I don’t recall exactly when master drummer Andrew Cyrille joined me to do a DownBeat Blindfold Test—maybe 1998 or 1999. In any event, his responses were incisive, on-point, and thought-provoking. Here’s the uncut transcript of the proceedings.
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1. Steve Coleman & Council of Balance, “Day One,” Genesis, RCA, 1997. “Day One” (1997), with Miguel “Anga” Diaz and George Lewis. (four stars)
The thing that struck me the most were the lush harmonies. It sounded like some kind of electric piano using some kind of synthesized accordion-sounding timbres sometimes. The piece reminds me in some ways of Stanley Cowell’s Piano Choir, Handscapes; I know it’s not that, but it kind of reminded me of that. It’s hard to tell who the drummer is because he or she is playing so much within the context of the accompaniment to the arrangement, and with all those polytonalities which dominate it’s kind of hard to hear anything that would identify him distinctly. There is good interplay with the horns; it’s really good. I’m going to take a guess. It sounds like it could be something that Andrew Hill has done. I’ve never heard this piece, but it kind of sounds like him. I was trying to figure it out. I said, “Gee, I’ve heard that sound before,” the way the piano player is playing — and as I listen to it more, it kind of does sound like Andrew. So I’ll take a guess. Could it be Billy Drummond on drums. [“There’s a large percussion choir and a trapset drummer.”] That’s kind of what I thought, too. But see, sometimes… Well, it didn’t sound like it there, but you can also do percussion nowadays with synthesizers, but perhaps not on this. It sounds a little too organic; I agree with you. It sounds like they’ve been playing in 6/8 for a good portion of the time. I’d give it four stars. I can’t tell you exactly who the drummer is. [That’s a Steve Coleman thing for a 30-piece big band with Cuban drummers; the drummer is Sean Rickman and the pianist is Andy Milne.] I thought of Steve Coleman also.
2. Milford Graves, “Ultimate High Priest”, Real Deal, DIW, 1991. (Graves, solo percussion)
[IMMEDIATELY] That’s my man. That’s Milford. The recording is very good. You can tell the sound of his various pitch…the sliding of tonality that Milford gets from the way he tunes the drums and the way he strikes them with the sticks, etc. It’s almost like a rubber sound. A lot of it comes out of the sound of the tabla also, which he hears a lot of what he does coming out of that. Fantastic polyrhythms, energy, creativity, clarity. Good chops. Yeah, only Milford does this kind of thing like that. I don’t think you can find an original like him. Five stars.
3. Billy Higgins, “Shoulders”, Mosaic, Music Masters, 1990.
Rashied Ali. [No.] This is a person to me who if it’s not Max Roach, has been listening to Max Roach. It sounds like some of the constructs Max would play. He’s playing very good antiphonal phrasings, got a good control over dynamics, techniques. Knows what he wants to play. Strong. Good use of space. Could be Billy Higgins. [You got it.] Four-and-a-half stars.
4. Tommy Flanagan Trio, “Verdandi,” Sea Changes, Evidence, 1996. (Flanagan, piano, composer; Lewis Nash, drums; Peter Washington, bass.
I’ll take a guess on that one, and I think that might be Lewis Nash playing drums, with Tommy Flanagan, and maybe Peter Washington on bass. Lewis is dotting all the i’s, and strong. He’s up on the one! He’s doing what he’s supposed to do in relationship to that music, and you know where he is all the time. And of course, he’s coming up with some great inventions in the traditional style of jazz. I would say all of the great brush players like Kenny Clarke and Ed Thigpen and Philly Joe would have to give kudos to that playing. In honor and with dedication… Because I could hear it, that Lewis is working very hard on the drums to make sure that we all remember from whence we came and what’s happening on the contemporary scene, I’d have to give him five stars for that.
5. Tony Williams, “Sister Cheryl” (#1), Live In Tokyo, Blue Note, 1992. (four stars) (Williams, drums; Wallace Roney, trumpet; Bill Pierce, saxophone; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Ira Coleman, bass)
Whoever that was, it sounds like…there was something in the sound of the drums… By that I mean that he had tuned the drums a certain way, and he was playing with the tones that he tuned the drums to. And he was playing his song from within. It was a very spiritual-sounding solo. Melody drums. It was very easy listening. It sounded very smooth. He had very good dynamic shapes, the highs and the lows, the space. There was not a lot of flash and technical splash. And the playing was in 4/4, but it sounded like he was playing from a triplet matrix. You could count something like that in a 12/8. It was very good control. It reminded me in some ways of something Michael Carvin would do, except that Michael’s touch is a little heavier. But it sounds like something that might come out of Michael Carvin. Or maybe even Idris Muhammad. It was like an Ahmad Jamal kind of piece; it reminded me of the piece “Poinciana” with Vernell Fournier playing the rhythm where he’d play on the bell of the cymbal the “and” of the count, like the one-AND-two-AND-ting-ting, and then he would play that other rhythm in the left hand off of one of the toms, like the small tom on the left side, and then of course with mallets. It was a very good introduction to the horns.
Now, I’ll just take a guess and say it was Idris Muhammad maybe with some kind of arrangement by John Hicks on piano. I’m not sure. [AFTER] Really. Ooh. I’m surprised, because Tony usually plays with a lot more rhythmical complexity. But now that you say it, I could understand why it is Tony. That was very good. In this case, I think Tony wanted to reach some people in another way, not in his usual way of playing the drums. I’d give that four stars.
6. Evan Parker-Barry Guy-Paul Lytton, “The Echoing Border Zones”, 50th Birthday Concert, Leo, 1994.
That was very interesting. They got great phonics, and very creative saxophone playing. It started off in such a brooding-like manner, and the players were really listening to each very closely, I can tell, coming in and out of each other in terms of who was playing what sound, and one would add or lay out… In other words, they were extrapolating very well together, editing, giving-and-taking with each other. It reminded me of some kind of organic mass which was percolating over some kind of heat, maybe like before a volcano erupts. It sounds like these guys have been playing with each other for a while. I think the bass was aiming more for the kinds of harmonics that he could get out of the instrument, things that normally people wouldn’t try to get in the more traditional mainstream way, and out of his aim for harmonics that kind of projected his sense of rhythm, and consequently, melody. In other words, it’s kind of reversed. It would seem as though he would get the rhythm first… Well, maybe, too, that’s part of it, but then you would get your melody and then you would aim for your harmonics. But it sounded as though he was going for the harmonics out of which he got his rhythm. But one could say, too, that you can’t have any kind of motion without rhythm being first, because in a sense, that’s what rhythm is — it’s movement. 5 stars.
Now, it kind of sounds like it could be somebody like Evan Parker, and of course the bass playing could be somebody like Barry Guy, and I think the drummer’s name is Paul Lytton. I can tell these cats have been listening to each other for a while. It kind of comes out of that Peter Kowald direction of bass playing, but Kowald is heavier. I was going to say, it’s that kind of European style of total improvisation. I’d give that five stars. Because those cats were intense, and they were dedicated, and they were thinking. It’s very interesting, the kind of sounds that they were getting. I liked that.
7. Charles Moffett, w/ Kenny Garrett, Geri Allen, Charnett Moffett, “Sunbeam” , General Music Project, Evidence, 1997/1994.
That was a very interesting, like Middle-Eastern theme. They started off with a nice three-quarter melody, and the drums came through very clear. There’s a good strong and clear saxophone solo; the phrasing was strong. The piano did a lot of long-metered playing against the up tempo of the drums. Of course, you can play fast, but you can play fast in what they call long-metered or an augmented style, which means that you play it twice as slow, and in that way the sound of the drums came through. It kind of reminded me of the drums being the clothesline on which the laundry of the other voices were being hung.
I can’t exactly tell you who the drummer was. His solo didn’t knock me out that much. I don’t know. The piano playing sounded to me a little like Geri Allen. I couldn’t tell you who the other musicians were. [Charles Moffett, Charnett and Kenny Garrett] Kenny Garrett came to mind, and I can hear the strength of the playing. It sounds like the kind of strength that Kenny Garrett plays. But I didn’t hear some of the familiar kind of things I’ve heard Kenny Garrett play. Now, I haven’t listened to Kenny Garrett a great deal, but I’ve heard him some, so I have some feeling for the weight of his sound. It came to mind, but I just didn’t say that was him. Geri I’ve been listening to for a while, and there are some licks she plays that are identifiable — I’ve played with her on a number of occasions. I’d give that one 3½ stars.
8. Idris Muhammad-George Coleman, “Night and Day”, Right Now, Cannonball, 1997.
Sounds like Blackwell. [LATER] Now, whoever that drummer was with the saxophone player… Certainly most of these guys have a command of the Bebop language. At first I said it was Blackwell because of the high tuning of the drums, and in a sense that kind of playing comes out of the Max Roach playing of songs, melody drums that remind you of what the song is, even though Max plays more patterns that he’s developed over the years and they’re weighted in certain ways. It sounds like this guy was a little more flexible, but thinking with those kinds of constructs as far as drums playing a song. The thing about this guy — as I listened to it more — and Blackwell, was that Blackwell’s rhythmic inflections are different. How he assigns his rhythms, the weight… Of course, Blackwell plays a lot of different kinds of polyrhythms, especially in the solos. This guy played polyrhythms, but they weren’t as independently coordinated or as complex as Blackwell would play the rhythms. Of course, Blackwell invented those rhythms and he played them to a T, his way. I mean, they were there when he wanted them, and any time he decided to issue them, they were there. But this fellow didn’t sound like Blackwell, even though the way you think about tunes like this is more or less the same. I mean, there’s a pattern to the tunes, so you just improvise according to what you hear and what you think on the instrument that you have. This duet also reminded me what Philly Joe Jones and Sonny Rollins did some years ago on “Surrey With the Fringe On Top.”
I’m going to take a guess. It could be Phil Woods and Bill Goodwin. No? Then I’m off on that. But I will say that the drummer was interpreting “Night and Day with the language of the drums, and it was very clear that the tune was right on the money. [AFTER] Very good. I’d give that four stars. Right on.
9. Max Roach & Anthony Braxton, “Spirit Possession” (#5), Birth & Rebirth, Black Saint, 1978.
[IMMEDIATELY] That’s Max Roach! [LATER] I think it was with Braxton. Max’s quality has always been of the highest order. You kind of know that it’s Max becaue of the weight of his sound and, of course, how he tunes the drums also. Max tunes his drums high, let’s say in comparison to Art Blakey; Blackwell listened to Max a lot, and he tuned his drums high also. Max plays a lot of stuff. In this particular piece I heard him playing in several different meters. The opening number, of course, sounded to me like it was in 6/4. But the outstanding thing about it was where he was laying his bass drum and sock cymbal, where he was placing those beats, and it was almost like a 5/4 rhythm, but he just added the extra beat which made it 6. If you listened to it again and had to take one of those beats out and have it repeated, it would be like a 5/4. Max plays a lot of those different kinds of rhythms. Then he went on to something that had the classic bebop drummer’s pattern of SPANGALANG, SPANGALANG; a lot of us say that is dotted 8 and 16th in the written nomenclature. Some people would like to think of it as the quarter-note triplet with the middle triplet missing followed by the quarter note. It’s just a matter of interpretation. The feeling is just about the same. I guess one could think about it in 6… Most of Max’s rhythms are very clear. They’re distinct and they’re anchored. How he thinks of some of those original rhythms if amazing. There’s a definite thought process that he puts in. I know he has to work on it. He thinks of something, he comes up with a rhythm, and then he executes it on the drums. And I know he has to practice that. He has to work on it. That’s why it comes out with such clarity and such weight. His independent coordination has always been excellent. He is a motif and a theme constructionist, and doing that on the drums, he usually lays down some kind of musical melodic rhythmical bed for the players — in this case Braxton, the soloist — to feed off of or play from. Much of his thought process reminds me of traditional African drumming in terms of repetitive ostinato. The only thing is, with him it’s that it’s being done from the African-American perspective as far as the trap set — or, as he calls it, the multi-percussion set — is concerned. He is a consummate theme-and-variation improviser. Braxton was playing typically Braxton, but playing off of the rhythms that Max was laying down as a foundation. For the person that Max Roach is and my great admiration for his enduring ability and for the contribution that he has made to the jazz scene and to jazz drumming, I’d have to give him five stars plus on that one.
10. Cecil Taylor-Tony Oxley, “Stylobate 2,” Leaf Palm Hand, FMP, 1988.
You know, I don’t even want to say the guy’s name! [LAUGHS] Because he means so much to me. He’s part of what my life has been for many years. Cecil Taylor, of course, on the piano. 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, 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 also. I think usually in improvisation a lot of the invention comes from people playing their own rhythms, motifs, themes in keeping with whatever their concept of the music is. I can’t say there was anything wrong with the way this drummer was playing, which says that he was listening very closely to what Cecil was doing, and there was a certain kind of synthesis that was coming together, a certain kind of unison. Sometimes unisons are good, but sometimes they don’t make for the most interesting of listening, like when you have, again, these contrasting poles. Like, for instance, the way Coltrane and Elvin used to play with each other, which made for some fantastic magic. Could the drummer be Tony Oxley? For the drummer, I would say 3½-4 stars.
11. Jeff Watts, “Wry Koln” Citizen Tain, Columbia, 1998. W/ Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland.
The way it started out was very interesting, the contrast of fast and slow themes moving to swing. At first, because of the construct of the drummer’s rhythm, I thought maybe it could be Blackwell and Joe Lovano. But as it moved into the piece, it’s probably somebody else. A lot of the time it seemed the drummer was leading the rhythmical changes between the swing sections, the Latin sections and the tempo changes. It sounded as though the drummer is a studied and educated musician in both the traditional and contemporary ways of drumming, with a good feel, and he has an excellent knowledge of how to augment the melodic sound of the instruments with the sound placement from the drums. Because you can hit the instrument in so many different places to get various I would have to say drum melodies or drum pitches, drum variations. Obviously, this person has been playing the instrument for a long time, because he knows where those sounds are and he knows where to go get them. It’s almost like his thinking and technique in terms of knowhow to get those sounds are simultaneous. So that takes some time being with the instrument to know how to do that, and to really make music and not just noise… We can talk about that, too, but I’ll just leave it right there for now. There were elements of free playing. It was like bebop and beyond. And to me, in a sense, the concept, though different from the kinds of rhythms, melodies and harmonies that Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Paul Lytton played, the interplay kind of reminded me of them — though this music was not avant garde in that sense. It sounded like these guys had been playing together for a while, too. I don’t know if they had been playing together as long as Parker, Lytton and Guy have been together. I say that because maybe the level of improvisatory interaction among the players could have been — I don’t know — a little more intimate. But sometimes, when certain things are being played in a certain way, there’s not a whole lot you can do that’s outside the parameters of the given. I’Which doesn’t take away from the excellence of what they were doing, because I think they knew what they were doing and they knew what they wanted to do, and they pulled it off.
I’ll take a guess. It could be Jeff Watts with Branford Marsalis or maybe with Joe Lovano, or maybe it could be Billy Hart with Joe Lovano. [AFTER] For the acknowledgements of these fine gentlemen of jazz, who are carrying the information forward, I’d say four stars.
12. Kenny Barron-Roy Haynes, “Madman”, Wanton Spirit, Verve, 1994.
Here the piano was the lead voice in terms of the direction and description of the music, and the drummer was playing what he heard in relationship to that. In this case, in some ways, the piano sounded like it had a McCoy Tyner perspective, with the left hand playing that heavy bass-like accompaniment and the right hand playing the melodic lead. Sometimes I heard the left hand and the right hand being played in unison. I don’t know the name of the drummer with McCoy. I haven’t heard them for a while. But they have quite an integration together with the sound. I’ll take a guess. Was that Horace Tapscott and Billy Hart? [AFTER] I was way off on that one. I could hear that now. I’d give that 3½ stars.
13. James Emery, Gerry Hemingway-Kevin Norton-Mark Feldman “Standing On A Whale Fishing For Minnows” (#7), Spectral Domains, Enja, 1998
That sounded as though it had an Asian flavored melodic theme. But as the piece moved forward, it lost that flavor to some degree. In this case, I thought the drummer played the music very intelligently. It was an extended form, and I thnk there had to be a lot of reading done in many parts of the arrangement. I think as the piece went from section to section, the drummer gave very good support and he played on parts of the instrument that made the sound that was on top come out very clearly. In other words, there was no obfuscation in terms of what he was playing with his accompaniment. I thought, too, that it was very good writing biy the composer. It sounded like it could have been almost a through-composed piece. But it did sound, too, like there was a lot of improvisation interspersed, so it wasn’t a through-composed piece, but there was a lot of composition that you had to have your head on and your eyes clear in order to know what was happening. I’m sure they rehearsed this a number of times, and it came off very-very well.
The composer could be Henry Threadgill, that ensemble, with maybe Reggie Nicholson or Pheeroan akLaff or J.T. Lewis. Or maybe, it could be somebody like Dave Holland. No? Well, I thought of Muhal, but it didn’t have any piano. [AFTER] Very good. See, I’m not familiar with too much of their work. But for the work and the effort and the music put forth, five stars.
14. Lovano-Holland-Elvin Jones, “Cymbalism” (#6), Trio Fascination, Blue Note, 1998. (3 stars)
The saxophone player sounded like somebody who came out of the Sonny Rollins tradition. I’ll take a guess. It was Joe Lovano. This recording reminded me somewhat of the dates that Rollins did with Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach. The bass player sounded like…it could have come out of the walking bass lines of somebody like Mark Dresser or Mark Helias. I don’t think it was Mark Dresser; the way he plays his pizzicatos is a little heavier. Helias is not as percussive-sounding, let’s say, as Dresser is, but they kind of think similarly of that approach to walking bass in free playing. This is what I guess you’d call freebop. It could be somebody like Dave Holland, too. I’m not sure. As far as the drummer is concerned, I had a feeling that it could have been Jack de Johnette, but Jack plays fuller than that, playing more around the drums and getting different kinds of rhythms and shapes out of the drum set, with the bass drum accentuating beats in different places. As I continued to listen, I really couldn’t tell who the drummer was because he sounded rather generic. There was no solo for me to say, “Okay, this was so-and-so who I’ve heard before.” I can’t tell you who that was. What I could say, though, on a positive note is that the drummer played his role well. He didn’t take anything away from the music. But I don’t feel he added a lot to the music either to give it, in a sense, that other polarity I was talking about, to make you want to listen how both people were dialoguing with each other or how the group was dialoguing with each other. Three stars. [AFTER]
15. David Murray/Sunny Murray, “A Sanctuary Within, Parts 1 & 2”, A Sanctuary Within, Black Saint, 1991.
David Murray is the saxophonist, which is obvious from the characteristics. I’ll take a guess in this case, and say who the drummer is. In this particular piece moreso than the duet in the first part, I think I can identify the drummer because of the way he accompanies and how he places the beats, assigns his rhythms, and of course, how he plays to a large degree ametrically, even though the pulse is kind of there. Sometimes you find the meter, and by that I mean count. I’d like to say that was Sunny Murray. [Why was it harder on the duo?] Because it seems as though Sunny usually accompanies more space, and his sound variety is wider. His highs and lows are more definitive. And to me, it sounded as though playing in that context, he plays with more space, as I heard him. What was very interesting, too, is that the way the piece started out sounded as though it came out of a rhythmical shuffle, or shuffle rhythm, out of which the drummer got his perspective to play freely. So in that sense, one could say there was a certain kind of meter. But more so than that, because meter to me simply infers that you have a certain number of counts per bar. You count to 5 or you count to 3 or you count to 12 or you count to 12 or you count to 16 or you count to 2 — etcetera. There’s always an upbeat and a downbeat, and however long the phrase is with that kind of concept of playing in terms of meter, as far as composition is concerned… But in this case I got the information of the shuffle, but it wasn’t any particular placement as far as the number of counts were concerned. I’d have to say it was more of a rhythmical thrust, which had a beginning, it had its conclusion when Sunny decided that he wanted to stop or he wanted to start again. Of course, there was the attack, which is like the one. But there was also a resolution which came where he decided he was going to stop it and do something else. Then eventually out of that I heard the feeling of the shuffle, of his free playing. But I couldn’t really tell you that was Sunny from the duet part. But as far as the ensemble accompaniment, it was definitely his characteristics.
[David Murray obviously is the saxophonist. I think the drummer is Sunny Murray because how he places the beats and assigns his rhythms — and of course, how he plays to a large degree ametrically, even though the pulse is there. I couldn’t really identify Sunny from the duet in the first part, but with the ensemble in the second half he played with more space, with a wider sound variety, more definitive highs and lows — definitely his characteristics.]
I would have to say the music that you offered me was challenging. It was a variety. Most of these compositions I never heard before, but I’ve heard almost all the players… I know Formanek a little bit and I know Hemingway quite a bit. Even though I know Gerry in another way also, as far as the kind of sounds he gets from his drums. Because he tunes his drums a little differently also, and a lot of the music that he composes, or that I’ve heard him compose in the past comes out of the sounds that he gets on the drums and how he integrates that with the sounds he wants from the instruments.
Also, I didn’t realize that there were as many duet recordings in existence as you offered here. Really! Of course, a lot of them were in context of larger ensembles, but still there were a number which, if you didn’t edit, sounded as though they were just duets with a rhythmical voice, the drums, and the melodic (and perhaps harmonic, if you want to use the piano) voice of the horns. I didnt hear was trumpet-and-drum duets or maybe even flute-and-drum duets, or a lot of string duets. Well, there aren’t too many recordings with drummers and bass players and drummers and violins playing together… You covered the broad palette of perspective of the music, with the tradition coming out of Swing, Bop, Neo-Bop to the combination of the “Avant Garde” unto itself.