Tag Archives: Andrew Cyrille

For Billy Hart’s Birthday, an Unedited DownBeat Blindfold Test from 2007

Billy Hart, known to some as Jabali, is 73 years young today. I’ve appended below the full proceedings of a Blindfold Test he did with me six years. In 2012, Jazz Times gave me the opportunity to write a feature piece on the maestro; two years ago, I posted a review of his Steeplechase recording Sixty-Eight and included an excerpt from my liner notes for the 1997 Arabesque date, Oceans of Time.

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Billy Hart Blindfold Test:

1.  Jimmy Cobb, “Green Dolphin Street” (from WEST OF FIFTH, Chesky, 2006) (Hank Jones, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums)

It’s somebody like me. I might even say Billy Drummond, who’s younger than me. But somebody that’s like me. It doesn’t seem like it’s Al Foster, and it doesn’t seem like Kenny Washington or someone like that. It’s more like Billy Drummond or that kind of player. It’s just the sound of it. For  me, it would be somebody who heard Tony Williams but also liked Vernell Fournier. Of course I like it, because I understand it. He’s playing in a way I would play. From the left hand, the  piano player sounds like a younger guy. When I say “younger guy” – ha-ha – I’m talking about somebody my age, like Hicks (though I don’t think it was Hicks) or Stanley Cowell (and I don’t think it was him) or Kenny Barron (but I’m sure it wasn’t Kenny Barron). Somebody in that vibe. The bass player had some chops. I’d be curious about who the bass player is. For the moment, I don’t recognize it. It was well done. It didn’t sound like they put a lot of time in it. It was just something that they could do, but it was well done. Everybody could play. When I say “Play,” it means they have a good traditional base, a good foundation. I liked everybody for that. 5 stars. Jimmy Cobb!! I should know Jimmy Cobb. That sounded a little light for Jimmy Cobb for me. Perhaps it’s the way it was miked. But then again, for certain kinds of those things, Jimmy Cobb is an influence. He influenced Tony Williams. Let me hear that again. No, I would have never guessed it was Jimmy Cobb. That’s not what he sounds like to me. A couple of the things that I thought somebody might have heard Tony Williams, now I think it’s the influence Jimmy Cobb had on Tony. I could have guessed Christian. [DRUMS PLAY FOURS] See, that’s obviously a Philly Joe influence which Jimmy Cobb has. But for what I know Jimmy Cobb to do, what I would recognize, I didn’t hear anything that’s… Nor Hank Jones. I would not have recognized him. I thought I would know Hank Jones’ sound. I made 6 records with him. I’m influenced by Jimmy Cobb! As much as I thought I knew Jimmy, I’ve got some more to listen to. Hank is phenomenal. That he can sound that modern. What made me think he was a modern guy is his left hand, and I know from playing with him that he’s got at least four generations of jazz vocabulary in him. He can do that in a tune.

2.  Andrew Cyrille-Anthony Braxton, “Water, Water, Water” (from Andrew Cyrille-Anthony Braxton, DUO PALINDROME 2002, Vol. 2, Intakt, 2002) (Cyrille, drums, composer; Braxton, alto saxophone)

Is that just one drummer? Yes? Ha! I don’t know who it is, but it’s interesting to talk about it. Somebody who can do what this guy is doing (by the way, of course I like this very much) would be Blackwell. But I’m thinking Blackwell, who is somebody who can do that, but then, a guy who liked Blackwell was a guy named Eddie Moore. After that, it’s a whole host of people, like Don Moye, who would do that. Maybe Andrew Cyrille. The saxophone sounds so familiar, like Roscoe Mitchell. 4 stars.Cyrille is an unsung hero for understanding and being enthusiastic for what I think is really a world music viewpoint, realizing the function of African- and Indian-related musics, before it got to be so academic. He’s one of the heros of that, as were, strangely enough, a lot of avant-garde players. I think of Milford Graves and Don Moye in that vibe also — world music intellects. That’s what I like about Blackwell, of course. I feel that same way about people like Bill Stewart and Jeff Ballard, too. They have a strong interest in and are very enthusiastic about world music, especially in terms of Indian and African traditional musics.

3.   Ari Hoenig, “Anthropology” (from INVERSATIONS, Dreyfus, 2006) (Hoenig, drums, Jean-Michel Pilc, piano; Johannes Weidenmuller, bass)

[FOUR BARS] [LAUGHS] Is that Ari Hoenig? I think of Ari with Kenny Werner and Jean-Michel Pilc. But of course, I know him to be already a huge influence on emerging drummers. He’s not really doing it on this piece, but he’s a guy who I think is approaching this world music, just more academically. He’s figuring it out. Because of that, there are a lot of people who can be influenced by him. What made me laugh is that I know that he, as well as Lewis Nash, likes to play the melodies of bebop tunes on the drums, which is very enjoyable for me. I love hearing drummers do that. Especially them, because they’ve spent time working it out. As a teacher, one of the first things I ask my students to do is to play “Anthropology” on the drums. Any student of mine who heard this would think it was one of my students that I had assigned that project to. Is Pilc playing piano? Man, I should know more about Pilc. It’s one of the contemporary guys that I think is approaching this music in a more academic way. In other words, they weren’t there, but they’ve received what I consider traditional information…what’s a better phrase… Classical music.It’s people like them who make classical music. [How do you mean that?] They’re part of the evolution of the music. That’s all. It’s obvious that they’ve studied the music and have tried to bring it forward, or naturally bring it forward just from their natural understanding of it. Pilc is French, he’s European, so he brings that to it. It’s not going to be James P. Johnson or Horace Silver, but he brings a contemporary… I think of it as a contemporary sound that’s influential in today’s music. 4½ stars. I think the music is important. Is the bassist Moutin? Weidenmuller? That’s interesting. Pilc with KennyWerner’s bass and drummer. That means that Ari and Weidenmuller have become a team.

4.  Herlin Riley, “Need Ja Help” (from CREAM OF THE CRESCENT, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Riley, drums, composer; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Eric Lewis, piano; Reginald Veal, bass)

The first thing I notice is what I would consider an obvious Duke Ellington influence. Now, who besides Duke Ellington would have a Duke Ellington influence, besides everybody… Who that would be, I don’t know yet. Except I can’t think of Duke having a bass player like that. But then that brings up Mingus, too, but I don’t think that’s Mingus either. It’s not Duke, which makes me think it’s someone from the guys who play with Wynton like Herlin Riley and Wycliffe Gordon. Duke is a huge influence on these people. I love Duke Ellington, too. The drums make me think of Sonny Greer, especially that period of time when Sonny Greer was the drummer. It is Herlin and Wycliffe?  Who’s the bass player? Reginald Veal? He’s not playing with them any more, right. It means Ali Jackson could have been the drummer, too, but… Herlin is very recognizable for certain things. First of all, he’s a New Orleans drummer, and for me, all the New Orleans drummers have a special badge. They’re born with another understanding of the original jazz drum language. So Herlin not only is a great example of that, but he’s a great creative drummer, and how he uses his knowledge of the tradition is very inspiring to me. 4½ stars. The pianist was Eric Lewis: If you’d said Eric Reed or Marcus Roberts, I’d have expected, but Eric Lewis could go in there!

5.   Francisco Mela, “Parasuayo” (from MELAO, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mela, drums, voice; George Garzone, tenor saxophone; Nir Felder, electric guitar & effects; Leo Genovese, fender rhodes, keyboard; Peter Slavov, bass)

Hmm, there it is again; the New Orleans tradition of drumming, the funeral march and funeral dirge. Whoops! There’s some contemporary sounds around it. Whoops! So this is like Cuban tradition with contemporary… Oh! I mean, this is the age of academic… I wish I could think of a better word. Now my guess would be somebody like David Sanchez, someone who is interested in or has knowledge of the Cuban tradition or Afro-Caribbean tradition, but is a contemporary player at the same time. It’s the drummer’s record?! That opens it up. I’ve been hearing about this drummer who I haven’t heard play live yet, Francisco Mela. I’ve heard, first of all, he’s from Cuba, but also he’s been playing with Kenny Barron, and to me, to be able to play with Kenny Barron, you have to have a pretty good knowledge of the North American tradition, and if he’s from Cuba, it means he automatically has a knowledge of the Afro-Caribbean tradition. That makes me think he’s extraordinary. Not only that he’s extraordinary, but also if there’s an academic tradition coming out of North America, people like Ari Hoenig, then it’s also coming out of Cuba, because I’m also interested in Dafnis Prieto — who I would have guessed next — for the same reasons. The world is smaller now. You can almost not separate North America from South America any more, because the North Americans study the South American tradition, and obviously, the South Americans study the North American traditions. That’s the way I want to play! It is Mela? I was lucky again. I’d better to listen to him. Because he listens to me. He comes to my gigs. I never heard a Cuban drummer get that far away from the Cuban tradition. I can’t tell who the saxophone player is. George Garzone! Really. I thought I knew Garzone, too. It’s strange, because I picked Sanchez because I like that he plays so lyrically. That’s the reason why I wouldn’t have said Garzone, who I love. 5 stars. I went to one of my favorite Afro-Cuban drummers… When I teach, one of my first assignments, besides that “Anthropology” thing, is to study and learn the second line. Unless you’re from New Orleans, that’s one thing that most of us don’t get naturally. So their assignment is to study the second line. And the way I describe the second line, my rationalization for it is that the second line is the direct translation of African rhythm through the Afro-Caribbean to the invention of the drumset. So by you saying Idris, who is a New Orleans musician, it really sounds like… But that’s what I feel.

6.   Brian Blade, “The Midst of Chaos” (from Edward Simon, UNICITY, CamJazz, 2006) (Simon, piano, composer; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

So many of these things remind me of the way I would like to play. This could be…it could be… It could be me! But it isn’t, obviously. But obviously, it’s somebody who was influenced a lot by Tony Williams. So it could be any of a number of people between Bill Stewart and Billy Drummond. Whoever the drummer is, I like his touch very much. Whoever this is likes Roy Haynes, too. But so do I. It sounds so familiar; I’m thinking something will give it away. Wow, I really like the drummer. The pianist sounds Chick-influenced to me. Sounds like a great modern piano trio. 5 stars. Brian Blade! Whoa! I thought about Patitucci. I thought about Blade. But Blade is tricky, man. He’s a Louisiana drummer, and for me that’s close enough—he’s like a New Orleans drummer to me. But I think of him as more influenced…more of a… If you could be influenced by Elvin and Tony, I think of him as more influenced by Elvin, but here I heard more of a Tony influence. Again, it reminds me of me, of the way I want to play. Off the record, I have some students who loved him, early on. In fact, they had heard him with his band. I thought, man, this here’s one of the first cats besides Jeff Watts that obviously has put a band together that’s similar to a band that I would put together—if you think of my band with Kikoski and Mark Feldman and Dave Fiuczynski.  I asked him, “Man, what is it about Brian that you like so much?” He said, “It’s the way he influences the music. He influences the music the way you do, Billy.” Here I’m hearing it. I didn’t hear it so much before because I thought of him more as an Elvin influence. But here he sounds like the way I would play—if I could. It’s incredible that he can go that far in different spectrums.  I think of Lewis Nash as being able to go that far. But if you think of the way he plays on Norah Jones’ record or the way he plays Wayne’s music… I mean, I sort of thought I knew him. But this shows a side that I wasn’t that familiar with. I’m obviously extremely impressed with his musicality, as most people are.

7.  Joe Farnsworth, “The Lineup” (from One For All, THE LINEUP, Sharp-9, 2006) (Joe Farnsworth, drums; David Hazeltine, piano, composer; Steve Davis, trombone; Jim Rotondi, trumpet; Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone; John Webber, bass)

My first thought is somebody’s listened to the Art Blakey band when Freddie and Wayne were on it, and of course, my next thought is One For All—Farnsworth and those guys. Farnsworth is another guy that I think of as academic, but he’s chosen more the Billy Higgins, Philly Joe, Kenny Washington, and — something that I know personally about him — Jimmy Lovelace school of drumming, which of course, for me, is classical music in every sense. I mean, the highest level. It’s pristine. It has a sort of perfection. I mean, how can you talk about Higgins and not talk about perfection? Same thing for me about Jimmy Lovelace, whom most people don’t talk about. It’s Higgins, it’s Philly Joe, which is sort of…well, pristine is the… Poetry in motion. A beautiful touch. I have to love the piece because it reminds me of the music that I’m most familiar with. I grew up on this music. I grew up on Art Blakey. I grew up on Max Roach. I grew up on Philly Joe. I think it’s well-done. But of course, it’s not Art Blakey, as great as it is. And I don’t think it can get any better than they’re doing it unless it was Art Blakey.  4½ stars.    [Do you think it’s imitative?] You didn’t ask that question. [Well, I could.] When I say “academic,” that’s what I mean? Let’s not say imitative. Let’s call it interpretive. If you’ve still got a Count Basie Orchestra, if you’ve still got a Duke Ellington Orchestra, then you’ve got an Art Blakey Orchestra with Philly Joe and Billy Higgins sitting in. But it’s so well done, it’s so enjoyable to listen to, and it brings back fond memories. I know how they feel playing that. I know how I enjoy listening to it.

8.  Jack DeJohnette, “Seven Eleven” (from Chris Potter, UNSPOKEN, Concord, 1997) (Potter, tenor saxophone; John Scofield, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; DeJohnette, drums)

Now, for me, as much as I may not understand this, this is exciting to me. It sounds like a certain area of new music to me. Offhand, I don’t know who it is, but the saxophone player sounds like Chris Potter. So it would be whatever drummers play with him, whether it’s Clarence Penn or Nate Smith or Billy Kilson. It’s hard to say who it sounds like, though. I want to say Bill Stewart, but then, on the other hand, one of the things about Bill Stewart is that he sounds something like Jack DeJohnette to me, so then I hear Jack. Some of it sounds a lot like Jack to me, too. I can’t really hear the bass. But the drummer reminds me of Jack. I think of Jack like I think of Roy Haynes. Even though because he’s my age group, I can hypothesize his influences, but Jack to me sounds like Jack. So if this isn’t Jack, it’s somebody who sounds like Jack. The bass player is Dave Holland? Whoa! I should have known that. But I couldn’t hear that. But the first thing it sounds like to me is when Elvin was playing with John for Atlantic. It has that Atlantic drum sound. Whose record date is it? Chris? Is that Scofield? See, I know those guys! It’s interesting how much Bill Stewart has copped from Jack. Jack used to tell me, “Stewart, he’s a good little drummer.” [Not so easy to cop from Jack.] It sure isn’t. But Jack is Jack. I think I know some of his influences because they’re my influences, too. It’s again Tony and Elvin and Roy Haynes (that’s off the record). But for me, he’s one of the few cats who he is him. I’m sure Baby Dodds had influences. 5 stars. Man, I got a lot of records, a lot of CDs, and I don’t think you’ve played one record that I have. I read a lot of Blindfold Tests, and a lot of guys will say, ‘Yeah, that’s a record I have; oh, yeah, that’s so-and-so, I remember when I heard it.” You haven’t played anything I’ve heard before. Am I listening to the wrong things? You haven’t played one that I’ve heard.

9.  Brad Mehldau, “Granada” (from DAY IS DONE, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums)

I like this. I’m just trying to think of who it is. Again, so much of this stuff sounds like me! Isn’t that out? I’m at the age where I think everything sounds like me. Except, of course, that I know it’s not me. It’s the way I would like to play it, the way I would like to do it. In a lot of today’s so-called contemporary jazz, where you see a world music approach, or the influence of more cultures than just the American, then obviously, a lot of this kind of music is prevalent now. As a drummer, or musician, I call it straight-eighth or eighth-note music, or Latin-influenced or whatever. Now, who plays like that? The first thing that came to my mind, strangely enough, was Jeff Ballard. As I said, I can tell that he and Bill Stewart are students of African and Afro-Caribbean music. I can tell that they’re enthusiasts of it. It’s Ballard? That was a lucky guess. I don’t know what made me say it. There must be something that I recognize. I know that a lot of the people he plays with… It’s not even that. It’s him. The way he’s playing really sounds Spanish to me; it sounds like a guy playing a castanet or something. It sounds like he hears it that deeply. I know that he, like Ari Hoenig, seems to be a huge influence on younger drummers today—in a certain area. I know lately he’s been playing with Brad, but it doesn’t sound like Mehldau to me. It’s Mehldau? [LAUGHS] I’m still hearing Jorge Rossy, who was from Spain, play with Mehldau, so I have to hear this group some more. But I didn’t think of Brad when I was listening to the drums. It is Jeff, and he is an influence—4½ stars.

10.  Susie Ibarra, “Trane #1” (from SONGBIRD SUITE, Tzadik, 2002) (Ibarra, drums)

Tell me again that this is not… This can’t be ordinary listening. [No. But it’s somebody you might know.] Again, it’s something that I think I might have played or attempted to play like that. Especially that. It’s a way of choking the cymbal without really grabbing the cymbal; you put your hand on it but take it off real quick. You just place your hand on it for a fraction of a second. And I do that all the time. In fact, I have never heard anybody else do that but me. Unless, of course, that’s not what he’s doing. Now he actually is choking the cymbal, but before he wasn’t. But even all of that… I’d be interested to guess who I’m imitating! Let me listen to this again. You wouldn’t give me a drummer twice, right? [No.] Okay, so it’s not Cyrille. It’s bad, though. Now, this is the closest thing I’ve heard to something that I would try to do. I don’t use that cymbal. Blackwell used to use that cymbal—that you put it on the snare drum. I’ve heard Stewart do that do; he’ll put that gong-like cymbal on the snare drum and hit it, or on the tom-tom and hit it. I have no idea who it is, but I love it. I really like it. Joe Chambers? Who would think like that? Wow! The same guy playing the brushes, too? [Same drummer, yes.] That’s what sort of made me think of Joe Chambers. Whoever that is, is heavy. Not because I would do it, but I just like their mind, whoever it is, and just his ability as a drummer—the brushes, too. It’s funny, I can’t say if he’s young or old. He could be an older guy or he could be a younger guy. 5 stars. Susie Ibarra? Whoa!!! I’m in love with Susie Ibarra. I’ve just never heard her play the brushes like that. I know that she has a certain kind of technical facility that I did hear her do with the brushes, but I’d only her do it before with the sticks. When you talk about modern drummers, a lot of the groundbreaking, just for plain drumming, comes from the so-called avant-garde drummers… When people talk about “contemporary” this or “modern” that, that word for me means the stuff that comes from Milford, Rashied, Andrew Cyrille, Barry Altschul, Stu Martin, and then a new breed of that came along about 15-20 years ago with Jim Black and Tom Rainey and Gerald Cleaver, Hemingway. But of those drummers, Susie Ibarra is by far one of my favorite drummers to listen to, not only on the drums, but as a musician, too, some of her compositions. I was very impressed with that.

11.   Victor Lewis, “Suspicion” (from Charles Tolliver, WITH LOVE, Blue Note, 2006) (Charles Tolliver, trumpet, composer; Victor Lewis, drums)

This is the trumpet player’s record? [Yes.] I have two impressions. The first impression, of course, is that it was some kind of Latin band, and I’m trying to think of that drummer who teaches at the New School… [It’s not Bobby Sanabria.] How’d you know that’s who I meant?  The next thing is the opposite of that, like say, Charles Tolliver. I know Victor Lewis played with him when I heard him at the IAJE. But I didn’t hear any music like this, and great as that music was, I didn’t hear THIS. It took me a minute to recognize him. It’s interesting to hear Victor. People ask me about Victor Lewis, and for years I would say, “If I ever had to recommend a sub for me…” In other words, if they said, “I want you to hire a sub, but I’m not going to tell you what the music is going to be like,” I would say Victor Lewis. Because his musical scope is similar to mine. Anything I would be interested in or try to do, I know Victor could do. Anything somebody would call me for, I think they could call Victor for. Victor is one of my all-time favorite drummers. I remember asking a recording engineer, just for recording clarity, who his favorite drummer was, and he had recorded everybody, and he said Victor Lewis. 5 stars, of course. Off the record, I went to college with Tolliver at Howard, and I never think of Tolliver as having those kind of chops. I know he can play, he’s one of my favorite trumpet players, but for a minute he almost sounded like Freddie! I said, “Who is this who’s picking it up on that level?” Now, I know he loves Freddie, but I didn’t know he could get that close to it. That’s off the record.

12.  Lewis Nash, “Tickle Toe” (from STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, M&I, 2005) (Nash, drums; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Peter Washington, bass)

All the things you’ve played have been very enjoyable. You know how some people say, “I really didn’t like that at all.” You didn’t play one thing that I didn’t enjoy. I have ideas on this, but they’re so far-fetched… If the drum had no bottom head, I’d say Chico Hamilton or something. But it does have a bottom head. This is off the record, too. Even this sounds like me! Well, I mean, it’s something I would have played in this situation. So it just shows you, whoever I’m influenced by, a lot of other people are, too. He’s playing the form of the tune really well, or so it seems to me. It’s an older style of drumming by a modern guy. You sort of think of Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds or Gene Krupa, even Sid Catlett, but there’s obviously a more contemporary drummer. He’s playing a calypso beat, which is interesting. It sounds like so many people… His sense of humor reminds me of Frankie Dunlap. There’s something about him that reminds me of Chico Hamilton. It’s somebody with some chops, though. 4 stars. Lewis is a student of the music. I should have been able to catch him. What threw me off is Nelson. Because he sounded so much like a Bags-influenced guy. I kept thinking it was back there, like somebody like Terry Gibbs or someone, and that made me think it might have been Mel Lewis, or even Ben Riley. Brilliant, man. He’s got a wide scope, too.

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Filed under Billy Hart, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Jazz Times

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. (https://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.”

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“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

An Uncut Blindfold Test With Andrew Cyrille from The End Of The ’90s

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.]

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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.

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Filed under Andrew Cyrille, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer

For Cecil Taylor’s 83rd Birthday, A Jazziz Article From 2001

Master pianist and meta-musician-poet-dancer Cecil Taylor turns 83 today. I had the honor of writing a lengthy feature about him in 2001 for Jazziz, which I’ve appended below, as well as the transcripts of phone interviews that Andrew Cyrille and Tony Oxley graciously gave me towards this  project.

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 “The best preparation for playing with Cecil Taylor is to be fit and open your ears.  Things happen that have nothing to do with strategy or even preparation.  The joy is so much more immense if you prepare yourself to go where the music will take you, and not try and make it go where perhaps you want it or where you think it might go.” — Tony Oxley.
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For three weeks in February, in a smallish basement performance space at the Turtle Bay Music School on Manhattan’s East 52nd Street, the meta-virtuoso pianist Cecil Taylor guided a hand-picked master class — the final iteration comprised 11 sax and woodwinds, one recorder, one trumpet, one bass trombone, six pianists, one guitar, two violins, two vibraphones, one bass, two trapset, one percussion, one voice, and includes a poet and a painter — through ten intense rehersals of ten of his compositions.  Each musician paid $300 for the opportunity to observe how Taylor organizes material, how he chooses to express it, how he shapes it into strong images, how he makes the drama develop.

Around four o’clock on the final day, the orchestra was concluding their “dress rehearsal” with a spontaneous joyful roar.  After a dinner break, they were to reassemble for a culminating, self-conducted public concert, to be followed by a Taylor performance with as-yet undetermined personnel.  I sat in the pale light of the school’s foyer with Trudy Morse, Taylor’s confidante and frequent liaison to the outside world.  A mother of six with 20 grandchildren, Morse is 82, six months removed from her third near-death experience and three months past major surgery, but her voice is clear, her diction precise, her grip firm, and her eyes probe you like a laser beam.

Shortly after the death of her husband in 1987, Morse traveled to Huddersfield, U.K., to attend an electronic music festival, where she witnessed a concert featuring pianists Roger Woodward — performing Ianis Xenakis’ “Herma,” “Evryali” and “Mists” — and Cecil Taylor.  At the post-concert lecture-interview, she perceived amongst the gathered cognoscenti a tone of condescension towards Taylor as a “jazz artist.”

“This puzzled me,” she relates.  “I stood up and apologized to the scholars, and asked them if they understood Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  One man responded, ‘What are you talking about?’  I said, ‘Well, Heisenberg said that the spectator actually controls the experiment.  I would suggest to you that in music it’s the same.  We bring something to this concert.  That’s the way Cecil Taylor strikes me, although I don’t know him personally.’  Cecil Taylor suddenly looked at me and wondered who I was.  I sat down.  Later I noticed that he kept turning pages of music with very interesting notation.  I said, ‘Mr. Taylor, I don’t mean to be too curious, but what kind of notation and whose works are these?’  From then on, it’s history.  Cecil Taylor puzzled me enough that I accepted his invitation to tour with him.  I’ve been touring ever since.”

Morse met Taylor a little more than a year after the death of his significant other in music, the alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, his collaborator and alterego since 1961.  From 1964 to 1975, Lyons and the drummer Andrew Cyrille developed with Taylor a way of collectively improvising with furious lucidity off of shapes and structures at whirlwind velocities that picked up where the likes of Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and Max Roach left off.  Their investigations, documented in the pathbreaking recordings “Unit Structures” and “Conquistador,” inspired musicians around the world as a guidepost to the future.

Over the phone, Cyrille described their process: “As the years went by, after we began to play together consistently, Cecil would say, ‘This is our music.’  He meant ‘our’ inclusively, because we were all creating it from whatever we brought to the table.  I’d say, ‘Is there anything you want me to play in particular?’  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.’  We would rehearse, listen for hours upon hours, days at a time.  It opened me up and allowed me to try things that I had never played before.

No matter how deeply Taylor, Lyons and Cyrille ascended to the outer partials of abstraction, their connection to the jazz lifeblood was implicit.  After 1975, when Cyrille stopped playing full-time with Taylor, the pianist worked with a succession of drummers — Ronald Shannon Jackson, Jerome Cooper, Steve McCall — who postulated definite rhythmic ideas, bringing forth a certain tension between the personalities from the contrast, the opposition, the push-and-pull.  After 1986, Lyons was no longer available to demonstrate instantaneously and authoritatively how his notes should be phrased, and Taylor — whose aversion to authority or canons or systems of any sort is legend — had to develop a sort of pedagogy by which he could concretely communicate his intentions and maximize the understanding of the other musicians.

During the ’80s Taylor began to crack open a Pandora’s Box of improvisational possibility in encounters with Max Roach, with AACM individualists like Henry Threadgill, Fred Hopkins, Roscoe Mitchell, Leroy Jenkins, and Thurman Barker, and with European outcats like Enrico Rava, Tomasz Stanko, John Tchicai and Peter Brotzmann.  He increasingly incorporated his authoritative knowledge of Native American, African and Japanese ritual into his performances.  Then festivals in Berlin and Amsterdam in 1986 and 1987 spurred him to focus more steadily on Europe not only as a welcoming theater for his music, but as a source of broadening improvisational nourishment.

Taylor’s inexorable forward march gained irreversible momentum during a June 1988 residency in Berlin that juxtaposed him with the creme de la creme of European free improvisers in a series of concerts documented on 13 CDs on FMP.  There followed consequential [visits] in 1989, 1990 and 1991 that left a permanent mark on the European scene.  During those years Taylor collaborated on several hundred occasions with the English drummer Tony Oxley, whose capacious tonal palette has inspired comparisons to an improvising Varese or Harry Partch.  Taylor now employs in his various units such virtuosi from the European speculative improv community as drummer Paul Lovens, cellist Tristan Honsegger, and soprano saxophonist Harri Sjostrom.  Recent encounters include improvised colloquies with Oxley, Derek Bailey, Barry Guy, and the American vibraphonist Joe Locke, three supreme duets with Max Roach, six with Elvin Jones, and a 1998 meeting with Andrew Cyrille.

“Cecil was very sharp,” Cyrille recalled.  “We had a magical dialogue.  This kind of music and 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 the effort is put forth is so much smoother and nuanced.  We’re so much more confident with the language than we were.”
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The Turtle Bay project gestated prosaically.  At a party in March 1999, Morse met the guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil, a faculty member.  She inquired whether the school, which has neither a jazz nor an avant-garde tradition, would be interested in hosting such an event.  Eisenbeil investigated.  The answer was yes, providing Eisenbeil would organize it.  Needing to recruit 20 participants to meet expenses, Eisenbeil sent a mass email announcement to several contact lists and a slew of websites, and received 40 responses.

The age range of the musicians who gathered for the first rehearsal was  12 to 60.  Apart from a few Taylor veterans — violinist Ramsey Ameen (1978-1980) and Elliott Levin (a veteran of a 1973 Taylor workshop at Glassboro State University and of an octet that formed from a huge orchestra project at the Knitting Factory in 1995) — they had no idea what to expect from the maestro, a sylph-like man who retains the elastic musculature of a dancer one month shy of his 72nd birthday.  Dressed for work in stocking feet, black stocking cap, gray sweatshirt tie-dyed orange on one side, pants dyed white-aquamarine on the left and pink-gray on the right, Taylor first asked each participant to take a one-minute solo.  Speaking quietly, in calm, declarative sentences, he dictated a sequence of chords, then sang the line with a variety of attacks.  “Whatever you play, play it so people who hear it can hear the magic,” he urged.  “Try to remain connected; I want you to have control of each note you play.”  The musicians separated into sections; Morse strolled from point to point bearing a pot of hot tea.  With his brisk, precise dancer’s movements, Taylor glided to the trumpets and to the strings, imparted information, then sprang to the stage to recite another chordal sequence, seemingly conjured in instant response to what he was hearing, which he demonstrated with stunning precision on the piano.

“Play notes exactly/the way they are supposed/to be played,” he intoned, punctuating his words with well-timed vertical hand-chops.  “I played you just a single line.  Unless you play this extension chord, you have all sorts of possibilities within that sound.”  After a break, Taylor read off another passage, fine-tuned each section with a total command of detail, then played the passage with his left hand and launched into seven or eight variations.  Tenorist Moshe Ras spontaneously applauded, and embarked on a few minutes of spirit-catching through his horn.

Taylor concluded the session with a statement of purpose.  “There will be time for solos,” he told the ensemble.  “But we have to play so that everybody can get the information.  Each of you has the right to say, ‘I would like to hear this part over again.’  Each section has its technical problem.  What is the relationship of the note to the overall structure?  I can show you where everything is connected, but I don’t want to be in the position of telling you how to play it.  Where do you want to begin?  How do you want to proceed?”
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Over the course of the next nine rehearsals, several key themes emerged.  During the second session Taylor distributed photocopies of his scores, giving the musicians a chance to look at how he thinks about tones.  He divides the scores into small modules, which he calls quadrants.  Each has specific rules, with cues and gestures as to how they can be played, and each fits with the others in some manner.  He uses neither bar lines nor staves, but presents the notes as pictographically arranged hieroglyphs of letters, ascending from A to G and descending from G to A, with register and pitch indicated specifically according to the distance in whole steps from middle C.  They look like the branches of a tree, abstract landscapes of plateaus and mountains and valleys, perhaps a graphic representation of a dance.

“The scores seem to be what I would call fields,” says Dan Marmorstein, a composer-pianist whose friendship with Taylor dates to 1985.  “Each page might have a group of 12 to 20 sections of notes.  Each section might notate a melody or group of melodies (sometimes repeats are specified), but it might also be suggestive of a certain collection of notes that can be treated as a scale or mode.  Part of the fun is too discover the possibilities of combining these notes in different ways.  Soometimes Cecil stacks sequences lines of tones, and you get a sequence of diads or triads or polyphonic chords.  These areas of the score can be very dense, and once again, the player has to keep alert and on his toes and decide whether to deal with the vertical stacks and the horizontal lines as consecutive tones or as simultaneously voiced chords.

“The musicians are asked to breathe their own poetry into these melodies and shape them as they will according to their own library of experiences.  This being said, Cecil will often play the line on the piano and expect that we will be capable of hearing that this is the way he wants it to sound.  Sometimes you can hear it, but sometimes if he plays it with his own customary incessantly florid fluidity, it can be difficult to hear the bare skeleton; he’s asking us to sketch the daisy when he’s given us a daisy surrounded by roses and orchids and African violets.  Cecil sometimes simply is playing a melody voiced in four octaves.  Of course, when he does it, it sounds like he is playing single notes on the piano — with authority!”]

Taylor is able to process instantly all the possible permutations of each quadrant, and splice them together in endless combinations.  But how are mere mortals to self-orchestrate?  For example, how to navigate section-to-section transitions?  Once he suggested: “Play it as many times as it is rhythmically of interest.  Play dynamics.  When it’s exhausted, that’s when it ends.  I am only giving you suggestions.”

The essential issue facing the orchestra was how to sustain a dynamic level that kept them dancing in and out of the vortex, like a magician who enters the maelstrom of a column of fire and exits unscathed.  Taylor incessantly emphasized the imperative, in Marmorstein’s words, “to play in such a way that they could leave room, make space, and listen to one another.”  Early on, he offered a lyric sequence at the piano, then asked each section to repeat it.  “Play it as soft as you can,” he told the saxophones.  “Tenors, think of Ben Webster.  Think of the breath.  Whoo-oosh. It should float.”  He distributed the next section, which began with a three-note sequence for the tenors followed by a three-note response by the strings, commenting, “This piece is rather rapid.  After all, that was pastoral.  This is FIRE.”

Attention to breath, the silence before the note, is crucial. As the ensemble worked through possible approaches to Section 10, Taylor gave a telling exhortation.  “After each sound you’ve got do this” — he inhaled — “so that each component becomes very clear.”  One sound is exploding out; the next time when you repeat it, it’s exploding in — in other words, it’s becoming softer.  We want to separate each quadrant, so that it doesn’t become a blur.  It’s the continuation of the piece.”

Occasionally Taylor would decline to demonstrate.  To a saxophonist who asked him to phrase a sequence, Taylor responded, “No, I’ve done that. It’s an emotion; you didn’t just walk into the room.”  But soon after, Taylor stated, “We’re going to change the mood,” and set up a rolling bass line reminiscent of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy,” tossing it off on the left hand with flawless nonchalance.  Another time Taylor sang a four-note sequence and asked the group to play it twice.  “But I also want you to break up the rhythm,” he added.  “These notes are divided into different rhythmic registers, and that could be the basis of a whole improvisational…” Rather than complete his sentence, Taylor demonstrated five or six variations at half-speed.  “Anything is possible,” he said.  “Let’s try it.”
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By the day of the concert, Taylor had convinced the ensemble, now winnowed down to 30 members, that anything WAS possible.

Bruce Eisenbeil compared Taylor’s organic process of orchestrating, arranging and composing during the rehearsal, coping with the colors and timbres of every instrument in real time, to the way Duke Ellington would state a chord, play it on the piano, and begin assigning notes to specific members of the orchestra.  “Cecil’s musical vocabulary speaks of what’s going on today,” Eisenbeil said.  “His body of work is idiosyncratic to him, as the music of Ellington and Miles Davis is idiosyncratic to them.  As well as Xenakis, or Bartok, or Stravinsky.  Each has a unique sense of rhythm, full of life and urgency.  When he told the saxophones, ‘I want the breath tone; I want Ben Webster’ — that’s calling on the continuum!  That’s so key and central to what the jazz vocabulary is about.  Older musicians relate how Dizzy Gillespie taught them to play the new language of bebop fifty years ago.  This is what you get when you hang out with Cecil today.”

The ensemble’s cogent, flexible navigation through four Taylor constructs — the emotional landscape spanned signature Taylorian canned lightning bellows to achingly ruminative rubato elegies — showed in a way that the rehearsals could not foretell how deeply they internalized the maestro’s principles.  They played like an organic unit, with restraint, dynamic nuance, and idiomatic articulation; the brainy soloists conjured an array of rhythmic attacks, playing with concision and structural variation, always with the overall narrative in mind.

Perhaps the most startling “piece” was “Ka-Kaba”, a 45-minute masterpiece of tension-and-release.  Pianists Dan Marmorstein and Alex Tarampi stated the core melodic kernel, the horns and violins dialogued over a swelling ensemble tone that ascended to a joyful roar.  Elliott Levin and alto saxophonist Aaron Ali Shaikh commenced a firebreathing passage which subsided, giving way to a delicate shakuhachi-like recorder solo.  The band clapped and hollered the syllable HA!! over entexturing violins and percussion; from the churning sound emerged a voice-like bass trombone statement.  The band roared the syllable SO!!, counterstated by flutes, vibraphone glisses, pizzicato violins, guitar sonics, sax-breaths, and synth tone-shapes — Levin’s solo brought the section to climax.  Poet Ulla Dydo chanted a Gertrude Stein-inspired poem (“Better and most and yes and yes, Yes and yes and more and yes”) complemented by synth, guitar, drum scrapes and clarinet microtones.  The roar swelled oceanically, was becalmed by precise pizzicato violins and pointillistic piano, then returned with a high-overtone horn ensemble interlude.  Clarinetist Kevin Sullivan floated over synth nachtmusik, John Keith’s malleted tom-toms gently underpinned a lissome bassoon-piano-bass trombone conversation.  Then Rosi Hertlein sang a piercing DRRAAA-HAAA; trumpeter Amir El Saffar answered the call.  She cried A-HA-HAA; the horn section, breathing as one, found a tonal analogue.  The full ensemble reiterated the original theme, decrescendoing until the recorder emerged from the depths to play free rubato melodies with the violins and guitar until nothing was left to say.

For another hour the ensemble conjured fire and air in equal measure over two more Taylor compositions; they left the stage to a well-earned ovation.  Before they could bask in the afterglow, Taylor abruptly strode to the piano, cellist Tristan Honsegger and trapsetter Jackson Krall in tow, to begin a furious fanfare.  Poet Naima Wade embarked on an impassioned recitative about slavery, miscegenation, and hegemony of the master race’s world view.   Honsegger responded with the dagger-like syllables “mata, mata, matamatika!!”, creating long, startling shapes, playing with such intensity that his bow began to shred, yet hitting the notes and tones with the spot-on articulation of a virtuoso.

He inspired Taylor, who may possess more ways of extracting sound from 88 keys and 3 pedals than any pianist in the world.  Playing as though his arms were attached to springs, he deployed an awesome lexicon of meticulously choreographed snatches, grabs, clutches, swoops, crawls, snips, clips, slides, thrusts, plucks, punches, slaps, thumb glisses, and elbow crashes, each movement honed to micron-precise specificity.  As the poet referred to Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington, Taylor answered with blindingly complex right-hand passages, riposting with exquisitely executed left-hand flurries.  Honsegger danced around the cello, Taylor laid down a stride figure, Honsegger stomped, chanted and bowed demonically and consonantly with his decomposing wand.  The poet sat.  Honsegger took a dark solo that turned into a Bartokian stomp, answered by more Taylorian variations, left hand completing long, ascending runs begun by the right.  Krall dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s.

There was more.  The unit evoked rainfall, the forest, the sounds of creatures large and small.  They wound down with a collective rubato triologue, Honsegger miraculously conjuring music with his all but disintegrated bow, Taylor’s head cocked to the right, his vigilant left ear attuned to sounds that he might alchemize so as to extend this iteration of his singular ritual.

Indeed, Taylor evoked the mythic half-man, half-dragon persona of Keqrops, the Egyptian who founded Athens in 1600 B.C., whose name titled a composition that Xenakis wrote for Roger Woodward some years after the Taylor-Woodward concert in Huddersfield that Trudy Morse attended in 1987.  We thought of Tony Oxley’s delirious encomium, “To play with Cecil Taylor, you need the stamina of an athlete and the imagination of a God!”

“There was a lot of intensive work during my three years with Cecil,” Ramsey Ameen had stated midway through the rehearsals.  “Now, twenty years later, I see a purification.  Cecil has cleared a path to reach the basic elements of music that go beyond all elements of style, that go to human expression.  Anything extraneous to that is irrelevant.  He’s talking about sound, volume levels, what the ensemble should play very precisely, what they should not play too stiffly, and so on.  I keep thinking I have to go back and read again the Herman Hesse book, Magister Ludi (The Music Master), a person who is constantly deepening into this state of musical grace.”

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Andrew Cyrille on Cecil (3-16-01):

TP:    Do you perceive any change in the way Cecil approaches music since Jimmy Lyons passed away, conceptually or emotionally or in his inclusiveness of other vocabularies?

CYRILLE:  I don’t know whether it’s changed really in terms of how he prepares.  When I played with him two or three years ago… It must have been ’99 I did that concert in Berlin which was a live recording in Berlin..  We rehearsed, and it was an open kind of improvisation.  I remember years ago… He probably still does this.  I haven’t worked with him since.  He would give out notes.  The last time I saw him giving out notes before a concert we did was in Austria probably in 1987 in Nickelsdorf.  He gave notes out to John Carter, Leroy Jenkins and Roberto Miranda, then later on in the evening we got together and performed the music he had given out.  The last time, Tristan Honsegger was the cellist and a bassist from Curacao whose name I can’t remember.  He lives in Holland.  Anyway, we had a rehearsal, but the rehearsal was based on how we listened to each other and how we would feed each with the music that we made on the spur of the moment.  We rehearsed for hours, I remember, that night.  Then the next day, when we got a good idea of what each other did or could do, then we went ahead and did the concert.

I can say this much.  I think that Cecil was very-very sharp.  His technique had just gotten much better.  He was much more comfortable.  He listened.  I remember he and I on occasion, when maybe the other two would lay out in a performance, we just had this dialogue, and we were having a great deal of fun.  It was magical in terms of what was going on.  Because what happens with us and that kind of music and improvisation, it’s really a matter of very close listening and trading of information.  It’s like a conversation.  It’s almost like a game, so to speak, where certain things are put forth — certain sounds, certain ideas, certain rhythms, certain kinds of melodic fragments that turn into much longer statements.  It’s how we surprise each other with replies and the ability to continue to evolve within that kind of dialogue.  If anybody is listens closely, they can hear the creativity, the way that we spontaneously play and listen and create this music.  It’s just endless.  It can be endless.  And when we decide to resolve what’s happening, we just go ahead and resolve it as though we’ve finished saying something to each other in some kind of conversational story.  There are so many parallels that can be thought about. It’s almost like a dance sometimes, where we can be inclined(?) with each other, and just move along and glide so easily.

But in order to do that, you’ve got to be on top of your game with your technique, what you want to do, and the other person has to be on top of their own technique.  But it’s a matter of being able to listen and to hear and to create with what’s being delivered.

TP:    Earlier you said that Cecil’s technique has become even better and sharper.  One thing I noticed at  this workshop was how many methods he has of eliciting sounds from the piano, the mechanics of how he does.  I found the following verbs to describe what he does with his arms and hands: snatches, hammers, fences, flutters, clips, grabs, clutches, swoops, crawls, snips, slides, scrapes, thumb glisses, clusters, slaps, punches, plucks, spooling notes even…

CYRILLE:  That’s right.

TP:    All of those things, and all calibrated to micronic degrees of specificity.  Was he that specific in eliciting sound production 30 years ago, or was it a different quality?

CYRILLE:  No, it was the same.  We were all in a sense, moving in the same direction that way.  But I’d say we’ve gotten better at doing it.  The older you get, as is said, the wiser you’re supposed to be.  I know I’ve accumulated more information and I’ve been able to deliver more information in a wider variety of ways.  I know more about drumming now.  I feel more comfortable about drumming and what I did over the years than I did 20 or 30 years ago.  And the beautiful part of it is that I’m not finished.  I’m still learning and still evolving.

You made a very good analogy with the term fencing.  It was like, “Hey, we’re crossing the floor, and you back up and you thrust it forward, and sometimes you touch somebody and sometimes they touch you, and sometimes you knock the blow away, etc.  So all that can be considered sports-like or dance-like or maybe like a card game.  But it was just delightful!

TP:    Could I paraphrase that both you and Cecil have become more subtle players, more nuanced over the years?

CYRILLE:  I would say yes.  Because we’ve grown.  We’ve matured to some degree; to some degree even mellowed.  It’s always a struggle to be able to create art.  There’s always a certain amount of effort that one has to put forth.  But the way that the effort is put forth is so much smoother.  And as you say, nuance.  Yes.  Listening to Akisakila, which we did in 1971, if I were to do it again, it would be so much different.  That was formidable, but now there’s so many other things happening.  We’re so much more confident with the language.

TP:    Did Cecil use the notation he uses now when you first met him?  Can you comment on how it evolved?

CYRILLE:  He uses the same method.  But for this particular concert, he did not give out any notes.

TP:    The way he presented the notes to the people in the group, they looked almost like graphic renderings of a dance.  They were like pictograms.  Is that the type of notation he was using 35 years ago?

CYRILLE:  Yes.  See, he gives out notes, and he has his own particular way of drawing the lines.  They may move in a number of different directions, going up, going down, for instance going straight-up vertically, on the other axis going horizontal… They’re like branches, in a sense.  This is how his compositions look.  So when he gives those notes out to the other instrumentalists, he will tell them whether they will be higher or lower or in the same register.  Then the individuals write down the notes that he’s giving, and they play the notes.  Interestingly enough, sometimes there may be unisons and then sometimes there are contrasting rhythmical lines, and sometimes the rhythmical lines are created by the players themselves with the notes.  See, sometimes he doesn’t necessarily give the rhythms.  He lets them decide their own rhythm with the notes that he gives.

TP:    Can you give me the short version of the story of how you first linked up?

CYRILLE:  It was so coincidental.  It was Ted Curson, with whom I went to a rehearsal he was having with Cecil at a school called Hartnett-New York.  This might have been ’57.  I was living in Brooklyn, and that same day I was rehearsing with another pianist named Leslie Braithwaite.  Ted and Harold Ousley heard the music from the street and came to investigate, and Leslie and I were about to wind down our playing for that afternoon, and Ted said he had to go to Manhattan to play with this piano player named Cecil Taylor.  He told me, “You’ve never heard anybody play piano like this guy; come over and check him out.”  So I went with him, and walked into the studio where Cecil was, and he was sitting down at the piano just playing.  Ted said, “This is Andrew Cyrille,” and Cecil looked up and said, “Hi, how are you doing?” and Ted asked him if I could play.  He said, “Yeah.”  So I sat down and started playing.  And to some degree, more or less, it’s like what we do now.  It’s kind of like what we did at the concert in Berlin.  It’s just that now I know, to some degree, what’s happening in terms of how he plays and how I would play with him.  When I first met him, it was a thing whereby you play and you wonder what is it that he would want.  Do I play the rhythms the way that I play with other people?  I guess that is part of it.  But nothing was said, except for the fact that we played with each other and it was something that we wound up exploring.

After that rehearsal, I knew a place up in Harlem… School closed, and I knew this club on Amsterdam Avenue that used to have jam sessions and was a place that had a piano trio with a guy named Cecil Young at night… I knew the bartender because I had gone there several times for sessions.  Cecil and I went up, I asked the guy if we could play, and he said, “Yeah.”  This was late afternoon.  I had a snare drum.  Cecil sat down at the piano and started playing, and I started playing with him.

That’s more or less how we met.  There was never any tension or conflict or, “Man, I don’t know what you’re doing.”  I was listening to him, trying to do what I could with what I heard him play, and I’m sure vice-versa.

As the years went by, after we had begun to play together on a consistent basis, he would say, “This is our music.”  And he meant “our” inclusively, in terms of me and Jimmy and whomever else was playing, because we were all creating the music at that particular moment.  So whatever we brought to the table was ours.  And putting it together, we got this whole.  Yes, of course, he gave us direction so far as allowing  us to do what we wanted to do within the context of the concept.  We would rehearse with each other, we would listen, rehearse, listen, rehearse.  We did a lot of that, days, hours upon hours, within that period of time.

TP:    Was it improvising or was he giving notes?

CYRILLE:  He was giving notes for the players who played those kind of diatonic notes.  But he never really told me to play anything.

TP:    How did it change your conception?

CYRILLE:  It opened me up..  It allowed me to try to play things that I had never played before, some new things.  When we had these rehearsals, in order to make sure that I’d play the same rhythms when he called a particular piece, I’d memorize what I played.  Those things, in a way, became how the heads were made.  It made me feel as though I was really responsible for whether or not this thing came off in terms of what I was adding as a drummer.  I’d say, “Is there anything you want me to play in particular?”  And I think only twice during the eleven years I played with him did he ever say, “Do this” or “Play five beats of this or give three beats of that” or whatever.  He’d say, “Man, you know what drummers do.  You’re the drummer.  You know how to play drums.”

So it was incumbent upon me to make sure that my integrity was as true-blue as Baby Dodds or Zutty Singleton!  Because this was what was going on in my head.  I did not want to do anything to the tradition and the memory of those guys, and the people whom I learned from, listening to Max and Art and Philly Joe Jones, because it could be said that it wasn’t genuine, that it wasn’t blue-blood so to speak.  So I worked on that stuff, man!  I got my information together, and I brought my information to the table.  “Hey, man, look what I found now.  Check this out!  I worked on this.”  That was on every aspect of the drumset, with the independent coordination, the foot-play, the dropping of the bombs, being tasty, playing in the spaces, accompanying, the way that the other members of the rhythm would accompany horn players…. But it was my own sense of how to do it.  It wouldn’t necessarily be the same kind of rhythms that they would play or the way that they would parse the rhythms or how they would organize the rhythms, etc.  But then again, it was!  It was the same but it was different.  Because  I played the same kind of drumset as most of those guys, and on occasion I’d play all kinds of percussion instruments, too.  It’s like when we did that recording, “Niggle Feugle,” for BYG.

TP:    When we did the Blindfold Test, you made a comment about Cecil with Tony Oxley which was very interesting.  When you play with Cecil, when Max Roach plays with Cecil, when Elvin plays with Cecil, you postulate very specific rhythmic ideas, there’s a counter-dialogue.  Another approach, which Sonny Murray did and Jackson Krall and Tony Oxley, is “matching color textures with Cecil’s panorama of sound colors and textures and dynamics rather than playing his own contrasting rhythm,” so there isn’t so much push-and-pull, but it’s more a unison or a synthesis.  Jackson Krall referred to it similarly.  Did your approach change a great deal once you were performing constantly with him?  Was there a difference between the rehearsal and the performance?

CYRILLE:  No.  It’s just that sometimes during the rehearsals, we would play some stuff that I wish would have been played during the performance.  Because it’s improvisation.  So sometimes certain things come to mind that are really gems, etc..  And a lot of times, what also has to be taken into consideration is the way you feel, the sound of the room, where the musicians are located in relationship to each other; in other words, where Honsegger was sitting, where this bass player was standing, where Cecil was, where I was…

TP:    Honsegger is something else.

CYRILLE:  Yes, Tristan is an excellent player.  But I heard Cecil a few years back when he did a solo in Paris, and at the same time the segue to the concert with a group he had that was Honsegger, Harri Sjostrom and Paul Lovens playing drums.  But the solo concert he played was just so magical!  I mean, he just played, and his command of what he was doing… It was almost like a laser beam!  He’d focus on something and he’d go after it and he get it!  It was so pliable!  And the place was packed, SRO, and it was in France.  The people were just enthralled with what he was doing, and then he danced in conjunction and spoke his words, etc.

What I’m saying is that years ago the ideas were there, and we went ahead and did what we wanted to do.  But as the years evolved… It’s like you’re cooking something, and you learn over the years how to make this thing come out and taste a certain way.  It’s like he was the master chef now.  You can put some stuff on the stove and say you’re going to experiment with this and sometimes it comes out beautifully and sometimes not so well and sometimes it’s a bomb.  But on this particular night, it was like he was the master chef, he knew just the exact ingredients to put into the food to make it come out being sumptuous.

TP:    Ramsey Ameen made the comment that when he was with Cecil, Cecil didn’t say much during the rehearsals.  He said he thought one reason why is because whenever the ensemble needed to know how to phrase a section, Jimmy Lyons would just play it, which would give everyone their cue.

CYRILLE:  Right.

TP:    The implication might be, again, that absent Jimmy Lyons, Cecil had to become more inclusive.

CYRILLE:  That’s just what I was saying before in terms of a strong rhythmical player playing the certain notes.  When you say “phrasing,” what is phrasing?  It’s just make a rhythm out of what you have.  Jimmy Lyons was a master at doing that, because he and Cecil played together in combination longer than any other individuals.  He was with Cecil for 25 years.  That’s double the time I played with Cecil on a consistent basis.

It’s so good.  It feels so good.  Like, if I have to sit down and do something with a big band, whether it be Muhal or John Carter or Murray doing Ellington’s music, you know there are certain things you can do in order to bring the music to the level that it should be.  A certain amount of risk is always involved, but you mature and you bring the weight of that maturity with you.  So if I want to play “Northern Lights,” I do the rhythm with a certain amount of conviction.  It’s not that I’m timidly doing it because I wonder whether this is the right thing to do.  I’m doing it because I know this is the right thing to do!  So it’s the same parallel when I play with somebody like Cecil.  Hey, this is what we’re going to do right now, this is what I’m going to do…

The thing that Cecil also appreciates, which is also why he doesn’t say anything, is because he wants your talent to come forth to inspire him.  And when that happens, that’s when you have this beautiful dialogue where there’s laughter and all these elements of surprise that come up.  It makes you want to continue doing what you’re doing, because it’s evolving on such a high creative artistic level.  And you just don’t want to stop.  It’s fantastic what’s happening at the spur of the moment.  I heard that happen with Max to some degree when he played with Max at Macmillan Hall in 1979.  I haven’t heard him play with Max in duet again since.  And I haven’t heard him play with Elvin.  But all I’m saying is that you have these two giants of the drum coming with all of their artillery, the full weight…the bag of all the stuff, and knowing what’s in that bag and knowing what they can use, and they selectively use whatever they feel is apropos.  I feel the same way at this point.  And as far as I’m concerned, hey, let’s do some more.

TP:    How do you assess Cecil’s stature both in the music’s timeline and vis-a-vis people you’ve worked with, like John Carter or Muhal or Anthony Davis?

CYRILLE:  These people feel as though he is definitely a seminal figure.  He helped change the direction of this music.  Before Cecil, there were certain things that were not happening.  The expanse of the compositional arrangement… In other, it’s not like AABA (though that’s still a viable form, and people use it in many ways).  But the music moves in so  many different directions which aren’t necessarily limited by a prescribed traditional way of playing.  The way, again, he would give out notes and expect people to bring whatever it is that they did to the table.  This is where the weight of the sound, the creativity of his different bands, comes out.  Because he is giving these people the chance to play what they play juxtaposed to what he plays.  Like all those records for FMP with Bennink… He absorbs all of that, and they absorb him, and they juxtapose what they do in relationship.  Now, you can’t find a whole lot of people who would allow all of that on their bandstands and that they would want to deal with.  Then again, you have so many people now who say, “Well, this is the way it goes.  I can do this.  I can play duets with anybody.”  And that’s with anybody on the planet.  A man like Cecil has broadened the palette of technical possibilities — I’m talking about ways of doing things — that was not necessarily available outside of a certain kind of structural way that music had been made or had been produced before.  Another way of manufacturing it.

TP:    The people who played in this master class all paid 300 bucks, and everyone could play.  Some were more adept improvisers than others, but everyone had command of the instrument.  Jackson Krall said he thought that they had a certain focus he hadn’t seen in similar ensembles because they had paid money, and people left their egos at the door, so to speak.  But when I spoke with them how the experience of working with Cecil matched their preconception of who he was, a couple of them were coming at him from a jazz perspective, and seeing him as kind of the apotheosis of the jazz timeline, and others were fascinated with his relationship with European classical music and 20th Century music.  Do you see him as having achieved a sort of ultimate cultural synthesis.

CYRILLE:  I don’t know if I’d use the word “ultimate.”  But he’s found a place where he feels comfortable with what he has acquired and learned over the years from both cultures, the African and the European put together in the African-American in this country.  There are other parts of Cecil which he doesn’t talk about too often, but on occasion he will mention his Indian roots.  I’m talking about Native American.  A lot of what he feels and thinks comes out of that cultural perspective also.  Maybe somebody should ask him how much does he feel very close to this that he brings to the surface.  You talk about being integrated and being a true American.  It’s embodied in person like that — and many others also.  When you talk about the synthesis of Europeans and Africans and African-Americans in how all this stuff comes together… All jazz musicians play European music, or most of us do in some way-shape-or-form.  We get information from that area also.  Africans don’t play the same kinds of chords that Europeans brought to the table of humanity.  They don’t play XIII chords and flat IXs and sharp XIs and all that sort of stuff.  That’s not in their vocabulary.  It may come out incidental, but there’s nothing in their vocabulary that says that, okay, now we’re going to play this kind of chord and use this kind of color or voice it like… All that stuff comes out of Europe.

The thing that the African-American does is bring a feeling.  The Europeans might make the clothes, but hey, we’re going to put it on and style it the way that we want.  We’re going to make it ours with what it is that you put on the table.  And it could be because maybe there’s nothing else available.  But we’re going to do it this way.  Then of course, there are other ways of manufacture of clothing by people from Africa, like the robes, free-flowing kinds of dress where you can have air that passes through because it might be a hot, arid place or whatever.  As far as I’m concerned, all of it is valid, because all of it is valid in terms of giving life to human beings in the place where they live — to stay alive!  So one can’t be more important than another.  You wouldn’t wear the same kind of clothes in Northern Europe that you would wear in Sub-Saharan Africa.  The same thing comes about more or less with the music.

All this makes me feel better about myself.  As you ask me these questions and I try to give you some good, qualified answers, it lets me know t some degree that I’m not crazy.  I have more students now than I have ever had who are coming to me, asking me about playing free.  So there has to be a certain kind of qualification and certain parameters.

TP:    I guess the paradox of the notion of musical freedom is the incredible discipline you have to have internalized to be able to do it.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  There is nothing free.  Not really.  Number one, you’re confined by the properties of the instrument you play.  But the reward comes out of finding things in that instrument that bring you to other places.  You say, “Wow, I can do this with the instrument.”  You listen to how you brought forth something you weren’t aware of that you can do with the instrument.  That’s the beauty of it.  That’s the beauty of the creativity and the evolution.  Which certain kinds of methods don’t particularly allow you to do.  But within the forms of those methods, you can find certain elements that are magical also.  But you can go beyond that, too.  So for me, that has been the contribution of a person like Cecil Taylor.  I think it’s fantastic.

* * *

Tony Oxley (on Cecil Taylor) – (3-20-01):

TP:    I am interested in what CT has indicated is an aesthetic and personal evolution in the last fifteen years, and it may be that your tonal personality is the one he feels the most affinity towards.  So first: What was your first exposure to Cecil’s music?

OXLEY:  It was in the ’60s, of course, with the legendary records Conquistador and Unit Structures.  Of course, I heard something before that.  I think it was from Denmark.  I remember that showing up in the ’60s as well.  But I think you’ll appreciate that living in Britain at that time, it was not easy to get this music.  In fact, there were various people who worked on the Queen Mary who used to actually smuggle it back from New York — as well as equipment, American drums, Gretsch and stuff like that, which you couldn’t get here.

TP:     People in the ship bands?

OXLEY:  Yes.  So a lot of this early culture and contributions of Cecil… I mean, it would have wonderful to be able hear…. On the few occasions he was working in those days, it would have been wonderful to be able to hear this live.  but the real impact for me was Conquistador and Unit Structures.

TP:    You became interested in speculative improvising at an early period, before those records came out.  How did hearing that, if at all, affect the course of how you approach the drums and spontaneous composition?

OXLEY:  Well, I found it very refreshing, very optimistic.  For me personally… I can tell you that the people who were interested in that music in Britain who I knew used to use it as their standard-bearer, if you like.  If they were trying to inform anyone to what was happening in New York with Cecil’s music, those two records would be the thing they would be talking about.  Of course, people were starting to tape this stuff and send it to each other, because you could only get very few records.  So the impact of it for me… It was an alternative, you see, that was not exploited over here in Europe.  That really comes out of what went on before in New York, a continuation in some ways.  Very surprising.  For me, very different to Ornette Coleman, which was a bit more predictable, in a way.  The rhythmic elements in Cecil’s work had a lot more possibilities, in my opinion.  Ornette’s approach had quite a traditional rhythm moving behind it.  It was well-commented-on.  It was noticed over here.  But Cecil seemed to give the space in every direction for what seemed to be the right thing to do at the time, and the right way to go, and how to respond to the way he was working.  So I think there was a lot more openness in the rhythmic side of the music to match the harmonic side.

TP:    When you’re referring to the music as a continuation of what went on before, are you referring to Cecil’s immersion in Bud Powell and the jazz tradition, or are you talking about the early roots of jazz music in the U.S.?

OXLEY:  I don’t know if he comes out of Bud Powell in a direct line.  I wouldn’t like to speculate about that.  But I do know how much of an admirer of Thelonious Monk Cecil is.  And there might have been some kind of connection between what he does and Thelonious Monk.  Now, of course, that might seem ridiculous on first hearing — kind of the opposite.  But influence works in many ways, and it does not work in imitating, in my view.  The philosophy is the thing you learn from, not the imitation.  I would hesitate to recommend anyone imitating.  But that’s another question.

TP:    If I may go on a tangent, who are the drummers whose aesthetic philosophy you assimilated when you were developing?

OXLEY:  Of course, the big band era was very prominent when I was growing up.  So consequently, the big band drummers were very prominent in the public eye.  But for the more discriminating jazz listener who would be brave enough to look for small groups (because big bands really dominated the scene), I would have to say that, first of all, Art Blakey, and then Elvin Jones, and then Milford Graves in those plays were very influential in showing the real issues in American jazz music.

TP:    The real issues?

OXLEY:  Well ,the reality, if you like.  What was important and how to do it.  How they do it.  Because they were all different.  Roy Haynes was another very interesting player in my development for years.  Of course, we’re always developing.  We never really stop, I suppose.

TP:    Was your development entirely through listening to records, or were you ever able to witness any of these people in Britain?

OXLEY:  I did actually.  Because Norman Granz used to send shows with four or five bands in them around Europe, and fortunately, they showed up in Sheffield, where I lived.  So I was able to hear Monk and Blakey live during that period of time.  But it wasn’t very easy to anticipate what might be coming, because you’d have Ella Fitzgerald on the bill, then Monk or Blakey…a variety of music.  But never Cecil Taylor.

TP:    But also in the ’60s, around the time Conquistador comes out, you’re the house drummer at Ronnie Scott’s.

OXLEY:  That was in ’66.  But in ’61 and ’62 and ’63, I did take some work, deputizing for the regular bands on the Queen Mary, and that meant three trips a year because there were three bands that needed to be deputized for.  Of course, on those trips, with the 36-hour turnaround in New York, that 36 hours was consumed entirely by chasing around, looking for the best music we could find.  So as a kind of pattern of activity, I would say to you that it would start in the late afternoon at the Metropole, listening to the Woody Herman Big Band.  The Metropole was just one long bar; the band was all strung out along one line, like washing.  There were mirrors on the opposite wall so they could see each other through the mirrors.  And people stood at the bar, so that meant you’d two yards away from the trumpet section.  That was unbelievable!  Lift you off your feet.  Then we’d move on to Birdland to hear Blakey.  Then we’d move on to the Vanguard and hear Bill Evans or Miles Davis.  Then we’d move to the Five Spot to hear the legendary quartet with Thelonious Monk.  So doing that three times a year, hoping that they would be there…  It wasn’t always Blakey at Birdland when we happened to be in town.  But at the best times we had, it was such a ritual as that.  And that was ’61-’62-’63, so quite early in my active professional life I was able to be exposed to some of the realities of New York at that time.

TP:    And I guess you were able to bring that sensibility back to what you were doing in England.

OXLEY:  Well, it couldn’t be ignored, could it.  It was a very dramatic experience for me, I must confess.

TP:    So in the ’60s you were able to function as both a straight-ahead, timekeeping drummer and as somebody interested in a more open-ended form of pulse and texture with the kit.

OXLEY:  Well, at the same time, I was very interested… In ’62-’63 I was starting to work with Derek Bailey and Gavin Bryars.  I’d previously been playing diatonically Classical music, i.e., Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev, Haydn, this kind of area.  I was in the Army, and this was the kind of thing we used to be doing…heh-heh, apart from other things.  Of course, when I came out of the Army, I continued my interest in what’s called Classical music, European Classical music.  So that interest transferred itself to 12-tone music.  So during this time, around ’63, I became very aware of Schoenberg and Anton Webern, and of course, that led to John Cage eventually.  So this was happening at the same time as hearing the developments in improvised music, i.e., Cecil Taylor-Bill Dixon, and my interest was continuing to develop in what’s called Classical music, only the second Viennese School.  So there were a lot of influences going on with me at that time.  And I was very hungry as well to hear it.  I suppose that might answer your question.

TP:    Between then and when you wind up playing with Cecil, it’s another two decades.  When were you first actually able to witness a performance by him?

OXLEY:  It would be in the ’70s at Ronnie Scott’s.  There was a production for a week at Ronnie Scott’s, and Cecil was included on the program with Sam Rivers, Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille.

TP:    The Fondation Maeght recordings are from ’69.

OXLEY:  It could have been.  The date I don’t know.  But it was in that area, and there was a whole week of television from Ronnie Scott’s, and Cecil was  the program with that quartet.  I think I’ve got a recording of it somewhere!

TP:    What was your impression?

OXLEY:  Well, I was more worried about how Cecil was going to find the piano.  Because the kinds of pianos that he needs…really they have to be in very good condition.  This has nothing other to do than that the way he approaches the music, the instrument has got to be in good shape.  And I wasn’t so sure about the piano at Ronnie Scott’s holding up!  We’re talking about the late ’60s now.  But from the musical point of view, of course, I was very happy to be there and hear what waas happening.  I remember speaking to Cecil, but of course he wouldn’t remember that.  Many people were saying “hello” and “how’s things” and how’s… I remember  asking him how was the piano.

So it was the ’70s when I first heard him live.  Then I don’t remember him coming to Britain… .The impact of playing with him in 1988 kind of obliterated any preconceptions I might have had about what the music that he might be playing… It was such an impact, that all my concentrations went onto that and not so much an historical view.

TP:    So in other words, it erased anything but the immediate moment of getting sound out.

OXLEY:  Absolutely.  I felt I needed all my concentration and effort, and to try to put out of my head anything that I’d heard him do with other people on record.  And the only records I had were those two that I mentioned.  I tried to put that out of my head in order to approach it with a cleaner palette.

TP:    Does playing with him demand new strategies and approaches on your instrument?

OXLEY:  The music speaks for itself, you know.  When you’re playing with Cecil Taylor, there is only one Cecil Taylor.  And when you become involved in the music, things happen that have nothing to do with strategy or even preparation.  The best preparation I’d say is be fit and open your ears!

TP:    I’ve heard you quoted that you have to have the stamina of an athlete…

OXLEY:  …and the imagination of God! [LAUGHS] You can quote that, if you like.  Well, it’s just to give a sincere answer to a kind of general question, ,to bring it into some kind of perspective.  I think just recently, when we played in the Tonic, I think the power of his work and the power of his imagination was evident.  I thought it was best in ’88 anyway to try to approach it as prepared and unprepared as possible.  Let’s put it that way.  It’s a contradiction, but…

TP:    Over the years have you sustained that strategy of no-strategy?  Do you go into each performance with him with that blank slate?

OXLEY:  Well, I am fortunate, because I love to play with Cecil Taylor and I love to be with him — and so does my wife.  We actually are always together when we are with Cecil.

The joy…and believe me, that word is very, very important when I have to describe the experience of playing with Cecil… The joy is so much more immense if you prepare yourself to go where the music will take you, and not try and make the music go where you want it perhaps, or think it might go.  With Cecil you don’t have to have any of those worries.  There is always something happening.  So you can relax and have this experience of working… He has his language.  I have my language.  And we think, I hope…at least  I think that the compatibility is quite special.  That is one of the most important aspects to remember when you’re either listening or thinking about his music.  That’s about the best way I can describe it.

TP:    Can you discuss your philosophy of playing this music?  Do you have a philosophy of playing with Cecil Taylor?

OXLEY:  No.  As I say I don’t have a plan.  I think by whatever grace, whether it’s the grace of God or the grace of whoever, we actually came to the point where we play together.  Now, before that, I don’t know if he had heard  me.  I doubt it.  So I don’t think there’s any answers to this question in that direction.

But I will say to you that when I was growing up, leaving school, I was a steelworker in Sheffield, and I think that that environment, which I paid close attention to, not only listening, but physically it wasn’t, shall we say, something you wanted to jump out of bed to do every morning…but anyway, it had to be done… The sounds and the rhythms of that kind of environment, I’m pretty sure, had more influence on me than I have ever appreciated, and I am starting to think now that maybe that has quite a significant role to play in the way I work with percussion.  For the rest of it, we’ll wait for the book! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Some of your interactions with Cecil are totally improvised and some would involve his notation, I imagine, with the larger ensemble perhaps.

OXLEY:  Not very often.

TP:    So you’re the wrong person to talk to about his notation..

OXLEY:  Of course, I’ve been quite close to Cecil since ’88, and I’ve seen him in situations with ensembles.  But to put it on a basic level, it would rather depend on the ensemble.  If people come along and they’re well aware of Cecil… Why would they be up there, I suppose, if they weren’t?  But if they come along with the right attitude and they want to be there…

TP:    Trudy Morse said that one reasons she’s very proactive in instigating these workshops is because she wants to introduce as many musicians as possible to Cecil’s notation.  And having seen a number of the sheets he was passing out, they’re graceful, poetic, dancelike…

OXLEY:  You’re talking about this last project, and of course it would be difficult for me to comment about that because I wasn’t there.

TP:    But there were people who had participated in projects of his from 1970 and 1973 who said that the notation was similar.  I thought you’d be interesting to ask about it because of your immersion in modernist classical music?

OXLEY:  It would be easier to talk to Cecil about that.  Have you tried to approach him about that question? [ETC.] Cecil is one of the most generous, sensitive people I know.  But it has to be respected that he also needs time to himself and he also has his way of dealing with a situation.  He works at his own pace.  But believe me, at the risk of repetition, he is one of the most generous and sensitive people I have ever had the privilege of working with and playing with.  So it’s nothing other than having to catch him at the right time.  Between you and me, when I’m ringing him, which is reasonably often, I can ring three or four times and not even get him on the phone, and the machine comes on, and I’ll leave him a message.  He has his own way of working, and that I respect 100 percent because he gives me the same freedom also.  If I’m not there, I’m not there.

TP:    Let me ask you one more question that I raised in the fax.  You addressed Cecil’s impact on the community of European improvisers in the ’60s.  I’m wondering how his intense interaction with that community in the last 15 years has affected the music in Europe.

OXLEY:  You mean personally or musically?

TP:    Both perhaps.

OXLEY:  It’s hard for me to speak for other people.  But of course, I am aware of the people who have worked with him over here in various things, particularly in that production for FMP, the box, which accounts for quite a few people.  I know quite a lot of them, and I know that the impact was quite surprising.  There are different drummers in the duets who show different ways of approaching the music.

TP:    More generally, can you describe the impact he’s had on the community?

OXLEY:  Different people have different views on it, as far as I can gather, and I would only be prepared to speak for myself on that.  Because people change their views.  And the views that I heard in ’88 would probably be very different now.

TP:    Without quoting anyone, can you tell me what views you heard in ’88?

OXLEY:  This time he spent in Berlin I think left a mark in history that will never be erased, in my view.  I think that’s about as much as I can say there.   Musically, it was absolutely phenomenal.  And after we finished…there were gigs being prepared even before he went there.

TP:    I looked at the website.  I counted 24 different gigs.  Not individual dates, but gigs of varying length between 1988 and 1991.

OXLEY:  Well, that’s only half of them that we did.  There’s a 10-CD production coming out from London which I expect will be called “The London Trios.”  If you think about that, that’s ten CDs, and go  back to the box and also go back to the productions Jost Gebers made outside of the box, which I think there are 7 CDs that I’m on… If you look at that amount of work and that amount of playing, it’s quite a phenomenal achievement, when you think about it.

[ETC.]

TP:    You used to use an enormous…

OXLEY:  A cowbell.

TP:    Well, not just a cowbell.  Your drumset incorporated things that normally wouldn’t be found.  Do you still have such an expansive tonal palette in your drumkit, or  have you pared it down?

OXLEY:  Well, I’ve cut it down, but not from when you heard it in Sweet Basil.  I cut it down from the late ’60s when I had electronics as well.  I actually devised a system of having live electronics with the kit, which there are some records around.  Pity you don’t know them..  But it’s an interesting way of working, and I found it great.  I worked with that until about ’78 or ’80.  If you’ve got February Papers… Some of Howard Riley’s recordings; I played the electronic stuff with his trio.  But anyway, around ’80 I gave up the electronics, and went back to playing acoustic entirely, and that’s the kit I used at Sweet Basil.  More or less.  You change a few things here and there, bring a few different things in.  If you have a sound you want to reproduce, then you have   to find a way of doing it.  If you have to make something, then you make it and then, of course, you add it to your language.

* * * *

Dan Marmorstein on Cecil Taylor (3-29-01):

TP:    A little of your personal history with Cecil.  Where did you first meet?  How did you become involved with his music?

MARMORSTEIN:  I first read about what Cecil was doing in the Leroi Jones book called “Black Music.”  I was largely living on the West Coast then when I was about 14 years old, so for me to read about this phenomenon of this kind of inferno of musical activity that was taking place largely on the East Coast fit in with my mindset, which was that nothing was really happening out there in the suburban West Coast, and I was looking for some kind of sanctum-sanctorum of energy and consciousness, which seemed to be being described in Jones’ book.  I went and got the records.  I guess the first record I got was Looking Ahead, which is still one of my absolute favorite records made by anybody at any time.

TP:    Were you playing piano at this time?

MARMORSTEIN:  Well, I’ve always played around on the piano, and I’ve always been involved with the piano enough to feel comfortable on it, but never enough to really call myself a pianist.  That’s still largely the situation.  So my approach to all this stuff is as a composer.  I’ve basically taken the piano thing and written things for other people to play, even on my own releases with my music.

TP:    And was your interest in composition then beginning?  Did it begin with Cecil?  Did it begin before  Cecil?  Was Cecil tangential to it initially?

MARMORSTEIN:  Cecil’s music functioned more as a magnet for me to stay connected and close to the idea and process and activity of making music, whatever that may be, in the way that other things have operated on me as kind of magnets.  I would also call S. Balanchandra, the vina player from Madras, a kind of magnet.  I would also call the Grateful Dead a kind of magnet in the same way.  But in the field of let’s call it modern improvisational American Music, I’m closer to Cecil’s music than I am, for example, to Duke Ellington’s music or, for that matter, even bebop.  Cecil’s music speaks to me more directly in a certain way, and always has.

Starting with Looking Ahead was coming in on a good page.  I think from Looking Ahead I went to Conquistador, which I still think is a beautiful symphonic seance.  That’s what I would call it.  Both sides of it.  The last couple of years I acquired the CD where you have the alternate version of “With/Exit”.  And you can understand why they chose the one that they chose . But even hearing those characters try the same piece twice…things like that brought home to me how compositional Cecil’s music is.  You used the word “structuralist” in one of your questions, and that’s not a word I feel completely facile in using because I don’t know exactly what you meant.

TP:    I’m interested in the way Cecil puts his compositions together, and I thought you’d be the best person to discuss with among the people there.  Because you see the scores and you have a sense of his process and how one process links to another and you attended every one of the rehearsals.  How he presented the material, how the material was received, how the linkages came together, the psychology of the band.  I’m interested in your overview.

MARMORSTEIN:  I’m real qualified to talk about that.

TP:    I know.  First of all, tell me how you met Cecil.

MARMORSTEIN:  My meetings with Cecil as a member of the audience were numerous, before I actually met him personally.  He was already such an object of… There was so much admiration there that I was too shy to approach him or come up to him in several situations, even in several what I would call pretty close encounters.  One the more interesting of the encounters was… Is it okay to say things that I’m not sure if I want…

TP:    Anything you want off the record, just say so.

MARMORSTEIN:  One of the most interesting encounters was when I went to Duke Ellington’s funeral at St. John’s the Divine, which was packed with people, and various artists were performing from the pulpit.  There was no place to sit down.  I came in just as the funeral was starting.  Somewhere about ten minutes into the service, a woman stood up and left, and I decided to grab the seat.  I walked up several aisles in the apse of the church, and turned to the left, and I was about to sit down at the empty place I said to myself, “My God, that’s Cecil Taylor sitting there.”  So I sat next to him for the whole funeral.  And I knew from the things I’d read that for him Ellington was a kind of spiritual father.  So in no way, shape or form was I going to disturb him there.  Then when we left the church I managed to both evade him and take another street down and get away, but when I got on the subway to go downtown, he was on the subway also.  Then I ended up going on the same subway car with him, and we were alone in the subway car.  This would have been my chance to say, “Hey, you’re a big influence in my life.”  But the guy was coming from a funeral and I was coming from a funeral, and it just didn’t seem appropriate.

There were a couple of encounters like that.  Once a guy came to my college and we were going to take a ride to Montreal and Toronto, but on the way we were going to stop off at a little college in Vermont where his brother was teaching, which was Goddard College, and we got to Plainfield, Vermont, which… I’m from New York.  This is in the middle of nowhere, and there was this college, Goddard…oh, and by the way there was a concert there that night.  And who was playing?  Oh, yeah, some guy from New York named Cecil Taylor.  I actually think that concert was recorded and put out on a CD or a bootleg.  It was a stunning concert.  He played solo.  As I remember, there were 50 or 60 people in the audience.  A month later he came to my college, to the music department at Brandeis, and played for less than 50 people with Sirone and Andrew, and then they answered questions.  But Cecil got tired of the public quickly.  Somebody asked him a question, “What kind of musical cues do you give each other?”  Cecil didn’t like the question, and he got very upset at that question, and he let Andrew take over the rest of the question-and-answer session.  Andrew had a very direct and strong way of confronting the audience which impressed me very much.

So there were experiences and close encounters.  But then we have to cut about ten years later.  I was living in New York, and finally I asked somebody who I knew was in touch with him if it was possible to obtain the phone number and phone him.  And I did.  I introduced myself on the phone and told him I was calling him because I had started composing music fairly late in life, but I had been very influenced by his music since I was in my early teens, and I had always wanted to approach him and ask him if I could take a composition lesson with him — or several composition lessons with him.  He said to me, “I don’t give lessons.”  But he said it in a nice way, and we continued to talk for over an hour.  Then he said, “Why don’t you come over tomorrow at around 11 and we can continue this talk.”  I remember I somehow made a reference that I’d be coming over at about 11, but maybe I could stop into this place and some… Then I realized that he wasn’t asking me to come at 11 in the morning.  He was asking me to come at 11 at night! [LAUGHS]

So I came over at 11 that night, and we talked, and we must have talked for several hours.  Around 3 o’clock, he said to me, “Well, this piano piece that you told me about on the phone that you wrote, did you bring it with you?”  I said, “Actually I did.”  Even though he had said he wasn’t going to give me a lesson.  He said, “Can you play the piece yourself?”  I said, “Yeah, sure.”  He said, “Well, go in the room and play it.”  So he’s got this rather large piano.  I have basically a four-movement piano sonata, and I went in the other room and played it for him.  It took me about 50 minutes to play it.  Then I came back in the other room, and he was sitting there, and he began to talk about the piece.  And he spoke so directly and so insightfully and so analytically and constructively about the piece that it was the lesson that crystallized what I was doing up until that point and which I have continued to draw from since.

We became friends from that meeting, and I never broached the question of having lessons with him again since that.  As you know, Cecil is a guy…

TP:    You approach him at his own pace.

MARMORSTEIN:  He’s a guy who goes at his own pace. [LAUGHS] I’ll just agree with you on that.  And you have to catch it when you can.

TP:    So you’ve had a relationship since you were about 30.

MARMORSTEIN:  Right.  Since about February 1985.

TP:    Just so I get it straight: You are an American who lives in Denmark?

MARMORSTEIN:  I am an American.  I lived in America my whole life until 1982, when I moved to Holland, and lived in Holland for two years, and attended the Stedelink Conservatory and studied with Misha Mengelberg.   I was a guest student in the Improvisational Department.  At the end of that year I had kind of run out of gas in Holland on a lot of levels, especially… Well, that’s a whole other subject.  But then I moved back to New York to tank up, especially economically, and I lived there for a year during which I met Cecil.  I was able to pick up some teaching jobs.  Then the woman who I had when I was in Holland who lived in Denmark came to New York and had an art show there, then we lived together, and in the summer of 1985 I moved to Denmark.  And I’ve been here ever since.

So my contact with Cecil, during the time I’ve known him, has largely taken place when I’m in New York for anywhere between a week or two weeks or a month at a time.  Maybe I’ll see him once or twice.  Maybe I’ll see him more than that.  Very often I don’t see him at all.  I might phone him several times, or we get the machine — and you never get any clue whether he’s around and just not answering the call, or whether he’s out of town.  Since 1989, a lot of my meetings have actually taken place in Berlin.  He’s in Berlin a lot, and Berlin is close enough to Copenhagen.  I’ve been to Berlin to see him three or four times.

TP:    Did you witness the June ’88 event?

MARMORSTEIN:  I wasn’t there for any of the box, but I was there in ’90 when he played at the Bechstein Hall.  I think that concert recently came out on Free Music Productions.  Off the record, I don’t think Cecil is very pleased with the release of that, because I don’t think he authorized it.  That’s the Workshop Orchestra.  I was also there for a concert he played at the Berlin Opera House a year after that, in the summer of 1991.

This invitation to the workshop came as a thrilling surprise to me. I have a computer, it’s hooked up to the telephone, and who knows what’s going to happen?  Usually you turn the thing on, and it’s nothing but a lot of junk mail asking people to do this or do that.  But all of a sudden there was this letter that was forwarded to me from Trudy Morse that had been sent out by Bruce Eisenbeil about the workshop.  It was a very nice thing for Trudy to do.  I had met Trudy in Berlin a couple of times with Cecil.  I responded right away.  I guess first I emailed Trudy and said it sounded really good, and should I really  take this as an invitation.  Because to me this was like rubbing the magic lantern.   This is what I wanted to do.  I wanted to study composition with Cecil Taylor, and to be invited to participate in a master class like that.

So I emailed Bruce, who I’d never met, and said, “I’m not a skilled jazz pianist; I don’t play changes.  I’m not an expert classical pianist.  But that being said, if I am still welcome to participate in the workshop without taking up a place that would be better reserved for a more adept pianist, then I’m in..  I would love to do it.”

I remember Bruce’s response.  He said, “Thanks for your email..  I think you should come to this workshop.  You’ll have a blast and you’ll learn a lot.”

The workshop definitely lived up to that.  I had a great time and I learned a lot.  It was a pleasure.  There was one day when I think you weren’t there when Cecil got a little bit tight, and he kind of scared all of us!  But I think for the rest of it he was in a great mood, and I think he was very-very generous with all of us.

My impression is that he was writing the stuff the night before.  Maybe some of it was old stuff that he had lying about.  But he came in with veritable reams of composition.  I could see from what I could guess that… You can’t talk about pencil markings as being fresh; you can only talk about ink markings that way.  That was my sense, that the graphite was fresh on the paper.  He came in with this stuff day after day.   He brought in about ten compositions which we played….we rehearsed ten compositions over the course of the event, and played four at the concert.

The first day of the workshops, my recollection is that he didn’t give out any paper at all.  He dictated the tones to people.  If you weren’t ready with your pencil and your paper before he started talking and you weren’t 100 percent concentrated as he was talking, then you simply couldn’t keep up with the succession of tones.  He was dictating them really rapid-fire.  So I was actually able to get some of that stuff, and some of the other people in the class were able to get some of the stuff.  So what we were able to practice the first week was pretty much what we were able to get.

Then by the second class he came in and gave us a score, so we were able to look at the score and look at his way of thinking about tones.  There are certain  intervals that he likes.  There are certain links that he likes.  There are certain licks, especially in connection with octaves and how octaves are filled in.  One lick that seems to be quite prevalent in his music is something being voiced in octaves and…

[END OF SIDE]

…middle will stay where it is.  So a lick that turns up a lot in these scores is something like a C to the C above it, with the G in between, and then the C# to the C# above it, but then still with the G in between — or things like that.  Then maybe you’ll go up from the D to a D, and probably keep the G as a pedal tone.  There are a lot of sounds like that.

Also, as a pianist, it was interesting to see that a lot of the power of his playing and his melodic statements have to do with the fact that he simply plays these rather curlicued and very harmonically dense melodic lines, which don’t always follow a diatonic sequence of tones but a much more chromatic sequence of tones, but that these lines are played sometimes as octaves or as double-octaves or, in many cases, simply as triple octaves — Cecil is simply playing a melody over four octaves.  But of course, when he does it, it sounds like he is playing single notes on the piano.  But that gives a color and a dimension.

The scores seem to be what I would call feels.  On the page of the scores, he has a group of anywhere between three or five or as many as ten, and sometimes he may stack sequences of lines, in which case you could have 25 or 30 different tones.  Quite frequently, more than one tone is described.  The way that music is transmitted to the musicians is that the musicians are basically being asked to breathe their own poetry into these melodies and shape them as they will.  But that being said, with Cecil being there, Cecil will often play the thing on the piano and expect that we can hear that that’s the way he wants it to sound.  And sometimes you can hear that, but sometimes if he plays it with his own floridness, it’s hard to hear the bare skeleton through this beautiful flower.  He’s asking us to sketch the daisy when actually what he’s done is given us a daisy surrounded by roses and orchids.

TP:    Ramsey Ameen made the point that before Jimmy Lyons died, basically personnel took phrasing cues from Jimmy Lyons’ articulation of the melodies and lines, that Jimmy’s phrasing would tend to be the authoritative guidepost for the musicians.

MARMORSTEIN:  [ETC. ON JIMMY] I wasn’t around…

TP:    The essential issue with the orchestra seemed to be how to phrase this music and how to create a dynamic level that didn’t keep them in the middle of the fire, but enabled them to maybe go into the vortex and then skip out, and go in and out and in and out like a magician going into the center of a maelstrom of fire and coming out unscathed.

MARMORSTEIN:  I think in this workshop situation, Cecil was sitting back and listening quite a bit.  I think he wanted to hear to some extent how this music would sound in a large group of people, and his coaching of the group tended to be on the minimal side — unless he really felt that it had become messy and that people weren’t listening to each other.  His coaching largely consisted that people should play in such a way that they could leave room for each other, make space for each other, and listen to one another.  That was not always the case in the rehearsals.

The miracle of the concert for me, from where I was sitting, was that suddenly everybody seemed to be listening to each other, and suddenly these pieces really functioned as finished pieces.  Okay, maybe not recording studio quality, but interesting enough for people who hadn’t been part of the building-up process to sit and listen to it.  As you probably know, we didn’t know what we were going to play until just before we played before the public.

TP:    How do sections come together in Cecil’s music?  First, is his notation singular unto him?

MARMORSTEIN:  I’ve never seen it before in any other composer.  But the composer Glenn Spearman had charts which are the only things I’ve seen which look something like Cecil’s composition.  But I know Cecil was doing it before Glenn Spearman was.

TP:    As a composer and someone who is immersed in post-Webern European music, can you speak to the Cecil’s connections structurally and on a more metaphysical level to that music.  I mean, during our conversation he was talking a great deal about Xennakis.

MARMORSTEIN:  And I guess Xennakis died a few days later, on the same day as J.J. Johnson.  He did tell that story about Xennakis being kind to him the way he was.

TP:    Trudy met Cecil on a Xennakis festival. [ETC.] Obviously there are palpable connections.  Without your necessarily going into the details of how that concert was put together, I wonder if you see connections in their musical thinking.

MARMORSTEIN:  I certainly can hear connections in Xennakis’ music with Cecil’s stuff, to the extent that when I first heard Xennakis’ piano music,  I thought this was somebody who was trying to play like Cecil Taylor.  But when I mentioned this to Cecil, Cecil didn’t seem to be too thrilled about that kind of cross-comparison.  I think Cecil… I get this as much from what’s written in the Spellman book than actually talking about it at great length with Cecil.  I think Cecil’s attitude about compositional music that’s built around a system of any kind is…I think he tends to stay away from that.  I think he almost tends to eschew that….

TP:    Are you saying that he tends to stay away from the system or that he’s internalized the system so comprehensively that he is able to use that as a part of his improvising vocabulary without even thinking about it?

MARMORSTEIN:  Well, yes, but that still wouldn’t be right, because I think by nature he avoids system.  He would avoid Serialism.  He would avoid any kind of licks stuff.  John Cage’s famous objection to the word “jazz,” as I remember it, is that…

TP:    He said it’s imprisoned by the beat.

MARMORSTEIN:  Did he?  I knew also that he said something about the fact that jazz players learn licks and then stick with that.  I think Cecil is trying in every which way to not be confined to his own shtick as such.  Yet, what I think he tries to do is cultivate a familiarity and an honesty about…you know, definite, clear, sort of subject-predicate-adjective sentences.  I think he tries to say things in music which can only be said through music, a la Schoenberg’s response to Webern’s music when he talked about the Bagatelles — that famous preface.  I guess that’s why I gravitate both to Cecil and to the Webern-Berg Schoenberg thing.  But whereas I would say Webern-Berg-Schoenberg were interested in positing systematization, especially Papa Schoenberg, I think Cecil is not interested in that.  He is not interested in creating a system.  He is not interested in creating a George Russell type theory.  Although I know he respects that thing.  I know he respects George Russell and what he has been doing, by and large.

That’s why it’s a funny thing to be in a workshop situation with Cecil. He doesn’t really want to teach his approach.  What he wants to do is motivate the participants to find their own poetry and their own way of getting started with this stuff.  I think what he wants his compositions to do is to get people to think about music as a process activity and not just a kind of finished product.  I think that’s his game.

I use the word “game” because to me the scores function a little bit like games.  You asked me how did we move from one field to the next.  Cecil gave various directives on that.  In one instance, he simply said, “When you feel that you’ve exhausted the material in one of these melodic sequence fields, when you feel that you’ve said it the way that you wanted to say it with as much variety as you can, especially rhythmic variety, then take a breath and move on.”  That was a very explicit instruction he gave.  Now, how do you translate that when you have 39 participants in the workshop, which had boiled down to about 30 by the time the concert rolled around.

That was funny paradox of the rehearsals at the concert, that for me during the rehearsals it never really-really jelled or was clear.  But somehow, when the public was sitting there, and people were forced to collectively in not an antagonistic us-against-them but in a cooperative us-and-them situation… When you have the performers and the public, you do have an us-and-them situation.  You have the people you’re playing with, and you also have people that you know are listening, who have taken cut these few hours out of their otherwise busy prime-time Saturday night and paid a their money, and you want to offer them something.  You’re not just playing for yourselves.  Now you’re playing for them.  And somehow, like magic, it worked.

Cecil turned to us literally five minutes before the public came in and he said, “Okay, we’re going to play this one and this one and this one and this one.”  Then shortly after that, he said to me, “The first piece is called ‘To be’ and the second piece is called ‘Ka’ and the third piece is called ‘Ka-Ba’ and the fourth piece…”  When he gave those names, that’s the first time I or anyone else had heard those names, and I think it’s the first time that they had names.   So I that the process wad done like that.  It was like finally the creator of the games decided that these four games were the ones that would work best together, and then he gave then names which gives the audience a chance to remember them.

So I’d say each one of the scores has an element of chess or a game of Go, where different variables happen in one area and different variables happen in another area.  In some scores, you’d play through the whole score and then there was a da capo, where you started again and went back to a certain point.  The link between the “Ka” and the “Ka-Ba” pieces, which was the second and the third piece, was something that maybe Cecil had in mind.  I guess he did bring those pieces in on the third day.  But we all could feel that it was a very natural progression from one piece to the other.  But otherwise, the pieces seemed to function as independent… And I use “games” on the highest level I could use the word.

TP:    Do you feel that Cecil’s music is singular in the world of music?

MARMORSTEIN:  I think that’s definitely the case.  I don’t know any music that sounds like that except… I would say that as a pianist, Cecil is the next step from Thelonious Monk.  Also Duke Ellington, but certainly Thelonious Monk, in the same way that for me Eric Dolphy is the next step from Charlie Parker.  It’s a certain way of taking the predecessor, and expanding it and stretching it out and making it little more Gaudi-esque in its shape.

TP:    Do you feel that Cecil’s absorption of architectural shape and form and structure influences the arc of his pieces.

MARMORSTEIN:  Absolutely.  That’s something you know if you talk with him for ten minutes.  And I absolutely think that ballet…dance in general, but for me, his interest in the Classical Ballet…

TP:    It’s like he’s dancing over the piano.  That’s what his gestures are like.

MARMORSTEIN:  His fingers are making the same kinds of leaps that the dancers make in space.  I’m sorry I never saw the duet he made with Baryshnikov.  Another thing that I think is super-important to him these days is singers and vocalists.  So I think we can’t really talk about his piano playing or his composition without talking about architecture, dance and singers, especially the jazz singers, or opera singers, or singers of any kind who have influenced him.  He’s got so many things coming into him.  He’s so hooked up to the outside world and he’s got so much input, that it comes out with this kaleidoscope of stuff which doesn’t sound, to my mind, like what anybody else is doing.  But sometimes, in terms of the internal intelligence and humor in the melodic sequences, you could say that his music is kind of Monkish.  I don’t think Cecil would take too much offense at that.

TP:     I kind of see him as a cross between Monk and Tatum.  I can’t think of any other pianist who ever had that kind of technique.  Of course, he admires Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal, who are contemporaries of his.

Can you address Cecil’s relationship to the European improvisers community?  It sounds like you’re an interested observer in that scene, and I think one of the more interesting developments of the last 15 years is the mark Cecil has made on that community, and I think they’ve made quite an impact on him.

MARMORSTEIN:  That’s a tricky question.  I don’t know if I can come up with so much on the last one.  My impression is that Cecil misses some blues in the European music.  He misses some basic things that for him are essential in the music.  He misses some American Indian and he misses some Blues, which to me the European guys often don’t have.  My impression is that the European guys sometimes manifestly eschew it in their way.  They say, “We don’t want to just be like blues guys.  We want to come up with something all our own.”  Of the European guys, there’s quite a few of the drummers that he feels have something very important to offer.  I don’t know his feeling about the wind players and the pianists.

I think the impact Cecil has made on that community is enormous.  But in my opinion, the impact that community has made on Cecil is more social and humanitarian, in a certain way, than musical.  I think Cecil likes the respect and the fair treatment and the admiration that he gets in Europe, which pleases him.  But I don’t know how much of the music itself…

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A Drummers Memorial Roundtable on Billy Higgins on WKCR, May 7, 2001

For this writer, any gig that included drum master Billy Higgins was a must-see. I can’t think of another musician who consistently embodied the principle of playing with an in-the-moment, creative attitude while always attending to the function at hand. Although Higgins joined me on several occasions at WKCR, we never did an in-depth interview, so I can’t post a face-to-face conversation, But four days after his death, I had an opportunity to host a memorial broadcast at which a cohort of his peers and acolytes — Ralph Peterson, Jeff Watts, Leroy Williams, Andrew Cyrille, Lewis Nash — came to the studio to talk about the master, their remarks juxtaposed to taped interviews with Billy Hart, Louis Hayes, and Winard Harper. I incorporated some of their remarks in an obituary that ran in DownBeat.

In recognition of Higgins’ 75th birthday, I’ve posted that obit below, followed by the uncut transcript of the conversation.

“Seeking Light Through Sound”:

Billy Higgins, whose consistent brilliance at the trapset and unfailing humanity made him one of the most beloved figures in jazz, died on May 3rd at Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood, California, of complications resulting from liver and kidney failure. He was 64.

Perhaps the most recorded hardcore jazz drummer of his generation, Higgins made consequential albums with — among many others — Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, James Clay, Paul Horn, Harold Land, Teddy Edwards, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Sonny Clark, Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd, Cecil Taylor, Dexter Gordon, Eddie Harris, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, Art Farmer, Jimmy Heath, Sonny Simmons, Clifford Jordan, George Coleman, Joe Henderson, Pharaoh Sanders, Hank Jones, Pat Metheny, Joshua Redman and Charles Lloyd.  And from 1975 until not long before his death he toured and recorded extensively with the Cedar Walton Trio alongside bassists Sam Jones, Ron Carter and David Williams.

Higgins was born in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1936. He received early master classes in rudiments and aesthetics from Johnny Kirkwood, who had played drums with Louis Jordan and Dinah Washington, and he kept those lessons in mind as he analyzed contemporary recordings of Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones. In high school in the early ’50s, he workshopped with Cherry and alto saxophonist George Newman; in 1955, they joined forces with saxophonist James Clay, a recent arrival from Texas, in a working band called the Jazz Messiahs. Clay knew Ornette Coleman from Texas, and introduced his young cohorts to him; during this time Higgins became close to Ed Blackwell, and when Blackwell returned to New Orleans in 1957, Higgins began to work with Coleman.

Higgins joined Coleman for his epochal Fall 1959 New York debut at the Five Spot, and appeared on Coleman’s seminal early recordings Something Else!, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Change of the Century and — alongside Blackwell – Free Jazz (later he played on Science Fiction [1971] and In All Languages [1987]; he continued to perform with Coleman until the summer of 2000). He was soon one of New York’s most in-demand drummen, impressing all camps for the relentless swing, supreme taste, and creative ethos he brought to every performance. In 1960 he made the first of dozens of Blue Note sessions, stamping his distinctive feel — an organic homebrew of second-line rhythms, fly-like-the-wind swing propulsion, primal church backbeats and African talking drums — on a sampler’s feast of boogaloo classics like Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” and Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.”

Andrew Cyrille described the Higgins effect during a drummer’s roundtable conducted on WKCR during a 33-hour memorial broadcast: “There was his touch, the way he tuned the drums, and his great showmanship, but what I loved most of all was Billy’s beat. It seemed able to fit any person’s style. His ride beat, regardless of the tempo, was like a clothesline, and it had all different sizes and weights. It was so elastic and relaxed from the inside, and it would give and take and expand. I can understand why so many horn players and piano players and bass players loved playing with him.

“He was a very educated drummer, who knew how to think within the contexts of the musics he would play. His polyrhythms were amazing. Higgins was a risk-taker. The element of surprise is the essence of jazz, and he was one of its great exponents.”

Higgins had cat-like reflexes, and he knew the art of dialogue. To witness him with his vonce working — smiling broadly, eyes aglimmer, dancing with the drumset, navigating the flow with perfect touch, finding the apropos tone for every beat — was a magnetic, seductive experience. As Ralph Peterson put it, “This man was in his bliss every moment that he played the drums, and that sense of enjoyment and humor came through in the way he played.”

As Lewis Nash remarked: “Often we think of greatness in music in terms of someone’s technical proficiency. But the greatness that we attribute to Billy, in addition to his mastery of the drums, comes from his warmth and enveloping spirit and spirituality.” Higgins focused incessantly on spiritual matters after 1977, when he became a Muslim; he found in Islamic tenets sufficient structure and discipline to overcome a long-standing heroin habit. He spent the remainder of his life giving back. After moving back to Los Angeles, Higgins founded the World Stage, a community center on Deegan Boulevard in Crenshaw, near Leimart Park, devoted to the study and performance of jazz. The club’s logo: “Seeking light through sound.”

–Ted Panken

Billy Higgins Memorial Broadcast (WKCR, 5-7-01) – (Ralph Peterson, Jeff Watts, Leroy Williams, Andrew Cyrille, Lewis Nash Live in the Studio; Taped interviews with Billy Hart, Lewis Hayes, and Winard Harper):

One thing we can note about Billy Higgins is the tremendous consistency of innovation and creativity and imagination and commitment with which he approached every musical situation.  I can never remember hearing him off.  Ralph Peterson, who is the first of our numerous Billy Higgins drum brethren of various generations…

PETERSON:  Disciple.  He was truly the teacher and I am still the student.  He continues to be the teacher through the legacy he’s left.  Consistency is one of the things that amazed me about him, his ability to maintain himself regardless of the musical context he was playing in.  It was just incredible.

What was your first exposure to Billy Higgins’ music and when did you first have an opportunity to see him perform?  Because seeing him was a very special thing.

PETERSON:  Well, I first discovered Billy Higgins’ music through my educational experience at Rutgers University.  I was not a jazz baby when I got there.  So I first heard Billy Higgins on a Lee Morgan record called The Procrastinator.”  The relaxed feel; it amazed me how he could generate so much energy and forward motion, but still stay relaxed.  And then when I met him, we were at the Mount Fuji Jazz Festival.  I had seen him play a couple of times in New York, and one of my favorite stories is… I enjoyed Billy most at Bradley’s, when there was no drums in the club and Billy would pull out a pair of brushes and snatch the phone book from behind the bar, and swing the duo — now a trio — under the table with just a pair of brushes and a New York telephone book.  To possess that much musicianship and invention and brush facility, to be able to play a full night of music… Because once he started playing, no one wanted him to stop.  So it was like a master class every time yu were near him.  And he was very warm, he was very friendly, he had a very loving spirit.

Then when I saw him play the set, again I was reminded of the importance of enjoying what you do.  Because his moniker, “Smiling Billy” Higgins… I mean, this man actually truly enjoyed every moment that he played the drums.  Deepak Chopra talks about finding your bliss.  He was always in his bliss when he was playing the instrument.  And that sense of enjoyment and humor came through in the way he played.   I can remember him in Sweet Basil playing a 5- or 10-minute solo with just the found of the brush waving in the air.  You could hear…

You could hear a pin drop.

PETERSON:  You could hear a pin drop.  I wanted to use the Art Blakey saying, but this is radio, so I can’t.  You could hear a pin drop on cotton!  You know what I mean?  And it was amazing, the sound, the invention that he was generating.

An interesting story… He didn’t know me very well.  I was in Japan with OTB, and my daughter was maybe 3 months old.  And she, in her inventiveness, rolled out of the loft bed one afternoon while I was away.  Being the concerned father, without giving it much thought, I’m ready to pack my bags and go back home.  And it was Billy who reminded me how soft the bones of a child are.  He said, “Don’t worry about it.  If your lady says she’s okay, she’s okay.  She probably hit the floor and bounced.  And then we laughed, and  that was okay.  Him and Lou Rawls did  a lot to settle me down.  Because it was my first trip out.  I had met so many people at that festival, and Billy was one of the most accessible of the mindboggling superstars who were at the first couple of Mount Fuji festivals.

I miss him.  We didn’t have an ongoing communication and relationship.  But whenever I saw him, he was always concerned and pleasant with me, and I always tried to hear him when I was in New York.

Could you talk a bit about what Billy Higgins contributed to the vocabulary of the drumset?  What will he be remembered for in terms of his approach to drumming and how he helped to advance the vocabulary?

PETERSON:  He advanced the vocabulary by representing the highest examples of the combination of drive, swing and relaxation and dynamics — appropriate dynamics.

It was like he was beyond style.

PETERSON:  Well, in a sense, he had become a style.  To me, he was an icon.  He was a pillar.  I was taught you can only go as far forward as you’ve been back, and you heard him talking about meeting Buhaina and Philly Joe… When I listen to Higgins and Roy Haynes, what I hear is the marriage of the drive of Buhaina with the delicate dance of Roy Haynes, and combined and synthesized through Billy Higgins’ own experiences that made it unique.  He also played with a really deep snare drum, which I love the sound of.

And also assimilating the totality of second line rhythms through associating with Edward Blackwell and blending it into the jazz mainstream in a singular way.  Maybe that’s what helped him be Billy Higgins with Ornette Coleman and Cedar Walton and any situation he came into.

PETERSON:  Well, his flexibility.  His flexibility was testament to the depth  of his musicianship.  He could play second line, he could play the boogaloo feel, because he understood that the boogaloo feel came from second line.  And with that understanding, you can do more with the rhythm than just sit there and play backbeats.  There’s a deeper understanding about what goes on.

[MUSIC: w/Lee Morgan, "Stopstart" (1967), then a taped interview with Billy Hart follows]

You’re about four years younger than Billy Higgins, and your professional career started about a year after he came to New York with Ornette Coleman, so I’m wondering when you first recall hearing him and what  impression he made on you.

HART:  The first time I heard him was on the Ornette Coleman record.  It took me a long time to hear him in person, but I was already moved by the Ornette Coleman record.  Then after that I heard a Donald Byrd record which is the first record I ever heard Herbie Hancock on, and I’m still to this moment influenced by that record.  There were certain patterns he played that were uniquely his own.  I mean, anybody could have played it, but it’s the combination of how he put it together that made me think that he had an extraordinary mind.  Well, it was genius as far as I was concerned, like Elvin or Max.  It was something that was simple, but nobody else would have thought to do it, and it worked perfectly for that kind of musical situation, which was to become more important in the years to come, with the Coltrane band and the way we play today.

What do you mean by that kind of musical situation?

HART:  I don’t want to be too academic about it.  But there are certain kinds of chord progressions, let’s call them vamps, that are used as a bridge between musical thoughts.  That’s not like the common bridge.  In other words, a lot of times you’ll have an area, a motif or a vamp, and the common thing is to play some Latin thing over it.

So he found ways of making those sorts of progressions flow and swing.

HART:  Oh yeah, but in a totally unique way that swung, that musical significance that we refer to as swinging, which has a musical significance that causes euphoria.  Depending on how you want to relate to it, you can go into  some deep meditative thought pattern or you might just jump up and start dancing.

He could make you focus on him just because what he did was so vivid.

HART:  That’s right.  He was like any other kind of prophet.  He used words that you understood, but the message was so clear and so profound that it was awe-inspiring.

When did you finally get to see him play?

HART:  I guess after I moved to New York in 1968.  That’s when he was playing a lot with Art Farmer and Jimmy Heath, not so much with Walton in those days… Well, he was beginning to play with Walton, because Walton was in those bands.  Like, Jimmy Heath and Art Farmer together had a band, then they had one separate, then… Just those kinds of things.  And Lee Morgan.  I  moved there just as he was finishing up with Morgan.  When there was a lot of things happening in Brooklyn with Freddie and Lee…

How did hearing him play in those situations correlate with what you’d heard on records?

HART:  I heard everything that I’d heard before, and I moved more to hear it in person.  But to see his body motion and actually hear it live, you could see that the textures he used, the way he actually touched the instrument was with the grace of a great dancer, like a great tap dancer like Bojangles, or a great ballet dancer like Baryshnikov.   He just had this amazing touch on the instrument.  If he hadn’t played with any of the wisdom I mentioned before, you would still be moved just by the sound he would get out of the cymbals or the snare drum or the bass drum or the tom-tom.  His knowledge was beyond his age.  It was like he had been here before or something.  It was like if somebody lived in 3000 and came back to this time and played.  He seemed to have total knowledge of what this thing is.

And having observed in the flesh and on recordings over the subsequent three decades, in what ways did his concept and playing grow and evolve?  In a palpable way, as opposed to what happens to people as they get older and wiser.

HART:  That’s an interesting thing.  There’s guys like Miles, who you didn’t realize how far ahead he was until you realized, when he was with his third rhythm section, the one with Tony and Herbie, that he was actually playing that same way when he was with Red and Philly Joe.  You just didn’t realize how advanced it was.  And the same thing with Higgins.  I’m sure Higgins progressed, but as the rest of the world began to catch up with him, you began to realize how advanced he had always been.  I was a younger guy, so I was basically ready to jump from Max to Elvin to Tony.  But now I realize that the bridge between Elvin and Tony for me is Higgins.  There’s an understanding of what the drums do and the purpose for having the drums in the first place, for what the drums do, not only for the music but for people, just for humankind, that goes back even before the invention of the drumset… Higgins seems to have been very much aware of that.  I don’t know how subconscious it was, but in his playing he seemed to be very much aware of that, and he was a very important process in the evolution of the instrument.  I’m trying to think about how I can say it in another way.  As we move more towards a world view of music and of drumming, as we are more and more interested in the South American rhythms as an evolution from Africa through South America  to here, as we get more advanced or more progressive or whatever, we realize we are really going back and studying all those musics from before.  And Higgins’ contribution seems to be some kind of innate awareness of that in advance.

To paraphrase, you’re saying that he’s  united many different strands of rhythm, or maybe he got in some sense to the primal or universal rhythm in his playing.  And his playing did seem universally applicable to any situation.

HART:  Yeah, that’s why.

From Ornette Coleman to very straight-ahead, tradition situations. Anything that involved some swing.

HART:  Well, you call it swing, but what I’m saying is it’s a rhythmic sophistication that causes a euphoric reaction, and on a folk level that reaction can go anywhere from sensual feelings, to partying, to dancing, to actual meditation… That positive feeling can actually cause healing.  I sincerely believe that’s one of the main purposes for rhythm, if not for music period, to cause that kind of healing effect.  Higgins seemed to be very much aware of it.  The thing is so profound, that a bunch of us talk about it.  It might have been something that he inherited from his parents or his grandparents.  I think he talked about his mother and his grandmother in certain messages that he got in relationship to that kind of thing.

Could you give some personal reminiscences?  You became friends.

HART:  I would like to think so.  I certainly adored him.  But if I was his friend, then there were so many other people because he was so friendly.  I would say, “Well, Higgins, can I help you, man?  What can I do?”  He’d say, “Just your friendship is sufficient.”  Basically, he just showed me things.  He talked to me about things.  He talked to me about things about the drums and about music that if you came in late in the conversation you’d think he was talking about religious and spiritual kinds of things.  He was moving.  He was like a prophet, like Coltrane.  He actually said things that will stay with me for not only how I play the drums, but how I live my life for the rest of my life.

One thing we can imply is that there’s a griotic quality in the way Billy Higgins passed on knowledge.

HART:  He seemed to know the whole history of the function and the purpose of rhythm.  He seemed to have that in his head…or in his body.  Because I never heard anything he played that didn’t mean anything.  It seemed like everything was in perfect place, like he had already pre-composed it, although we know that it was totally extemporaneous.  It was like he could quote profound historical reasons for a positive way of living with every beat.

You also mentioned his connection to second line rhythms, and of course, he learned a great deal from Ed Blackwell when he was young and later was friends with Vernell Fournier.

HART:  I didn’t know about Vernell so much.  But he seemed to have embodied the New Orleans wisdom or knowledge or legacy without having grown up there or having been born there.  It seems as much part of him as if he’d lived there.

[BY NOW, JEFF WATTS AND LEROY WILLIAMS WERE IN THE STUDIO]

Jeff Watts, you’re about 40, came up in the ’70s and ’80s, when your jazz consciousness was formed.  When did you first become aware of Billy Higgins music via record and when did you first see him play?

WATTS:  I first began to collect jazz records around 1978 and 1979, just obvious things like Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach.  By a certain point I was able to identify people like that and Roy Haynes, but every once in a while I would get fooled, because I would hear a drummer who would have a certain sound in his cymbal beat that had like a street thing in it, and it was kind of reminiscent of Art Blakey but something was different about it. [END OF SIDE] I kind of became able to identify his style just through a process of elimination, just through seeing the range of things he was able to do.  I think a lot of the things that are going to be said about him are going t be a bit redundant, as far as unique touch and his spiritual quality and the way he could conjure up things that are African and play beats that… Like many of the great jazz drummers, they would tend to put a personal stamp on things from the Caribbean and Latin America, find their own ways of playing Latin music that would in turn influence the Latin drummers.  Things like that, and the boogaloo beat he played that’s unsurpassed that I think people will be sampling twenty years from now — if they’re still doing that stuff.

But I didn’t see him much until I came to New York, and seeing him is a whole nother trip, because you see how he goes about doing his thing.  The ease and the economy of motion he had… Probably the closest thing for me to seeing someone like Papa Jo Jones, someone that I  never got to see in person — that ease with the instrument.

Whenever you’re trying to learn about this music, at least the way my mind works, I’ll try to put things together and get a combination of this and that.  But after seeing the breadth of his wisdom and his career, I’ve started to recognize someone who had a very organic relationship with life and with music.  Even though he had a lot of specific information under his hands and in his mind, at the moment when he interacted with the music it was like an environmental thing.  Whatever he was in the middle of, he would just find something really special for that music, something that you couldn’t just figure out.  A lot of is experience, but a lot of it is just having a very natural relationship with life and with people.  You’d see how he interacts and talks with people that I’m sure he never met before, but he would just be like a regular brother and very-very cool.

Leroy Williams, you came to New York in the late ’60s, after coming up in Chicago, and you and Billy Higgins moved in similar circles.  What was your first exposure to his music, and what do recall about the regard in which he was held amongst New York drummers and musicians at the time you arrived?

WILLIAMS:  I heard Billy on records when I was living in Chicago.  It had to be in the ’50s.  When I came to New York, I was introduced to Billy through Wilbur Ware, who was an old friend.  Billy was living in Brooklyn at this time.  We used to go out there and play.  Chris Anderson was staying out there at the time, and Wilbur and Billy, so we used to go out there and play, and talk about music to a smaller degree.  Billy and I never did really talk about music.  Billy had a way of just saying little things, “Did you hear that?”  “Did you get that?”  “See what I mean?” But we didn’t really go into the music, about any paradiddles, any bam-bam, drum stuff.  It was just being around Billy.  We had a nice rapport.

I remember one of the first times I met Billy we were talking about Chicago, and Wilbur was telling Billy, “Now, Leroy’s a church boy, you know.”  Billy said, “I know.  I can tell by the way he plays, he is.”  Billy said, “I am, too.”  So we always got along fine.  Most of the time me and Billy talked, it was about spiritual things.  Not so much about the drums.  We knew that.  But it was another level we used to talk.  Every time we’d talk at length,, it would be in that area.

And knowing him over the years… One point Billy Hart made and what is well known about Billy Higgins is the way in which he incorporated second line rhythms.  Did he ever talk about his assimilation of Ed Blackwell or Vernell Fournier into what he did.

WILLIAMS:  Like I said, we never did talk too much drum talk.  Billy was one of those guys who absorbed things, and he’d grab stuff out of the air like most of the great people.  Some people just can do that, and he was one..  So we never really talked about comparing drummers.

From your perspective over 30 years, did you notice an evolution in his sound?  His growth as a musician.  Billy Hart’s impression is that he almost came out fully formed in a certain way, and played with such tremendous consistency over his forty years.

WILLIAMS:  I’m sure he grew.  Everyone grows. I’m sure he grew.

PETERSON:  One of the marks of a true master, like Leroy Williams, is the ability to teach without teaching and to teach by example.  Thinking back through my relationships with other master drummers, they were also master teachers, because there was never this technical drummistic discussion about how to play the instrument.  You just kind of shut your mouth and watched them, and your questions were answered before you could even form them.

The other thing is, the notion that he arrived wholly perfect in his approach:  Well, the depth of his mastery comes in the span of time and music that he covered, and the consistency, where the music around him seemed to be changing radically, but all these musicians kept coming to him for this consistency which had to be changing with the music.  But it wasn’t anything stark or radical or abrupt.  His ability to subtly adjust and conform to a change in musical direction is not something every drummer can do.  It’s not easy.  And to do it and maintain continuity of self…

WILLIAMS:  To me, Billy played the same way.  But you grow within what you play.  But the same… I don’t care who he played with, whether it ws Ornette, Monk, Dexter — he played the same way.  The beauty in that is he was so whole and strong in his thing.  It was cool.  Like Ralph said, people just came to him because he had that good beat, swing and taste.  And that can cover all of it.  Billy had that all the time.  But he grew as a musician and he grew as a person.

WATTS:  I can’t add much to that.  We’re all saying basically the same thing.  But it sounds like he had found the keys for getting inside of music.  If there was some kind of equation, he had like a universal equation for getting inside of some music — period.  Just like they’re talking about him teaching without getting into specifics, teaching by example… One example I have of that which is profound, without getting into specifics… He was working somewhere, probably Sweet Basil… I was kind of checking out his drums a little bit after he played, and I started to touch upon the tuning of his tunes.  I wasn’t really trying to get specific.  But the thing that he said was really deep.  He said, “Well, when you tune your drums, just make them sound like a family.”  How deep is that?  You can’t get no heavier than that, especially with something like the drumset, which is all these different instruments that are put together to make one sound, and then sometimes it’s like a choir, sometimes it’s like a melodic line, sometimes you’re trying to sound like a bunch of people playing.  But just to take all these different instruments and make them sound like they go together and that they belong together, without getting into specifics, “Oh, this is a minor third” and this is like that and “I loosen the bottom head.”  Just as long as they go together.

[BH, "Mirror, Mirror", HIGGINS-CEDAR INTERVIEW, then "Alias Buster Henry"]

[ANDREW CYRILLE and WINARD HARPER ARRIVED AT THE STUDIO]

Andrew, did you go to see Ornette Coleman during his initial engagement at the Five Spot?

CYRILLE:  No.  Actually I played at the Five Spot with Walt Dickerson and Austin Crowe and I think Eustis Guillemet opposite Ornette, but the drummer was Ed Blackwell, and I think Jimmy Garrison played bass.

But it was ’61 when Jimmy Garrison was with Ornette.

CYRILLE:  That’s right, and [Charles] Moffett was playing drums.  I think I had gone down there when he first came to New York, and the place was abuzz with musicians talking about the pros and cons of what they were hearing.  That’s when Ornette had his plastic saxophone.  I didn’t speak with him then.  I just listened to the music.  I met him personally some time after that, at Cedar Walton’s house.

When did you become aware of him as a significant tonal personality in the music?

HARPER:  That happened over the years.  When you first hear somebody, you hear them for the first time, because there was a certain magic going on with that music, and he was an integral part of what was happening.  But as I heard him over the years, I understood the breadth and depth of his musicianship.  It was just fantastic.

To me, very often, drummers keep bands together.  You can tell a great band through listening its drummers.  Great drummers make a great band sound perhaps even greater.  And he was somebody who really infused what he knew about music and about drumming into the music of Ornette Coleman.  I was impressed.  I was impressed with the whole thing, and him being a part of it.  I had never heard anything quite like that.  So just observing him and listening to him, it took me someplace else.

I’d like you to describe his stature among New York drummers in the ’60s and ’70s.

CYRILLE:  Well, since I was part of that history with Cecil and Rashied Ali and Sunny Murray and Beaver Harris and cats like that… Billy was one of us as far as the avant-garde was concerned.  He could swing, too; that was the other part of it.  That piece “Buster Henry” shows how he could play freely and just follow the sound.  You heard that in the rubato passages, and then when the signal was given, when he played those four-bar introductions and went back into the metrical melody… He was gifted in that respect.  So as far as the New York drummers were concerned, he was just one of the cats who was doing what we were doing at that time.

Both schools of the New York drummers.

CYRILLE:  Both schools.  Exactly.  I’d see Billy all over the world in different places, and he was always very respectful.  He’d come and listen to me, he liked music, etc., and he’d comment on some of the things I’d do.  I remember him sitting in on stage when I was doing a duet with Louis Moholo, the South African drummer, in England one year.  I remember another time I went over with Henry Threadgill and Fred Hopkins, and he and Cedar came into the club to listen to us play.  Very respectful.

I remember him most for something that was done not too long ago for Dennis Charles, when a group of us drummers assembled to play in tribute to Dennis, and Billy was the conductor of the choir.  We drummers don’t get an opportunity to play with each other too much; I wish there could be more of that… [END OF SIDE] …Warren Smith and Jimmy Hopps came by, and I played with the group.  He conducted the band.  We decided what we were going to do before we went up to play, and he said, “Okay, we’ll do this-this-that, when one drummer stops we’ll do another thing, when another stops, we’ll do this — you go first-second-third.”  It was very organized.  And it was just beautiful to be able to play with him, not only just listen to him.  That was  a treat.

If you were to describe to somebody the dynamics of his approach to the drums, what would you emphasize?

CYRILLE:  Probably a lot of the things that were said already, because there’s probably a common denominator among us who play drums who understand some of the things that go into the science and the art of playing.  Number one, to me, that I loved about him was his beat.  He had that beat that seemed to be able to fit any person’s style, and he would listen, of course.  To me, sometimes drumming is like a person being a tailor.  You fit somebody to the max with some clothes.  You make them look better than they are… [EVERYONE LAUGHS] You just take them someplace else.  He was just one of those kind of people.  That’s the way he played.  His touch, the way he tuned the drums.  Plus he was a great showman also.  He could get up there and do some stepping.  Not only would he attract you with the music, if you closed your eyes he was still magnetic, but if you opened your eyes, that was  something else again.

As a civilian, I can attest to numerous situations where without him doing anything overt to call attention to himself, I’d find myself watching him play time.  Just isolate on that and you could be fine for an hour!

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  His time was just about impeccable.  His independent coordination.  His ride beat, regardless of the tempo, was like a clothesline that you could hang clothes up on, and it would have all different sizes and weights. It was right there.  So I can understand why so many horn players and piano players and bass players loved playing with him.  He would just give and take and expand.  It was so elastic and so relaxed from the inside.  It was like sleeping on a mattress that was heavenly!

[BH, "Hocus Pocus" & "Molly"]

[I PLAYED A TAPED INTERVIEW WITH LOUIS HAYES]

You and Billy Higgins were practically the same age, and your careers started at about the same time.  You were in New York before him.  I’m wondering when you first became aware of him as a drummer and the impression he made upon you when you did.

HAYES:  Well, we’re about a year apart.  I first became aware of Billy Higgins when he was appearing with Ornette Coleman, and they were appearing at the original Five Spot.  I went down several times.   And Billy Higgins impressed me.  The music he was playing was something I wasn’t too familiar with at the time.  Ornette is such a unique person, and Billy was swinging right through it and with that good feeling that he had when he first came to New York with the group.  I was very impressed with him.  So we became friends, and we stayed friends from that time ever since.

What would you say was distinct about his playing vis-a-vis the general vocabulary of drumming in 1959-60?

HAYES:  I would say his ability to use the facilities that he had so well.  He had a certain sound that’s so important, a distinctive sound that was his own.  He was very creative, and he really loved to play.  You could always tell that was Billy Higgins playing drums when you listened to him in person and when you heard him on recordings.

You’re talking about his touch.

HAYES:  His touch and the way he used the facilities that he had.

How would you describe the set of influences that he incorporated into his own singular sound?

HAYES:  I don’t know who influenced him exactly.  But we had opportunities to practice together several times, when we both lived in Brooklyn.  This was in ’59-’60-’61, something like that.  Billy had his way of doing things, and we enjoyed each other’s playing a lot.  A period of time went by, and then when he was appearing with Lee Morgan and I was appearing with Freddie Hubbard, we had some battles of the band in Harlem at Count Basie that were very interesting.  A lot of people came and were aware of it; that was a lot of fun.

How would you describe the evolution of his sound as he got older?   People say he always had a wise-beyond-his-years quality, extreme maturity musically even at a very young age.

HAYES:  He did.  And to me, Billy never changed that much.  The way he sounded when I first heard him with Ornette and the way he sounded with Cedar Walton… And him and Cedar played together for many years, and David  Williams on bass.  He sounded pretty much the same.  He had so much creativity that he made everyone that was in his presence hear his drum style and what he projected.  He put smiles on everyone’s face.  When Billy was smiling, he made the audience smile and naturally the guys in the group were smiling.

I would just like to say that Billy will always be here, because of that sound he left, so he always will be appearing on records, and we never will  forget Mr. Billy Higgins.  I’m glad that I had an opportunity to know him and be his friend while he was on this side.  Like Cedar Walton said to me one time, if Billy couldn’t play, he’d rather be in another place anyway.  So I’m glad that Billy was here and we all had an opportunity to experience his personal feeling that he brought to this art form.

[RESUME LIVE WITH LEWIS NASH]

Lewis, as a younger musician, when did you first hear Billy Higgins and what was your first opportunity to see him play?  What were your impressions at the time?

NASH:  I think the first time I heard Billy on a record was on the Eddie Harris recording that had “Freedom Jazz Dance.”  [The In Sound] That was the first time I heard him to my knowledge.  After that, the first time I heard him in person was when I was working with Betty Carter and was on my first tour of Europe, and we had gone to a festival in Stockholm, Sweden.  Billy was there with some type of all-star group.  That was the first time I had a chance to meet and talk to him.  The way it happened was interesting, because I didn’t know he was there, and we had gotten to the hotel and checked in.  I walked around town a little bit, then I came  back to the hotel and I was walking  back to my room, and I was passing by this other room next door to mine, and was practicing on a practice pad.  I knew chances would be that it was someone I might know or would like to know, so I got my courage up and went in and knocked on the door, and lo and behold, Billy Higgins opens the door.  He said, “Come on in!  Come on in, young brother.”  Then I went in, and he had his practice pad and everything, and I introduced myself and told him I was working with Betty Carter.  He immediately made me feel like I was in the presence of someone I had known my whole life.  I think that’s the feeling everyone has given on this broadcast, and what I heard on the radio on my way here, is how welcoming and warm Billy was.

I’d just like to say that the greatness that we attribute to him is something which comes from the feeling he gave.  Oftentimes we think of greatness in music in terms of someone’s technical proficiency or how they play n instrument or whatever.  But with Billy, in addition to his proficiency on the instrument, it’s his warmth and enveloping spirit and spirituality which makes  people call him great.  I think that is really a wonderful tribute to him.

If you were to step back and look at him analytically, as a scholar of the drums, how would assess his contribution to drum vocabulary?

NASH:  That question has so many facets to it.  He’s definitely a link to roots for me.  I guess that’s one way of looking at it.  But at the same time, very modern, very fresh and very in the present moment.  When I think about how I personally hear Billy, or how I heard him when I first started listening to him, I would hear a ride cymbal beat that I could only describe as wide.  I know the drummers know what I mean when I say that.  And although I never got a chance to meet Kenny Clarke personally, his ride cymbal beat reminded me of Klook’s ride cymbal beat, and it had that same kind of dancing and forward momentum and all that.

He had that connection to that root, and then the way that he would play the Latin-influenced things or the boogaloos was very…the only word I can think of is organic, primal… Very rooted.  And when you are rooted, you don’t have to be afraid of trying new things, because you know you’re rooted.  I think Billy probably had that feeling, and he was able to go in so many directions because of the rootedness of his playing.

WILLIAMS:  I agree totally.  Billy had that.  And that’s what all the great people have.  Once you have the foundation, then you can do anything.  You can play anything, because everything is “okay, bring it on, bring anything on.”

In the phone interview with Billy Hart, he commented that he saw Billy Higgins as a link between Elvin Jones and Tony Williams.  What’s interesting is that there are certain people who young drummers cite as the influences on whom the building blocks of vocabulary are built — Max Roach, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Tony Williams.  They all love Billy Higgins, but they might not necessarily cite him as in that list of people.  Yet his influence seems to have been just as great.  Which perhaps goes back to your comment about the feeling he projected.

NASH:  It’s hard for us to find the words for us to really describe that part.  One way I could say it is, we talk about Smiling Billy, but for me, even before I met him, in listening to records, not seeing him smile, I had the same feeling.  It’s not that the smile itself is making this happen.  It’s what he’s doing, and he is infused with the spirit of joy and everything so he has to smile.  But you feel that without knowing that he’s smiling while he’s actually doing it, or you don’t have to see him smile to feel the joy that his playing gives you.

WILLIAMS:  Well, the feeling is the most important element in the music, and Billy had that.  Not everyone has it.  A lot of drummers, piano players, bass players…everyone doesn’t have feeling in the music.  That’s what made Billy Higgins great.  Aside from all the other things, he had the right feeling.  He had beat, swing, taste, all of those things.  Those are a lot of things to have in one person.  Some might have this, that or the other, but it’s rare when you can find someone who has all those components.  And he loved to play.  He loved music.  And that’s the other ingredient.  He loved to play.

CYRILLE:  I would say he was a very educated drummer also, because he knew how to think within the contexts of the musics he would play.  He knew what to play on the drum to give the music a certain kind of shape, a certain kind of feeling, a certain kind of weight, a certain kind of lightness sometimes.  I could tell, too, from listening to him that a lot of his technique and a lot of things he played came from Max and also came from Philly Joe Jones in terms of his phrasing — and then there was Billy Higgins also.  I think Ralph Peterson spoke about Art Blakey.  All of us studied all of the masters, and sometimes you can hear direct quotes.  And sometimes I would hear quotes from Philly from people like Joe and Max, but of course they would be with how he would deliver.

I like these analogies with sports, etcetera, how a cat might use a baseball bat to get a hit.  You might use somebody else’s technique in order to hit the ball to left field or do a bunt or whatever, or you might do all of that.  So that meant he had to study and he had to experiment with that kind of stuff in order to get it down so that he could do it.  It seems to me that there was hardly anything that he couldn’t do, because he was cognizant of the instrument, the science of drumming as well as the art.

Did Billy Higgins ever talk to any of you about the impact Edward Blackwell had on him in the ’50s?

NASH:  I never had a talk with him about that.  But with what Andrew just mentioned about Billy having to study and dissect what had happened before him drumistically speaking, there is a similarity.  I remember talking to Blackwell, and he did mention, along the same lines Andrew is talking about, how he loved Max Roach.  It’s obvious.  You can hear it.  But he really made it a study and a science.  Probably, since they were both playing with Ornette during a certain time and they heard each other, they might have talked, but I can’t say if there’s anything specific that Blackwell influenced Billy to do.

Jeff, you said before that your early impression of Billy Higgins was that he brought out a certain Africanness in his feeling.  Could you extrapolate more thoughts on that quality in Billy Higgins’ playing?

WATTS:  A lot of the things  that come out in drumming are byproducts of what the music requires.  So I think a lot of the way that the drumset has been changing and maturing over the years is kind of like American drummers and drummers around the world also, but just trying to get back to various aspects of West Africa and things like that.  So when you’re trying to get a comparison between his attitude about the drums and Ed Blackwell’s thing about the drums, the parallels that they may have with regard to that specific style are demands that were created by the instrumentation and the music of Ornette Coleman, just to be able to converse on another level harmoniically from the drums, implying from rhythm harmony and direction and things that are components of African music.

There’s a wide variety of things he was able to do.  I’m just going to be redundant.  A lot of it is force of will, having the strong spirit he had.  I doon’t know how to break it down…

CYRILLE:  Keeping with what Jeff said, the polyrhythms he would play were just amazing.  Blackwell played a lot of polyrhythms also.  But Higgins was a risk-taker.  He wasn’t afraid to go after something.  So you go after it, you make it; sometimes you don’t; but you keep on trying.  To me, his creativity was in the fact that he did take these risks and he would come up with these things.  I’d go watch him play, and he’d start playing something on the rim of the drum, and breathe-in, breathe-out, etc.  He’d go for it.  Just do some stuff that you wouldn’t expect.  Just the element of surprise.  That’s really what was so great about him, and all the great drummers also.  That’s in a sense what the essence of jazz is all about — the element of surprise.  What is this guy going to do next?  And he was one of the great exponents of that.

NASH:  The beauty of it is that you know you’re witnessing something happening in the moment, that he’s not preconceiving it, he hasn’t worked it out.  He sometimes wouldn’t know where it would be going, and he’d just be going.  So you’re following him as he’s finding out where it’s going to go.  That’s exactly right on the money about that.

CYRILLE:  That’s where the fun comes in.

WATTS:  The intention is… Especially when you know him a little bit and watching him play, you know that the intention of the whole thing is very-very  pure and very-very sincere for creation and for beauty and things like that.

NASH:  I thought he had great reflexes, in responding to what was going on at the moment.  He would do just the right thing to enhance or really put something over well.  He knew exactly what to do.  It might be a cymbal crash really loud at just one spot, or it may completely drop out.  He just knew what to do.  His timing was incredible..

He always seemed to read the soloist’s mind; before they got where they were going, he’s be there.

WILLIAMS:  Billy could hear, and that’s very important in music, especially drumming but in all music — to listen.  Billy had that.  You listen before you act.  All the great people are great at that.

CYRILLE:  But in addition to that, it’s what you see in your mind as you are listening and how you fill those spaces up.  A lot of times, we as drummers fill in the spaces.  Cats play a line, then they stop for a minute, and you give them something to keep moving, give them a little push.  And those little pieces of music that he would put in, moving from one phrase to another, were also very magical and wonderful.

WILLIAMS:  Like they say, it’s not how much you play; it’s what you play.

CYRILLE:  It’s what you play.  And a lot of time cats say, “Man, I’m gonna cop that, I like that…”

WILLIAMS:  But they would play it in the wrong spot!

WATTS:  And then that touch becomes important again.  So that he would be able to hear across the band and hear what’s happening.  He was one of those special people, like a lot of the great ones, capable of getting that maximum intensity, but at a low volume or at the volume he chose so that everything he was effective.

[MUSIC: E. Harris, "Love For Sale"; "Molly"]

WATTS:  I’m going to tell a very brief version of a story.  I was at a music festival in Vancouver, Canada, and he was playing with Cedar Walton and Charlie Haden in a trio in an old theater.  I think they were playing some standard at a tempo about that fast, and Charlie Haden toook a very long solo over the standard.  Billy was just playing time with the brushes very softly behind him, for a long time, with a very big smile.  This is something that from another musician would almost come across as a gimmick, but just knowing how my man was about music… He played the brushes very-very soft, then eventually the audience took their attention away from, and  he’s sitting there with this smile, and you can hear the brushes SH-SH-SH… Eventually people started to really check him out, and after a while he wasn’t even playing.  He was sitting there smiling, making that noise through his clenched teeth.  It was like theater, and it was so hip.  It was also swinging very-very hard, too.  Just that he could project that.  And I was sitting in the balcony, in the rear of at least a 900-seat hall.  It’s just something about who he is.

But I’m very honored to pay any kind of tribute I can to him.  His music will liveon.  He was a beautiful man, a beautiful person, and I’m proud to have known him, and God rest his soul.

NASH:  There’s not much I can add, except to say that I’m also very happy to have had a chance to be around him, to talk to him, to learn from him, to sit under him while he was playing at Bradley’s, the Vanguard, Sweet Basil or wherever it might be, and to be able to take whatever I got from him and continue to grow, to use that as part of my food, so to speak, and nourishment in the music.  I will continue to pray for his development.  I believe sincerely that we continue to develop as souls once we leave this plane, and I hope that he’s reaching even newer heights, wherever he is now.

WILLIAMS:  I’m glad you called me to come on.  At the benefit they had for Billy a couple of weeks ago, I bought a t-shirt with Billy’s picture on it,  and on it they had a bag with Billy’s logo for his club in California.  I’d never seen the logo and I’d never been to the club.  But on the logo it says “Seeking light through sound.”  I thought that was Billy all the way.  “Seeking light through sound.”  So I want to leave that for Billy.

CYRILLE:  I always used to see him, and I would always say “Hug the Hig.”  I’m just so happy that I had so many opportunities to meet him and to hug him.  He was a great, great drummer, and I used to call him the Swing-Master.  That’s one of the things that I’ll always remember him for, in terms of his ability to swing.  He enhanced my life just by being the person that he was and  from the music that he gave me.  I listened and I’m still learning from some f the things he’s done.  I could perhaps try to incorporate some of those things into the music that I play.  Because it’s rich.  Jewels.  So all I have to say is, “I’m glad Billy Higgins was is here among us to give us so much, and he will always be with us.  Even after we’re gone, he’ll still be here.

[TAPED INTERVIEW WITH WINARD HARPER]

You became quite close to Billy Higgins and he was somewhat of a mentor to you.  What was your first knowledge of his playing and musicianship before that time?

HARPER:  Actually, I came into contact with Billy’s playing at an early age.  Both my brothers play trumpet, and some of the first drummers I heard were Max Roach, Art Blakey and Billy Higgins –  all that work Billy did with Lee Morgan.  So his playing was already in my head early on.

What seemed to you distinctive and special about his playing?

HARPER:  The main thing that always stuck out to me about Higgins was his spirit.  As a person, you always look for things or find things that are kind of in yourself to latch onto.  His spirit was something that struck me as the something that I also saw in myself.

That feeling came through the records, through every beat he played.

HARPER:  Right.  Well, that was the biggest thing about him.  Everybody will talk about him and assess the things he’s done, what made Higgins what he was, was his spirit.

Let’s continue with the circumstances of you meeting him and becoming friends.

HARPER:  By the time I left Atlanta and came to D.C., and started playing a lot of the jam sessions and things around town… I had never really seen him play at that point (I was 18 or 19), and a lot of the people around D.C. who I had the opportunity to work with said “Your playing reminds us of Billy Higgins.”  I said, “Oh yeah?”  I knew I’d listened to him a lot from the Lee Morgan records my brothers had.  Then finally, a few months later, he came to town and played the One Step Down, and the proprietors at the club wanted me to meet him and introduce us and tell him what they thought about me.  And at the same time, Higgins needed some drums to play.  So I got the opportunity to loan him my drums, and he played the drums there at the One Step, and that’s how we met.

Talk about the evolution of your friendship.  Was he a mentor to you?  Would he give you hands-on information?  Was it more philosophical and spiritual?

HARPER:  I think our relationship was more on the spiritual side than anything.  Like I said, that’s the biggest thing about him, was his spirit.  In meeting him, i saw some things that was similar to myself.  Then by the time I got to New York and I was working with Betty Carter, sometimes we would be on the road and we’d be in the same city, he’d be working with Cedar or somebody, and Billy would come by and pick me up and take me to prayer service.  At the time I wasn’t really interested in anything.  I was studying different things.  I had also done some studying of Islam, but I didn’t know that much about it.  And Higgins was the biggest introduction for me, because I felt like he embodied everything that would be a good example for someone.  So he’d take me to prayer service and we’d talk about it.  Maybe a couple of years later I ended up taking jihad and becoming a Muslim, and that was the biggest thing.  Then we would get together and make prayer together, the prayer service.  That was a big part of his life.

Did he relate the rhythms and phrases and vocabulary he played to tangible aspects of his spirituality, within Islam?

HARPER:  Yeah, kind of a little of everything.  Because he was the kind of person who would see things within everything he did.  A lot of his spirit in his playing also came out of his family background.  From talking with him, his mother was a very spiritual and religious person.  She told me sometimes they would have gatherings at the house, and she played something as well.  So that rhythm, too, was something he grew up with and it came out in his playing.

Can you talk more about the way your relationship evolved over those years?

HARPER:  As I said, when I was on the road, he’d come get me, him, Carl Burnett, whoever else we’d be hanging out with… We’d be hanging out and we’d all end up going to prayer service.  Then I guess out of my interest in the spiritual things we just kept at it.  We got to the point  where he would come over and have dinner with my family, play with my kids, talk to my family about Islam, and we stayed close from that.  Then we’d get together sometimes and play the drums and trade ideas.  He’d show me stuff and say, “I thought about this, I’m thinking about this.”  It just evolved.  We became good friends t the point where whenever I got to L.A., as soon as I got off the plane, that was usually my first move, was to call Higgins and go over to his place that they have over in Leimart Park, World Stage.  That place over there, if nobody has ever been, that’s a nice community.  I wish we had a Leimart Park everywhere.  It’s a place that when they first took me over, when you rolled up the street,  You could hear African drums over in the park.  There would be some brothers playing the djembe drums..  There’s like a dance troupe and African drummers.  It’s like a little plaza.  And across the street from his place was a place where they have African dance and African drummers.  It’s almost like an arts community.  And when it’s not happening over there, it’s happening over at Higgins’ place, the World Stage.  He’d have everybody in there playing some sort of instrument.  Drums… I went by one night, man, and kids were in there, their parents, their grandparents, and everybody was playing something, and taking turns and just having a ball.  It was a very community kind of thing which would take you back to the African roots, and made you think about the villages and everybody participating and everybody being there dancing and singing and playing.

So he had a very functional approach to music.

HARPER:  Right.

Did he ever talk to you about his influences, the people who inspired him and whose vocabulary he built on?

HARPER:  A little bit.  Out of questions that I would ask him, I knew that he had a relationship with Ed Blackwell.  Billy was around the music very early evidently.  I remember from doing some rehearsals with Dexter Gordon — and from Billy confirming it — that Dexter dated Billy’s sister at one time.  He used to be there on the porch I guess wooing Billy’s sister, when Billy was a little kid, maybe 4 or 5 years old.

So he was born into the music.

HARPER:  He was definitely always around it, from what I understand.

I thought an account of your last conversation with him might be a good way to conclude this conversation.

HARPER:  Like I said, Higgins’ spirit was just so strong.  I think that’s what really stands out about him, is that he was full of love.  Everything he did was full of love, and he made you feel comfortable.  I remember the first time he needed a transplant, I had my band out working in L.A., and I would go by the hospital everyday.  When you went into the hospital room, he almost made you feel like you were the patient.  Because you’d come in there to see him, to cheer him up, and it ends up being the other way around.  And I remember calling him up for one of the last conversations we had..  I said, “Look, is there anything I can do for you?  You need anything?”  “Best thing you can do,” he said, “is play the drums.”

[MUSIC: Cedar Walton, "Ironclad"]

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