that they would parse or organize the rhythms. But then again, it was!”

“Mr. Cyrille had a secret,” Taylor says, choosing his words with care. ”You could take him wherever you wanted, and he had the ability to distill whatever the structures were, to go with you there, and react in the most musical way in any situation. He understood—and understands—about the joy of accompanying, and feeding, and being fed. He is meticulous as well as exquisite. He is the epitome of the logical, but beyond that, he’s magical. The logical world could be painfully objective, but he is magical in the sense that he understands what the sound perimeters are, and because of his exquisite taste, he makes a transition from being logical to being a spiritual healer.”

Taylor recounts hearing Cyrille put his process to work over a week at the Blue Note several years ago with Mal Waldron and Workman. “I went three consecutive nights,” he says. “It was an experience in what mature musicians can do. On one occasion it came time for Andrew to make his drum statement, and I felt I was actually hearing the music transposed from piano to Andrew’s instrument. You could actually hear Andrew developing the material in Mal’s compositional form, and see the slices of the structure being transformed by Andrew’s playing.”

Whatever the context in which the give-and-take of improvising occurs, Cyrille attends to the kinetics of sound in motion. “I think a lot of the invention in improvising comes from the push-and-pull of people playing their own rhythms, motifs, themes in keeping with their concept of the music,” he says. “I try to think of a rhythmical shape that will allow me to make music with the voices of the drums. For example, when Cecil sits down at the piano, he’ll usually start with something pointillistic and jagged. So I’ll begin that way, then I’ll take a step, another step, two-three steps, then sit back and listen for a while, and pace, like fencing or a cat stalking a mouse.”

* * *
In one of their rare meetings since 1975, Cyrille joined Taylor’s group for a panoramic 1999 Berlin concert, documented last spring on Incarnation [FMP]

“Cecil was very sharp,” Cyrille recalls. “We had a magical dialogue. This kind of improvising is a matter of very close listening and trading of information. It’s like a game. We put forth sounds, ideas, rhythms, melodic fragments that turn into much longer statements, and we surprise each other with replies and continue to evolve within the dialogue. It can be endless. And when we decide to resolve what’s happening, it’s as though we’ve finished a conversation. We’ve grown, matured, to some degree even mellowed. It’s always a struggle to create art. But the way we put forth the effort is so much smoother and more nuanced. We’re much more confident with the language than we were.”

Cyrille manifests that confidence whether, as Workman puts it, he’s “doing what you do the way you want to do it or compromising certain things to satisfy a need.” “I believe that the more you know, the more you have to say,” he says. “For me, it’s about learning how to play music, and music is broad. It’s giving what’s being asked for. When I was in school, Willie Jones and all those cats talked about, ‘You’ve got to be a professional.’ Max Roach was a consummate professional. I’d see Gigi Gryce and Jackie McLean at a place called the Continental, and they looked professional. That means they were working and making money.”

During the ‘70s, as musicians from Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles came to New York and shook up the scene, Cyrille found new sources of inspiration. “What I got from those people is that there’s no particular formation or configuration to play this music,” he says. “I appreciated that cultural perspective. I love adventure. I love to explore. It boils down to being creative and dealing cooperatively within the concept the music presents to find exciting, new and different stuff. It’s how you reinterpret the prescription to make things happen.

“When I’m playing with Braxton, then it’s a different prescription from forty years ago. It’s different when I play with Muhal Richard Abrams, but sometimes it’s the same, because Muhal often plays blues at the end of his gig, and he’ll want a backbeat. I used to play organ gigs at those places where Don Pullen also played, like Hempstead, Long Island, on Thursday or Friday nights, when those sleep-in women who worked at the homes out there had a night off. You’d have the blue and green lights turning around, with those filters, people were dancing and men were meeting women, and a lot of times you had to play those blues so those people could get off, so they could actually feel they were having a good time. You LEARNED how to do that. That’s part of being a professional. With Cecil I did what I wanted to. But the challenge then is to keep something happening on the same level as it would happen if I was playing the blues, or if I was playing with a dancer who would say to me, ‘Okay, drummer, make my body move.’”

“Part of the excitement of playing with Andrew is the spectra of gambits thrown into the air,” says Braxton. “It’s not like we just do everything we can come up with. We define parameters and work inside them, and he presents me with very mature ideas and conceptual propositions to either accept or transform. There are rhythmic time spaces, sections that demonstrate extreme timbre states, sections which take more silence into account, and sections which are multi-directional. His vocabulary is really broad. It’s the same with Max Roach. He has enough ideas and experience to take the hi-hat, make a whole concert on it, and not bore you. Andrew has that kind of understanding. His music goes past the concept of idiomatic. He always respected the scholastic and scientific components of the music, he’s always been open, and that openness put him in a very different psychological and vibrational space from many of the New York musicians of his era.”

Closing in on 65, Cyrille is not about to close any doors. “When the element of surprise is not there, it doesn’t seem like there’s too much happening,” he concludes. “I remove as much of any barrier as I can, I aim for the heavens, and always try to have something that will surprise not only myself, but the musicians I am playing with and the audience that listens.”

* * *

Andrew Cyrille (7-22-03) — for Duo (Palindrome) 2002:

TP:    Was this your first duo interaction with Braxton?

CYRILLE:  The first duo, yes.

TP:    What’s your performing history with him?

CYRILLE:  I did a recording, it must have been back in the ’80s, with him and Jon Raskin, the bassist Cecil McBee, and a pianist named Dred Scott, on Tristano music.  That was for Hat Hut.  Years ago we did a concert in Connecticut — I think at Wesleyan, when Bill Barron was up there and Bill Lowe.  Anthony Davis, Gerry Hemingway; a lot of cats who were new music at that time, and that was one of the places where it was done.  Prior to that, I first met Braxton in Paris when I went there with Cecil in 1969.

TP:    That’s when he traveled to Europe with Leo Smith and Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  Maybe it was during that BYG Festival business, when all the musicians were in Paris, and I did those recordings with Grachan Moncur and Jimmy Lyons, and I did the solo What About album.  I met Braxton in the street, and I forget the details, but he came up and said, “Oh, my name is Anthony Braxton,” and we started talking and meeting each other, etc.  It was just guys from different parts of the country who were into the music, and in Paris, and had something in common.

After that, I’d see him in Europe and other places on occasion.  He was doing a lot of recording.  He was then almost the way David Murray was in terms of recording.  He was recording all the time.  He was the darling of a lot of those people.

TP:    That quartet was very popular for a few years.  He kept them working quite a bit.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, he did a lot of stuff.  Before that I saw him with Circle, that quartet with Chick Corea.  So I’d been checking out Braxton from time to time.  I remember this one time someone had put out the word that he didn’t want to work with drummers, or something derogatory from him about drummers, and I went up to him at the old Five Spot and asked him about it.  And he said, “Me?  No, man. How can I not love drummers?  I play with drummers all the time.  Drummers are some of my favorite people.” Blah-blah, blah-blah.  You know how he gets.

Then later on, I heard that duet recording he did with Max Roach.  And on a number of occasions, he said to me that I was one of his favorite drummers and one day he’d like to do a duet with me.  He’d done one with Max Roach and he’d like to do one with Roy Haynes.  I don’t know if he ever did one with Roy Haynes, but here I am, number two, and maybe one day he might do something with Roy.  But that’s more or less how we got in touch with each other.

TP:    What was your early sense of the dynamics of his music?  I’m presuming you didn’t listen too closely to it, but enough to form an opinion.  How would you describe his musical personality?

CYRILLE:  It was different. See, a lot of times what defines great musicians, and sometimes you have to get used to this… It’s not necessarily the melodies they play, or maybe even the harmonies they play, but it’s the rhythm.  And the way he assigned rhythm was just a little bit different.  It was a little bit pointillistic, you might call it.  Steve McCall was working with him on occasion…

TP:    Barry Altschul played in that group, so did Thurman Barker and Gerry Hemingway.  It was a pulse-oriented group.

CYRILLE:  All I’m saying is that the way he would play… I bought a couple of records.  To me, a lot of the music was pointillistic. In other words, BEEP bop, BOOP.  Buh-bu-bup.  buh-bup.  That’s kind of what I thought about it.  I knew he could play tunes, etc.  But then, when we played Lennie Tristano music, which had to do with straight-up-and-down bebop, more or less, then he came into another light.  The light had to do with, I guess, playing not in a pointillistic, but let’s say kind of a legato, where you had those melodies, like “Lennie’s Pennies,” based on “Pennies From Heaven.”  Those kinds of bebop lines. The legato kind of thing instead of staccato.

TP:    So you found that could go into various approaches depending on the context.

CYRILLE:  Exactly.  Which is the sign of a great musician, somebody who is flexible and has studied and learned the language.

TP:    What was it like to work for him that first time in organizing that Tristano date?

CYRILLE:  Well, it was a lot of work.  I can’t say that it was easy. But he knew what he wanted to do.  He had a sense of direction, and he knew more or less what he wanted from each one of us. When we play jazz, period, I don’t care what variation it is, most of the composers or people who are the leaders want you to play the material their way, so then we can come together.  I just had to find my way on the drumset with that music, and then we’d bring my department to the other departments, and join them so we could have more or less a corporation — or a cooperation.  It was pretty cool.  I enjoyed that music.  Everybody was straight-ahead, everybody wanted to make it a success, and I think it came out being that.

TP:    In a broader sense, what was your impression when you encountered the AACM guys 35 years ago?  You’re a New York musician, and that approach wasn’t necessarily agreeable to every New York musician. Maybe I’m wrong about that when you all were in Paris.  But what was your overall impression of that earlier AACM music at the time?

CYRILLE:  I have always been one who understood the regionalisms that existed and exist in the music.  First, I knew that there were regional bands, and people who came from different parts of the country and played the music a bit differently, who came in with certain ideas and feelings and things they thought were important, and at the same time made the contribution to the whole.  I felt the people from Chicago were some of the most innovative in terms of breaking with the tradition as well as being part of the tradition.  I know they were doing all sorts of things in terms of how they were composing. It wasn’t AABA form a lot, or the sonata form, so to speak.  They were playing a lot of extended forms, and doing all sorts of things rhythmically and harmonically that maybe some of the other people from other places weren’t doing.  You had musicians who came out of Detroit, you had musicians who came out of Indianapolis, even the New Orleans people…

TP:    But what I’m getting at, Andrew, is that perhaps more than any other New York musician of your period, you really embraced the aesthetic that a lot of the AACM and BAG people were dealing with when they got to New York.  You played with Muhal for years, and others.  As a New York musician at the time, with Cecil, I mean, Cecil was pretty much full-bore straight-ahead and take no prisoners type of thing in 1966 and 1969 — though I guess not all the time.  But it was a different attitude toward organizing music.  So I wonder if you can trace back to the impact that attitude of making music had on you.

CYRILLE:  Now, you’ve got to remember that we’re talking about Cecil, who of course is one of the great people in my music life.  But I’m not Cecil, see!

TP:    But you were in the band 11 years and knew him from the late ’50s.

CYRILLE:  That’s true.  But as a result of having experienced playing with Cecil and wanting to make a contribution to the history of the music, to the lexicon of the music, and especially as far as drums were concerned, AND the fact that my mind was opened… I was still and am still learning.  I love to explore different ideas with people and see what I can do with those ideas as far as those drums are concerned. I’ve done things with Japanese musicians, or the drummer Vladimir Tarasov from Russia, and the dancers, etc.  So when I met people like Muhal and Leroy Jenkins, and they asked me to part of their concepts… I even organized a tour and took Henry Threadgill and Fred Hopkins to Europe after Steve McCall quit Air.

There was another contingent of musicians from Chicago who I’d had the opportunity to work with prior to the time when people like Muhal and Jenkins and Wadada and George Lewis… I worked with George and Leroy and Richard Teitelbaum… Well, Teitelbaum isn’t from Chicago, but I met him long ago in Connecticut.  All of those people were more or less in touch with each other.

But just to get back to what I was saying about my openness, and the fact that… Look at Coleman Hawkins.  He was all over the place, doing all kinds of things with people.

But getting back to the other Chicago musicians:  I met people like Julian Priester.  Also there was John Gilmore, whom I had done some work with in the Olatunji band.  And on a couple of occasions, I did play with Sun Ra and that Arkestra — way back when.  Sun Ra used to come to my house, as a matter of fact, when I was living in Brooklyn.  He and Walt Dickerson used to show up early in the morning.  There was Clifford Jordan, who I’d played with on occasion, doing some gigs in Brooklyn.  Charles Davis was another one, who lived around the corner from me.  So it’s not that I didn’t know these guys.  So when the second wave came in, hey, here I am.  I’ve got feet in both camps, so to speak — the bebop camp and then the avant-garde camp.  But I knew this, too.  If I were going to do something that was a bit different from some of the other drummers, then I knew I had to do something that was going to be conceptually acceptable to a lot of those people from the AACM.  And that’s where their heads were.  So in a sense, my connection with Cecil, who let me know that I could do anything with anybody I want, any time I wanted to do that… So it was no problem for me dealing with the concepts of the people from Chicago.
All I know about all of this stuff is, if somebody asks me to do something with them, and if it’s different, then I have to learn about what it is, and then it’s my job to bring it to life — especially if I like it.  If I don’t like it, that’s a different story.  But for John Carter and all those people, I have to bring this stuff to life.  A lot of the stuff is written music. But it’s not the page that’s playing the music, it’s the person.  That’s the way I feel about most of that stuff.

TP:    Are there different challenges for you in dealing with, let’s say, the less pulse oriented forms of drum music that you’d be encountering?  Did you have to develop new techniques?  Did you have to develop a difficult vocabulary?

CYRILLE:  That’s an interesting question.  Most of the time, when I think about myself, I think about myself as using pieces of the language that I have learned from the traditional greats, like Jo Jones and Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones and Baby Dodds, and listening to all of those people, seeing and hearing how they would play.  Frankie Dunlop and the big bands I saw him playing with.  Rufus Jones.  Even Buddy Rich to some degree, even though he was a speed merchant.

TP:    That came in handy with Cecil!

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s right!  Number one, to be able to play the drums.  When we learn the instrument, we have to go through the schools, more or less, of some of the other drummers.  When I was working with Illinois Jacquet, he had Jo Jones in his head.  So to some degree, I had to give him some of the stuff.  I couldn’t do all of it, because I was too young and I didn’t know that much about Jo Jones.  But I had to be able to play songs like “Robbins Nest” and “Flying Home.”  Certain things would happen in those songs that would bring certain kinds of climaxes, which were almost things that were scientifically proven, you might say!  They would get to certain peaks, and then make certain descents, and go back to certain peaks… You had to know what to do in order to play that music.  So yeah, I was learning, and of course, there were a lot of things that I didn’t know, and sometimes I’d be frustrated because I couldn’t give people like Jacquet, for instance, everything he wanted all the time.  Then, again, I don’t necessarily think that I had to, because I was trying to find my own place, trying to do my own stuff, and some of the stuff he probably didn’t like either.  But he was stronger than I was at that time.  He was the leader of the band, and I was still finding my way.  But still, he hired me.

Anyway, all I’m saying is that with all of the stuff that I’ve learned, even the stuff that I did with Nellie Lutcher way back, playing in 2/2…those kinds of things I can use in some way with the things that I do today.  So for instance, if I’m doing a duet with Braxton or Greg Osby and it comes into my mind, well, I want to try something that might have a two-feeling for a part, or maybe even a whole (I never really thought about this until now), I can play like a two-feeling, and maybe stretch the meter, so to speak.  Then it’s up to THEM, then, to deal with what I’m putting down.  So what I’m saying to you is that the stuff that I play as a drummer, it’s not necessarily so much where I’m not using the techniques or not using the vocabulary that I have.  It’s just that I might be using it in a different way.  It’s the same old thing, like when people talk.  We still use words.  But sometimes, when we think about what we’re saying, we use the same words but the meanings are different.

TP:    Let’s talk about how that applies to what you and Braxton are doing here.  You mentioned at the beginning that Braxton had told you that you’re one of his favorite drummers and he wanted to do something with you some day.  So let’s jump-cut to 2002, and talk about this recording came to be.  Was it on your initiative or his?

CYRILLE:  Well, this is what happened.  Very often, it’s about being in the right place at the right time, and the sky opening up and the lightning come out, and it strikes whoever is in the vicinity and we say, “Eureka, I’ve found it!”  Anyway, I had gone to hear Anthony play a solo concert at the Ethical Culture Society.  I was there with a number of other people listening to him, and the music was gorgeous.  But at the end of the concert, I went over to congratulate him, and he said, “Oh, Andrew, it’s good to see you.  When are we going to do our project?”  So I complemented him on his playing and I said, “Look, Anthony, any time you’re ready, man.  Let’s exchange numbers and talk about it.”  He said, “Okay, I’ll call you.”  So I gave him my number, and a couple of weeks later he called me and said, “Hey, man, let’s get together and do this project.”  He told me that he had Jon Rosenberg in his employ, and Jon and he had already done some work at Wesleyan University, of Anthony recording with different people, and Rosenberg would be willing to come up and record us.  The price was right, and we got a date together, and I said, “Okay, fine,” and then it came to pass.

TP:    How much preparation did this involve?  Was there a rehearsal?  Let’s talk about the dynamics of putting together this two hours.

CYRILLE:  I sent Anthony some music I had written and prepared.  Sometimes with those concepts… Well, we talked about them a bit on the telephone, and he told me some stuff that he was going to do.  I forget whether he faxed me any music or not.  Maybe he did.  I can’t remember.  But I know we were preparing for each other.  Braxton’s solo concert was in May 2002, so from May until we came together…

TP:    What’s interesting is that his compositions here are Compositions 310 and 311, and on the solo concert he did five subsets of Composition 312.  I don’t know what that means, but I’ll try to find out from Braxton.  Because each one has a different graphic connotation.

CYRILLE:  [LAUGHS] Well, that’s what’s happening.

TP:    So it sounds like he gave you some stuff that was preoccupying him at the time of the solo concert.

CYRILLE:  Perhaps so.  But all I saw was the music.  I didn’t remember the melodies.  I played them at Wesleyan and I got into it.

TP:    well, your stuff seems more melody-oriented.  His stuff seems like more sound navigation structure stuff.

CYRILLE:  Kind of.  Well, he only gave me I think two written parts.

TP:    The other one seems more just a motif you took off on.  It doesn’t have a number, but is called “A Musical Sense Of Life.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a title like that from Braxton.

CYRILLE:  Well, those titles were to a large degree my titles.  We sat down and talked about it.  I came up with these titles and words, and explained to him, why I felt this particular piece should be that, and so on, and he agreed.

TP:    So we had this conceptual preparation before you actually came up to Wesleyan in October.

CYRILLE:  Very much so.  Conceptual and including improvisation as well as written music.  He has two credits individually, I have two individually, and then we have the rest in duo as composers.

TP:    I think your point that he brings out a more legato side when playing with drummers… On the Max Roach records, he played beautiful melodies, and here he plays similarly.  Do you approach different configurations with a different approach to the drums.  Would you play differently with Oliver and Reggie or Dresser and Marty, or if you’re playing with a Muhal Sextet… Obviously, they all have different demands.  But your overall approach to the interactive component of playing with other people… How does it differ in duo context for you?

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s a heavy one.  When you use a term like “overall”… Overall has to be the person.  It has to be Andrew Cyrille.  And then it depends upon what music I’m playing.  Then I get my information on what I have to do from what the composer dictates when he writes the composition.  If I’m playing with David Murray’s Big Band, and we’re playing Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower,” and he’s got Carmen Bradford singing, I’ve got to bring myself to that and give those people what they need so they can deliver what they deliver in the Ellington mode.  That’s the same thing that I do with everything, even though they might be different in terms of concept.

TP:    Let’s talk about the conceptual aspects of duo music, then.

CYRILLE:  Playing solo to me is the most difficult.  The reason is that you don’t have anybody to feed off of or to get some kind of information from that you can relate to, so to speak, so you’re always more or less relating to yourself.  With duet, you have fewer than three or four.  So as far as playing a duet is concerned, you have to give something to the other person that they can more or less vibe off of or feel good about, or hear or conceptualize with the desire to play.  And they have to do the same for you.  During the duet with Osby… All of them.  I’ve done duets with Osby, Oliver. Carlos Ward, who’s another one that a lot of people haven’t gotten.  I did duets with Jimmy Lyons.

TP:    A lot of pianists say they think of the piano as an orchestra.  Do you think of the drumkit as an orchestra?

CYRILLE:  You could very well say that, too. There are so many different parts of the set, and you can get so many different sounds in relationship to the combinations, or the combinations in relationship to the different pieces of sound that you can find on the set.  Then you have to be able to generate that so that somebody gets something from it, so it’s not just noise, or what some people might consider noise.  I guess it’s the attitude, too, that whomever it is playing with the drummer comes to that forum with.  If you think it’s noise, then perhaps you won’t make any music. But if you think it’s music, then it’s a different story.

But there’s one other thing, too, that you’ve got to remember about drums, especially from where the “jazz drummer” comes, and from there in terms of Western music, where a lot of the other people come from, too — the Rock and Fusion people.  That’s out of a metrical sense of time.  So when you start thinking about Africa, again, and you start thinking about a lot those rhythms that the Africans play, which is very often the basis of the feeling that jazz musicians play off of, like the shuffle beat, CHONK-A-CHOOK, CHONK-A-CHOOK, then you’ve got that and you go CHOCK-A-CHUM, CHOCK-A-CHUM, CHOCKA-CHOCKA-CHUM, CHOCK-A-CHUM, CHOCK-A-CHUM… You get a lot of that stuff that comes out of Africa.  And many jazz pieces are still being written off that rhythmical motif, what they call the quarter-note, and then you get the dotted eighth note and the sixteenth note.  BANG, DIKA, BANG, DIKA, BANG-DIKA, BANG-DIKA, BANG-DIKA, BANG.  I’d say damn near 85% of all the music written in jazz is based on that rhythmical motif.  That’s one of the problems we have with stations like WBGO moving away from that foundation to play music that perhaps doesn’t emphasize that dotted quarter-note, dotted-eighth and sixteenth beat.  See, all of that music that you hear that’s so-called mainstream or CD-101 stuff comes out of that particular motif.

TP:    As opposed to what we might call swing or…

CYRILLE:  No, it ain’t opposed to swing.  That’s what swing is. That stuff is based on Swing. So I’m saying, it kind of comes out like a shuffle, see, which is nothing but you get the quarter-note and you get the dotted sixteenth, and you just keep repeating that with the accentuation on 2 and 4.

TP:    So 35 years ago, when you’re making Akisakila with Cecil, the patterns and responses you’re making are constructed off these elemental building blocks from African music that you’re speaking of.

CYRILLE:  Precisely.  So from those building blocks you can thrust a certain kind of feeling.

TP:    Or many kinds of feeling, I guess.

CYRILLE:  Or many kinds of feelings, that’s right.  See, this goes back to me working with Mary Lou Williams and saying to her, “Gee, Mary Lou, I’d like to play the ride beat differently and still play the music.” She said, “Well, if you did that, you’d lose a lot of work; a lot of people wouldn’t hire you.”  And that’s what she was talking about.  So if you go BANG-DING-A-BANG, DING-A-BANG, and I’m playing that with Jacquet, then I say, BANG-DING-A-DANG, and let a couple of beats go and no space, or say, BANG-DING-A-BANG, BANG, DING-A-BANG, DINGABANG-DINGABANG, DANG-DANG, DINGABANG, DANG-DANG, DINGABANG, he’ll say, “What the fuck are you doing, man?!  Swing!”

So when the concepts change, and you have Cecil and the people from Chicago and now a number of other people considering how we’re going to move these rhythms, then it’s no longer a problem because they’re basing their music on what it is that either the drummer is playing or however it is that they conceive of playing that dotted-8th or 16th, and maybe they’ve even moved away from that and… See, a lot of the time, the way most of those composers got to their music (I know this to be a fact with David Murray, and you can go back to Ellington), is they’d think about what the drummer would be playing, and then they’d write their melodies over that.
TP:    Well, going back to Ellington, there was often a dance orientation to it.  I mean, the drummer used to be completely functional, back when there were chorus lines and tap dancers and so on.

CYRILLE:  Of course!  Let me tell you something.  You know that I played for dancers.  I’m talking for people out of the June Taylor School — Jamie Rogers, Michael Bennett, Claude Thompson.

TP:    You played for dance classes.

CYRILLE:  Dance classes, and I did gigs… I did something with Cleo Parker Robinson at Jazz @ Lincoln Center 2001.  I’m trying to make a point.  I had a gig one time in the projects somewhere.  It was a dance for regular people who came to a party.  They had no dance education or training, but it was what they would do socially, what they’d learn from their parents or friends.  The three musicians I was supposed to play with, probably a bassist and piano player and saxophone player, for some reason didn’t show up for a while. I was there, the first one.  The people began feeling impatient with the music.  I mean, they’ve got their schedule.  So I just started playing the drums.  I don’t know what rhythm I did, but I was playing something.  And do you know, those people got out on the floor and started dancing.  All I’m saying to you is knowing certain things to play and certain things to do that will elicit certain responses in people.  Music is also scientific in that light.  We deal with emotions, but there are certain ways that musicians can make people feel by the notes and scales that they play.  We learn this stuff in school.  It’s the same thing with the drums.  If I want you to march, I’ll play a march.  If I want you to waltz, I’ll play something in 3/4.

So with that kind of information, when I decide that… How can I put it?  I can augment it.  I can contract it.  I can do it like I’m talking to you in terms of rhythm — those ingredients.  That’s what I do.  Here you and I are having a conversation.  I’m not talking to you in 4/4 meter, one-two-three-four, here-I-go-Ted, you-can-hear-me-talking…

TP:    It’s not iambic pentameter.

CYRILLE:  Right.  So as I’m speaking to you, sometimes it’s the same way as I think in playing the music.  But I’m still using my words or the words I’ve learned.  Maybe I can learn new words, go in the dictionary and find out the meaning of so-and-so and bring another word into my vocabulary.  But it just clarifies, let’s say, more what it is that I’m trying to say.

TP:    But of course, within a musical performance, each musical conversation is organized around a certain set of themes and structures.  You’re not just going anywhere.  Within an improvisation, there are explorations of separate motifs; you’re not going all over the place on every different thing.  So there is a formal aspect to a performance.  It’s not just like a conversation.

CYRILLE:  You are precisely right.  But now, you see, here is another concept that some people don’t realize or understand or don’t know about, and I guess it has to come into realization. There are two ways of playing.  There’s one way where there’s a prescription: In other words, we say we’re going to play this tune or that tune, or we’re going to play this composition or that composition based on either some idea that the composer presents, whoever the composer is, or we’re going to play a piece that’s “open,” which means that the composition is after the fact.  So when you say “all over the place,” sometimes the music can be all over the place.  It depends on what one decides to do.  And sometimes, when it’s all over the place it can be fantastic.  For instance, the concert I did with Kidd Jordan and William Parker at the Vision Festival.  We had no rehearsal.  The first time the three of us played together was when we got up on that stage.  And from what I understand from the people who were there, they enjoyed it very much, the heavens opened up and all that sort of thing.  But as one of the participants, I can’t exactly tell you what people were receiving in the audience. I’m having a good time playing.

TP:    But what I mean is that you’re playing ideas.  You and Kidd Jordan weren’t just playing random sounds.  You’re playing ideas that you’ve developed over 50-55-60 years of playing music and thinking about music.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  Just like we’re having a conversation now.

TP:    When we did the Blindfold Test for Downbeat, I gave you a Braxton-Max Roach piece.  You said, “Most of Max’s rhythms are very clear.  They’re distinct and they’re anchored.  How he thinks of some of those original rhythms is amazing.  There’s a definite thought process that he puts in.  I know that he has to work with it.  He thinks of something, he comes up with a rhythm, and then he executes it on the drums, and that’s why it comes out with such clarity and weight.”  And motif and theme-and-variation construction, and so forth.  It seems that, more or less in this concert, you play from that perspective.

CYRILLE:  Yes, I would agree with you.  Because I am a product as much of Max Roach, in that evolutionary line, as you might say somebody like Carl Allen or Cindy Blackman or Joe Chambers.  All of us come from more or less the same funnel, that same matrix.  Max comes out of Jo Jones and Baby Dodds.  Max was telling me himself the people that he listened to.  Kenny Clarke and Sid Catlett.  When you start thinking about the person who started syncopating the rhythm with the swing, Kenny Clarke was the person who did that shit.  Kenny Clarke was older than Max, and Kenny Clarke was doing that stuff up at Minton’s.  In terms of that bebop stuff, with those licks being put on different parts of the drums, especially with the bass drum being syncopated, Kenny Clarke started that stuff.

TP:    After Max and Braxton, I gave you Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley.  And you said about Oxley, “The drummer sounded as though he was matching color textures with Cecil’s panorama of sound colors and textures and dynamics, rather than playing his own contrasting rhythm, as, say, a Max Roach would. So there wasn’t very much push-and-pull there, or give-and-take. There wasn’t a lot of the polarity, which sometimes causes electricity, which brings forth another kind of magic and generates another kind of feeling.  I think usually in improvisation, a lot of the invention comes from people playing their own rhythms and motifs in keeping with whatever their concept of the music is.”  So you were saying that there’s basically a unison and it was less interesting.  So there are two different approaches to playing in these separate duets that you elaborate upon, and it seems very much that you’re in the former camp.

CYRILLE:  Yes, I would say so.  Now, if I had to do some stuff like Tony… I’ve played with Tony, and let me tell you when I did that.  I did that with Tony and Rashied Ali, and there must be a recording of this.  I’ll get back to the point.  Don’t let me lose the point.  I played with Tony and Rashied with three saxophone players and three bass players in East Berlin right after the Wall came down.  We did a concert there for Jost Gebers and FMP.  I’ve also done things with Peter Brotzman and Peter Kowald, and there’s something in the can that was done back in the ’80s with Brotzman and Kowald.  He has a duet with Teitelbaum and another duet with John Tchicai, and he’s trying to figure out how the stuff can come out.

Anyway, on this one piece with these nine musicians, I played with Oxley.  Sometimes there would be duets between myself and Oxley… The concept of the concert was that among the nine musicians there would be certain kinds of combinations.  So maybe there would be two basses and a saxophone, or two saxophones and two drums.  Whatever the configurations came out to be was how the music was presented.  So I can’t tell you exactly when I played with Tony or with Rashied, or when all of us played together.  But with Tony… And I heard Tony and Cecil again in Den Hague a couple of years ago, when I was over there with Mal Waldron and Reggie Workman. It’s like a wash, so I can get a lot of percussion instruments… There’s a guy named Paul Blackman who plays like this skiffle band in New Orleans, but he plays these rhythms, etc. But I can get all different kinds of…

Hey, this is even better.  If I had all of that stuff, let’s say, that Chick Webb had around him, or maybe even Sonny Greer, and then I would go and just wash…

TP:    You mean washes of color.

CYRILLE:  Washes of color.  You know when you play on the piano and you from one end of the piano, and you go all the way up to the top, and you play these glisses… That’s the word.  To me, very often what Tony does is he plays these glisses of rhythms.  Which is cool.  But sometimes, too, you could take those pieces of glisses and you can make certain rhythms out of it.  So for me, instead of playing like that wash… I can’t say that’s all he does.  But the general impression that I take away from having listened to Tony is this is how he plays.  At least, this is how he was playing with Cecil.  Maybe when he was doing that stuff with Bill Evans years ago…

TP:    Well, when it was time to play time, he played time, and when it was time to play with Cecil…

CYRILLE:  But here’s what I’m saying.  When you start talking about time, time can also be pointillistic.  And he doesn’t do that.  He plays glissando time.  Here’s another term.  People use these things, and I come up with them sometimes, too.  It’s difficult to explain sound and feeling, to give people a good picture in words of what’s happening with the music. So you come up with stuff like “liquid time.”  Liquid time to me would be like water, where you would get motion, but you wouldn’t get any separation.  Think about a river or think about the ocean.  Don’t you see motion?  Don’t you see rhythm?  But is it divided?

TP:    If you were going to think of a visual arts analogy, there’s a kind of Jackson Pollock analogy to Tony’s playing.

CYRILLE:  Yes, all right.  In other words, all of us being human beings, we have to try to relate whatever we do to our bodies on this planet!  So we can’t get too far out, although sometimes we can make analogies as to what it is that we think and what it is that we feel, from whence these ideas come.

TP:    But your playing on this duet with Braxton, for the most part, is not pointillistic.  It’s much more in that Max Roach sort of theme-and-variation aesthetic.  You postulate a rhythm and you sort of set it up as a field, and then you do various iterations and modulations of that idea, and Braxton plays his melodies and does his theme-and-variations and modulations on the melodies and rhythms.  Then the next piece is another idea.  It seems like there’s a sequential sequence of ideas that you work on.  Is that accurate or inaccurate?

CYRILLE:  I can’t say it’s either one.  It’s somewhere in between!  Because there are certain pointillistic things that are done in some of those compositions.  I remember there are some things where I’m playing on the rim of the snare drum, or something, and I would call that pointillistic.  Then maybe I might go from pointillism to some kind of legato, or maybe even glissando type of effect.  Maybe not so much glissando.  But thinking about it now, I could consider that in some kind of musical way from the drumset.  But there are certain things where I play a click and a clack and a bop and a bang, and Braxton relates to it in that way — and that’s what I consider to be pointillism.

TP:    Who would set what up first, from tune to tune?  Would the rhythm be the first principle?  Would the melody be the first principle?  Would it vary from tune to tune?

CYRILLE:  It would vary from tune to tune.  Sometimes Braxton would start something… See, what he’d do, sometimes he’d go to one of his other horns, and each one of those horns have a different timbre, and then I would think to myself, “Gee, what could I do to match that timbre?”  Then with the rhythms he would play, I’d think what can I do to give some kind of contrast or unison to those rhythms.  Sometimes, when we would stop…and I’d stop it… See, that recording could have been a blast… It could have been the same kind of performance that I did with Kidd and William — just played from beginning to end.  Kidd and I stopped maybe once during that performance, and then we started again.  But sometimes, even some of the stuff I’ve done with Cecil is just from the beginning, just get up and start playing and we don’t stop until the final note is hit.  But with Anthony, we started playing, and then it got to a certain point… Like, the first piece, “Duo Palindrome,” it got to a certain point and I said, “I’m going to stop now,” and it was a complete piece.  Also conceptually, I was thinking we’d have different pieces, this was not just going to be an improvisation from Point A to Point Z.  I wanted it to be that way because I wanted different feelings and different concepts to project it.

TP:    Braxton did a live recording with Max on Hat Art after Birth and Rebirth which is totally different.  Probably because it’s a studio recording, Birth and Rebirth is segmented into tunes, but on Hat Art it’s basically an 85-minute improvisation where they flow one into the other.  What dynamics in Braxton’s playing have evolved over time?  Is he a different player than he was 15 years ago when you did the Tristano record, or when he was doing the quartets, or the duo with Max?  what do you hear as distinct to this period?

CYRILLE:  Like all of us who decide as youngsters that we want to play this music, more or less essentially we’re the same people.  I think of Picasso. Of course, he’s the grandmaster, a genius, and I could only aspire to be something like him.  But when you saw Picasso’s stuff from his twenties, there was a grand line that started from his first paintings to the time he died.  You could always tell it was Picasso.  The grand line. Regardless of whatever it was that he was conceptualizing or doing, you knew that this was Pablo Picasso.

TP:    You could say that, but if you’re familiar with Picasso you can also locate a piece by how he is deploying that grand line at any given moment.  You sound different now than you did 35 years ago or 20 years ago.  I don’t know exactly how to quantify that, but I think I can discern your periods.

CYRILLE:  That’s very interesting.  Frank Lowe said to me that he was playing for somebody some recordings I did with Coleman Hawkins, and then he turned around and played something you might consider more modern or different from “Just A Gigolo.” And the person said, “Is that the same Andrew Cyrille?”

TP:    Parenthetically, someone told me he played for Kenny Washington something you did with Bill Barron forty years ago, and he was nonplussed.

CYRILLE:  You’re talking about Hot Line.  I had a great time on that date.  But my point becomes this.  Is there a certain kind of recognition of my sound, maybe of some of the ingredients that I play from one period to another. I would like to think so.  I don’t know.

As far as Braxton is concerned, to me he is the same Anthony Braxton who has now evolved and has become set in his concepts in terms of what it is he wants to do, and feels that he is carrying some weight, and what he says means something as far as the lexicon is concerned — the evolution and history of the music.  I would more or less have to feel the same way.  Both of us are still here, we’re still making contributions, and we have a sense of history, we have a sense of present, and we also have a sense of where we would like to go in terms of what we have done.  I am always looking for new things to bring forth, but there’s no way in the world I can deny my mother and my father!  You know what I’m saying?  In that way, I think Braxton is more or less the same.  Because when we talked to one another in order to get this feeling of camaraderie and hand-in-glove, we’d talk about the same things you and I are talking about in terms of what makes us tick, and what makes us tick from then until now and what we hope will continue to make us tick, all things considered, as far as life is concerned.

TP:    When we’re talking about the theme-and-variation-on-a-design Max Roach approach to rhythm and Tony Oxley’s glissando thing, you can almost extrapolate that into cultural aesthetics about how to approach musical improvisation, the Afro-diasporic and the Modernist European, as it were.  Perhaps we could discuss this in terms of the scene of world improvisation, where these worlds have come together substantially over the last 30 years, in great part because of the AACM guys and their embrace of the forms and structures of the Euro-Modernist canon, and also the European community of free improvisers.  Do you have any reflections on the convergence of those streams and how it might be manifested in an interaction between you and Anthony Braxton?

CYRILLE:  You’re bringing in another piece of who we are.  Me being an African-American, I’m very much European, too, because this is what we learned, this is our culture, this is who we are.

TP:    But I’m talking about forms of music.  But please continue.

CYRILLE:  But there’s no way in the world for anybody who is a legitimate human being to start talking about what they do outside of where they live and how they got to be what they are.  So when I play with someone like Irene Schweizer, and I’ve done a number of things with Irene, and we’re going to do some more stuff… David Murray was part of he last thing I did with Irene.  So how in the world can Irene Schweizer, me and someone like David Murray get together and play on a stage if we don’t inherit certain things from each other’s culture?  Does it have to be so cut-and-dried?  You say Europe, you say Africa, you say America.  Well, yeah, you’d have the polarity when musicians from Africa and from Europe did not play together.  But as we have evolved… We’ve had a couple of wars in Europe, people like James Reese Europe…

TP:    But you didn’t have Stockhausen playing with Charlie Parker or Sonny Rollins, or Pierre Boulez using Hank Jones or Oscar Peterson to improvise  within a piece.  Those are very different attitudes towards what music is.  But within the AACM, or with Cecil Taylor, that convergence exists.  It is a kind of paradigm shift.  I’m speaking more of the modernist notion of European music than the broader civilizational stream.

CYRILLE:  But you see, all of these things are works in progress.  In other words, civilization is an evolution.  So in a sense, when you start talking about Stockhausen and about Boulez, how do I know that Boulez won’t call me up and say, “Come on, Andrew, play some drums” for one or another thing. This is an evolutionary process.  Some people understand it. Some people want to see what will happen when they put maybe acid and a base together to see what the effects are going to be.  Sometimes nothing will happen, sometimes you get an explosion, sometimes you get a hybrid or a mutation that’s fantastic.  People say, “Yeah, we should have thought about that all time,” but sometimes it’s just an accidental combination.

Point:  Last year Reggie Workman and I go to Finland to do a project with one of the great Finnish saxophone players, a guy named Johanni Altern(?), along with some Finnish strings.  Now, the guy who wrote the string music is a guy named Ato(?) Donner(?).  Now, Ato(?) Donner(?) has 18 strings, violins and cellos and basses, reading this music.  So he says to me, “Play what you hear within the context…” He gave me some charts that I had to read, but as I was reading the charts with the strings, I’m also improvising the same way I would do it if I’m reading Duke Ellington charts.

What I’m saying to you is that those people from Finland, coming from that cultural base, get together with me, coming from another cultural base, but at this time, in terms of the evolution of civilization and the planet, I’m influencing them and they’re influencing me.

TP:    So as the world gets smaller, these kinds of interactions become more common.  It’s no longer an exotic thing for this to happen.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  It’s not as exotic as it was before.  Maybe if I went to play with some Amazonian Indians, there might be some different stuff coming out.

TP:    That’s something Peter Kowald was interested in, taking folk musicians out of their local contexts, and creating a broad dialogue of discrete vocabularies.

CYRILLE:  Outside the concepts people have about each other… There’s only one human race, and the simple reason for that is because everybody can still cross.  We can all have an offspring with anybody on the planet.  So conceptually, in terms of culture, the same thing could be possible!  Again, when you start talking about Braxton and the guys from Chicago dealing with some European forms with which they have filtered some Africanisms, so to speak: That’s what jazz has always been anyway.  From the spirituals through the gospels… Well, maybe the gospels were a little different.  But you’d take those harmonies by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and they’re singing some of those European hymns about Jesus and God.  It’s the same thing that’s been reprocessed over and over through the generations.  It’s just that each generation has to interpret it according to the dynamics of the time in which they live.  Some times are better than others.

TP:    I think the one problem with comparing this hybrid phenomenon we’re talking about is that the role of the drums is very different…

CYRILLE:  Well, in the Fisk Jubilee Singers there were no drums.

TP:    But there were certain rhythms that they more than made up for.  If you want to really extrapolate abstractly, there’s a continuity from that up to the Cecil Taylor Trio with you!  If we look at that trio and the John Coltrane Quartet as the two extremes to which that notion of music-making went, and how much farther could it go after that?  So there is evolution. There is a difference.  And I think Braxton and the AACM people are the people who were doing all that research and development on how to elaborate that difference and find a way to continue — find their space.

CYRILLE:  In some ways, something I did that worked was a concert with Miya Masaoka, Richard Teitelbaum and Frank Lowe.  Masaoka is Japanese-American, and she comes in with the koto, etc., and we start playing these rhythms.  You hear the sound, so you’ve got to get used to the rhythm.  That’s something that’s going to be in evolution as time goes, what the Asians bring to this mix of “America” and “American music.”  I’m all for it, in a lot of ways.  I am open to it.  I want to be part of it. It feeds me, I feed them, we feed each other.  For me to say, “Well, my thing is this, and I don’t do nothin’ else,” that’s not Andrew Cyrille.  Whether it be avant-garde or whether it be Ellington stuff… Because Lord knows, I had a fantastic time playing Ellington’s music, and I’d do it tomorrow if I had to.  I loved it.  With all those great musicians up there, and Carmen Bradford singing on top of all that stuff.

But getting back to Braxton: As the arc of life moves from the time I met him, back in Paris around 1969-70… I was hanging out with Philly Joe Jones in Paris, and we started talking about Braxton. He said, “Yeah, man, I knew Braxton can play.  You know how I knew he could play?  I watched the way his fingers moved.”  And we laughed.  But that was Joe’s impression of Braxton, and Joe relayed that to me, and that made me also consider Anthony… Because he was given an endorsement by somebody whom I looked up to.

TP:    We’ve been talking a lot about concept, but we haven’t talked that much about feeling.  And obviously, the way you play in an improvisation will pertain directly to the way you feel.  You’re going to feel one way with Cecil Taylor.  You’ll feel another way with Oliver Lake and Reggie.  You’ll another way with John Carter, another way with Muhal, and another way with David Murray.  How does it feel to play with Braxton?

CYRILLE:  [LAUGHS] It feels good!  I can’t say it feels bad!

TP:    Well, it felt good to play with all those people, or you wouldn’t have stuck with it all that time.  But it felt good differently.  Let’s talk about the distinctions that make the difference, even though they all made you feel good.

CYRILLE:  [LAUGHS] You’re something else, man, with your analyses and questions.  They cause me to think, and I have to find things to carry some truth to them and also mean something.

I always have to come from the way that I get to how I feel, and then I have to understand what we’re talking about when we’re talking about feelings.  Feelings usually come from some experience that somebody has.  Right?  You feel good or you feel bad.  So in the brain it says to you, “Gee, this is going through my body” — like sound, etc., because it travels through the skin and that’s how we feel, too, physically.

In a musical sense, what I have to do, again, is find out what’s on the page.  In other words, let’s put it this way.  Braxton gives me a score, and he’s playing one line, I’m playing the other line, and then we come to a part whereby there is this…it’s not a painting, but you might call it a sketch, where he has these lines and figures, and he says, “Play this at this particular time, whatever you think or feel about this.”  So here I am now, at the moment I’m talking to you, and let’s say he had venetian blinds — because I’m looking at venetian blinds in front of me.  So let’s say it’s venetian blinds on this page, and I’m looking at them and saying, “Well, what do I feel about venetian blinds, and how can I interpret venetian blinds on the drumset?”  I can go from left-to-right and right-to-left, left-to-right to right-to-left, left-to-right to right-to-left, and I can do that, say, from snare drum to tom-tom, from snare drum to tom-tom, back-and-forth and back-and-forth and back-and-forth.  And just from that motion, a motion like a windshield wiper blade, I’ll be able to get kind of sound.  I’ll get some kind of rhythm.

Now, how does that make me feel?  Does it make me feel good?  Yeah, it could, if I’m doing it and it’s coming out and I’m not flubbing, and it’s very clear to me in terms of how I’m doing it in terms of one to another.  You gave me another idea in terms of a rhythm — OOM-BOOM, OOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM; I could do it slower or I could do it faster — looking at the Venetian blinds.

Then what Anthony does in relationship to it also makes me feel a certain way.  When he’s playing, I could say to myself, “where is he going with this?  How can I play this so that it makes him move into another area or makes him feel he wants to create with this sketch he’s given me up to a certain point, and then we move on.”  That happens on the record.  Sometimes I’ll play certain things, and then he will imitate them.  He’ll come back and play verbatim rhythmically just the piece I’m in.  It’s interesting and it’s cute, and it makes me laugh.  So in that light, it makes me feel good.

I don’t like to think… Hey, look, it’s like asking somebody is the cup half-empty or is the cup half-filled.  So I don’t want to start talking about what I don’t like, because it ain’t about that.  So the only thing I can say as far as doing the thing with Anthony is concerned and how I feel about him in relationship to John Carter has to do with what they’re asking me to eat.  In other words, what they have cooked up for me to eat and taste and digest, and what am I to do with it with my on sense of seasoning, or to put in my oven and bring out a certain way.

It’s a difficult question.  This is how I have to look at the overall thing, since you used that term…

TP:    I did.  But now I’m being very specific.

CYRILLE:  How can you get to the specific without some kind of overall?  Or how can you get to the overall without some kind of specific?  Both of them relate to each other, even though they may be on opposite sides of the pendulum.  But when you ask “how do you feel about something?” what else can I say than that I feel good.  I can say in terms of this project, I thought it was a grand recording.  There are some magical things that happen.  There are some things that come out of the tradition, where you have theme-and-variation, but I feel there are also some other things that weren’t quoted or stated in past presentations.  Now, this has to be for people who can sit down and listen with some sort of history of the music in terms of the evolution, or people who will sit down and just say, “Hey, man, this is some good stuff; where are THESE guys coming from?  I like this.”  Or some people will say, “Hey, man, turn that shit off.”  Because I’ve been in the company of so many people who just don’t even give a damn what’s being played.  They don’t want to hear that.  You’ve got to turn on 97.1 with the hip-hop, and then you get a response out of them.  But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a great project and I think it will stand the test of time.

TP:    Some of these songs I’m familiar with.  I think you did “The Loop” on one of your solo albums in the ’70s, and “The Navigator” is from that quartet you had with Sonelius Smith.  Can you discuss the dynamics of those pieces?

CYRILLE:  I have a duet tape somewhere around here of me and Butch Morris doing “The Loop.”  That was the first time I ever played the piece in public many years ago, when he and David Murray first came to New York.  “The Loop” is a piece I’ve played on occasion with people, you could say as a foil maybe, or something to give them to think about, and I’ve explained to them what I mean by “The Loop.”  The loop, to me, is like a figure-8 laying on its side, like the infinity sign.  So you go back and you go forth, you go back and forth.  It goes, DINK-duht-duht-DANK, DINK-duht-duht-DANK.  Then on top of that, I improvise a rhythm with the drumsticks on the drumset, with the basic rhythm being with the hi-hat and the bass drum, with that feeling of looping.  I explained that to Anthony, and I asked him to improvise something within this particular concept.

He wanted that one, and he also wanted…there’s another one that starts out with a basic ostinato kind of drum feeling.  He wanted those to be the first pieces, I think, of each CD, but I didn’t want that.  So we discussed that and came to an agreement.  I wanted “Duo (Palindrome)” to be the first piece, because that was more representative of how I felt our collaboration was or is at this time — even though “The Loop” is part of it.  Sometimes they say that to sell a CD, you’ve got to have a hook, and the first hook should be one of the strongest things on the CD in order to get people to buy it.  Because usually, when people pick up a recording, the first thing they do is play the first track, and if the first track is appealing, then they say, “Hey, I want to get this,” and then they listen to the rest of it.

Anyway, I thought it would be better for me and Anthony to have “Duo (Palindrome),” since that’s the idea anyway; we’re looking at each other, and 2002 is 2002 going forwards and backwards.  So conceptually, that’s what I got him to agree to.  He had another idea in terms of the water.  But I sat down and thought about it and explained it to him.
TP:    The tracks that are co-credited could be called improvisations.

CYRILLE:  Yes, I would say so.

TP:    Then we have “Water, Water, Water.”

CYRILLE:  That comes basically out of an African matrix that has a 6/8 feeling.  “Water, Water, Water” is a piece I recorded with Mor Thiam on Ode To The Living Tree, and I’ll tell you where the concept came from.  That came from me being on Gorie Island, which is one of the slave points of embarkation in Senegal, with David Murray, Oliver Lake, Fred Hopkins and Adegoke Steve Colson.  That was my first recording in Africa.  The feeling of being on that island… I was saying, “It could have been me,” as being one of those people moving through the door of no-return, getting on those ships, and being in those places of confinement.  I’ll tell you this much.  I visited Dachau, which is near Munich, and the construction of those camps and what I saw on Gorie Island is the same.  The same people could have constructed it.  It’s terrible.  And it makes me feel very sad as I’m talking about having viewed both of those places.  What people do to people, man, is terrible shit sometimes.

Anyway, I just thought about the buoyancy of being in one of those slave holds of one of those ships, and the ship moving up and down on the water.  That’s how I got that sense of composition for “Water, Water, Water.”  The beat is a 6/8 Ghanaian beat — GANK, GUGANK-GUGANKGU-GANK, GUGANK-GUGANK-GANK — and I augmented it with some other things that I do… In other words, that was the code.  The other part of it, with the sock cymbal and left hand and the bass drum, I added in terms of independent rhythms to support that code.  That was one of the pieces that I played with Anthony that projected this ostinato, which he liked very much.  I think he also wanted that to be the first piece on the second CD.  So we compromised, and I said, “Okay, Anthony, that can be the first piece of the second CD.”  I didn’t w want “The Loop” to be the first piece of the first CD.  For some reason, I didn’t want the drums to be out there like that on both CDs.  Maybe I have to analyze more in my head why I didn’t want that.

The excerpt from “The Navigator”: I wanted a rhythm that projected some kind of a march, and that was something that was the section of “The Navigator” which comes from the beginning part.  Now, all this is very interesting about me and water.  I’m not sure about what all this means, even though I’m a water sign, as they say, but I don’t necessarily believe in that kind of shit.

TP:    Did you used to go to Brighton Beach or Coney Island?  You’re from New York!

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  Riis Park was the place.  The thing about “The Navigator” is that when I asked a friend of mine to send me a picture of what he thought of the music, he sent me a picture of the coast of Panama, with these palm trees, and when I saw that, I said, “Yes, this works as the cover for ‘The Navigator,’” and then the association with water came after I’d written the composition.  I wrote the music, then I remembered this term, “the navigator.”  Noah Howard had said to me somewhere in Europe, “Yeah, you’re the navigator.”  So when I started writing this piece, I was going to call this “The Navigator.”  The navigator can be an airplane pilot, too.  Anybody can be a navigator.  But in this particular case, it came down with water and the navigator.

“Dr. Licks” is a brand-new piece, the one I most recently wrote.  “Dr. Licks” comes out of some drum licks, and I just wrote some notes to the drum licks.  I’m going to expand either with Marty and Mark or Reggie and Oliver.  It’s a sketch, so to speak.  But Anthony played it very well.  He brought some information to it in terms of how we could do it, and that was good.  We had to practice that a few times, because how it was written was relatively difficult.  I’d have to do it again myself, even though it’s my tune.  But I’d have to get in and use my brain to play the music.

TP:    You said you titled “A Musical Sense Of Life.”

CYRILLE:  Right.  I titled most of them, except for Anthony’s.  But we agreed on the titles.  I did the same thing with Richard Teitelbaum, titling most of the things on that recording, Double Clutch.  It has to do with how the music makes me feel, and what it makes me think about.  I guess all music which does not have words makes people think of something.  So whatever it is that you think of could be the title.  And if you agree with somebody that you’re in collaboration with, then fine.  Or if it’s just your piece… I said, “This is ‘Dr. Licks.’”  I didn’t say, “Tell me what you think about this title.” The other ones I said, “This reminds me of so-and-so; does it remind you of this?” And we sat down and listened to the music.  This was up at Rosenberg’s house, when we were thinking about titles.  He said, “Yeah!” or “No” or “Yeah, but you can add this word.” Like, “Duo (Palindrome),” I was going just going to say, “Palindrome,” but he said, “No, let’s make it ‘Duo (Palindrome),’ and when I explained to him what the word “Palindrome” meant in terms of 2002, he said, “Yeah, let’s call it ‘Duo (Palindrome) 2002.’”

* * *

Andrew Cyrille (WKCR, 7-30-04):

TP:    Let’s talk about the two weeks at Iridium, and then we can branch out. It was an opportunity for you to navigate a lot of the different areas you navigate. One was very open-ended improvising, and the other was more task-directed, playing tunes and interpreting them in your own way. Looking back, how do you evaluate the whole thing?

CYRILLE:  The first week, of course, was challenging in that I had to deal with different personnel in the front line, so to speak. The horns were different. It was Dave Douglas the first night, then Gary Bartz on the second, and the third through sixth nights was Bennie Maupin, and each one of them came with something else insofar as how they decided how they were going to play what was being asked for. A lot of times, when people say things are open, sometimes they are very open and sometimes they are a little less open, even though, say, the improvisation might be free insofar as what you do within those different aspects of being open.

Now, what I mean is a lot of times, Henry would say, “Okay, Andrew, you and I will go out and we’ll start something and play together, and then Perry will come in, and then Bennie would come in.” Or he might say, “I’m going to start with a solo, and then Andrew, you come in, and then Gary, you come in.” Or he’ll say, “All of us start together.” In that light, I have to decide what it is I’m going to do based on a couple of things. One would be if that I’m going to start with Henry, then I have to have something in my head that’s pretty clear in terms of what I’m going to do to thrust the music out there and give it some thrust as I am presenting what it is that’s on my mind. At the same time, it’s like a gambit, an opening gambit in a chess game. So you make a move, and if both Henry and I make a move together, it might be some kind of unison, and sometimes it might not be a unison. So from that explosion, so to speak, or that piece of genetic, or genesis-birth, we go from there.  Then we begin listening to each other.

On the other side, if he says, “Okay, Andrew, you start and I’ll come in,” then I’ll start something more or less with the same idea that we play something, then he’ll relate to it.  He’ll listen and then he’ll play what he thinks goes with that.  It’s the same thing with me.  If he starts something, then I’ll listen to it.  Then I’ll try to find some music in my head that comes out of the drumset that will go along with what he’s playing on the bass.

TP:    By the end of the week, were you doing more unisons or call-and-responses?

CYRILLE:  Well, sometimes it was a call-and-response and sometimes it wasn’t. What I like to do sometimes with bass players… Horn players, too, but especially sometimes with bass players, because it’s not often done during the song… We’ll do exchanges.  So in that light, they’re not necessarily unisons; they’re like call-and-responses. Unisons are usually played when somebody plays something definite and it’s repeated. So then if I wanted to play exactly what would do that, and that would be a unison.  Other than that, there’s always a certain amount of “counterpoint” that’s going on, whether it be rhythmical or whether it be melodic — or even sometimes harmonic, depending on what the instrumentation is.
person was playing, or vice-versa, then we
TP:    You have a lot of experience playing in that context, but how much do you get to do that these days with people who share your history? What was interesting about the two weeks is that you were playing with people who were your generational peers and whose histories intersect in various ways. It’s an interesting dynamic.

CYRILLE:  The first week, of course, with Henry and Dave and Perry… You have to understand, too, that Perry is an extraordinary musician, insofar as, yes, he’s part of what you might call the avant-garde movement, but he plays a lot of standard tunes also. When we were touring in Europe… We didn’t do too much of that at the Iridium. On occasion, we’d play a standard.  But he was playing things like “My Foolish Things.” We played “Oleo” at the Iridium.  We also played that in Europe.  And there were several other pieces, standard repertoire. Another one was “Doxy.” He likes those standard tunes Sonny Rollins played, because he had a lot of experience with Sonny.

Anyway, we would segue sometimes from things that were totally open, or freely improvised, into something that had a certain kind of form. What that does is, that gives a kind of tension-and-release not only to us, the musicians, but also to the people who listen. Very often people appreciate that. Then sometimes, with certain groups, it’s just freely improvised for the whole set. On occasion we did that at the Iridium. We didn’t play any standard material with Dave Douglas; that night it was just free improvisation for the most part, if I remember correctly. When Gary came in, you know, Gary likes to play certain things in the pocket — grooves. So at a certain point in time, he would start playing something that had an ostinato motif, and we would all pick up on that and go there. Also sometimes, coming out of a solo, let’s say… And this was something great that Henry did. Coming out of a solo that I was playing. I’d start playing some kind of a rhythmical motif in an ostinato way, or maybe not even ostinato, maybe I’d just do it a couple of times coming out of a solo, and then Henry picked up the rhythm and added some pitches to it, and that became the genesis of another piece, or something that evolved from a solo that I was doing.

He’s great that way. His ability to be flexible is fantastic. Bass players very often have to play a lot of ostinato lines, and then when those ostinato lines are played everybody, including me, the drummer, and the horn players or piano players, we can dance on those kinds of things.  It gives us a bed that we…like little kids jump up and down on and do whatever flips, jumping off the bed, jumping back on the bed, etc., landing on your behind, on your stomach — and it’s because you have that mattress there.  That’s what Henry provided.

So that week was interesting in that way. The other thing about sometimes playing free is that you have to find something, number one, that is of interest to you.  That is, I, the musician, have to find something that I feel good about, and then try to get the musicians on stage to relate to it and have them feel good about it, and then collectively we can give that to the audience, and the audience feels good about what we’re feeling good about.  So it’s not as easy sometimes as people might think it is, because we have no prescription.

TP:    Playing free doesn’t imply, then, any particular way of playing.  It doesn’t imply playing rubato or playing metrically.  It has more to do with playing the idea that suits the moment.

CYRILLE:  Right.  And that could be metrically or it could be rubato. It all depends on what you decide to do.

TP:    Would that have been the case, say, forty years ago?  Let’s say you and Perry Robin and Henry had been playing at the Judson Church in 1966, would those options have come into play, or would there have been a more rigid approach to what you could or could not do?

CYRILLE:  Well, it all depends on where our heads were at the time, and what was being put out there at that particular time.  I can’t really tell you. Forty years ago…

TP:    1964-65-66.

CYRILLE:  Well, it would depend on the people I was playing with. I remember playing rubato stuff with Walt Dickerson back in 1961-62. There weren’t very many people that I came into contact with at that time who were doing that kind of stuff.

TP:    But by ‘65-’66, you were with Cecil a few years, and Unit Structures is ’66 and Conquistador is ‘67, or vice-versa. What I’m saying is, had the three of you been together then, would you have availed yourself or so many options, or might your approach have been a bit more rigid?

CYRILLE:  Well, I can’t answer that. It all would have depended on what we wanted to do at that time.  If somebody came up with that idea and said, “Well, let’s play free…” Well, for instance, look.  When I was a kid and 15-16 years old, I had a band where it was Eric Gale, the guitar player, and another young fellow in Brooklyn named Leslie Braithwaite. We used to get together, and we’d play tunes like “But Not For Me” “Lullaby of Birdland” and “Scrapple From The Apple.” Now, at that time, if somebody said, “Hey, man, let’s play some rubato stuff,” probably everybody would say, ‘Hey, man, what are you talking about?  That stuff is not what we want to do; that’s not the kind of music we play.”

I was trying to learn how to play time, learn how to swing, etc.  Around that time we began meeting certain musicians, like Duke Jordan and Cecil Payne, etc., all those guys in Brooklyn, and there was a certain kind of basic thing that you had to do if you wanted to play drums with them, if you wanted to be a musician. If you couldn’t do that, that meant you couldn’t play with them.  Now, all of this other stuff came later on insofar as musicians who became stronger and decided that they wanted to do something else musically — philosophically is really what it comes down to — and had the strength to do it.  Like, for instance, Cecil. Because Cecil played standards, but then he decided to become more or less what you might say an iconoclast.  And he broke that up!  Because he felt that he needed to do something else…a way to play the music. And he would say that there was another way to swing, you see.  In some ways, that’s true.  But when you don’t play changes in a very methodical way, if you don’t keep time in a very methodical way, it opens the music up. Things open up. So at that particular time, when we began to do that kind of stuff, it was something that we were doing in contrast to something that we had already known about, you see, that we could do.  It was a matter of choice.

TP:    I won’t keep this real historical.  But I’ve never had a chance to ask you in a detailed way which drummers you were modeling yourself after when you were that 16-17-year-old learning to play those tunes.

CYRILLE:  Well, listening to records.  The first records I went out and bought were… The first or second 10” record was one with Red Rodney, and the other one was “Tempus Fugit” with Miles Davis, with Gil Coggins on piano. Red Rodney looks like he’s about 19 years old on the cover. But I had a job.  I was working in Horn & Hardhart, washing dishes, and I started getting into the music.  I had a drumset.  And I began listening to this music, which was fascinating to me.  And since I was playing drums, I decided, “Gee, I wonder can I do this; I’d like to do this.”  And I kept trying.

TP:    You  were in high school, working at Horn & Hardhart, and you’d already been in the drum and bugle corps.

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  I started in the drum-and-bugle corps when I was like 11.

TP:    And you picked up your rudiments quite quickly from all accounts.

CYRILLE:  Well, sort of.  Rudiments are something you don’t necessarily pick up quickly, because they’re sticking patterns, and you have to LEARN them. Then you have to continuously repeat them in practice, and then, of course, you put them into parade cadences for drumming, the bugle, etc., and bass drums and tenor drums to be in conjunction with.  So you play those march rhythms, those martial things. For military!  That’s what those drum-and-bugle corps are.  They’re quasi-military bands.

TP:    For the troops to march in time.

CYRILLE:  That’s right. You see what I mean?  We could start talking about that, too, scientifically, a 17-stroke roll and a 13-stroke roll.  Like, when you start it and then you end it on the 13th beat, that takes a certain amount of time for the soldiers to make their steps. RRRRMMMMMP, and that’s when they put the foot down. They hear that, and then they know; this is how you get them to march in unison.  So if you want to get them to march a little faster, you play a shorter roll.

TP:    So you’re in high school studying chemistry and you have an after-school job at Horn & Hardhart, and you start hearing trap drums on these jazz records.

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  But let me take you back a little more, too.  See, it all is mixed with other influences.  Many of those people who were teaching me the rudiments to play in the marching band were also jazz drummers. People like Willie Jones, for instance. Then there was Lenny McBrowne at that time, and Lee Abrams, who was working with Dinah Washington and probably had done some stuff with Lester Young. Willie Jones had done some stuff with Lester Young and was working with Monk. But see, the person who came to the grade school to start the drum-and-bugle corps…

TP:    You were saying the people who taught you rudiments were jazz drummers, and the person who started you in grade school was a guy named Pop Janson.

CYRILLE:  Abdulio Janson(?) was his name, that’s right.  He came to the school and resuscitated the drum-and-bugle corps that had existed before I got to the grade school.  I guess this was during World War Two.

TP:    Had your family emigrated from Haiti?

CYRILLE:  Yes.  My mother and father did. My mother came here at the age of 23, and they came here in 1926. My father came here in 1919, you see, and he was born in 1894. They’d been here for a while.  My mother had me at 36, and my father was 46.

TP:    Was there music in your family or extended family?  Were people playing the Haitian folkloric stuff or various Caribbean things?

CYRILLE:  My mother would sing me the songs like “Frere Jacques, frere jacques…” She was always singing to me, and playing those games, the fingers go into the chest and then into the mouth and then the eyes, to teach you how to talk and where the different parts of your body were.  She always did that. We had a piano in the house. I never took any lessons; my sister got the lessons. But see, then, my mother and father separated when I was 4. Had they not separated, I don’t necessarily know what would have happened to me, what they would have done with or for me.  But I remember before my mother and father separated, she gave the piano to a club that she belonged to, the Haitian Alliance, because they needed a piano. She’d say that I was dirtying up the keys and I was biting the wood and all that sort of stuff. I guess I was teething or something like that. Anyway, she gave the piano away, and I… The piano always fascinated me, and I always wanted to play it.

So eventually, when I got a call to join the drum-and-bugle corps… As a matter of fact (I tell this story all the time, and it’s true), when the call came around to the classroom (I was in 7th or 8th grade at the time) that Pop Janson wants to start a drum-and-bugle corps, I remember saying to myself, “I don’t want to join any drum-and-bugle corps because I don’t want to march up and down the street.” Probably if some of my schoolmates hadn’t joined up, that wouldn’t have done it either.  But a good friend of mine at that time, my buddy in grade school, he had gone to the bugle corps, and I had gone over to his house in the afternoon that day to meet, and his mom said that he had gone to the auditorium. So I went over to the auditorium. Now, this is a funny story. Another classmate of mine, whose name was Eli Beans(?), and Eli came out of the auditorium… Of course, at that time there were other kids in the class who were like tough guys, and we’d have to spar with them. Sometimes you would get into fights. Because some of them were bully types, but some were rational and intelligent [LAUGHS], so they joined the corps. I remember one young man named Smith, and as I was walking up to the door of the gym, Eli looks at me, and said, “Hey, man, Smith said if you don’t join the corps, he’s going to see you tomorrow.” So I guess some of it… And it’s not that I wouldn’t have fought with Smith, and gone out there and did what I had to do all the time in order to survive in that environment.  But my friend Bernard was in the corps, there were a few other boys from the classroom, and so I said, “Okay, I’ll join.”

TP:    It was the path of least resistance.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, so to speak.  And, then, too, I wanted to hang out with my buddies who played the drums and bugles, and they asked me what did I want to play, and I said, “Okay, I want to play drums.”

This is how things work sometimes. You go in and put a quarter in the slot machine, and then you hit the jackpot. So I went in there and they showed me how to hold the sticks, and then they said, “Play this” — the roll, mamadada, mamadada, bop-bop-bop-bop, right-right, left-left, right-right, left-left. Then they showed me one that was a little harder. They said, “Okay, you can do this, that’s good; now try this one.” Right-left, right-right, left-left. And not even thinking, I did it, right-left, right-right, left-left. I remember it was Willie Jones, and he said, “Hey, man, look at this kid!  He can play this paradiddle!” They called that a paradiddle. I didn’t know what was going on.  I just did it.  So then they discovered that I had what they called natural hands.  As a result also, I liked doing it, because it was a challenge…

TP:    And you could do it, so you didn’t get bored.

CYRILLE:  I could do it.  So I found a vehicle.  I found a voice for myself in terms of sound and being able to do something that made me feel good and made other people feel good.

TP:    Once you discovered the trapset, though, and were playing, I’m interested in who the voice were that you were emulating.

CYRILLE:  Okay, let me finish the story. People like Willie Jones and Lenny McBrowne were coming down there, helping Pop Janson get these kids together, of which I was one.  Then Willie said there are other ways to play the drums, and got a drumset. So he would invite me and some of the other kids, especially Bernard, over to his house on occasion, and we’d sit at the drumset. So then he started telling me the bass drum does one thing, the hi-hat does another thing, the right hand does this, the left hand does that. Also Lenny McBrowne was saying the same thing. They were older than us, obviously. Then they started talking about these jazz musicians. They said, “there’s music that drums play other than parade music.” So then they started talking to us about Max Roach, they started talking about Art Blakey, they started talking about Shadow Wilson.  And then, sometimes they would take two or three of us to this place called the Putnam Central, which was around the corner from the school we went to where the auditorium was, where Max Roach would be practicing. (Putnam Ave. and Claussen.) So Max would be up in this place, practicing — I say “up” because it was upstairs. We couldn’t go in because they sold alcohol in the place, So we would stand in the vestibule and listen to this guy up there playing, and I mean, I heard this BARRAGE coming out of there, and I didn’t know exactly what it was… They kept talking about these people.

Just to make a long story short, that was my introduction to the drumset and to the sound of jazz, so to speak. Aside from hearing Max Roach practicing, during that same period of time, there was Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich was out there, Cozy Cole, and these people were making hits that were played on the radio station WWRL.  Out here, people liked Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and they’d be playing that music. So as a result of all of this stuff coming together, I was given a certain kind of ground, I was given a nest that I could go to, and then begin to decide for myself what I wanted to do with my life.

TP:    And then someone like Willie Jones or Lenny McBrowne could show you how Max or Art Blakey or Shadow Wilson constructed a pattern or a groove.

CYRILLE:  Well, yeah.  But you see, it’s not as easy as that. Because drummers… There’s a certain thing called independent coordination. You’ve got to do it over and over and over, until after a while, it becomes something where you don’t even really think about certain things, and it becomes muscle-memorized. Then you go on from there.

TP:    Let’s take things from there to 1964: There are a number of things you’re doing. You’re doing regular gigs where you have to play time, like with Nellie Lutcher, Mary Lou Williams and Illinois Jacquet…

CYRILLE:  Nellie Lutcher was way before that, like 1959.

TP:    It sounds like you go to Juilliard around ‘60, and there you play at sessions, you get a gig with Mary Lou, with Jacquet, you have to play time and do what you have to do. Then you’re also playing with dancers and you’re getting a multidimensional notion of what rhythm is, and a certain sense of abstraction. Then you’re hearing African drummers, and you get a gig with Olatunji, which is seminal for you, because you’re hearing all these rhythms and having to play them and internalizing them. Then you meet Cecil when you were about 19 or something…

CYRILLE:  I met Cecil when I was 17.

TP:    So it’s 1957, you’re 17, you meet Cecil, and you go to this joint with Cecil…

CYRILLE:  No-no.

TP:    You’re at Hartnett and then go uptown…

CYRILLE:  Yeah, but see, that was much later on. That was six or seven years later. Cecil and I would just see each other. I mean, he was another musician. He wasn’t who he is now. He was just a guy who was practicing and wanted to get his thing together. I mean, he had a sense of direction, I’m sure.  But he’d see me, and we’d wave to each other, like guys see each other on the street and sometimes nod… I’d play, and he’d say, “Yeah, man, sounds like you’ve been listening to Philly Joe Jones.” I mean, Cecil had his ear to what was going down. Yeah, I liked Joe, because I met Joe at the same time, too.

TP:    He hung in Brooklyn a lot.

CYRILLE:  He lived in Brooklyn, not too far from the Turbo Village.  But there were a lot of musicians who worked there. Here’s a footnote for you. The first drummer Freddie Hubbard played with when he came to New York was me, at the Turbo Village. The first musician that John Handy ever played with when he came to New York was me. We played a gig up at the Shalimar by Randolph, in Harlem, across the street from a place called Sugar Ray’s at 135th and 7th, across the street from the Hotel Theresa. I forgot what the organ player’s name was. But that was the first gig John Handy made when he came to New York. We were talking about when he was at Iridium, laughing about it.

What I’m saying is that all of these things, in a sense… See, even before I went to Juilliard, I was playing gigs with people like Duke Jordan, like wedding receptions and things like that. There was a lot of that stuff going on in Brooklyn. Like, almost every weekend, you’d sit by the telephone and somebody would call you up in the morning or late in the afternoon, and you’d get a phone call saying, “Hey, man, there’s a gig uptown on Bainbridge Street’” or “There’s a gig on Ralph Avenue; they need somebody for a party,” or “There’s a wedding going on; are you available” or “Can you do this tomorrow?” Eventually, I didn’t have to work at Horn & Hardhart, or I didn’t have to deliver… I was working in the garment center. I was delivering rolls of textiles from one place to another.

TP:    and you were studying chemistry.

CYRILLE:  And I was studying chemistry. Exactly. That was something I had to make a decision about as to what I was going to do with my life, whether I was going to continue pursuing chemistry or whether I was going to pursue music. The difference was that I liked chemistry, I liked it a lot, but I loved music — so I went with the love.  And the love continues.

TP:    At what point did playing function, playing time, start to feel confining?

CYRILLE:  See, that’s a term that I don’t like.

TP:    Well, when did it feel that you had to do something? Playing with Illinois Jacquet to playing with Cecil is a radical difference in attitude.

CYRILLE:  But see, the thing is that for  me, Andrew Cyrille, there’s not such a bifurcation. For me, it’s about learning how to play music, and music is broad. So even if it was, say, ametrical or not playing certain tempos, time, etc., that was fine, because we were playing another kind of music. It’s like when I was playing in the high school band and playing Dvorak and stuff like that.  It’s what was being asked for.  When I was playing for the dancers, it’s what I heard in my mind that was given to them so that they could do their choreography.

TP:    So you were a professional. You had the attitude of a professional very early on. Was that notion of professionalism innate to you?  Or did musicians teach you that?

CYRILLE:  Hey, look, this is what goes down, man. You look at the dictionary, or at least when I was in school… Willie Jones and all those cats talked about, “You’ve got to be a professional.” I’d see a Gigi Gryce, a Jackie McLean, all those cats at a place called the Continental. They looked professional. So what does that mean?  That means they were working. See, they were in business. So if I also wanted to make some money, like Max Roach… Max Roach was one of the consummate professionals.  You’ve got to do what people do who do the business, who make the money.

TP:    But you turned that into a way of also making art, because you approached each function as creatively as you could.

CYRILLE:  Right.

TP:    At least, you now have all those vocabularies down, and it’s your creative voice.

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s therapeutic for me, because I’m one of those people who loves excitement, who loves adventure, who loves to explore. I mean, those things that I did with Milford Graves, playing drums with him, was one of the most exciting things in my life — that record we did The Dialogue of The Drums.  That’s some tough stuff. So anybody, even when it’s with Roswell Rudd, Archie Shepp, Oliver Lake, it’s all still the same thing in terms of being creative and us dealing with each other in terms of the concept that the music presents. So if I’m playing “Hope Two,” that piece Archie wrote for Elmo Hope, I still have to struggle to find some stuff in there that’s going to be exciting and that’s going to be new and different, even though the prescription might be the same.  But it’s how you reinterpret the prescription to make the shit happen.

TP:    Are people interpreting the prescription similarly, or is it a different prescription now than it was forty years ago, when all of you who were on stage at Iridium were feeling your oats?

CYRILLE:  Look, if I’m playing with Braxton, then it’s a different prescription from what it was forty years ago.  If I’m doing something with Muhal, then it’s different, but sometimes it’s the same, because Muhal plays blues a lot of times at the end of his gig, and he’ll say he wants a backbeat.  When I was playing those gigs with people like George Braith and Billy Gardner… I used to sit in with Lou Donaldson from time to time.  You play those organ gigs where you have to go out to those places where Don Pullen also played, like Hempstead, Long Island, where those sleep-in women who would be working at some of those homes out there… On Thursday night or Friday night, they’d have a night off and they’d come to those clubs, where you’d have the blue and green lights turning around, with those filters, where people were dancing and men were meeting women, and a lot of times you had to play those blues so those people could get off, so they could actually feel they were having a good time. You LEARNED how to do that.  That’s part of being a professional.  But as a musician, it’s not something that you deal with from the head down.  You deal with it from the stomach up to the head, and then you FEEL good about what you’re doing, and then those people, of course, feel good about what they’re hearing you play, what you’re giving them.  They’re out there on the floor dancing. It’s the same thing even when I was playing for people at the June Taylor School of Dancers.  You play the music, and then you can watch their bodies move to the way you play the rhythms, how you accent certain things. So that’s the thrill for me.

TP:    It sounds like playing for Cecil was your own time.

CYRILLE:  Well, with Cecil I did what I wanted to. But the challenge then becomes to keep something happening on the same level as it would happen if I was playing the blues, or if I was playing with a dancer who would say to me, “Okay, drummer, make my body move.”

TP:    Or if you were “swinging.”

CYRILLE:  Yeah. But see, the definition of swing to some people means Sid Catlett.  That’s who Kenny Clarke told me was his favorite drummer. See, Kenny Clarke told me… And all these things MEAN something to me.  I’d like to BE that if I could.  He told me that Big Sid was a drummer who all of those chorus line dancers who used to do stuff with Duke up in Harlem, when they would have rehearsals… Because sometimes, as a drummer, you need that if you’re going to do certain moves. He said those dancers loved Big Sid because he made them feel as though they were dancing on a cloud. And when you start thinking about it, all of those instruments sit on the rhythm.  They sit on the drums.  They sit on the drums and the bass.

TP:    You were joking about Valerie Wilmer’s comment, and it’s in the liner notes of this FMP date with Cecil, that Cecil gave you the metaphor of playing for a dance along with him, or extrapolating the things you’d done in dance towards creative uses with him.  Is that how Cecil helped to shape what you were doing, or was it something you were prepared to do and came into naturally?

CYRILLE:  See, a lot of times people will say certain things, and then you have to come up with how you’re going to do it. So if that was said to me, then I had to think about maybe something that I played for a dancer somewhere, at sometime, or maybe something that I would play for a dancer now if that were the situation.

The most outstanding thing, in my mind, that Cecil ever said to me was, “Do what drummers do.” It’s very simple. I know what drummers do, because I’m a drummer, and I’m going to do what I do. See?  So in that light, he never told me, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, do this, that or the other.” Maybe twice I remember he asked me to play something specific, like a 3 against a 5, or some kind of metrical situation.  And he wasn’t really that specific about it. He just said, “Play 3 against 5 here,” blah-blah, blah-blah. And I did whatever it was that I thought he was talking about.  But most of the time, and I’d say 99% of the time (if I have to talk about that being 1 percent when he asked me to play this or that), it was always, “do what you want to do, man; you know what to do.”

Even when we were at Antioch and we were with that big band, we had that orchestra of students… There are some tapes around from that period, which is great. But what I was doing with that orchestra and the “percussion section” was whatever I felt like. See?  I would write music out in my way for the other drummers, who were part of the ensemble, and that’s what went down. So when Cecil would do the orchestration and give the notes to the other voices, I would be in the back, and whatever it was that I heard, I would apply the percussion music to whatever it was that was going on with the melodies and the harmonies. So it was always that way with me and him.  And the challenge for me becomes to bring that up the highest artistic level that I could, to bring some kind of feeling, bring some kind of logical meaning to what it is that I am playing or what it is that I am orchestrating.

TP:    Still, the overriding notion is whatever it is.  It’s not a one-sound type of thing. I’m not saying this pejoratively, but when Rashied Ali was playing with Coltrane he was going straight-ahead, and so was Sunny Murray with Ayler.  But I can’t see them approaching each area in the systematic manner you do. What makes you stand out, it seems, is that you’re able to apply systematic logic in a very creative way, which makes you and Braxton a logical mix.

CYRILLE:  That could very well be. That could be the analogy.  But see, I’ve always tried to be open. I can’t say I love everything because that would be a lie. But I have played duets with Rashied, and I have tapes of me and Rashied playing together in a concert at Antioch, and it’s great music. Now, Rashied showed me a lick, which is something I use from time to time when I do solos, that’s something Coltrane showed him — it’s a thing called “Coltrane time.” It deals with a rhythmical concept that’s based on numbers, like 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, and you play it a certain way, and it comes out of what Coltrane was doing when he was into the Indian raga stuff, like “Sun Ship,” when you hear that kind of rhythm. Rashied showed me and Milford Graves that rhythm, and sometimes when we get together and do a collective…or when I do it with maybe other drummers, too… I’ll show them the rhythm, and we’ll play it. So that’s a system, and if you want to call that a certain straight-ahead prescription…

But straight-ahead very often means that you’re playing 4/4…

TP:    I meant it differently. What I’m thinking about with is how many different areas of getting sound and vocabulary and stories out of the drums you seem to be able to weave together into one personality. It’s like Braxton said, you have these thousands of phrases that you can call up at a moment’s notice…

CYRILLE:  You know why?  Because I believe that the more you know, the more you have to say.  That’s the vocabulary. That’s like words. You’re talking I’ve got to come up with a typology.  Well, if you knew all the words in the dictionary, I’m sure you wouldn’t have that much of a problem.

TP:    Which also sounds a lot like what the AACM people were talking about in the ‘60s. Braxton made some reference to that as well. The notion that you listen to everything.

CYRILLE:  Yeah. And I love being that kind of person. Not long ago, Zildjian did a thing for Steve Gadd. They were talking about the greatness of Steve Gadd is that he can go into all of these sessions… And we’re all sitting there listening to whatever they’re talking about, and they’re praising him, all praises due… They’re talking about how he goes into these studios, and then he listens, and whatever these people want, he gives it to them, and sometimes they don’t even know what they want, but they ask him to do something in relationship to what it is they’re playing, and he comes up and he plays this stuff, and it WORKS for them! And obviously, it must work for him.

I am the same kind of person in this genre — or I want to be this kind of person. Max Roach to some degree is that kind of person also — almost.

TP:    He wouldn’t occur to me because he seems to be so unto himself.

CYRILLE:  Well, he played for dancers. He played shows.  He played big band with Ellington. He played in the drum and bugle corps. He wasn’t always the Max Roach that we knew. He just worked hard, found himself in that situation with Bird and those people, and he wanted to be somebody who contributed to that vein of music.

TP:    That applies to your professional life now, because you play in a staggering range of situations. The Finnish cat, Tarasov, the European improvisers, Cecil, the thing with Reggie and Oliver is one sound, the thing with Dresser and Marty is another type of sound, the percussion group with Moye, Tabbal and Obo Addy… So apart from keeping you busy with a lot of projects, the diversity and multidisciplinarity of it must keep you tremendously stimulated.

CYRILLE:  Oh, yeah.  And the point becomes to manage my time so I can find the time to do what I really need to do to to give what’s necessary to all of it.

TP:    Now, the quality you’re talking about, that you’re the type of guy Zildjian was referring to with Steve Gadd, really came to the fore in the second week at Iridium. You have a bamako beat, on another one you’re playing 4/4 spangalang… Each piece had a frame, and within that frame you’re…

CYRILLE:  Yeah, the bamako beat comes out of my experiences with Africans. Olatunji wasn’t the only African I played with. This is interesting. I played with a group of guys, we used to play dances — a guy named Victor N’Kojo Finn and Joe Mensa. There was a saxophonist from Detroit named Wendell Harrison. There was John Gilmore and Marshall Allen in some of those bands. Sun Ra used to come up to rehearsals and sometimes tell Olatunji to play one thing or another. Yusef Lateef even did a couple of gigs with Olatunji. But anyway, all of those people I mentioned to you, including myself, were playing the African stuff. So when somebody like Roswell Rudd comes up with “Bamako,” there’s ten different things that I can do with that!

TP:    Did you ever play with Latin bands?

CYRILLE:  Yeah, you play mambos.

TP:    Or with Haitian bands.

CYRILLE:  No, I never played with any Haitian bands, but you hear the rhythms.  Here’s the point. Even when you’re playing with Latin bands or Cuban bands… I’ve done some stuff with Daniel Ponce — he, I and Milford, as a matter of fact.  The thing is, once you understand what the matrix of that stuff is with this African rhythm, then it can move through anything that relates to that kind of playing, you see, with that downbeat on the 1 and the downbeat on the 1 and 3.  With swing, the inflections are on the 2 and 4, which is another way of thinking about music — and why that is is another thing.  What you play in the middle of it, from one beat to the next is the flavor. But when you play, like, Brazilian music… Now, one of the musics that I did play with some people that gave me a little bit of trouble was Brazilian music, because the inflection of where they placed the beats in the meter was a little different.

Another thing is that a lot of music comes out of the way people talk.  So what’s being played is also how it’s being said in words. It’s just that they’re playing it in sound. Because you take all of those people from the South and the Delta, etc., when you hear them talk and you hear them play, it’s almost the same thing.  What I’m saying is that when you play the African music, and you understand how to move from one place to the next with those sounds, you can play with people from Cuba, you can play from people from Nigeria, you can play with people from Haiti, you can play with people from the Dominican Republic. So anybody who is related to that in any way all can come together.

TP:    The common root.

CYRILLE:  It’s the common root.  It was the same thing with Mor Thiam, who’s from Senegal. On that record, Ode To the Living Tree, on the end there’s a piece called “Water, Water, Water” and at the beginning… Well, Mor Thiam just sat down and started playing. I had some concepts about evolution in terms of playing the swing beat, which is what I did, and we had no problem. Because I understand the genesis of that music.

TP:    Let me ask you a more general question. What do you think about the way drum vocabulary has evolved since you first got in the game?

CYRILLE:  Well, it’s fantastic. Elvin brought another thing to it. Tony Williams brought another thing to it.

TP:    Were you paying attention to Elvin and Tony?

CYRILLE:  Damn right I was paying attention to them.  You pay attention to it because you hear it, and all of a sudden, you hear something that’s kind of the same, but the way it’s being said… We all speak English, but sometimes you hear an orator talk, and he begins putting some stuff together, like Martin Luther King stringing it together in a way that you know is cool, but then again, it’s different — and it’s attractive.

TP:    But in the ‘60s, you were checking Tony out?  You were checking Elvin out?

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  Because when I first heard Tony… I met Tony at a place called the Coronet in Brooklyn. I forgot who he was working with. But he was one of the cats that had come on the scene.  He was working with Jackie. He wasn’t working with Miles yet.  Then I hear this guy, and the thing was that being so young, he was so strong, and then the way he was assigning the rhythm, the way he was playing it, how he was, let’s say, enunciating what he was saying, was very, very strong, and then, at the same time, very, very musical. So then what you say to yourself is, “Damn, how did he hear that?” What is the grid for that? Well, you kind of know what the grid is, but you say, “Damn, this guy…” It’s like looking at a painter. You give him a canvas and somebody does one thing with the canvas and then somebody else uses the same paints or form, but you look at it and say, “Wow, this is really different!” So that’s what I saw with Tony…

TP:    Who are some of the other drummers who emerged after you got your mature voice who you were checking out and paying attention to?

CYRILLE:  I’ll tell you who I like.  Lewis Nash is a good one. Lewis is strong.  Lewis knows the language of playing the drums.  And he’s creative with it, and I can tell that he continues to work at it.  He’s very strong, and so many musicians in the straightahead idiom like him. They like working with him.  He gets all kinds of calls for that kind of stuff.  He’s not so much of a threat insofar as taking them into some area where perhaps they won’t be able to do what they need to do.  In other words, he’s the consummate drummer for people like Tommy Flanagan or maybe Cedar Walton… And he can do so many types of things. He worked with Oscar Peterson and all those people…

Somebody else who is a very creative musician but doesn’t get the same kind of play in the media is Michael Carvin. I’ve done duets with Michael Carvin. Which were superb!  I might do some more of them.

TP:    Where I’m coming from is I want your sense… You’re 64. So you’ve lived through about a half-century of jazz music. Things have changed, and the way drums are approached has changed — maybe. Is that so?  If so, how is it…

CYRILLE:  I teach over at the New School.  So I see a lot of young kids who come in there who are 19-20-21 years old, and they know a lot about what has gone on — and some of them don’t know a whole lot about what has gone on. But they come in with raw talent, you see, and some of them are a little further along than others in terms of their ability to play the music at hand or the music that’s asked for by teachers in the classrooms.  And some of those kids are really excellent. I mean, they’re phenomenal.  And some of them are already playing professionally. So they come in with the attitude that they want to do their thing, and the point becomes that if they’re doing their thing within the prescription of the classroom, of what’s being asked of them, then it works. Very often I don’t tamper with certain things. I might nudge them this way or that a bit, or make them realize certain things that they should look for when they’re playing with a singer or maybe doing something with a bass… Anything that will make them better musicians.  But insofar as them being creative and being able to play certain kinds of rhythms within the tradition, sometimes it’s just amazing.  All you’ve got to do is come up there and check some of them out. We have these what they call listening sessions once a semester, and the classes come together, and each class plays a couple of tunes, and the bands from the different classes get graded by the faculty that’s designated to be there on that day. I might be there, Joanne Brackeen might be there, Reggie Workman has a class there, Joe Chambers, Billy Harper, maybe Cecil Bridgewater, Cecil McBee was there… All of our classes play.  And in some of those classes, some of those drummers are fantastic little students.

TP:    One thing that’s happening is you’re finding a lot of drummers from outside the U.S., like Dafnis Prieto… The term might seem amusing to you, since you’ve brought so many elements into your music for so long, but there’s a sort of bilingualism, where people have an idiomatic command of Cuban music, say, and learn the jazz vocabularies, and blend the cultures into a sort of hybrid.  There are so many musical communities in New York breaking bread with each other. Do you see that having an impact on the sound of the music now?

CYRILLE:  Oh, of course. Because jazz has always been a music that has been evolving.  This is what the United States is. So if we have not done anything, we’ve done this.  We’ve given different cultures another methodology to express themselves within their own cultures.

TP:    I think that’s a great one-sentence breakdown of the phenomenon.

CYRILLE:  Yes.  And all of them love us for that.  That’s why I can go to the Soviet Union and play with Vladimir Tarasov, and we can have a ball.

TP:    So it really has to do with the process.  The process is the most important thing.

CYRILLE:  And if one understands the process, then we can work together.  Now, there is one group of drummers with whom our process does not always fit immediately, and that’s the Indian drummers, because they have another system of counting.  When you begin to base certain things on the Western tradition in terms of how we learn music… For instance, when I went to Russia and was playing with Vladimir… He invited me to go play with him. So I was saying to myself before I went, “What in the hell are we going to play?  What are we going to play together?” So all I could do was prepare myself for what I had.  And when I got over there, I had written the chart. He could read it. He gave me a chart.  I could read it.  Then, from there, he began telling me that where we was born, Archangel, was a port more or less like New York, where you had sailors coming in from different parts of the world. So when he was gigging, like me, you’re 15-16-17-18-19, or however old you have to be in order to get into places that sell liquor, you begin to learn these different kinds of musics from the different people that come through, and for certain things you have to play for people. For instance, I learned how to play polkas when I would be playing barmitzvahs and stuff like that. So I’m sure he more or less learned the same kind of thing.  So when you’d say “shuffle,” he understood what a shuffle was.  When you’d say “backbeat,” he understands what a backbeat is. When I went to his house, there was a picture of him standing with Duke Ellington. See, Duke had gone over there, and it just so happened that he was able to take a picture with Duke.  That’s where his head was.  So when he got with me, we had the same type of methodology, even though his inflections were perhaps a little different because he came from outside the States.  Also, the other part of it with him is that he was dealing with the Ganelin Trio, who were also playing “free jazz.” So in a sense, we had worked together insofar as the processes were concerned.

I did something with him last year in Hungary (and I think it was done twice) with a dance company called… The name will come to me. Vladimir and I played music to a piece that was choreographed… It was like a play.  Then there was a film.  We improvised a lot… We talked about how we were going to do it, certain places, certain things we were going to improvise.  Just like I did with Henry.  Here we improvise, here you play this, here I’ll play that, you play this against this, here we’ll read a certain thing, here you’ll only play, there you’ll only play. The dancer is… They live in a place called Kanitza(?), which is right below Hungary, in Yugoslavia. He came to New York.  He’s a big-time guy over there. I think he lives in France, too. Joseph Nagy.

All I’m saying is that with Vladimir, we understand the process, and with that, we can get together. We can communicate.

TP:    You said that your early mentors pounded into that you have to be a professional.  Did they also pound into you that you have to be an individual?

CYRILLE:  Yes. And I’ll tell you why.  I used to hang out with all of them cats. But the cat that I would be with on a physical level more than any of the others was Philly Joe Jones. When we were with Joe and Max and all them people, they would talk about, “Hey, man, you got to play your own shit.” Among the intelligentsia, it’s about “is this cat playing his own shit or is he playing somebody else’s stuff?”  And it’s cool if you’re playing somebody else’s stuff, because it works. It’s been tried, it’s true, and it’s been tested.  But when you can get out there and do something unique, like Elvin or Philly Joe Jones or Max Roach or Roy Haynes… Even Buddy Rich, to some degree. I could talk to you about how I feel about him.  But he was unique in a lot of ways. He played his ass off in some ways. But as far as Joe and Max and those guys, it wouldn’t be true to say they don’t respect other drummers, because that’s not true.  They do.  All of us out here are trying to do what we do.  But the people who shape the music, who cause other drummers to think about what they’re doing and think about those people, are the people who are lionized. I can’t say they’re respected the most, but these are the kings.  Then you have the rest of the world — the princes, the dukes and the earls.

TP:    You mentioned Lewis Nash and Carvin. Can you name anyone else doing what you describe.

CYRILLE:  There are people who are trying to do certain things. I don’t always understand what he does, but he’s in it to some degree in terms of being creative and trying to find something that works — Bobby Previte. Hemingway is another one who’s an individual, who works from his own system as far as tuning the drums is concerned. Of course, Paul Motian is another one.  The way Motian assigns the rhythm is different. I’ll tell you who else is different, though I don’t know if he’s under 50, is Tony Oxley. I don’t necessarily play that way, but he’s got an arsenal of whatever makes percussive sounds, and that’s what he plays.

TP:    I was thinking of people like Tain or Bill Stewart…

CYRILLE:  Those cats are… Stewart is a strong man. I first heard Stewart when he was playing with Enrico Rava in Germany. I had a gig with Spencer Barefield and Oliver Lake at Leverkusen, and I heard Billy Stewart, and he was really quite impressive. He was strong, and he knew what he wanted to play, and he was fast, and he gave the band what they wanted — he was somebody to behold. Tain is another one who is a great person, extraordinary with his talent.

But what I’m talking about is when you hear somebody who comes in, and they’re playing something that is really different. I’m talking about like a Tony. He’d do certain things with one hand, he’d do something with another hand, and the way he was playing those rhythms, you never heard anything quite like that.  That was different! Elvin was different.  See, Tain is different, too, but not AS different. Another one who is like that, to me, is DeJohnette.  See, DeJohnette is kind of like a synthesis.  He is an excellent drummer, but I don’t think he has influenced the legions of drummers around the world the same way like Max or Tony or Elvin or maybe Philly Joe Jones.  Then there are other people who come under that. I remember I liked listening to Frankie Dunlop, and I like listening to Ben Riley.  All these guys are very good.  Another guy who is really unique, but to me he hasn’t diffused what it is that he does within the wider context of the music, is Milford.

TP:    He’s pretty much unto himself, not much of a team player.

CYRILLE:  Right. In a lot of ways, you have to play with him.

TP:    I think one reason why the drumset is such a powerful instrument apart from the noble sound is that the rhythms all embody some sort of story, since the original function was to convey information. I’m wondering if, when you’re dialoguing in rhythm and using independent coordination, if you think of it that way — if you think of it as a storytelling function.

CYRILLE:  Yes.

TP:    Is that explicit?

CYRILLE:  Well, very often it is. Let me go from here. I remember playing with some Africans one time in London, and the guy said to me, “Just don’t think, man; just go ahead and play.  Don’t think; just let it come out.” Now, to me, that’s playing and the music is after the fact. Just play. That happens sometimes when you get on the bandstand. Like, if I’m going to go up and play with Brotzmann or Kowald or something like that, it’s fun, and you let it happen, and then it evolves. You’re listening to each other, see, but you’re playing the music. Now, if somebody says to me, “Hey, man, play something for me like Art Blakey played on ‘Moanin’ because I want a march rhythm…” Oliver sometimes says this, “Yeah, I kind of want to march.”  So you think of a march, a martial rhythm. Now, you might improvise on the martial rhythm, but everybody knows… [SINGS CADENCE] It (?) Because it has a certain cadence that you’re telling a story of something that’s martial. So if somebody says, “Yeah, I want you to play the bridge of ‘Night In Tunisia” with a Latin beat,” so you think of something that tells the story of Mambo or Cha-Cha or whatever, like some of those tunes like Reggie was playing with Roswell and Archie last week.  They had a montuno kind of cadence to them, the one that Roswell calls “Puchi and the Bird.” Reggie plays a montuno on it, and as long as he stays there with that montuno, I can play all kinds of stuff in relationship to it.  But still, there’s a story, so if I play, he goes [SINGS OUT DIALOGUE] — automatically that brings somebody to Africa. It can also bring you to Cuba or Haiti.

TP:    You have a very scientific approach to music within your creativity.

CYRILLE:  Well, yes.  You know why? What does science mean?  Science means that when you do a certain thing, you know you will get a certain result. That’s what all musicians do, I would imagine. I would think that singers in particular, if you want to sing a ballad… “My man don’t love me!!!” Isn’t that a science?  Isn’t that the science of music?  And isn’t that what we teach, or what you learn when you go to the conservatory?  You learn how to do that shit to affect people.

TP:    But different people have different ways… You’re very systematic. It’s interesting, because you’re so methodical but also so creative.

CYRILLE:  Well, we could start talking about what is creativity.

TP:    Yes, we could.  But maybe we won’t.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, right.  See, it’s all fun to me, man. As long as I can make some money, too.

[PAUSE]

Cecil and I did have a couple of rehearsals, with Honsinger and Franky. We played together the night before for quite some time, so we got all our vocabularies together. In other words, we began to feel each other out, and when we went to do the concert, the energy was more or less the way we’d played it.  The thing about it is, sometimes you can’t really prescribe what’s going to happen.  Sometimes that’s what makes it so beautiful, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you just get into it, and something fantastic happens. Now, sometimes it doesn’t work, for whatever reason.  But some of the greatest moments I’ve had with a lot of musicians playing creative music is when you just go out there and hit, like doing the shit with Kidd Jordan and William, or even some of the things that I’ve been able to do with Dave Burrell recently. Some of these things haven’t been recorded; just when you get together on stage and play a concert, you say, “Wow!  That was really something else.”

Again, with all of this stuff, it’s a matter of it happening in the moment with whatever we have to bring to the table.

TP:    I wasn’t saying anything one way or the other about it. I was just surprised that that was the feeling.

CYRILLE:  See, what happens is Cecil sits down at the piano, and he begins playing the way he plays, or I’ll begin playing the way I play or the way that I feel right then. So if it’s one of those up-tempo energy kind of things, I’ll do that.  Very rarely does he sit down and start playing very legato, ballad type things. Most of those things are very pointillistic when he starts, jagged to some degree. So you begin that way. You take a step, take another step, take two-three steps, then you sit back and listen for a while, and pace. It’s almost sometimes like a cat. You watch cats, and they go up, and then they see what they want, and they’ll move down to the ground, then they sit up again, and they move and see what they want, and then… It’s almost like stalking sometimes. Sometimes.

* * *

Andrew Cyrille (WKCR, 11-16-97):

[With Muhal: "Drumman Cyrille"]

TP:    Let’s repeat your biography.  A Brooklyn native, and you started playing drums around when?  What piqued your interest?

CYRILLE:  I started playing when I was around 10 or 11 years old. I guess the thing that piqued my interest in the drums is that I found a way to express myself that I didn’t have prior to playing the drums. I found, in a sense, my voice; I could enlarge my voice. That might be a literal explanation

But along with that, I had other young guys with me, who used to play in my drum and bugle corps, and we would get together. It would be like friends who would be playing a game. We would learn these rudiments and these drumbeats, these beats that we would play for parades, etc., and as a result we’d see who would do one or the other better.  If one could do something better than the other, then we’d try to help the other one do what it was that he didn’t know — or I didn’t know.  There was a gentleman named Abdulio(?) Janson — Pop Janson, we used to call him.  He’s the guy who founded the drum-and-bugle corps in the grade school I went to in Brooklyn, St.  Peter (?). When we graduated from that school, he used to come to Brooklyn and get us and take us out to Long Island to play at the C.W.V. Post in Huntington.  So it was an outing for us.  It was something for us kids from the school and in the neighborhood to do.  Like most kids…

TP:    Did you play all the components of the drum within that?  Did you start playing the snare or the bass drum?  Do you remember which implement was the first one for you?

CYRILLE:  It was the snare drum from the very beginning.  Some of the other kids played the tenor drum, which stands behind the snare in the drum line, and then the third line, you’d have the bass drum.  So we had some kids who played the bass drums, some who played the tenor, and some who played the snare. I was one of the kids who played the snare. It was really a great time, in a way, to get us out of the neighborhood and have us do something which was positive.

TP:    In Brooklyn at that time there was an active music scene, and you could see music be played, and you probably had access to watch some drummers.

CYRILLE:  Oh, very definitely.  Some of the drummers who used to come to the Corps to teach the kids were professional jazz musicians.  There was Lee Abrams, who used to work with Dinah Washington and Lester Young. There was Willie Jones, who also worked with Lester Young and Thelonious Monk. Then there was Lenny McBrowne, who worked with Paul Bley and did a show in California with Jon Hendricks –  maybe Blues For Mister Charlie or one of those things that Jon Hendricks had put together. Lenny was the drummer for that, and he also worked with people like Booker Ervin. Of course, all
those drummers were aficionados of people like Max Roach and Art Blakey and Shadow Wilson, and so they told us about those drummers also, and other ways of playing the drums.

TP:    Were you into emulating drummers at that time?  Who were some of the people you’d try to replicate motions and strokes?

CYRILLE:  For the most part, we learned these strokes, etc., so as a consequence, when you start listening to records, you have to imitate somebody… The records I used to buy had Max Roach on them, they’d have Art Blakey on them, or I’d hear Shadow Wilson… There were young drummers in Brooklyn like Maurice Brown and Arthur Trotman, and a few others.  There was my grade school partner, Bernard Wilkinson, who was Max’s brother-in-law.  We would all listen to the professionals. There was Steve Butler, too.  We’d all look at each other, watch each other, talk about the drummers that we liked, and some of us would play more like Max or Philly Joe or Art Blakey or Arthur Taylor or others.

TP:    Let’s talk about your transition from student to professional, and how it became apparent to you that being a musician, being a drummer, would be your avocation, would be your life.

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s a large jump. There were some things that I thought about doing with my life in a professional capacity before I really said to myself, “Okay, I want to go for music.” When I left high school, I had decided to study chemistry for a while, so I was a chemistry major.

TP:    Where did you go to high school?

CYRILLE:  I went to St. John’s Prep, and then I went to St. John’s University.  Then, at St. John’s University, I was still playing at night. I was playing with people like Duke Jordan and Cecil Payne and making gigs.  So it was hard for me to do both, and do both well — and I’m one of those people who, if I’m going to do something, I want to do it to the best of my ability. So I had to make a choice. Either I was going to remain in chemistry and really study that and put the time in as I should, or I was going to be a musician and put in the time to do that. So I had to make a decision between something that I felt I liked and something that I thought I loved. I liked chemistry; I liked it a lot.  But I loved music.

So I went with the music — for a number of other reasons also. Like, for instance, it was teaching me about the history of African-Americans. It also gave me an opportunity to see a direct entrance into employment. Also, I kind of felt like it was a line of least resistance in terms of something that was natural to me. I liked chemistry.  I don’t think I was a natural mathematician.  I had to work at, if you know what I’m saying. I think my brother is more of a mathematician than I am. In fact, his daughter just got a scholarship to Carnegie-Mellon for mathematics.  But I’m not as good as they are. So I went with the music.

TP:    But you were already at a level of proficiency where you were making these type of gigs, and then had to make a choice of what it was going to be. Do you remember your first professional gigs, and what sort of gigs they were?

CYRILLE:  There was always a bunch of young musicians in Brooklyn.  I remember Chris White (the bass player). There was a saxophone player, Jimmy Revis(?).  There was also Bobby Hamilton, who played drums.  There was another trumpet player, Larry Greenwich. We’d get together on occasion and play for dances, parties. We’d get together and have jam sessions. Also, the people whom I really started learning the music with, the language of music, was the piano player, Leslie Braithwaite, and the guitar player, Eric Gale, who went to high school with me. We had a trio, and Eric would play bass on his guitar, and Leslie would play the piano, and I would play the drums. So we started learning those tunes — “But Not For Me,” “Now Is The Time,” “Well, You Needn’t.” This is how we began to develop. As a result, people would hear about us and they would hire us to do various little jobs.

TP:    You eventually entered Juilliard. You make a decision that music will be your life, you make arrangements to enter Juilliard…

CYRILLE:  I thought, well, if I’m going to study music, I might as well go to a music school. Again, with Leslie and Eric, we were saying, “Man, if you want to study music, you can go to Manhattan or you can go to Juilliard,” then we started asking musicians who had gone to both what the difference was.  I decided I wanted to go to Juilliard, so I had to prepare to take the entrance examination.  Believe it or not, I didn’t think I would pass!  The guys who were my examiners were these two great musicians in the European classical world. They were Morris Goldenberg, who was playing for the Metropolitan Opera and also for the NBC Orchestra at the time, and Sol Goodman, who was playing for the New York Philharmonic. I went to take the test, and they asked me to read something which I had prepared, they asked me to play a few drum rudiments, and I played it.  I remember I made a mistake in the part I’d prepared to read, and they said, “Hold it, you made a mistake there!” — and I went back and corrected it.  Then I got a letter saying that I was accepted to the school, and I was very, very happy. As a result, I never really looked back.

In the school then were other young guys who helped in terms of helping one focus as to how one was going to do this music and its business. In the school at the time was Roland Hanna, Bobby Thomas, Addison Farmer, Gary Bartz was up there with me, Grachan Moncur was up there, John Gordon, and a host of other people who aren’t as prominent today.  Herbie Martin, a tenor player, was another one.  We’d all get together, and we’d start talking about what we were going to do in this business!

TP:    Was there any possibility of dealing with jazz in the Juilliard curriculum forty years ago?

CYRILLE:  No.  I actually went to Juilliard to learn how to play jazz, but it wasn’t to be then. So I had to meet people who were learning the music so that I could learn how to do it. There were people like Nellie Lutcher, Mary Lou Williams and Illinois Jacquet. Those were some of my first experiences, while I was still in school. I’d met Morris Edwards, who was a bass player at the school also.

TP:    You were gigging with them at night while studying days at Juilliard?

CYRILLE:  Well, yeah, but it was closer to music. But I’d do those things, and sometimes in the summer you’d have gigs and go off when there was no school.

TP:    How would you evaluate the Juilliard experience?  Was it valuable for you?

CYRILLE:  On a certain level, yes.  It taught me about the literature and materials of music, a lot of the theory, etc. It got me into a music in a way which I hadn’t been before. As far as having a percussion major and playing the xylophone and learning about the timpani… Even though I played timpani in a high school band, but it wasn’t anything like what I was going to learn on the college level, and especially at a place like Juilliard. It prepared a certain foundation for me as far as understanding how music was put together in a literal way.  But if I went back and continued to study now, I’d probably get more out of it.  Because my head was really into jazz, and I really wanted to get that together.  I remember Morris Goldenberg telling me that he would prepare me to work in one of the symphony orchestras, and that was not what I had in mind.  But that’s what he had in mind for me.  Even though he liked jazz, he wasn’t that much of a person who would direct his students in that way.  It was a philosophical difference in terms of what I wanted and what they wanted to give me. So again, I went out and found the people who help me in what I wanted…

TP:    Extracurricularly.

CYRILLE:  Right.  I remember we used to go into the record library, people like Gary and myself and John Gordon and a fellow named Vernon who played alto saxophone.  We used to have to listen to recordings of people like Mendelssohn and Elgar, Bach, Beethoven, whomever, for our literature and materials in music classes.  Then the next day, when we had a class, the teacher would place the record needle on a particular part of the record and ask us to identify the composer and the movement, and so we had to listen to those recordings.  It was just like somebody asking you to read some book and prepare the lesson. This was the way they did it with audio recordings. What would happen is very often we’d be in the library, not necessarily listening to those pieces, but listening to some jazz records.  Sometimes jazz records would cause one to react in a very emotional way, and you’d say, “Yeah! Yeah!” — and it’s supposed to be quiet in the library, and you’d be saying “Yeah,” and you’d have these earphones on, so sometimes you couldn’t necessarily hear what you were saying, you couldn’t hear yourself making these exclamations. Then the librarian would come over and say “Sshhh,” and we’d say, “Oh.” That’s the kind of thing that was going on there as far as us and jazz.

TP:    We’ll begin our chronology with a track from Andrew’s first recording, with Coleman Hawkins, on the Moodsville label…

CYRILLE:  It wasn’t my first recording.  It was my third or fourth one down the line. My first recording was with Walt Dickerson, and we can talk about it later on.

TP:    Were you doing odd gigs with Coleman Hawkins at this time?

CYRILLE:  Not at all. That was a very interesting collaboration, so to speak.  I had been doing some recordings for Prestige with Walt Dickerson. I remember this one particular afternoon, after doing one of the recordings, the A&R man, Esmond Edwards, said to me that he had a recording with Coleman Hawkins in a couple of weeks, and Charlie Persip was supposed to make the recording, but for some reason Charlie had a conflict and couldn’t make it.  So he asked me would I be available.  And of course I could be available!  And I was available.  I had never played with Coleman Hawkins before.  As a matter of fact, I had never heard Coleman Hawkins live. I had heard him on record and on the radio.  But I didn’t know what to expect.  So I showed up at the studio, and we had the rehearsal in the studio. I was shaking in my boots, because I thought I was going to be sent home because I couldn’t make it, but they started the recording, and Hawkins never said anything to me, but just nodded when he liked something that I did, or we listened to the takes and he said, “Yeah, okay, that’s fine” — and that was it. That’s how I met him.

[AC-Hawk, The Hawk Relaxes, "Just a Gigolo"; w/ Walt Dickerson, w/ Bill Barron, w/ Ahmed Abdul Malik]

TP:    That set indicates that you were exploring a wide range of percussion texture, meters, and exploring ways of extending what the drumset could do at that particular point. Maybe we can keep our comments on the particular tracks keyed to that process, because in the next set we’ll be hearing you with Cecil Taylor circa 1966-67. A very fruitful relationship with Walt Dickerson over the years.

CYRILLE:  Walt was introduced to me by Philly Joe Jones. He was coming to New York from California, and he had asked Joe did Joe know of a drummer he could call who wouldn’t mind working in a group he was thinking about putting together. Walt came to New York, and gave me a call, and that began a relationship. That must have been back around 1960-61, if I’m not mistaken. We’ve made a lot of music together. Walt gave me a lot of freedom at that time to play the drums within the context of the music that was being presented, and in conjunction with being musical colleagues, we also became very good friends to this day. Walter had a unique gift for playing vibraphone, and as a result, he expressed it with what you hear, and he would also try to relate to me more or less the same attitude about playing drums.

TP:    It almost seems redundant to say, but his conception of the instrument is quite percussive in terms of an ongoing dialogue with the drummer, an ongoing web of texture.

CYRILLE:  That’s where his head was.  He would play the vibes with such speed and alacrity, and I’ve never really heard anybody duplicate that, the way he would phrase and the kind of technique that he displayed.  Vibe players to this day, when I see people like Bobby Hutcherson or even someone like Brian Carrott, ask me how Walt’s doing, where is he, etc. As a matter of fact, I mentioned him to Milt Jackson a while ago, and Milt knew Walt Dickerson. So everyone who plays that instrument is aware of the kind of vibraphone player he is.

TP:    Did the date with Bill Barron have anything to do with a working group?

CYRILLE:  It’s the dream of most musicians (and at the time, I think Barron was no exception) to have a working band, a band that can go out and get some gigs. So when he told me about us doing this recording, it was also with the idea of making some gigs, having some gigs result from making the recording. So I’d say yes, it was something that we were thinking about.  But the employment scene for musicians, especially who play creative music (even then, one could always say cutting edge. I guess I’ve always been in that genre of musicians), it’s difficult. It was difficult then. So I don’t think we ever really made any gigs with that formation. I made some gigs with Bill afterward at places. I remember at Wesleyan College where he was teaching, and a couple of other things in Brooklyn. But that session was done… We rehearsed, we got the music together, and we did the recording. Yes, we kept our fingers crossed hoping we would get some work, but it wasn’t to come to pass.

TP:    Was Ahmad-Abdul Malik a working situation?

CYRILLE:  Same idea.

TP:    A very ambitious musician, and a unique sound for that time with the meters, colors and rhythms he was using.

CYRILLE:  Right. Ahmad had a passion for African music, and especially the kind from North African, and in particular, for this case, the Sudan. So he wanted to bring that expression, that subculture into the larger culture of jazz. So that’s why he would have a horn player like Tommy Turrentine or a saxophone like Eric Dixon, a drummer like myself or a cellist like Calo Scott, because he wanted to express that kind of music, that expression of music within the larger jazz context.

TP:    This would imply that at this time, or maybe before, you were beginning to expand your sense of possibility on the drumkit. Were you beginning to study African music and absorb it and find ways to absorb it into your concept?  When did that start?

CYRILLE:  That really started when I was working with Olatunji. I was aware of African music, but not the extent that I would become involved in it when I was working with Olatunji and literally African drummers or American drummers who you might call Afrophiles. As a matter of fact, that was at the same time I was at Juilliard, which was in the early ’60s.

TP:    So it is at the time of this recording, which is May 1961.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  It’s all around the same time.

TP:    What did it do for you to be around the African drummers? I’d imagine it was a big consciousness-expander.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, and what it did was, it gave me an opportunity to learn a lot of those African rhythms and apply them to the drumset. Let me go back for a moment, because you were asking how I learned a lot of these rhythms and did I study this-that-and-the-other. Sometimes, one gets into more of a particular kind of expression when one is introduced to it. This is like somebody bringing the book to you about mathematics, and you look at algebra, and before you know it, you’re into trigonometry or calculus because of the interest. Most musicians who are composers and who might have unique ideas about doing things will ask a drummer to play certain rhythms.  Malik had a very specific idea in mind, in terms of the kind of rhythm that he wanted on “La Ibkey,” he explained it to me, and then, of course, I had to work it out.  I had to work out what he had in mind so that he would be satisifed with the rhythmical foundation for the music that you heard. So once that was introduced to me, then, yeah, I might go out and buy some music that was played by Hamzel(?) Djinn(?) or some other Arabic percussionist, and hear more of how those drummers would play rhythms. Yeah, you learn from that. As a result of working with Olatunji, I had to learn how to play African claves. So as a result of that, yeah, I’d go out and buy some more music that dealt with Africa.

A lot of the times, yes, it is after the fact when something is introduced that one goes out and investigates more.  And of course, too, if one is very serious about what one does, then one goes out and one gets more information so that one can be broader when the occasion arises again.

TP:    As one’s consciousness and philosophy changes, it’s not necessarily apparently until it’s already happened.  But looking back on it, can you discuss how your philosophy of music-making changed, if it all, from 1962, when you made “A Cool One,” and working with Cecil Taylor in 1966. Was there a change in philosophy, or was it the demand of the function?

CYRILLE:  Well, a demand of the function adds to the philosophy, because the philosophy is what it is that you think about the music. So if somebody begins to talk to you about what it is that you think, then you start talking about it. Then they tell you what they think. Then if they want a certain thing, they say, “This is what I would like to have, so can you play this, or try this, or do this or that or the other?” So that adds to your philosophy. So this is, in a sense, how you change.  This is how you absorb.

TP:    I don’t want to say “free music.” But when did your orientation toward the type of music Cecil Taylor was playing begin to happen? Certainly it was all in the air in New York City.

CYRILLE:  Yes, it was all in the air.  And if you listen to one of those tracks with Walt Dickerson, I think “The Desert,” you will hear me playing some free drums. That’s before I began working with Cecil. So that is a documented track that shows I was playing you might say rubato drums on that particular track. So my head was already there.

But you see, I was always one who wanted to make a contribution.  And during this period, too, you’ve got to remember, I was working with people like Mary Lou Williams, and most of us who know about this music know where she came from, and she was, in a sense, a free spirit with an open mind. She worked with people like Andy Kirk way back when to doing duets with Cecil Taylor, so you know she had to have an open mind. I used to say to her, “Gee, I’d sure like to find a way to play the ride cymbal differently.” With her own information and what she knew about the business and the music, she’d say, “Well, if you do, you won’t find anybody to work with.”  But then I did find people to work with, and the main one in this particular instance was Cecil Taylor. I could do whatever I wanted to do with the cymbal or the ride beat or whatever you want to call it. So as a result, yeah, a door was open for me to play “free music.”  And it’s not as free as a lot of people think it is.  But this is how you get into it.  This is what happens.

TP:    Let’s hear what Andrew Cyrille sounded like with Cecil Taylor in 1967 on Conquistador

[CT, “With/Exit”]

TP:    I’ll read from Valerie Wilmer’s liner notes for a solo percussion album that Andrew did in 1969, a year of creative ferment in Paris, entitled What About?  “This is the first recording as a leader by Andrew Cyrille, and it remains a classic. Nothing like it had ever appeared before. Using the Western drumset alone, Cyrille expresses every emotion from a whisper to a scream. Then as now, the drummer’s personal vision lent an unusual angle on his cultural roots. He ignored the trends then being favored by his peers — the total rejection of timekeeping pioneering by Sunny Murray, the more obvious manifestations of an African aesthetic epitomized by people like Milford Graves. Indeed, at a time when the assertion of ethnic identity could be said to have been as important as the need for change in the music itself, his approach seemed curiously purist.  But thoroughness and attention to detail have always characterized Cyrille’s work. He even uses a metronome in rehearsals.”  Still?

CYRILLE:  Sometimes, yes.  When I practice myself. I don’t use it… [LAUGHS] I’m supposed to be the metrnome!

TP:    “In Brooklyn, where he grew up, he was renowned for his control of the ‘rudiments,’ as certain ritualized sticking techniques are known in the drummers’ vocabulary.  “Everybody knew Andrew had hands,” Milford Graves recalls. His first gigs were with pianists Nellie Lutcher and Mary Lou Williams, and in 1964 he met Cecil Taylor who hired him because of his affinity with dancers and ability to approximate their actions with the drums.” What do you recollect about your first meeting with Cecil Taylor and how you moved into that school of thinking and playing?

CYRILLE:  Well, I met Cecil Taylor years before 1964!  And we were playing together years before 1964. I saw Ted Curson the other night, and I refreshed Ted’s memory about how he introduced me to Cecil, walking down the street in Brooklyn, where I was playing in a place called the Universal Temple with Leslie Braithwaite. Leslie and I were playing duets, and Ted happened to hear us from the street — he and Harold Ousley, as a matter of fact.  They came in, and started talking to us about what we were doing. Then the rehearsal was over, and Ted said he was going to New York City at this school called Hartnett, and he had a rehearsal with this piano player called Cecil Taylor, and he said, “Why don’t you come on over? You never heard anybody play piano like this in your life.”  I said, “Okay,” and took my snare drum. We went over to Hartnett, which was located on 42nd Street near Broadway at the time, and I met Cecil Taylor.  Cecil let me sit in at their rehearsal, and then Cecil and I took the train and went uptown and went to a club, which I forget the name of, which was up on Amsterdam Avenue around 154th or 155th Street. I had gone up there, because they used to have sessions there, and I remember a piano player who worked up there named Cecil Young. I knew there was a piano, so I said to Cecil, “Let’s go up there…” At the end of the rehearsal with Ted, Hartnett closed, and Cecil and I wanted to continue playing, so we went uptown, we played some more — and that was our introduction to each other.

From that time, we had more or less a spiritual kind of relationship in terms of people who were attracted to each other in a chemical way musically. I used to see Cecil on the scene from time to time, and he’d see me. The opportunity to begin to work with Cecil when he had actually begun to develop the Cecil Taylor identity with what he was doing with the music…

TP:    How would you describe the Cecil Taylor identity?

CYRILLE:  The way that he plays the piano.  Nobody that I ever heard played the piano that way, again, with that kind of speed, alacrity, the information that he had about what he was doing, the way he would notate his music, the passion that he had for the music.  Also the way that he would have the rehearsals, what he would ask from each of the musicians who was playing the music. I guess that identity on the drums, as far as I was concerned, was that he’d let me do anything I wanted!

TP:    You had total trust that whatever was done would knit.

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  He trusted my integrity, and of course, I trusted his integrity.  We talked about the history of the music.  That was something that we talked about all the time. There was never a time when we did not acknowledge our predecessors, from Louis Armstrong to Joe Oliver to all of those people.  We always talked about that, and that was the foundation, to a large degree, for what it was that we were doing.  We were very clear about that. So yeah, we trusted each other, and as a result, we decided that we were going to play this music a certain way.

Cecil would always say to us it wasn’t just his music, it was OUR music, and we were all making contributions, so it was true.  He would say things like, “Look, all of us are geniuses.” Not just to throw around a term like that loosely, but he was just talking about the creativity and what we were doing in relationship to what Valerie was saying.

So just to get back what you were saying about the dance, etc., and how I met Cecil… See, all of those years between ‘57-’58 to ‘64, when I really started working at Cecil… That happened up at Hartnett, too, because Sunny Murray was involved, and drummers were being changed, so he asked me did I want to do this with him up at Brandeis. Those are the details. But prior to that, all during that time, I was working. I was getting my education together as far as learning about jazz, and I was learning it from the masters.  I was going to classes with people like…I’m saying this not in the academic sense of being at an institution…

TP:    Extracurricularly.

CYRILLE:  Extracurricularly, with people like Illinois Jacquet. Mary Lou Williams. I was working with people like Kenny Dorham.  I was learning from people like Hank Mobley. I was making those gigs. Also with all of that happening, Olatunji was in there.  I was also playing dance classes at the June Taylor School of Dance with people like Jamie Rogers, Michael Bennett, Claude Thompson — these great choreographers.  Michael Faison used to come in there.  All kinds of people.  And a lot of these people were also Juilliard people — Juilliard dancers. See, I was introduced to that aspect of drumming, which is a whole other thing (we could talk about that perhaps, about dance and the drums) by Bobby Thomas, who was playing clases. I used to go up there and sub for Bobby sometimes, and then eventually I got my own classes.  That taught me a lot about playing drums in an independent manner, and making music from the drums.  That’s how I was able to make a couple of solo percussion records, just because I was able to play music that the dancers would say… For instance, I remember Herman Howell would say to me, “Okay, make my body move.” Then I had to come up with something that would make his body move, that they would like and that they could do their exercises and choreography to. So as a result, when I began working with Cecil, he would ask me what would inform my playing.  And one of the things I said was that dance did — and it was true.  So that’s what Valerie is talking about.  So it’s a very concrete reference.

TP:    Let’s hear the solo recording to which Andrew referred, and of which Valerie Wilmer wrote.

CYRILLE:  “From Whence I Came” was a conceptual piece, and you’ll hear me breathing and you’ll also hear me playing mallets on the tom-toms. My idea at the time was the fusion of body and soul together, which talks about from whence I came. In other words, as human being, we’re spirit and we’re also flesh, so the flesh has to do with playing the drums and the spirit has to do with me breathing. So this is what you will hear.

[AC: “From Whence I Came”; AC/Milford, “Nagarahl”; AC/Lyons/Lee, “Nuba 1”]

TP:    The first two hours have given us a 360 of musical color and sound. It’s astonishing to think of the ground Andrew covered between the 1961 recording with Coleman Hawkins and “Whence I Came.” A few words about what we heard. First, The Dialogue of the Drums with Milford Graves. You and he are often mentioned in the same breath, along with Sunny Murray and Rashied Ali when people talk about the drummers who came to the fore in the new music of the 1960s.

CYRILLE:  This session was part of a larger session at which Cecil Taylor was present with the larger ensemble we had been teaching at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It lasted several days, if I’m not mistaken, and at one part of the concert in one of those days, I had suggested that Milford and I do a duet. As a result, the concert was recorded. Actually, these are just excerpts from the total concert. I forget how long it went.  But there used to be a guy there named Fred Siebert, and Fred was the person who helped us edit the larger tape, and we got it down to about 40-45 minutes. We decided we’d give titles to certain parts of the concert and make tracks. That’s how Dialogue of the Drums came about.

TP:    When did you and Milford become associated?

CYRILLE:  It must have been back in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s. I first heard of Milford at a class that I was having at Hartnett, and Giuseppe Logan came in with this recording, and he asked the teacher if he could play this recording to listen to him and his drummer — and the drummer was Milford.  But I had met Milford before that, when Milford was playing timbales. I was playing a gig in Long Island, at St. Albans Terrace, and there were two bands. I was working with John Gordon, the trombone player, and Milford was working with a dance band, and he was playing timbales. That’s the first time we laid eyes on each other.  Then as time went on, I began hearing his name, doing the “free jazz,” and then I heard of him in association with Sonny Morgan, the hand drummer, who was also working with Olatunji as part of the drum ensemble at the time I was there. Then I heard Milford in association with Don Pullen. I remember doing a concert, if I’m not mistaken, at the Harriet Tubman School in Harlem with Sam Rivers; I was doing a gig with Sam, and Milford was up there with Don Pullen. He checked me out and I checked him out, and eventually we got together at my suggestion; I suggested we get together and play, and document some of the things that both of us were about at that period of time.

I was always under the impression, and I think legitimately so, because Max and Philly Joe would say to me that each generation should come and make their contribution to the music, and see what they had to say.  Not only them, but that’s also an African tradition. So I thought that I was on firm ground. I knew I was doing this kind of music with Cecil, and I was the drummer, and I knew Milford was doing the same thing with Albert Ayler and Don and the New York Art Quartet, etc. — and I thought we should get together and do what we do together in order to say, okay, this was our time, and we were an offshoot of some of the things that had gone before…

TP:    An outgrowth, organic development…

CYRILLE:  Right. That’s the way I felt, and I’m sure he felt the same way, more or less. So we got together, and we started doing these duets, keeping, of course, Africa in mind, as you hear — and during that time there was a very large consciousness about “black is beautiful,” with all of the things that made Black beautiful in our minds. Then, of course, I knew Rashied Ali was doing these things with Coltrane, Interstellar Space, etc., so he was also a natural choice in terms of a larger drum ensemble.  So we called that ensemble Dialogue of the Drums, and we did a number of concerts together, and we even did a TV show on the NBC program Positively Black.

I think Milford is a drummer that everybody should check out at least once, because he’s unique. He’s different in his approach to the drums and how he thinks about making music from the drums. I think his contribution simply has to do with the approach he has to let other people know that they can do a lot of things that are outside the “metered time” aspect or technique of playing.  It can be done.  He’s done it.  And that’s something I can say I appreciate him for.

TP:    I’m going to step back to the question about picking up information, particularly in regard to African music, which requires not only a command  of meters and patterns, but a philosophy of playing and interacting with other musicians. So throughout the ‘60s and I’d imagine as you began to travel more, you’d see more African musicians and picking things. A bit more about your exposure to African music and conceptualizing it into your total approach.

CYRILLE: Well, I used to play a lot of gigs with African musicians. This is one great thing about being on the New York scene, because so many people from so many different cultures come, and if they like you and they want you to be part of their program, and if you’re willing, then it kind of happened.  There used to be a guy up here at WKCR who had a program named Joe Mensa, on The African Show. Joe Mensa played guitar. Joe Mensa also used to play a lot of African dances, African parties. I started working with Joe Mensa.  He liked me, I liked him, I wanted to get more into the African way of thinking about rhythm in a literal way, and Joe Mensa was a very good conduit for me. We started working. He showed me how to play African Highlife, etcetera, how Africans would assign rhythm to the music with the drumset.

TP:    Elaborate on “Africans would assign rhythm to the music.”

CYRILLE:  It had to do with playing space.  Also playing certain emphases that would accentuate certain parts of their music. Also a way that they think about the music and dance, because you hardly ever hear any African music without visualizing or seeing some dance component. So the way of playing on the 1 and the 3 of the bar, which are supposedly the strong beats of the bar, so you think about something like the African 6/8, which goes 1-2, 1-2, and you can also count 1-2-3-4-5-6, click… You hear me clicking; I’m clicking on the 1 [click], 2… There are different ways of approaching that. But how you flesh out the meter with the rhythm makes the feeling different from the 1-and-2-and, when you get a march… [SINGS THE FEELING] That’s what I mean when I’m talking about how they assign rhythm to a certain kind of mathematical meter.

I learned that from Joe, I learned that from Olatunji, and I also worked… This is interesting, too.  I worked with a band called Victor and Kwesi Finn.  They were two guitar players; one played guitar and the other played bass.  They had a band which included me, John Gilmore from Sun Ra’s band, Marshall Allen was in the band, Wendell Harrison, who’s a saxophone player from Detroit, Danny Thompson also. I’ll tell you something else.  Sun Ra used to write music for Olatunji.  So we’d get all these interconnections, and we all felt that this stuff was legitimate in terms of the large part of what jazz was founded on — African music. That it was a legitimate and positive and real heritage to what we were doing. We felt no pain.  It was great.

TP:    No pain.

CYRILLE:  Right. It was fantastic.  And we were being liberated again, or at least being given more information. The other thing, too, that a lot of people don’t realize about Africa and Africans: Even since the slave trade, from the slave trade until now, Africans have always come to these shores and have reinforced the music that we play. I play with Africans today.  I did a duet not long ago at Dale Fitzgerald’s Jazz Gallery with Obo Addy from Ghana. Did he reinforce me?  You’re damn right he did.  So there we are.

TP:    We also heard what you described as a conceptual piece for solo drums, and something which sounds like an extension of that, Nuba, with Jeanne Lee and Jimmy Lyons. Talk about the evolution of bringing your experiences in dance and theater and drama into your musical presentation. Not too dissimilar to things the AACM was doing in Chicago at that time.

CYRILLE:  When I and, I would imagine, a number of other people who compose music need inspiration, we can get inspiration from anywhere.  You can get inspiration from an orange or an apple or a tree, and you can also get it from the dance.  And since I’d had a lot of experience playing with dancers, I thought… Then, the philosophy which tells us we’re both body and soul. I thought with that piece, “From Whence I Came,” it had only to do with the body and the soul coming together, and then you have this life form which is made.  And human beings starting off, you know, flesh, spirit, then growing and becoming what we all are, human beings as a species, and doing what we do in life. Now, yes, a lot of it was abstract, but a lot of it wasn’t abstract either.  If you start thinking about some of the repetitive rhythms I play within the context of the whole piece, some of the ostinatos, which one could say, “Yeah, Baby Dodds could play some of this.” Then of course, I would go off and play some things which were rubato, ametrical.

The way I think when I’m doing these kinds of things is that… We move, and we don’t have any kind of real prescription in terms of how we’re going to move our arms or when we’re going to get up.  We don’t get up at a count, we don’t sit down at a count, we don’t move our arms to a count. We do it.  If we want to get a glass of water, we just go and get the glass of water. So if you have to try to imagine how to replicate or reproduce something like this in an art, then you have to take what you do, that is, with the medium that you do it in, and try to give a reasonable facsimile in terms of somebody making a move.  A move might be [SINGS A PATTERN] rather than another…

TP:    It’s a sort of artificial grid to keep everything ordered and together.

CYRILLE:  It’s a matter of choice. Cats are out on the football field right now, today, on a grid, and that’s part of the game.  So it all depends on how you want to make your “game,” or how you want to have your prescription, or make your music. See, you could do more or less whatever it is that you want. People will listen. Either they’ll get it or they won’t.  They’ll like it or they won’t.  But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it.

TP:    The next set will focus on groups Andrew Cyrille led up into the early ‘80s. Andrew Cyrille & Maono.

[AC & Maono, “Metamusician Stomp”; “That Life Can Endure”; “High Priest”]

TP:    A few words about your compositional concept for ensemble, two-horn, no piano, one-horn and piano… Beginning a band.

CYRILLE:  I met David Ware when he was part of an ensemble that Cecil had together for a Carnegie Hall performance.

TP:    He played with him in ‘75-’76…

CYRILLE:  Yes.  I met David, and I liked him, and I wanted to form a band and put something together.  There was a trumpet player, I think his last name was Gray… I forget his first name. He was part of a group that Cecil had, too. He had gone to Japan with Jimmy Lyons and this guy.  Anyway, I thought about Ted Daniel in putting this work together, and I had done some work with Ted some years before over at the Washington Square Church, so I knew about him. I needed a bass player, and actually Nick was recommended to me by his brother Gene, who was studying with me back in the mid-’70s. So I just felt that I needed to explore some other avenues of whatever talent I had and I thought it would be a good idea to do some writing and try to have this played by some musicians of my choice.

TP:    Your comment on the liner notes of Special People is: “A lot of people say that the tunes come out of the drums, which in a sense, they do, because I think like a drummer.”

CYRILLE:  I think what’s meant by that is that drummers have rhythm. A lot of composers… I’m talking about guys who do some of the great music that we know, like Ellington.  A lot of the music that they write is structured on some drum rhythm. They get a rhythm, and then they layer it with melodies and harmonies. So if a drummer has rhythm first, if you get the rhythm, that’s usually the first element of music. Then you get melody and harmony. If you have the rhythm, then you have to find melodies, notes which express that other part of music, melodic motion… So I think that simply what is meant… For drummers sometimes it’s a bit difficult because we don’t deal with pitched notes in terms of the diatonic scale — the piano, etc. — so you have to develop some knowledge about composition and about the piano, and have some idea about what you want to put these rhythms to, or what you would like to put to these rhythms. That’s in a sense how I write.  Not all of the time do I think of a rhythm first. Sometimes I think of a motif and then I try to expand on it. It’s not an easy thing for me to do, but sometimes I am able to struggle and get through it and have something which I can offer and people like to hear, and will play, or will buy.

TP:    The next set will focus on your associations with some of the musicians who emerged in New York in the ‘70s from Chicago and St. Louis. You’re still playing with many of them, like Oliver Lake.  They infused fresh blood into the New York scene. You’ve made  numerous recordings with Muhal Richard Abrams, five or six. How would you describe his take on things and its effect on your thinking.

CYRILLE:  Muhal is a true spirit. Muhal is one of the deep thinkers. And again, I have to say this:  He comes out of the tradition.  There is never a time when we get together where he isn’t talking about some of the great piano predecessors like James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. He just knows all about that stuff.  And Muhal, of course, has a lot of information about composition.  He is a great composer.  He knows how to put those voices together.  In other words, an orchestration comes out, and it comes out beautifully, and he has some very original ideas.

Just to give you a little bit of background, I met Muhal, again, with Cecil.  We were playing a gig in Chicago. I remember Muhal coming to the concert. I remember Henry Threadgill being there. I don’t remember if Malachi was there; I kind of have an idea in my head… Well, Malachi could have come to that concert, but Malachi and Roscoe and Lester I met years ago, way before the ‘70s, back in 1967, in Palo Alto, California.  I’d gone out again with Cecil, and I was living at the house of a fellow named David Wessel, who is a drummer, and now a doctor in psychological acoustical sound. I remember Roscoe and Lester were in town, and they were living in a facility that was not too far from David’s house. It was a building…

TP:    They were bivouacking.

CYRILLE:  They were bivouacking!  But the stuff is something when cats are true believers, true spirits.  You get out there and you do it the best you can, and you realize it.  I was living at Wessel’s house, and I’d get up in the morning, and I’d hear Lester and Roscoe and Malachi over there practicing. It would be 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning, and these cats would be tootin’!  So eventually, they came over and we introduced ourselves to each other.  There’s a recording actually of the first time that we met of me and Roscoe and Lester. I have it at home on a tape.

TP:    In the history of the music, what the people in Chicago were doing has often been counterposed to what was happening in New York in a variety of ways.  They were dealing with a different method of organizing their music. What was your impression? How do you regard that other path, if indeed there was one.

CYRILLE:  You see, I think that was great, what they did. What I got from all of those people is that there’s no particular formation to play this music. So if I want to play a gig with a cello player, I would do that.  As a matter of fact, I’ve done duets with Leroy Jenkins; not here in the States, but in Austria we’ve done duets. Different kinds of ways to make the music.  A lot of people feel that “jazz” has to have two horns, piano, bass and drums, and if the formation is outside of that configuration, then it ain’t jazz and something is wrong with it. That is not the case.

Those musicians from Chicago came to New York… They’d been doing it out in Chicago.  But when they came to New York, they knew that they had something which worked, and whatever the configuration was, it happened with the music. So you listen to something without a piano or without a bass, or sometimes even without drums. On occasion, I was part of those configurations, and I appreciated that kind of cultural perspective.

Just to say more about Muhal and myself: Muhal gave me an opportunity to participate in his concepts about music and composition, and I had a number of opportunities to play with large ensembles, big bands with Muhal, to take the information that I had accumulated up to the point where I met him, and introduce that to his music in my style. Of course, there was a lot of reading of charts, which is also something that I was told by my predecessors, people like Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones and Frankie Dunlop and Charlie Persip — drummers have to know how to read. That was very important at one point. Sometimes they’d say if a cat couldn’t read, that meant he was lacking in some way. So I went and learned how to read music.  Which I’m so glad I did, because I use it to this very day.  So many of the more modern forms of jazz are extended pieces, it’s just impossible to remember everything if you can’t read. That’s something I can appreciate. And Muhal  had a number of pieces which went in many different directions. So that and the opportunity to bring to life a lot of the scores that he wrote, for me to bring to life via the drums in conjunction with many of the other voices, was something that I’ll never forget and will always appreciate.  Just his general knowledge.  Also, he showed me a lot of compositional techniques. So I can’t say anything but right on, Muhal.

[AC/Muhal, “Seesall”; w/ L. Jenkins, “Albert Ayler: His Life Was Too Short”]

TP:    A few words about your association with John Carter and the suite, which was a bit overlooked at the time, and is out of print.

CYRILLE:  Eventually it may come back. I think the young people who are interested in this music should go out and research it… [ETC.] I had a wonderful experience with John Carter. Working backwards, I remember the last time I spoke with John. He wanted me to go to Japan to do a duet with him. That would have been fantastic, but fate did not allow it, and John passed on.

TP:    He was an innovator in clarinet techinque and concept.

CYRILLE:  I liked the clarinet. I’d listened to people like Benny Goodman and Johnny Dodds, and I heard Jimmy Hamilton, and I knew about Alvin Batiste. But when I had the opportunity to listen to John Carter, and then hear and play with him, he really did something else for me with the clarinet. I met him on a gig at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam. I had taken the train from Spain the night before, and I had to make this gig at the Bimhuis with John… I was in Spain with my own group, Maono, and after that I had something to do with John. I remember getting into town right before the gig started, and I remember walking into the Bimhuis, and there was John on the stage with Santi DiBriano, and we introduced ourselves, had a rough rehearsal, and played the gig.  I must have gotten there at 7:30 or something like that, so we must have had an hour, and then we made the gig.  From that period on, John and I formed a relationship. He liked the way that I played drums.  He liked the way that I played his music.  Then he started hiring me to do any engagement that he had on the East Coast and New York.  He told me, “When I come to New York, I want you to be the cat to work with me.”

Through John I also met Bobby Bradford, and formed an association with Bobby, and have been doing some work with Bobby in conjunction with David Murray over the past couple of years.  Bobby has introduced me to several players, notably Chris Fagin, who is one of John’s students.

Anyway, John had this vision to do the recordings you mentioned, starting with Castles of Ghana, and when he put that together, he wanted me to play drums. John was an interesting composer. He’d come to the rehearsal not with everything formed in detail. He would have these ideas and he would have notation.  He would know what he would want to do in special places.  But more or less, we would put the arrangement together and the segues right at the rehearsal, and sometimes even in the recording studio, depending on how much time we had to get it all together and when the date was.

Conceptually, John was very close to me.  As I continue to write, I’d like to do some things, more or less, in the same way John did them, just in terms of how he’d use certain fragments of the music and link them together in a kind of loose but at the same time very focused and direct way. For instance, you can get a theme, then he’d say, “Work this theme a certain way,” and you can do this or do that or the other, then when we get to this section you can do a certain fill or fill-in so we can move from this section to the next part of it, which might represent something conceptual in relation to what the music is. Like in Castles of Ghana, you have the castles of Ghana as it begins, and then the next… He’d get these different themes, and link them together one to the other.

TP:    It’s an episodic concept.

CYRILLE:  Yes.  Also the way he’d play lines with Bobby, how at some point they’d be in unison and then split off into some dissonant harmony, and then come back again, and play maybe the same line but just about echoing each other, maybe a fraction of a beat behind. At the same time, even though it had this feeling of freedom; this kind of elasticity that would be overriding some kind of fundamental rhythm, but it was still free, and you would get this feeling of being something that was breathing in and out, but not necessarily contained by a BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM, and then you’d have to do whatever melody you had in relationship to the meter exactly. So you could have a rubato kind of theme that is placed on the musical bed of an ostinato rhythm or something else.

[AC w/ John Carter, “Capture”]

TP:    The next set will consist of duos, and speaking of pregnancy, it’s the most intimate form of musical communication. The first will set Andrew with long-time partner Jimmy Lyons.

CYRILLE:  Again, I try to think of a shape, a rhythmical shape that I can make music with the voice of the drums, or the voices of the drums. I lay that down, and either I will have some kind of a melodic line or a theme that I ask the other voice to play, or I let them play what it is that they hear in relationship to the rhythm that I present. So more or less, that’s how I play duets. Then, of course, too, you have to listen very closely to the other person and try to make a musical marriage that will be beautiful, that works.

TP:    A few words about Jimmy Lyons. Working with him so consistently over 10-11 years, and many subsequent encounters. The dynamics of his style and the place it put you, performing with him.

CYRILLE:  Jimmy was a real aficionado of Charlie Parker. Sometimes when I would look at him playing, the stance he would assume and the way he’d play the saxophone, in other words, how he looked while he was playing… Bird never moved, as far as I know.  I never had the opportunity to see Bird. But I don’t think he moved back and forth, to and from the microphone, or would be bending, etc. He would just stand up straight and blow. That’s the way Jimmy was. He would stand up straight and start blowing. I would listen to him, and sometimes listen to that tone he had, which was very reminiscent of Charlie Parker. Even some of the excerpts that he would play while we were in our improvisation, sometimes, marathon as they were, you’d hear him quoting some lines from Bird, some of those tunes, and maybe even some of the things that Bird would play in a solo.  But of course, Jimmy was extending or elaborating more and trying to go further with his improvisational perspective, with the kind of music that we were playing.

Again, Jimmy Lyons was another true spirit in the tradition of this music, a very dedicated being who took nothing for granted as far as the practice of this music was concerned. I never felt a letdown from him.  I never felt that he wasn’t trying or that he wasn’t giving his all in relationship to playing. When I was with him. as with so many of the others; I’ve been very fortunate this way… Whenever I was with him and I was playing with him, I always had a ball.

TP:    We’ll excerpt from Burnt Offering, a release of a 1982 concert in Allentown, PA., May 15, 1982…

[AC w/Lyons, “Burnt Offering”; AC w/Tarasov, “One Up, One Down”; AC w/ Kowald; AC w/ Crispell]

TP:    Any other thoughts on duo performing after the series of performances we just heard, which contained such great variety of material, concept, information, colors, rhythm, sound…

CYRILLE:  It’s just another manifestation of what one can do with music. You have to conceptualize what it is you want to do, how you’re going to do it, and then you have to do it. If you have a very willing partner, then, of course, the sky is the limit. I love playing duets. I love playing duets with any of the number of voices that we have with musical instrumentation, from drum duets… Sometimes I do duets with the great drummer Michael Carvin; he’s another one I love to play with. Sometimes you have to not think about the fact that there’s not the conventional instrumentation around you, and you just go into… I go into the drums and try to find as much music within the instrument as I can, so that I can make myself feel good, and of course, feed the person I’m doing the duet with and hope that they feed me in return, which is usually the case.

TP:    Seems you really thrive on the sound of surprise and being surprised by the other person’s locutions in the performance.

CYRILLE:  That is another tenet of jazz principles. What I think most of us like about jazz in its broadest conceptions is the element of surprise.  When the element of surprise is not there, then it seems like there’s not too much happening.  To hear Elvin Jones playing, and to hear one of those riffs that come out of nowhere, and you say, “Wow, what is that?” That’s what made Charlie Parker so great, when he would take a phrase and how he would develop it and where he would end up with it.  That’s something which I always try to remember when I’m playing, and which I try to incorporate as much as possible — as much as my creativity will allow, sometimes even thinking about its limitations. So I try to remove as much of any barrier as I can, and I aim for the heavens and always try to have something of a surprise, not only for myself, but for the musicians I am playing with and for the audience who listens.

TP:    One of the great things in jazz is the quality of aiming for the heavens within the most grounded, functional situations, and I think that Shakill’s Warrior by David Murray is a great example…

[AC w/D. Murray/Pullen, “Live At The Cafe Centrale”; AC w/Hannibal, Oliver Lake, Steve Colson, Reggie Workman, “Where’s Nine?”]

TP:    A few words about My Friend Louis, more the traditional drummer’s record than your earlier Maono recordings. Those featured primarily your compositions; here you’re working a variety, and interpreting them with an all-star ensemble.

CYRILLE:  That was a band I put together to play at Condon’s, the club on 15th Street, and had the opportunity to record for DIW/Columbia. I wanted to do something for my musical colleague, Mr. Louis Moholo, the South African drummer, whom I had an opportunity to do a duet with in England back in 1980, and wrote “My Friend Louis” for him. As a result, since I had this all-star lineup and I had these excellent musical minds, all of whom compose, I asked each of them to contribute a few, which they did.

TP:    Later we’ll hear an album called Tribute To Bu, and this gives me an excuse to ask about some of your drum influences. You mentioned drummers that you heard and drummers who are your contemporaries, but you didn’t mention the drummers who thrilled you as a youngster and perhaps continued to as you became more experienced as well. First a few words about Art Blakey and his impact on you.

CYRILLE:  One of the first records that I ever bought had Art Blakey as a drummer.  That was a record with Miles Davis called Tempus Fugit, a 10” Blue Note LP, and with that, I heard Art for the first time on record.  Then I went out and bought Dig with Miles and Art. Then, of course, I used to listen to Art Blakey play at the Cafe Bohemia on Barrow Street, way back when. I used to hear him there with Johnny Griffin, and also with Bill Hardman and Jackie McLean and Spanky DeBrest, Wayne Dockery. So I’ve been an aficionado of Art Blakey from way back when I started playing drums. Also, with my solo percussion ventures on record, of course, I was given entree not only by Max Roach, who did (?) and Drum Conversation, but Art Blakey, with his Message for Kenya and Freedom March. So I wanted to pay respects to a mentor, one of the elders in my heart and in my mind as someone who has given me so much — and so many.  Not just drummers, but horn players, piano players… I thought it would be fitting to play something that was kind of reminiscent of him, but at the same time more or less my interpretation.

[AC w/James Newton, “Tribute To Bu”; w/ Mor Thiam, “Ode To The Living Tree”; AC/ “X-Man”]

TP:    The X-Man date, Andrew, brings in explicitly folkloric Haitian rhythmic and melodic themes, with a different connotation.

CYRILLE:  We won’t have time to play two compositions with Alix Pascal, “Lydia” and “Answer Me.” I would like to do more of that kind of exploration with Alix and other Haitian musicians, if possible, and bring that subculture more into the “mainstream” of jazz, like so many of the other Caribbean rhythms and melodies, to be filtered through our experience here in the United States with jazz.

[AC w/Lake, Workman, “Shell” [excerpt]

TP:    Words about Oliver and Reggie.

CYRILLE:  I met Oliver many years ago in Toulon, France. He was there with the Black Artists Group, Bobo Shaw and Joe Bowie. Over the years we’ve been able to collaborate. I used to see Oliver play at the lofts, the Ladies Fort and Studio Rivbea. We had an opportunity to play in Europe — he, I and Leroy Jenkins.  Then Reggie got us together to do some things with his Synthesis group — Crispell, myself and Oliver. Then Oliver called me to do some work with him on  CDs called Edging and The Other Side. I called Oliver to do some things with me.  And so forth, and here we are.

I’ve known Reggie since Reggie lived on New York Avenue in Brooklyn, and he was working at the Muse Museum and running the music program there. Of course, Reggie Workman, Cecil and me did something at Town Hall in the late ‘60s with Jimmy Lyons.

[AC w/ Mor Thiam, “Water, Water”]

* * *

Andrew Cyrille Colleagues (Henry Grimes, Reggie Workman, Cecil Taylor):

TP:    Well, there’s the things with Cecil.

GRIMES:  Yes, we did a lot of playing with Cecil together.

TP:    But before playing with Cecil, you hooked up on jobs in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

GRIMES:  Yeah. I remember one job specifically just in Brooklyn. It was Harry Carney’s group, and we were both there playing with him.

TP:    What was that gig like?

GRIMES:  It was fantastic. We did a lot of swinging and enjoyed that kind of swinging thing with Harry Carney.  It was beautiful, just that inspiration of improvised music.

TP:    Do you remember which club in Brooklyn?

GRIMES:  I don’t remember the name.

TP:    What things at that time struck you about Andrew’s approach to trapset?

GRIMES:  He had a definite flavor. Like, you look at Kenny Clarke; he has that definite flavor thing. Certain musicians have a charisma that comes out in their music, and he reminds me of Kenny Clarke.

TP:    In the sound or in his attitude and process?

GRIMES:  In the sound that he makes musically.  And rhythmically. He does some rhythm things… Sunny Murray and him are on par together, but that’s the degree of power that Andrew has.

TP:    They have very different approaches to playing drums, though.

GRIMES:  Very different.  They are both avant-garde, but one is like a swing player — that’s Andrew.

TP:    Are you saying that Andrew embodies more vocabulary out of the timeline, that he absorbed the drummers before him and builds on it.

GRIMES:  Yes, I think so.  It probably is so, because he knows a lot about percussion and who’s playing.

TP:    So you played with him with Harry Carney, and probably not long thereafter with Cecil.

GRIMES:  Right.

TP:    In 1963 or 1964, was playing with Harry Carney and playing with Cecil two aspects of the same sensibility, or did you have to have a real different mindset?

GRIMES:  Well, it’s the same in that it’s demonstrating that all musicians tend to this one thing, and it’s about “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Jazz musicians had that swing. Sunny Murray was one of them even though he’s vastly avant-garde; and so is Andrew very avant-garde, but he’s also one of them.

TP:    You played with Cecil, and then it was probably close to forty years before you played with him again. So it must be clear to you how Andrew’s playing has evolved. What are your impressions of the type of musician he is now vis-a-vis the Andrew you knew in ’67?

GRIMES:  Well, the thing is that he always has made a certain progress, and I think that’s his power — of understanding music and drums.  He always makes this progress.

TP:    Do you mean a methodology of playing, or do you mean that he is always accruing new vocabulary and building?

GRIMES:  It’s always a new vocabulary that he accrues, and that’s a very interesting thing about his playing

TP:    Everything has changed in the interim, but some things are very similar. Apart from the growth that any musician will experience as they mature and gain wisdom, what are some things Andrew is doing now vis-a-vis then that strike you?

GRIMES:  Well, he’s always the same Andrew today.  It strikes me that he demonstrates that power that he has time after time after time.

TP:    It seems Andrew is always playing ideas.

GRIMES:  Yes.

TP:    A constant stream of ideas. Never patterns. It’s really ideas. It’s fascinating to focus on, and it must be fascinating to play with him.

GRIMES:  Oh yes, it is. He’s a very interesting player.

TP:    Talk about how you’d set things up for him. He said a lot of sets would start from a blank slate, you’d start with an idea or he’d start with an idea, sometimes it would be a unison, sometimes it would be a call-and-response, but it was often from a blank slate

GRIMES:  Well, I think the important thing you’d like to remember is that we both played with Cecil Taylor doing that. Playing with Cecil Taylor and learning things with that, you never forget those kind of things.

TP:    Could you describe some of those things?

GRIMES:  Cecil brings out the best in his players, and Andrew is one of them. I was another one.

TP:    What is it that he does?

GRIMES:  It’s the sheer force and power of music. The dynamic power in music, and the progress of jazz itself. But that’s something that’s hard to convince you of just talking about it.

TP:    But watching the two of you next to each other, anyone with any knowledge of how the timeline works is going to think here are two people who have played with just about the whole aesthetic spectrum of jazz. You and he both played with the people we think of as the great straight-ahead players of the time, and leapt into the next thing as well.

GRIMES:  Well, we were working together at the Iridium, and by the time we stopped working, I was just getting warm. That’s the way it goes.  But I’m looking forward to working with him again.

TP:    I’m sure it will happen. You seem to have infinite possibilities in what you can get done. Is there anything you’d particularly want to express about him that I’m not eliciting with these questions?

GRIMES:  Just that it’s form-fitting. Not like a suit, but like… We develop forms playing with each other.

TP:    And you seem to fit hand-in-glove.

GRIMES:  Oh yeah. He’s always working things out that way.

TP:    It sounds like you listen in the same way that he does.

GRIMES:  I think so. I think we do listen in (?).

TP:    He described it at the end of the conversation. He said Cecil used to have a lot of cats, although now he likes dogs, and he followed that by making the analogy of playing with Cecil as being like a cat looking at the prey, and taking a step, then standing back and thinking about what he wants to do, and then…

GRIMES:  I know what he means.

TP:    It seemed to fit the experience of listening to the two of you.

GRIMES:  I know what he means by that.  He’s a very sharp-minded individual.  And accurate. Deadly accurate.

Reggie Workman on Andrew Cyrille:
TP:    When do you recall first playing with him? He recalls a concert with Cecil at Town Hall in ’69.

WORKMAN:  Yes, that could possibly be it. I seem to remember running into him at some jam session at some place in Brooklyn before then, though.

TP:    Do you have a memory of what he sounded like in the jam session?  Were the building blocks of what he does in place when you first heard him?

WORKMAN:  I wouldn’t say anything, except I could hear that he had a unique approach to the instrument. I wouldn’t say anything was in place at that point, way back there. By ’69, he definitely had started shaping himself. But when I first heard Andrew, I think it was at some session somewhere in Brooklyn.

TP:    In your words, what’s unique about Andrew’s approach to the drums?

WORKMAN:  Well, once Andrew decides to go inside himself and deal with the music the way he likes to deal with it instead of fitting the need, which he can do very well, he has a very fluid style of approach to the rhythm and the time. A very fluid approach.

TP:    He seems like a real master of theme-and-variation in the way he articulates his ideas. He always seems to be on a track, and develops his ideas to logical conclusions.

WORKMAN:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    You’ve been playing together quite a bit at least 15-20 years. How did that start? What brought you together?  Was it settling out in New Jersey?

WORKMAN:  Well, not really.  Basically, Andrew and I, because of seeing one another and knowing one another over the years, we’ve always had a mutual respect for one another’s music.  Therefore, we come together whenever we can. So when we have a gig with somebody else here and there, that’s part of our honing our musical relationship, and then we found that as we all try our individual projects, we were on the same page, and so we often were at the same place, with him and Oliver and myself.  If it was not their band, it was one of my bands or one of Andrew’s bands. So we would end up running into one another often. It turned out that as we approached the business arena, since we were often with the same band or with the same person, we looked at the difficulty in booking projects, so we decided that we should try to get together one project where we would work together only under that circumstance — and it was a compatible circumstance, because all three of us had a compatible musical direction.
TP:    You also were working with Mal Waldron for a chunk of time. What do you think are the attitudes that you share in common? You seem to function very comfortably alongside each other.

WORKMAN:  It’s a hard thing to pinpoint.  But basically, it’s the aesthetic of the music.  The other part of it would be just the idea that we have the same concept as far as time is concerned. We understand one another’s strong points and weak points, and we compensate when necessary without any recourse. There’s a musical compatibility as far as understanding where one another are coming from, and therefore it makes it possible for us to make the music whole as a unit.

TP:    You were talking about sharing a similar approach to time. Can you go into that in a little more detail?

WORKMAN:  Well, Andrew’s approach to time is very fluid, and so is mine.  Therefore, we find a matrix there. He knows when he’s working with me that he shouldn’t expect to hear things the way they usually are coming at him, because I usually don’t play that way.  I know the same thing about him. And at the same time, I know that he understands where it always is, and if he deviates, and it doesn’t affect my thought pattern. I imagine over a period of time that we’ve both come to understand that about one another. At the end of the day or at the end of the chorus, we’re all in the same place at the same time.  It doesn’t affect our creativity as to how we get there, but yet it turns out to be a harmonious venture.

TP:    Was the recent week at Iridium a satisfying one? If someone had seen you a lot that week, would it be hearing the two of you on your highest level together?

WORKMAN:  No.  I don’t think you can say it’s a highest level when you’re satisfying a need for a situation.  Because your highest level is when you’re doing what you do the way that you want to do it, and then you have to compromise certain things with certain people according to their whim if you happen to be dealing with either some kind of a coop group like Archie and Roswell have. Andrew and I are featured guest artists, but it’s not our program.  It’s their program. Therefore, we satisfy the need as far as that’s concerned.

TP:    So the group with Oliver would be…

WORKMAN:  More compatible, because we each bring something to the podium.

TP:    Is there anything you want to say about him that doesn’t fall under the response to a question.

WORKMAN:  Well, the only thing is that Andrew is a very brilliant musician. He’s not just a drummer. He’s a very brilliant musician who has real strong ideas about the music, about the aesthetic, about the history, and he puts a lot into his music, and he’s very serious and sincere about what he does.  And you hear that in the way that he approaches a groove. I know each project that I’ve had with Andrew, it’s been… All of that is apparent in the music when you work with Andrew, when you know who he is and what he’s doing.  And therefore, whenever I get the opportunity, I recommend him for whatever situation that I’m in, if it’s compatible with the way that he thinks. All are not, of course. There are many different situations. So each situation has something that’s compatible with each person. Like, there are many situations that are not compatible with me, and I would rather not be there.  That’s one of the democratic things about this music: You find your own level, and that’s where you function best and that’s where you seek to be. With Andrew, he has found his own level, he knows what he wants to do, and now he does it well.

I am very glad you’re doing this. Because Andrew has been around for a while.  He’s been putting a lot in.  And he deserves some recognition.

Cecil Taylor on Andrew Cyrille:

TP:    When was the last time you played with Andrew?  Is it the record from ‘99 that’s on FMP?

TAYLOR: Well, I think it just came out this year. That was interesting, because Tristan was on that, and this guitarist Franky Douglas, and man, it was really funny and it was really wonderful. For many years, I’ve felt that Tristan was really my right-hand musical personality. But on this date, I believe it was the first time Tristan had played with Andrew. Andrew started playing, and Tristan’s reaction was…well, he just started dancing while he was playing!

I’ve been very fortunate in the percussionists who I’ve played with over the years.  And Andrew had a secret. You could take Mr. Cyrille wherever you wanted, and he had the ability to distill whatever the structures were, and to go with you there, and react in the most musical way in any situation. So he understood—and understands—about the joy of accompanying, and feeding, and being fed. He is meticulous as well as exquisite. He is the epitome of the logical, but beyond that, he’s magical. The logical world could be painfully objective, but he is magical in the sense that he understands what the sound perimeters are, and because of his exquisite taste, he makes a transition from being logical to being a spiritual healer. And plus, his personality is… He’s a fine human being to work with.

TP:    It’s interesting that he stated that his choice around the age of 18 or 19 was to be a chemist or to be a musician.

TAYLOR: [LAUGHS] That I did not know.

TP:    But he was working as a musician, so he could make money.  But that would have been around the time when you first met him. He says you met around 1957. You were rehearsing with Ted Curson at the Hartnett School. He went up there with a friend named Leslie Braithwaite, he sat in, and then (I may be conflating several encounters into one thing) you went uptown to a place in Harlem where there was a pianist named Cecil King, and played—and that began things. What do you recall?

TAYLOR: Well, the first time I remember meeting him, although it’s very possible that he has another take on it… I do remember at the Hartnett School; that’s where I met Earl Griffith. What I remember about Mr. Cyrille was at a… They were having sessions at a place on 158th Street called Branker’s. That’s where I met Mal Waldron. I think this was 1958. I think it might have been Mal’s gig, and he allowed me to sit in.  Then at one point, Andrew sat in with me, and played a rhythm that I just stopped playing and looked at him, and I looked at him and I asked him, “And what is that?” And he gave me that wonderful Haitian smile and said, “Well, you want me to try it again?” – or something like that.

It was a very fascinating experience to hear Reggie, Mal and Andrew, play those three consecutive nights, and I was there when they were playing at the Blue Note. I went three nights, because it was an experience in what mature musicians… I imagine their three ages built up to maybe 180 years, and to hear these gentlemen play… Mal, as you know, besides being to me one of the really fine human beings, but one of the most subtle pianists. By that I mean he really understood the magic of how to make music below middle-C – among other things.  But one of the most outstanding things that happened, besides they all played beautifully together, was that on one occasion Mal, who wrote the most musical organizations of sound, you know… When it came time for Andrew to make his drum statement on that, I felt I was actually hearing the music transposed from piano to Andrew’s instrument. The Maestro, of course, said, “The drum is a woman.” Other people say the piano is but a drum with 88 keys. His intelligence: You could actually hear the material in Mal’s compositional form being developed by Andrew, and you could actually see the slices of the structure being transformed by Andrew’s playing.

TP:    Did Andrew embody that quality when you first began to play together regularly?

TAYLOR: Well, I don’t know. What I know is that… That’s very interesting, because there was a drummer from uptown I played with, a very nice man, I think his name was Jack Williams. Then the wonderful Dennis Charles. At that time, when I ran into Andrew, it (?), but in the meantime, in 1960, I played with the Whirlwind, James Marcellus Murray, right on Christopher Street. In terms of my own development of the music that I was about… You see, in meeting Jimmy Lyons, and by ‘62 it was obvious we were going a certain place. When Murray left… Of course, Murray, who… That’s something I could talk about on another occasion.  But when I first played with Murray, Murray could do Elvin Jones, you know, perfectly. But we all were living in a loft on Bay Street, where the Trade Towers were, and man, I remember Murray saying, “Well, what do you want me to play?” I said, “Whatever the music suggests to you.” Well, whatever it suggested to him, he told the wonderful (?), “That MF Cecil, I could have been the world’s greatest bebop drummer.” But as time went on, you see…

But then, on the other hand, Andrew’s personality was different, you see. That’s what I mean about his understanding. Wherever I want him to go, Mr. Cyrille understood that and supported and complemented that.

TP:    That’s a quality he’s always possessed.

TAYLOR: And that makes him, you see, in the time where there are many drummers who seem to have a hearing problem, an inverse problem, you can hear them and no one else, you see… But he knew how… Well, he is one of the preeminent percussion forces for me.

TP:    To what extent do you think his being there in ‘64 and ‘65 and ‘66 molded the shape of your music in those years?

TAYLOR: I mean, it’s a trip that, once started, does not end. My parents’ temperament were perhaps diametrically opposed.  Well, different. So Mother, of course, took me at the age of 5 to the Apollo to hear Chick Webb and his new singer, Ella Fitzgerald. The next year, when I was 6, she took me to the Paramount to hear the Benny Goodman band, where I heard the extraordinary Teddy Wilson and this monumental Lionel Hampton, as well as Gene Krupa. And hearing Papa Jo Jones at the Roxy Theater in 1944 with the great Basie Band, and Lester, you see, and the quality of… And then hearing the Lunceford band with Crawford – all of those drummers. And of course, the Maestro with Sonny Greer, you see. And then hearing Buhaina, you see, with THAT kind of… And Philly, you know.  And of course, Maximilian Roach, that shit that he did with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown in the years ‘54 to ‘56.

But, you see, when I heard “Poco Loco” – ha-ha-ha… I was attending New England Conservatory at the time.  And by the way, I noticed there was an article about Richard Twardzik. It’s a matter of chance, you know. I knew Dick Twardzik while I was in Boston, you see. As a matter of fact, we went to Symphony Ballroom to hear Bud Powell, and …(?)… playing in a club in Boston, and I would go there and listen to that, and nothing very interesting. [BLOTTED OUT] …think of the percussionist …[BLOTTED OUT]… As you probably know, I met Lee Konitz when he was a salesman at Sam Goody’s in 1948. So I knew all about… I mean, Tristano was one of the people that I really listened to.  Then it finally came out… Just three years ago, I was sitting with Tony Oxley in this hotel bar where we were staying, and in walks Lee Konitz, only to find out that Lee Konitz had played with Tony Oxley.

When I think about all the …[BLOTTED OUT]… the masters, really, you either hear them or you ….[STATIC, BLOTTED OUT]….

So the idea is that once you become aware in the deepest part of your being that the music has chosen you, then you don’t have the choice but to just surrender to it and you will ….[STATIC]….

TP:    But you and Andrew for eleven years were playing together a lot, even if a lot wasn’t publicly. You started your last comment in response to my question on how Andrew might have molded the way your music sounded over those years. Now, one thing he said is that he only remembered two times when you told him what to play, that once you wanted a five-beat pattern, another time something. Whatever you have to say. You seem to think so alike. There was something different about that group.

TAYLOR: Listen, when I started playing with Jimmy Lyons, whom I met in 1960, it went on for 26 years. And with Andrew, we would still have a …(?)… It was a continued crescendo of the evolvement of an idea that we all agreed about. As a saxophonist, Lyons ….[INAUDIBLE]…. waiting for those notes, but he of course had the liberty of writing the notes any way he chose. Because that was one of the compositional ideas, to give players the ultimate choice in the transcription of an idea. So it became obvious that there was another voice emerging, there was a group emerging.  That’s why it was called the Unit. It was a specific idea about where we were going, and those two gentlemen who played with me the longest, you know, helped solidify an idea. So one has to be forever grateful for the generosity shown.

TP:    How often between ‘75 and ‘99 did you and Andrew share a bandstand?

TAYLOR: Let me see.  I went to Antioch in probably ‘72, and Andrew and Jimmy came out, and then Andrew left when I came back to New York in ‘72. We played… It was funny. He was going to Israel, and I said, “Well, I’ve not been to Israel.” I was going to Nickelsdorff, and he said, “I’ve never been to Nickelsdorff.” I said, “I’ll take you to Nickelsdorff if you take me to Israel.” Now, Andrew can probably correct me on this. I believe we went to Israel in the summer of ‘88. Because I think it was the fortieth anniversary of Israel’s independence. Then I took him to Nickelsdorff, where he introduced me to… Oh, that wonderful pianist. I have his picture on my bathroom wall, along with Don Pullen. Horace Tapscott. So I met some of Tapscott’s musicians in Nickelsdorff. Then Andrew, the next time we played together I guess was for Jost Gebers in ‘99. The record has just come out this year, I understand.

TP:    I’m interested in your perspective on the quality of his tonal personality now vis-a-vis when you were playing with him then.

TAYLOR: Well, you know… Ha-ha…

TP:    Is it just a matter of maturity?

TAYLOR: Well, we all do that.  But when you play with musicians, they will let you know that they will follow you.  And I was obsessed, you see. And these gentlemen…we all agreed that the path that I would like to go was comfortable for them. So the contribution was shared by all, you see. Now, my personality was shaped by many things, and you bring that into the proscenium whenever you play, as certainly all musicians bring their personality as nurtured by the environment they live in. So what I’ve found (and I only want to speak for myself) as you grow older, you have a finer appreciation of the camaraderie that exists between musicians, because then you realize that these gentlemen do not have to play with you.  And there are times when some of my rehearsals have been 6 and 7 hours long, and it isn’t so much as telling people what to do. You don’t do that. You let the music speak, and if a passage or the shape of the musical design…if I am required, I can play it over as many times as possible, so that the musician can hear it, you know, and then decide what they want to do with it.

TP:    The other big piece I’m writing right now, as it turns out, is an appreciation of Bud Powell on his 80th year.

TAYLOR: Oh, God!! My God!

TP:    So, Cecil, would you like to put in your own two cents?

TAYLOR: Well, I can tell you two things about Mr. Powell. When I heard “Poco Loco,” in the store in Boston which was right on the shoulder of Symphony Hall, they had a booth in there where you could take a record out and you could go in the booth and listen to it. And when I heard “Poco Loco,” I said, “Well, he’s gone.” And Maximilian is holding on for dear life. You probably know what Bud said about that.

TP:    “You’re supposed to be Max Roach.”

TAYLOR: But the other thing is… You see, the other loving information I got was from Walter Davis. You see, Walter, who could play “Poco Loco,” and told me this wonderful story when he took Bud to meet THE Thelonious, and Thelonious sat down at the piano and said, “Oh, I know about you, young fellow; let me show you, I can play a lot of notes.”

But the other thing about Bud, I was sitting under him (as I did graciously and felt very fortunate to be able to do this) when he was playing at Birdland, and when I heard him play “Glass Enclosure,” my attitude was, “You mean, that’s possible?”

TP:    Was he part of your learning process? Did you study his compositions? Did you emulate his style?

TAYLOR: Well, you know me. I’m not that gifted. What I do is, I simply listen, and if it touches me, that’s what I go with. I mean, I heard… I mean, that propulsion!!

TP:    Well, there are many times when it sounds like you’re inspired by that sense of propulsion.

TAYLOR: Well, now, I’ll tell you a funny story. The wonderful Dexter Gordon, whom I really will always love, said to Woody Shaw, on two occasions, “Woody, who is my favorite bebop pianist?” And Woody, who used to tell me, “Eric Dolphy told me about you, Cecil – and you look like my uncle.” I said, “Fine, Woody.” So I mean, the wonderful Dex said to Woody, “Hey, Woody, who’s my favorite bebop pianist?” So Woody just looked blank. And the wonderful Dexter said, “Well, he’s standing right next to you, Woody.” He did that twice. But Dexter was a very clever… I would say if Andrew Cyrille is a model of human behavior on one level, certainly for me, Dexter was a model of human behavior on another – before I even get to the magnificent Mr. Jones.

TP:    Could you elaborate a bit on the model of behavior?

TAYLOR: Well… Ha-ha-ha! We could always do this for another time. Oh God, there’s a wonderful word I’d like to learn, and it has to do with (oh, I’ve got to get this right) the adoration of women.

Let me put it this way. When I saw Cabin In The Sky and then saw Stormy Weather, I said to my father, “I’ve got to go see her.” She was going to make her first appearance on the Capitol Stage, and the great Ellington band was there.  And Dad, who never raised his voice, he looked at me and said, “Well, son, she’s pretty, but she can’t sing. You’d better listen to Ethel Waters.” Which was so… Dad was so… Because Dad, of course, had five favorites. Coming from Kiawah, North Carolina, the same place that Mingus’ long-suffering drummer came from. It was Danny who said, “No, you don’t pronounce it ‘Key-a-wah,’ it’s “Ky-a-wah.” Because Dad’s father was a full-blooded Kiawah.

Anyway, when I go to the Capitol Theater… Oh, I could tell you a lot about Lena. Jesus Christ. When Lena came on that stage, Ted, it was like she was floating on air, and the people said, “Ooohhh!” The other interesting thing was, Luther Henderson, who was related to Fletcher, was her vocal instructor, and she had a jazz septet, you see.

Now, that was ‘42. One of my relatives… My Dad was the head chef at the River Crest Sanitarium, and he said, “You never go into Howard’s room.” I said, “Okay, Dad.” But Dad went to sleep, you know, and I watched him go to sleep, and I walked down the hallway… By the way, River Crest Sanitarium was in Astoria, and Dad was the head chef. Tony Benedetto comes from Astoria, so Dad knew Tony, you see, because the family… I mean, Dad was the head chef. Anyway, I go down to the end of the hallway, and there in Howard’s room the lights were…

By the way, my mother had a living room. She had crocheted all these doilies and shit, you know, and said, “No, you can’t go into my living room unless… You’re not dressed appropriately.” So she had… The feeling in the room I’ll always remember, because… You met Syeeda, haven’t you? Syeeda was the five-foot woman who used to carry drinks to the bar at the 55. Well, that was my mother. My mother was five feet tall, 90 pounds, and her foot size was 3.

Anyway, I go down to the end of the hall, and the first thing I see, the lights in Howard’s room were like coefficiently in tandem with the lights in my mother’s living room. And then I see a picture of a blond sailor on the wall, then I see Marlon Brando in Streetcar, and I say to Howard, “What is that music you’re listening to?” “Well, kid, it’s Billie Holiday.” I said, “I see.”

So I say to my Dad, “Well, I’ve got to go see Billie Holiday.” “No son of mine will ever go to see that woman!” So I get… He gives me the money, and I… This is in ‘42. Billie is working on the street, and I go down there. In those days, they had these gentlemen who seemed like they were seven feet tall, they had on the uniforms with the cap on, the epaulettes.  And I put my foot in the door, and this guy looked at me and said, “Kid, where do you think you’re going?” Well, Mother ran the family. When she got mad, the whole house shook. Whatever I said to that cat, I remembered Mama!  And he looked at me and he laughed, and he said to me, “All right, young man, will you follow me.” He took me to the end of the bar, he called the bartender over, and he said, “You give this young man any soda that he wants.” And I’m standing there, and this vision comes and starts singing.

And it’s very interesting. Hildegarde, the German chanteuse, was at the Waldorf, and there are pictures of this blonde Hildegarde. For some reason, she had on white velvet gloves that went up over her elbow.  And here is this woman named Billie Holiday, with a gardenia in her hair on the left side of her face, dressed all in white, abundant but not even chubby. She had on white velvet gloves. And when she sang, her right elbow moved toward the center of her stomach and her left leg dipped, and I said, “Jesus Christ, where am I?” I said, whatever that woman did to me when I was 13, if I ever grew up, that’s what I would like to do to an audience.

I saw Billie through all of the years. The last performance I saw Billie was the last one that she gave at Town Hall, where we had to wait, you know. The wonderful Mal Waldron was playing with her, which is another tribute to Miss Holiday – because Holiday’s pianists were stride pianists. And when Billie came out… Oh, man, I could tell you so much about these ladies! Boy!

Because when she came out the first time, that’s when I understood about the spirituality of the music BEYOND the appellations they were giving it, you see. Because I mean, I stood out in front of Carnegie Hall, and I watched these people, all kinds of… It’s like when Ellington was buried, I’m at this big church up there, and two women who happened to be of different ethnicity, they are talking about what the Maestro has given them. Those are the kinds of things that you say, “My God, it is, it transcends…it’s not even about the womb; it’s about the gene.” It’s not about… Well, anyway, Billie’s last performance, of course, her face had changed…

If I might be so bold as to say, send her to Dr. Fu Hsieng, down at 369 Broadway. He was raised in China, I believe. He’s an acupuncturist. And many of his patients have gone to chemotherapy. And a lot of his patients have been told to go down and see him. He is listed.

TP:    Back to Bud: Did you get acquainted with him?

TAYLOR: No-no-no.

TP:    In Paudras’ book, he writes about you visiting him and spending time with him when he came to New York, that you and Ornette were spending time…

TAYLOR: Oh, yes. Oh, oh-ho-oh-ho!  Hey, but if he didn’t mention Bill Dixon, because Dixon was there, and that was something! Ornette and Bill Dixon. Of course, Paudras, if I remember correctly, was sort of a pianist who was supposedly shepherding Mr. Powell. But as you know, Powell had had a lobotomy.  And man, oh, boy, you know… When he came back, I was sitting in my usual place right under him at Birdland. I heard the first note, and I ran from the place.

Another thing I can tell you about my experience with Bud: I was in Birdland one night, and he was playing with a trio, and he got up there before the bass player and the drummer, and he started playing a piece. David Rose wrote this piece. David Rose, I believe, was Judy Garland’s second husband. It’s a beautiful piece called “Our Waltz.” And Bud started playing it, and the manager of Birdland said, from the middle of the floor: “OKAY, BUD, STRIKE IT UP!!” – and the master went into strike up the band.

And of course, the last time I saw the great, and… I mean, for me, THE figure after 1940 was Charlie Parker – and Diz, of course.  But Charlie Parker.  And I’m there, and Bud is playing with Bird, and I could tell you that shit was something.  And Mingus.  And for some reason, Mingus left the bandstand, and for some reason Bud got up and left the bandstand, too. I can still see the Master saying, “You guys are destroying the music.” Charlie Parker said that. No, Mingus could never play with… Mingus, I mean…oh-ho-ho, the stories I could tell you about Mr. Mingus. Well, we all have to deal with our parents.

I hope you found something of interest, because Cyrille is just a marvelous… And give him my very best.

TP:    I hope to see you play in New York one of these times.

TAYLOR: Well, that is something else.  But anyway… It’s so much about the pianists that I grew up listening to. I could tell you about Erroll Garner and all of those beautiful people that kept me alive, really.

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Filed under Andrew Cyrille, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Drummer, Muhal Richard Abrams, WKCR

The Pile (#2): Two Recent Releases by The Cream of the AACM First Wave

The Association  for the Advancement of Creative Musicians means a lot to me.  I encountered a number of the members as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the middle ’70s.   The Art Ensemble of Chicago had recently returned from Europe, and Muhal Richard Abrams, Joseph Jarman,  Don Moye, Henry Threadgill, Ajaramu, Amina Claudine Myers, Douglas Ewart, Wallace McMillan, Pete Cosey, and a bunch of others were living in proximity to Hyde Park and playing concerts locally, including the UC campus — the New York migration had not yet begun. Critics John Litweiler and Terry Martin were on the scene.  So was Chuck Nessa. So was Lorraine Black. One time in 1974 or 1975,  Fred Anderson brought his sextet to Reynolds Club, I think, for an afternoon concert, and on my way in I heard amazing, Coltrane-in-the-gutbucket trombone lines that traversed the horn’s registral range. Turned out they were from George Lewis, who had recently moved back to Chicago after graduating from Yale.

I’m a New Yorker, grew up on Bleecker and Thompson, and New York attitude bebop — Sonny Rollins, to be specific (friends used to tease me about my boast that I had all of his records—which, I’ll confess now,  I didn’t), not to mention Bud Powell and Bird and Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and ’50s Miles and Coltrane — spoke to me above all other music. I related to them, I think, because I spent so much time at the West Fourth Street basketball courts as a kid, and their music seemed like an analogue to the ballers I looked up to — among them, Billy, the fastest guard I’ve ever seen who could tomahawk at about 5’8″;  Valentino Willis from the Harlem Wizards; Butch Barbizat, who at 6’2 was the leading rebounder on  the Power Memorial team that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) played; Timmy, who had what I considered a superior bank shot to Sam Jones. On the musical tip, pop didn’t seem serious enough — as a wiseass Bleecker Street kid, the folkies seemed too self-satisfied, Dylan too solipsistic, Cream and the Rolling Stones too bridge-and-tunnel. I liked Motown and EW&F, and in Chicago I went to the South Side and West Side blues clubs with my friends, and checked out rootsy stuff by David Bromberg and Dan Hicks, but I couldn’t patch into funk.   Nor was I feeling out jazz then.

That afternoon at Reynolds Club,  my paradigm began to shift. New worlds opened up. Jarman did solo concerts that incorporated kabuki and Asian ritual. He performed on campus in duo with Leo Smith and Oliver Lake. George Lewis began learning how to develop improvising software, and  joined Braxton. I got into the magic of Von Freeman. I stopped believing in the sanctity of my personal taste, and began making an effort  to explore modes of expression  that fell outside of it.  I’ve never stopped loving the main-stem of jazz expression. But the aesthetics of speculative improvisation and experimental music mean every bit as much, and brought me into other areas that I once disdained from ignorance. Or, to cite one of my all-time favorite homilies, from Ellis Marsalis:  “son, you don’t know what you like; you like what you know.”

Muhal Richard Abrams:  Duos with Fred Anderson and George Lewis: SoundDance (Pi)

There’s an old master quality to these barely-roadmapped musical conversations between Abrams—elected  NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Famer last year at 80—and long-time AACM colleagues Anderson, the late outcat master  tenor saxophonist and  charter member of the organization (from 2009, a year before he passed), Lewis (recorded in 2010), the polymath trombonist, electronicist, improvising software creator, and professor of music at Columbia University, who met Abrams in 1971 while on sabbatical  from undergraduate duties at Yale. There’s a call-and-response quality to the former duo, as Abrams supports Anderson’s huge-toned idea development, then spins off variations of his own; whilst the latter performance is epigrammatic and staggeringly erudite, transitioning from one concept — the range spans stride piano to post-serialism — to the next without a blink, as though the music were creating itself.

The proceedings bring to mind that one of the key tropes of Lewis’ magisterial history of the AACM, A Power Stronger Than Itself (U.Chicago Press),  is the autodidactic learning path that Abrams imparted to such ’60s members as  Roscoe Mitchell,  Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, Amina Claudine Myers, John Stubblefield, Malachi Favors, Douglas Ewart, and on down the list. They also evoke an exchange I had with Abrams and Lewis in 2007, for a Downbeat piece framed around Streaming, a spontaneous triologue with  Mitchell, when I asked them about Quartet (Sackville), a 1975 encounter that marked the first recorded meeting of the three.

“Why are you referring to the recording?” asked Abrams.

    “It seems like we’re going too far back there,” Lewis said.

    “You were just talking about histories.”

    “Only in reference to coming together to perform,” Abrams explained calmly. “It’s very important to accept, if you can, how we view the basis of this. George can take his trombone and we can go to any room in this building, and perform a concert—right now.”

    “Questions like that lead to a species of mythmaking,” Lewis added. “I’ll take it to the place of procedure. Whenever we first began to play with each other, what I remember is the sense of collaboration. The sense of exploration. The sense of openness to all kinds of possible outcomes. The non-judgmental nature of the collaboration. That is not say it was uncritical, but that the critique was not limited to yes or no. It was more that you were trying to understand and think about ways in which the music could be broadened and deepened, to consider more perspectives. That multi-perspectival quality is the real origin, not the anecdote about the moment of encounter.”

Roscoe Mitchell Note Factory, Far Side (ECM)

The third and most cohesive recording by Mitchell’s Note Factory project, a kind of double quartet in which Mitchell on saxophones and flute and thirty-ish trumpeter Corey Wilkes (Lester Bowie’s replacement in the Art Ensemble of Chicago) interact with two pianists (Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer), two bassists (Jaribu Shahid and Harrison Bankhead, who also plays cello), and two drummers (Tani Tabbal and Vincent Davis). It’s dense music, and though I’ve listened twice, I’d probably need another two or three to start breaking things down.  Suffice to say that Mitchell’s bandmates are sufficiently intimate with his intense concept as to be able to engage each other in what Iyer once described as “immersive counterpoint,” generating clear, non-imitative ideas simultaneously like a Dixieland band in a parallel galaxy. Although Mitchell, who turned 70 this year, offers healthy helpings of spirit-catching circular breathing and multiphonics, what comes through most palpably is the innate soulfulness and lyricism of his songs and his instrumental sound.

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Filed under AACM, George Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams, Piano, Roscoe Mitchell, Tenor Saxophone, Trombone