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It’s hard to think of an under-40 drummer who manifests experimental imperatives and idiomatic mastery of a global array of rhythmic codes and admixtured dialects — call it Afro-Cuban meets Carnatic meets North African meets second line meets swing — more elegantly, efficaciously and bodaciously than Marcus Gilmore. Gilmore, 35, started working with Steve Coleman in 2002, with Vijay Iyer and Clark Terry in 2003, with Nicholas Payton in 2004, and with Chick Corea and Gonzalo Rubalcaba in 2006. He’s played drums for Najee, Bilal, Natalie Cole and Robert Glasper. He’s developed a sui generis solo drum language in both the acoustic and electric space. In 2004, he drum-battled with his grandfather, Roy Haynes, on Gene Krupa’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” for a nationally broadcast Jazz at Lincoln Center concert. Since 2018, Gilmore has played on an ongoing basis with tabla master Zakir Hussain, with whom he was paired through the multi-disciplinary Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Via a commission from that program, Gilmore also composed an orchestral work, Pulse, which he performed in February 2020 with members of the Cape Town Philharmonic.
A month later, COVID-19 happened. “Everything took a turn,” Gilmore says from his home in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Queens, soon after notification that a post-Christmas week engagement with saxophonist Chris Potter at the Village Vanguard was a casualty of the Omicron surge in New York City. “Pretty much all my tours got canceled, and almost everything I did was virtual remote concerts.” But as the months of COVID-enforced isolation spooled out, Gilmore “found some beauty,” focusing on his health and on “developing a home studio, to work on my craft and learn how to record, to capture sound, in my living environment.” He performed much more in 2021, but still, this supremely social musician adds, “I’ve had fewer moments to interact with other musicians and express myself in a social way, and when I have those moments, it’s like I’m saying whatever I wasn’t able to say for the months that I didn’t play with anybody.”
The drummer said quite a bit — about his upbringing, his influences, the musicians he’s played with, the effects of pandemic isolation and what the future may hold — during our conversation in late December.
You did your first tour with Zakir Hussain earlier in 2021. How would you describe the impact of that relationship?
It’s been incredible having these one-on-one experiences with Zakir — having a chance to pick his brain, to see how he approaches and hears the music, to learn his father’s compositions and play them. We’re jamming, but it’s not proper Indian classical music that I play with him, though certain elements of it are involved. He’s a sage.
When I did the orchestral piece in Cape Town, I wanted to explore the compositional aspect more deeply than the playing aspect, but Zakir made it a point to say that I needed to play. Tabla is one of the quietest percussion instruments, so it makes sense dynamically to incorporate it in an orchestral piece with strings. With drum set, unless you have, like, a 90-piece symphony with choir, you’ll have to play extremely delicate, or else you can easily overpower the ensemble. Not that I’m playing on eggshells; I know how to make music and express myself at different dynamics.
This group in South Africa was relatively young and open-minded, and the conductor was great, so everything hooked up. But in most orchestras I’ve worked with where the musicians are used to functioning in the European classical tradition, a lot of people see something they haven’t heard or don’t understand and say, “Oh, no, I can’t play this; I’m not even going to try.” It’s very different from the majority of the artists I’ve worked with. If somebody like Vijay Iyer or Steve Coleman or Gonzalo Rubalcaba gives me a crazy drum part, or if I need to make a part to go with the music they wrote, I’m not going to say it’s too hard or I can’t play it. I’ll be like, “All right, I’ll figure it out.” That made me grow.
Zakir does tabla workshops every year. He plays all these crazy rhythms, the other tabla players play it back and practice it, and it morphs and shifts into other rhythms. I participated in that retreat twice. The first time, they had a drum set for me, but before I started playing, I wanted to wait, process the rhythms and figure out a way to play them on the instrument. Coming from the African-American culture of improvisers, a lot of things happen where you understand things in your own way. I spend a lot of time alone to figure out things for myself, then when I’m around the people, I ask questions.
Zildjian released a video of you performing solo on which you use electronic triggers to create different harmonies and timbres. Describe the evolution of your solo approach.
Before I was able to play in bands, it was just me and the instrument. Of course, I had the greatest examples of all time. I heard my grandfather play solos in ensembles, particularly his own ensemble, even if it was just five or 10 minutes. Max Roach, whose soloistic approaches are well documented. Milford Graves, another mentor who I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with, put out many incredible solo albums — he opened me up in many ways. None of them ever tried to get me to sound like them. They encouraged me to find my own voice and explore on my own.
My friend Tlacael Esparza created Sunhouse Sensory Percussion, which are the sensors that I sometimes use. We met in high school. We were at jazz camp together. Seven or eight years ago, he called and told me he was working on a concept to allow drummers in particular to apply their understanding of the instrument to electronics in a way that hasn’t been done before. It’s not a typical trigger, like one sound for each drum. He’s brought some production-DJ element onto the drum set in a very specific, nuanced way. I’ve had time to work on these ideas and on manifesting them, using this brilliant engineer who’s also a drummer, so he understands where we’re coming from.
You mentioned that Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer and Gonzalo Rubalcaba posed challenges that helped you grow exponentially in scope. What elements of your interaction with each of them inflect the way you think about drums?
My Uncle Graham [Haynes] introduced me to Steve in 2002, when I was 15. A few years later, I went to Brazil with him to record music instead of going to my high school prom. I was well aware of the foundation of the African-American contributions to a lot of the music we hear in the West, transatlantic slave trade, how folks in different parts of Africa were brought to the West and what happened subsequently. But I didn’t know what Afro-Cuban culture was, the folkloric traditions that were upheld when Africans came to Cuba. I didn’t know about the Afro-Brazilian thing. I didn’t really put it all together until I met Steve. He’d been going to Cuba on a regular basis, but we met during the [George W.] Bush administration and it was harder to get there. For that reason, he segued into Brazil, where I guess he felt he could create a similar situation. He found some African percussionists — one in particular who was very talented — and when he took me there, I got a chance to collaborate with these people. It was a life-changing experience, not just musically but culturally, to see Black people in a land far away that’s not Africa.
You once told me that, with Steve Coleman, you learned how to navigate thick rhythms — playing long cycles synchronously on each component of the kit with each limb, and finding mnemonic devices or ways to internalize those cycles into your muscle memory. That seems like a very valuable lesson.
Extremely. I was already kind of heading in that direction. I’d play the recordings and learn Elvin [Jones]’s solos, Max Roach’s solos, Grandpop’s solos, Tony Williams — all that stuff — and then just play whatever. I’m a kid born in the ’80s, so I’d play whatever group I heard on the radio and was into at the time. My uncle would hear me practicing, and he started giving me rhythms. I’d listen, try to play it, and then run back and say, “Uncle Graham, I think I got it,” and then he’d come listen. It wasn’t enough to learn it; I had to add something extra, say, in my right hand, to make it a bit different. He saw this happening, and decided it was a good time to introduce me to Steve. Once I met Steve, it was dealing with longer forms, cyclical ideas, forms that aren’t just in 4/4 or 3/4 — sometimes they’re asymmetrical, sometimes symmetrical. There’s usually some type of clave pattern, but then something with the kick and the snare. It really expanded my concept.
The thing with Vijay was also very rhythm-heavy. Now, Vijay himself is not of the [African] Diaspora, but he’s Indian, so he has that connection with South Indian music and North Indian classical music. But he’s very much American, and being American, he’s very much inspired by the African-American culture, and he’s also been nurtured by African-American communities. So he’s coming from a slightly different perspective in terms of his upbringing, but he’s still quite rhythm-oriented, and he also went through Steve’s bands. The one non-Diaspora culture that Steve exposed me to was Indian culture, and specifically Carnatic culture, South Indian classical music. Around the time I met Vijay, Steve hipped me to Umayalpuram Kasiviswanatha Sivaraman, an incredible mridangam [Indian drum] player. It was very important for me to hear somebody play within the same pulse consistently in 4 and 6 and 7 and 8 and 11 and 13. That was the first time I ever heard that mathematically, in a super-accurate way. Vijay had his own take on the rhythms.
I actually knew about Gonzalo from 12 or 13, when I heard him play two back-to-back sets one night at the Blue Note opposite my grandfather, with Julio Barreto on drums. It was inspiring to hear Julio and Gonzalo go back and forth with incredible dexterity and passion, but also musicality. I realized that Gonzalo is pretty much a drummer — from that point on, I was a fan. Years later, I was on the train, taking my girlfriend back home to Queens, when I got a call from [bassist] Matt Brewer: “Gonzalo needs a drummer — now!” I went back to Manhattan, straight to this rehearsal, and tried to play his hard music. Next day I did the full rehearsal. A few days later, I went on the road with him. I felt prepared for that call in a lot of ways. I’d got deeper into the Afro-Cuban thing through Steve and synthesized that with whatever I was doing, coming from Queens. By then, I was also able to read music and had trained my ear enough to hear forms. So my skill set was enough to function in this rehearsal with no knowledge of what would happen. From that point on, I played with Gonzalo quite a bit. He’s one of the greatest musicians of all time. Every time I play with him, all my piano player friends are like, “Try to get me a bootleg and send it to me. I need to hear it.”
Speaking of great piano players, let’s talk about Chick Corea, who went back so far with your grandfather. He brought you into vibrationally different but related contexts — swinging drums in trios, electronica with Taylor McFerrin, music with hand drummers.
Absolutely. It’s funny, because when I saw Gonzalo, I had already met Chick and figured out that he was a drummer first who played piano next. Through him and Gonzalo, I realized that I have a natural affinity not just for rhythm, but for piano. Even somebody like Robert Glasper, I don’t know if he played drums first, but I think of him as a drummer.
My first tour with Chick was with a chamber orchestra, playing a concerto, which he gave me the task of learning by heart so I wouldn’t have my head in sheet music. He said, “As long as you’re solid, we’ll be OK.” Luckily, by that point, I already had enough experiences memorizing longer forms and so on with Steve that it didn’t seem too daunting. “I’ll just learn it and do it” — and that was that. That tour happened after I decided to leave Manhattan School of Music, which was a really big choice. There’s this whole machinery that says you have to get a degree to be successful, no matter what profession you’re in. I started thinking about that. Thank God, when I started questioning curriculums, questioning the whole thing, I had enough mentors to tell how I felt and ask what they thought about it. They were all very encouraging and broke it down: “Yeah, you can do whatever you want; you obviously don’t need to go to school to have a gig.” So that tour inspired me, helped me know that I made the right decision, but also: “OK, now there’s nothing to lean back on; you were chosen and you made the choice, so you have to do the work.” To me, Chick’s discipline was unparalleled, not just in terms of practicing but challenging himself, and always writing music, always creating.
Can you talk about the impact of coming up in the borough of Queens, where so many cultures intersect?
I was exposed to other cultures, but early on it was mostly predicated on a specific region of Queens — Hollis and Jamaica — which were primarily African-American and Caribbean-American. Once I got to junior high school, some East Indians, as well; that’s when a lot of folks, producers in hip-hop, started assembling Bollywood stuff. My introduction to the East Indian culture was through hip-hop or my Uncle Graham playing me electronic music with tabla and singing. But mostly I heard hip-hop, Black American Music, both contemporary and older, and a lot of Caribbean-West Indian music, from Jamaica and Trinidad and Haiti, where my neighbors were from. At my house, Earth Wind & Fire. A lot of gospel. My sister was into Mary J. Blige and all that stuff. Tribe Called Quest, Run-DMC, Nas — all that stuff around the way. A lot of MCs are from Queens.
A lot of Black musicians moved to Queens in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of them were still around when I grew up, and some weren’t. For instance, one of my babysitters was Roy Eldridge’s daughter; she lived right around the corner, so I’d go to Roy Eldridge’s house all the time, although he’d already passed and I never met him, so I didn’t know who he was until I got older. I had a piano lesson from Jaki Byard, who lived down the block. My uncle would tell me that James Brown used to live over here, in St. Albans; and then John Coltrane lived over here; Bud Powell’s widow lived across the street; Willie Bobo lived down the block. I was getting a taste of developments in that part of Queens in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s that led into a lot of hip-hop. [Keyboardist/jazz-funk pioneer] Weldon Irvine lived in Queens for a long time, and his presence was known — he influenced a lot of hip-hop artists like Q-Tip and Mos Def. Someone pointed out to me that the vast majority of bounce music in New Orleans samples this one song from a band called the Showboys, in Hollis, a few blocks down from where I grew up. It’s the Triggerman beat.
I was around all that stuff nonstop. I was around a lot of more straightahead stuff, too — my grandfather’s music, Elvin Jones — but I usually had to be more intentional about wanting to hear that. I started with people in my grandfather’s generation and went forward and backwards from there — Papa Jo Jones, but then also Tony Williams, then Lenny White and Milford Graves. I read magazines religiously; there was more of a magazine culture then — before I heard people, I saw their picture on the cover of Modern Drummer. My father also plays saxophone, and he’d listen to Wayne Shorter albums; he loves Branford, so I heard [drummers] Tain [Jeff Watts] and Lewis Nash. I was also going to the Queens Public Library and getting all the albums, too.
[caption id="attachment_45261" align="aligncenter" width="1066"] Photo credit: Ogata Photography[/caption]
What do you think your impact has been on the development of the world of drums? I think it’s pretty substantial.
I try to be as honest as I can and make sure I’m as true as I can be on my instrument in whatever context I’m involved in. I also do all the work to make sure that I understand what’s necessary for the music I’m playing. I don’t always look back on the records that I participated in or the performances I’ve done until people ask me about them, and then I start thinking about it — actually, during the pandemic, because I had so much time to sit and I wasn’t on the run. I started thinking about a lot of things I’ve done in the past, and giving thanks for all the experiences and beautiful music I’ve been part of. There’s a lot to be grateful for. At the same time, it helps me understand where I feel I need to go.
Do you listen to yourself in a critical, analytical way? Are you a person who records your gigs and listens back to them?
I sure enough do. I have to. Sometimes it can be painful to listen to yourself like that. But it’s not so painful if you put your ego aside. You can honestly assess where you’re at in a very matter of fact way, and that helps you understand what you need to work on to get where you would like to be.
If COVID allows us more freedom of movement later in 2022 or by 2023 what do you hope your career matrix will look like?
Having this time has given me some things to think about in terms of my lifestyle as a primarily touring musician. I wasn’t gone that much, at most like three months a year. But still, it was a lot of movement. It looked like I’d be touring more than ever in 2020, and then nothing was left — it was incredible. But I was able to survive. I still love touring. I’m pretty selective already. But it would be ideal if I can find ways to make a living without having to tour — if I could say “absolutely no” if I don’t want to do something wholeheartedly, and, if I want to, it happens.