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Rudy Royston is a thinking man’s drummer. At 47, he’s most widely known to the jazz public for playing with eclectic leaders like Bill Frisell, JD Allen, John Ellis, Dave Douglas, Don Byron, Ben Allison and Rudresh Mahanthappa, each drawn to Royston for his ability to inhabit and interpret their sonic dreams and visions with personality and panache. More recently, though, Royston has spread the news of his own considerable compositional prowess on three well-wrought, often inspired albums: 2014’s 303, 2016’s Rise of Orion and this year’s Flatbed Buggy, all released on the Greenleaf label.
Flatbed Buggy is a vivid 12-piece suite, sequenced to create a narrative around Royston’s memories from childhood and adolescence with his father in Fort Worth, Texas, and its environs. He scored the songs for a quintet of instruments not usually commingled in jazz and improvised music, and filled the chairs with idiosyncratic musicians (Gary Versace, accordion; John Ellis, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone; Hank Roberts, cello; Joe Martin, bass) who blend impeccably throughout, generating elegant, focused solos that extrapolate from Royston’s precisely rendered, constantly mutating shapes and forms. Although Royston possesses plenty of what Ellis calls “formidable technical blowout capacity,” he consistently pays attention to timbre and tone color, seeking less to impress than to tell stories in a variety of dialects.
On a hot, sunny afternoon in early September, Royston and I met to discuss Flatbed Buggy. Royston, who lives in New Jersey, chose the eating area of the East 57th Street Whole Foods outlet in midtown Manhattan, near the subway station where he’d later catch the F-train to Roosevelt Island for a photo shoot with Frisell and Thomas Morgan, with whom he toured last summer. As we settled into our plastic chairs and began to sip our smoothies, he anticipated a question about his storytelling m.o. with a description of a solo-drum record he made three years ago that he hopes to release at some future point.
“I want to place short samples at the beginning of each tune, just to illustrate an idea, which I then express on the drums,” he said. “For example, on one tune, I have a sample of a preacher preaching, which I’ll fade out after 5 to10 seconds. Then I’ll try to mock the cadences.
“Usually I need some sense of what story I’m telling. There’s an implied mini-plot to everything. Otherwise, it’s like I’m playing random stuff. My earlier records don’t make you feel there’s a string tying them all together. Flatbed Buggy does. It’s meant to be listened to from beginning to end, though not as one through-composed long tune.”
Royston’s path to Flatbed Buggy began on a 2017 engagement with Roberts, along with a guitarist and saxophonist, who played on several tunes that appear on that album, including “Soul Trane” and “The Roadside Flowers.” He’d also played them live in the septet 303, named for the area code of Denver, where Royston grew up. The group’s eponymously titled CD features Royston repertoire that refracts elements of Denver’s diverse musical culture in which he operated for close to two decades as a first-call drummer and high-school band teacher.
“The music sounded great, but it wasn’t giving me the airiness — and dustiness — I wanted,” Royston says of the 303 band. “I needed to thin it out and arrange it in a different way. I didn’t want the piano to fill up everything. I needed space, which the accordion is perfect for — chordal and harmonic, not thick, but cool.”
“When Rudy brought me his first recording, I was astounded at his level of conceptual depth and skill as a composer and bandleader,” says Douglas, whose Greenleaf imprint boasts three dates by his quintet with Royston, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell and bassist Linda May Han Oh, as well as Royston’s leader albums. “This record shows a new side of him as a thinker and combiner of musical personalities. … It’s remarkable how Rudy’s different facets fit together so well and make him who he is. It demonstrates incredible discipline, commitment and dedication to have that much control, to get inside the music enough to re-form radically the way you think about using your instrument in each context.”
[caption id="attachment_14472" align="alignnone" width="1240"] “This is where my style came from — going where the music goes, listening to the preacher, listening to the room and moving with the spirit, spontaneous creation four or five nights a week.”[/caption]
Royston landed in Denver at the age of 2 with his mother, a year before she and his father divorced. “Each summer until I was about 10, I’d go back to Fort Worth to spend time with him,” he says. James Royston ran the shipping department of the Rhythm Band Incorporated Instrument Company, a manufacturer of percussion instruments for schools, which Mr. Royston brought home for his son to play with.
“My mom worked two, three jobs. I have three brothers, and we made sure everything was cool around the house. We needed to make sure we were protecting her. But the texture when I went to stay with my dad was he’s the man of the house and you’re the child. I felt he was protecting me — taking me fishing, going somewhere in the country, feeding me, looking out after me. So I could really relax and be his son, be a kid.”
Before adolescence, Royston debuted on drumset at Denver’s Mount Sinai Church of God in Christ. “I played the offering in the drummer’s lap,” Royston says. “I stepped out of church for a while. I started going back about freshman year in high school. It was organ, drums and a bunch of tambourines, and we played the entire service. No music was handed out. We played for the morning prayer. Then, during announcements, the organist comments and the drummer plays textures — little cymbal swells or whatever. Then, at the praise-and-worship service, anyone could start singing — older ladies with amazing blow-out voices, singing full-throttle. We’d get right with it and keep going. This is where my style came from — going where the music goes, listening to the preacher, listening to the room and moving with the spirit, spontaneous creation four or five nights a week.”
As his teens progressed, Royston developed a passion for jazz, taping PBS programs like Live at Montreux and Live at Ronnie Scott’s, and emulating the gestures of drummers like Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. Later, while attending the University of Denver, where he majored in orchestral percussion, he “started to learn technical things and put things together.” He continues: “I wasn’t a jazz dude, but I loved jazz because it presented the biggest challenge. You can hear I didn’t come from a jazz school. Some guys really swing, and you hear all the tradition in their playing. With me, you hear it, but you hear the other stuff, too. I play almost staccato strokes, which is from timpani technique. And four years playing four-hour rehearsals got classical music totally in my blood. I amalgamated all of it into what I do.
“Denver had a lot of different scenes — grunge, rock, R&B, jazz, smooth jazz. It wasn’t super-buzzing, but everything was going on in a nice, mezzo-forte hum. I was always on drums in some situation. You got a little bit of anything you wanted to play, and some of the greatest players were there.”
One of those players, trumpeter Ron Miles, began to work regularly with Royston around 1990. A few years later, Miles invited Frisell, himself a Denver native, to play a concert with the band. Frisell recalls: “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this drummer is bad-ass.’ I told Rudy he sounded amazing, but he was like, ‘No, you’re the real guys.’ When he got to New York, I heard him with Ron, and he sounded better than ever. I called him right away.”
“Everyone who came through told me I needed to be in New York,” Royston says. “I’d hear the fire and energy of the New York guys, and I wanted it. But life was good. I actually had money left over after paying bills. One time I was teaching band class and told the kids, ‘You may not want to do this for the rest of your life, but give this music your all!’ Then I told myself I wasn’t doing what I was telling them to do. That’s when I knew I had to leave.
“I needed a spot of vision. I knew what I’d like to play and how I played. But I didn’t have a strong identity that comes from the certainty of ‘this is who I am; this is what I do.’ In New York, I could hear who I actually am. ‘This is my thing.’ And I got gigs from it.”
[caption id="attachment_14473" align="alignnone" width="1240"] I wanted to invoke those old country churches with wooden floors. I went to a few. I saw old church mothers and church men dancing in the dirt.”[/caption]
Royston’s metaphors of dust and air are apt descriptors for the four pithy, bracing interludes that pop up as Flatbed Buggy proceeds. As an example, consider “Hold My Mule,” demarcated by Royston’s Bo Diddley-meets-zydeco washboard thwack. He traces the title to a vernacular phrase heard in church as a child. “You give someone the reins of your mule so you can get your dance on,” Royston says. “It’s the moment people start shouting. I wanted to invoke those old country churches with wooden floors. I went to a few. I saw old church mothers and churchmen dancing in the dirt.”
“The vignettes are ingenious,” says Douglas. “Rudy’s saying, ‘OK, this feels a certain way, it’s a little off-kilter and a little beautiful, and I have these great musicians, and I want to see what happens if we tilt on this groove for a minute.’ In a way, it’s a very humble idea. But in another way, it’s like saying, ‘OK, I have this one little thing, and now we’re going to make something profound out of it.’”
“Rudy’s vision was very clear,” Ellis says. “He’d sing the passages, and always landed on the right note. His pitch hearing is extraordinarily sophisticated, which I think is a big part of what makes his music what it is. It’s not exactly ‘drummer music,’ whatever that is.”
The off-kilter quality to which Douglas refers is palpable on the kinetic title track, on which Royston’s down-low second-line beats evoke the clip-clop of the horse-drawn vehicle he once rode in with his father. “I had no idea it would feel like that; that’s just how it came out,” he says. “I associate it with the country.” He evokes another childhood memory on “Twirler,” which morphs from a mysterious rubato melody, parsed by Ellis’ bass clarinet and counterpointed by vertiginous accordion long tones, into a slow, mellow blues. “It’s an image of emotion,” Royston says. “We’d go out in the sprinklers and look up and turn circles. It’s the innocence, the smoothness, the flow of time, when no conflict was going on.”
“To capture time and journeys and the stuff that happens in your life between Point A and Point B” is Royston’s aim on “boy … MAN,” which features Roberts’ extended pizzicato solo against long, poignant chords from the ensemble, and on the stately “girl … WOMAN,” highlighted by an elaborate accordion meditation that realizes the composer’s intention. A nostalgic quality also infuses “Hourglass,” on which, after the opening melody, Royston’s crackling press rolls goose Martin’s grooving declamation, Ellis’ soulful tenor solo, Roberts’ flowing arco line and a gleeful, spiky chorus by Versace that ends mid-sentence. “It fades out to show that time goes on, things aren’t done yet,” says Royston.
In line with that remark, Royston indicates that he regards Flatbed Buggy as less a culmination than a jumping-off point. “My first two records are really ‘drumistic,’” he states. “I’d just got to New York and was trying to prove something. Here I wanted to do something different. Since I came into this game a little late, I want to present a bunch of formats before I go back and write more stuff for the same band.”
However “drumistic” the original music he’ll generate in the future, Royston is clear about his intention to play and record a lot more as a leader and less as a sideman. “It’s viable if I can let go of my inner push to keep trying to find other things to play,” he says. “Right now, there’s not enough time in the day to practice the way I’m driven to, push my own thing. and still have a life outside that.” Wistfully, he adds, “Maybe I’ll have more time when my kids go off to college.” - Ted Panken