Jazz historians would point out that his free and abstract playing with the world-renowned pianist Cecil Taylor shattered conventions of timekeeping and helped redefine the rhythms of modern jazz. But the diverse body of work that he’s amassed over his long career—which he continues to build upon with each new and intriguing project— proves that he’s always been most concerned with dealing with the now.
In the early 1960s, Andrew Cyrille was an in-demand drummer working with tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Bill Barron, pianist Mary Lou Williams, and vibraphonist Walt Dickerson. In 1964, when he hooked up with pianist Cecil Taylor’s Unit, he went from being a busy drummer to being an important one, beginning a more than ten-year musical journey that reflected the revolutionary atmosphere of the ’60s with equally explosive, exploratory, and influential music. Later that decade Cyrille released his first of many solo and duo drum recordings, inspired largely by the work of Max Roach and offering limitless ideas for anyone interested in creating music from percussive sources.
Throughout his career, Cyrille has also shown a strong interest in ethnic music from around the world, which he has expressed via recordings like Kip Hanrahan’s Tenderness, John Carter’s Castles of Ghana, Miya Masaoka’s Monk’s Japanese Folk Song, and his own Nuba. “African music, Caribbean music, military rudiments, Scottish drumming—all of that stuff interests me,” Cyrille told Modern Drummer in 1992. “And it all contributes to what I do when I get on stage.”
A respected educator and an active performer, Cyrille recently spoke with MD during a typically busy week that included teaching classes at the New School in Manhattan and playing a string of dates with tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry at the Village Vanguard. We began our conversation on the subject of his recent album with Haitian Fascination, Route de Freres.
MD: What was the genesis of Route de Freres?
Andrew: My parents were from Haiti, but I was born here in the U.S., and most of my musical education happened here. The contact I’ve had with Haitian musicians was from what I remember as a child. My parents used to go to a social and cultural club called the Haitian Alliance, which was dedicated to Haitian immigrants and issues. They would play records and dance, and they would sometimes have this drummer named Alphonse Cimber playing. He was a Haitian drummer who played for dancers and dance companies. So as a youngster I used to watch him, but that was way before I had any intention of becoming a musician.
Also, my mother used to sing a lot of songs, some in the French Creole. As I got older and got into music and jazz, I decided that I wanted to do something that showed my Haitian background. I wanted to pay tribute to my Haitian heritage and just say, “Thanks, folks, for raising me.”
So I decided I was going to do this recording called Celebration—this was in 1975. It was a self-produced recording on IPS [Institute of Percussive Studies], a record label that [drummer and percussionist] Milford Graves and I had. We recorded it at Rashied Ali’s studio—he was the last drummer that worked with John Coltrane. So on the recording I asked Cimber to do a couple of pieces with me, and he did “Haitian Heritage,” a composition that I wrote.
Route de Freres came out in 2011, although the recording was actually done in 2006. I wanted to do something else [involving Haitian music], and I had the opportunity to work with the great baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, with a wonderful bass player, Lisle Atkinson, and with the Haitian drummer Frisner Augustin. Frisner [who passed away in 2012] had a troupe called Makandal, which dealt with Haitian folklore. And there was Alix Pascal, who is a formidable Haitian musician and almost a musicologist; he knows a lot about Haitian music. When I want to get information about the history and theory, the rhythms and songs, he’ll explain them.
So Haitian Fascination was about my experience—using American things that I’ve learned and trying to put that in some kind of a form that would represent my idea of Haiti. I never lived there, although I visited a few times. I think the last time I was there was 2000, and before that 1975, and then before that when I was a youngster, in 1947. So it’s just a testimony to my biological heritage. And in a sense I could say that the music on it, my compositions, is like a sound painting of my experiences and what I remember as a kid and having grown up.
MD: On the album you blend traditional Haitian rhythms with jazz and other styles. How do you see Haitian rhythms in relation to other Caribbean rhythms?
Andrew: Well, most of those rhythms in the Caribbean, including the Haitian ones, come from Africa. So they’re probably some kind of variations on original African rhythms. Because of the isolation of some of those islands and because of cross-fertilization among the different tribes that were taken to those islands, you have Cuban, Haitian, Jamaican rhythms, etc. You could say that they are branches coming out of the same tree.
A lot of these rhythms are in 6/8; some of them are not, but most of them are. And it has to do with the countries that play the rhythms the way they do. So the Africans that came to those places brought their culture and their musical intentions, and a lot of that stuff continued to be reproduced on those islands. Of course Haiti was a French colony, and a lot of those Africans came from places like Dahomey and the Congo, so they brought their rhythms and music to the islands.
Even though each African [tribe] had its own way of playing the music, which could relate to 6/8 rhythm, it was all probably slightly different. You know, you have different countries, and people speak different languages. So with the Caribbean situation, you have those retentions that were brought by the Africans there, and there was a mix, a mélange. You can have a melting pot of stuff that comes together, and you get these hybrids. And some of them are very formidable, very strong.
MD: On this CD, the way you play with a percussionist is seamless. You blend very naturally and use the drumset in an inspired way. Your approach to the set seems to reflect traditional drumming or hand drumming. How did you develop that blended sound?
Andrew: It has to do with the way I tune the instrument, and it has to do with understanding how to speak the language. The matrix for a lot of stuff is from Africa. I was a member of the Babatunde Olatunji Drums of Passion for a couple of years in the early ’60s. I was in my twenties and at Juilliard at that time. And I had the privilege of playing my trap drums in the middle of all these hand drummers. They were people who had some kind of feeling and connection in what they were doing, because of the African continent—people like Chief Bey; Ladji Camara from Guinea; a couple of American guys, Garvin Masseaux and Bobby Crowder, who played hand drums; Montego Joe from Jamaica; and Olatunji, who was from Nigeria. He brought his compositions and would teach us the rhythms, and we would have to reproduce them so we could get a band sound. I learned a lot about African music when I was in that group. So more or less, when you hear me playing, I’m doing that.
And growing up in New York City, there were a lot of times where I would play parties, weddings, or club dates for people of certain ethnicities, and they would dance. So I learned how to play mambos and cha-chas and things like that, and we would have to play certain rhythms. So that goes into your repertoire as a drummer. For instance, on the Haitian Fascination album there are particular Haitian rhythms, like the kita and the rara.
MD: Looking at your recording and playing history, you have this knowledge of rhythms from around the world. How did you get from that to the free and abstract playing that you did with pianist Cecil Taylor and saxophonist Jimmy Lyons?
Andrew: Again, it has to do with concept and understanding what to do in certain situations. You know, Cecil Taylor, Jimmy, and I, we wanted to contribute to the evolution of jazz. Even though I learned a lot about playing the rhythms of the world, I also wanted to play jazz. So I began playing with jazz musicians at a young age, trying to learn the songs and playing the standards in a jazz format. Having an opportunity to begin to play with a lot of people when I was a youngster and talking with the older musicians—what they were doing and how they did it—began to plant the beginnings of a career in music. And with Cecil Taylor I really wanted to make my contribution to the world of jazz and its drumming. Cecil gave me the opportunity to play more or less what I heard and what I thought fit his concept, and I used all of the ingredients that I learned when I played with him.
Then there’s playing with dancers. I did that daily for a number of years, and it taught me in a sense how to play solo. Because in jazz dance classes you’re like a piano player for a ballet class, but you play jazz rhythms. They needed those rhythms to do their exercises and routines, and I was able to be creative practically on a daily basis, because they didn’t want to hear the same thing every time. I had to create different rhythms. So in that way it made me strong. And then when I went to work with people like Cecil, I would bring that to the music. You know, it’s a continuing process. It’s not something that happens abruptly—it’s an evolution.
And in that light I’m still learning and creating. It’s a continuing process, and the more you get into it, the more you want to give and the more you get. And I’m still working and doing it with people who feed me, and as a result I want to feed them also. So it’s a give-give situation, and in that light there’s always some growth.
MD: What are the differences between playing Cecil Taylor’s music and working with your group Trio 3 or with someone like pianist Jason Moran?
Andrew: Sometimes the music is not very easy and can be challenging. You have to bring things to it so that the composer can get what he or she wants, in addition to your own idea of how you want to do a certain thing. And that’s what they want—they want your solution. A lot of times there’s also some reading involved, so it’s not just a thing that you do by ear. Some forms are extended—they’re not just AABA; they have various sections, and things change. And you’ll have metrical time or there will be tempo changes.
These things challenge listeners. Some people really like it and some people don’t—they may not understand it. But as a creative musician, just like if you’re a painter or writer, you do things sometimes that challenge people’s ideas and feelings, and sometimes it’s controversial. Sometimes it’s not controversial; you can play a piece that’s conventional. For instance, I played Birdland in September for a tribute to John Coltrane, and certain songs of his, like “Naima,” are classic jazz now. What I’m saying is you learn to do things conceptually so that you can bring them to a contemporary sense of life and people can enjoy them. Some things are challenging and sometimes there are things that make people think, but at least then you can get some kind of response from it. I think art should challenge people. So it all depends on the composer, bandleader, compositions— what the concept of the band and the music is about.
So, going back to Cecil Taylor, those are the kinds of things that make the music happen. And you have to remember, I was working with Cecil Taylor back in the 1960s and early 1970s. Things were happening, very creative things, but people are doing creative things today as well. Some of us have gotten older—there’s no way not to get older if you stick around [laughs]—but things are still happening.
MD: Trio 3 features Oliver Lake on saxophone and Reggie Workman on bass. What are your roles, and how do they intersect?
Andrew: It’s a co-op group, which means that there is no leader. The leader is music, and the concept is that each of us brings music to the trio that we would like to play. It doesn’t have to be our own original compositions; it can be music that we like that’s by somebody else. But we bring in a lot of original material.
With Oliver and Reggie I get an opportunity to write, and I get an opportunity, with two wonderful musicians and people, to struggle with and play my music as I’m struggling with it. You know, the challenge sometimes is in the process, and the process is where life takes place. So that’s what Trio 3 is about.
MD: You’ve also had occasional guests.
Andrew: On occasion we will have somebody join us. Recently it was pianist Jason Moran, and we did a recording with him [2013’s Refraction— Breakin’ Glass]. Before that we played at Birdland with pianist Geri Allen, doing some of the music of Mary Lou Williams. We also played with pianist Irène Schweizer, and, way back when, Reggie put together a project with Marilyn Crispell on piano [1986’s Synthesis]. So it’s been something that’s been going on for quite a few years.
Back then we said, “Hey, let’s get together, form this group, and see if we can find some work.” Because a lot of times what we could do with each other would be stronger than what we could do individually, in terms of getting people to hire us. And sometimes people felt that the music we were playing wasn’t commercial enough for their establishments or concerts. By us sticking together we began to get work in some of those places that like what we do, continuing to this day. So everybody makes the contribution, even the people that we like to be with us, and we have a good time being creative and playing the music.
MD: You’ve been playing with saxophonist Bill McHenry, who was associated with Paul Motian. What are your thoughts on how a change in drummer affects a band’s sound?
Andrew: Every group has its own sound, and very often the sound of the group is determined by the drummer. In a sense, this is more the case with drums than with any other instrument, because the drums are so stark in terms of what comes out and how what comes out is played by the personality. All those groups that Miles Davis had, the group sound would change every time he got a new drummer—it would almost be a different group. So I play the way that I play when I’m with Bill.
Paul had a way of playing, and I can appreciate a lot of the things that he did. The only way that you can get a band to sound the same on a continuing basis is if you have through-composed material. But if you have a jazz band, you’re going to have different personalities coming in with the way they express themselves—whatever the music is asking for.
MD: Growing up in New York City, you studied with Willie Jones, Lenny McBrowne, and Philly Joe Jones. What were they like?
Andrew: I studied with Willie Jones when I first started. I was about ten or eleven years old and in a drum and bugle corps in Brooklyn. When it began, a lot of musicians in the neighborhood wanted to come down and do something with the kids and be part of the corps. So that’s when I met people like Willie and Lenny McBrowne. Willie was teaching me about the drumset and how we could play certain rhythms. He and Lenny would say that march music was not the only way to play. And then the multiple drums in the drumset became another kind of challenge. Playing the snare drum around your neck in a parade was one thing, and playing the set was another, because you had to bring in your feet to play the sock cymbal and the bass drum along with the snare, ride cymbal, and toms.
I met Max Roach at the time I met Jones and McBrowne, because they were fans of his. Max was doing all sorts of stuff with Charlie Parker and others, so they gave him a lot of respect. And they told me about Art Blakey and Shadow Wilson, and Buddy Rich and Krupa were still around. So I heard that stuff. As a matter of fact, the sister of my classmate Bernard Wilkinson married Max Roach. So I used to go over to Bernard’s house, and Max would be there—or sometimes he’d be on the road but there’d be drums in the basement. We’d go and play on the drums, and I wanted to learn, so when Max was home I’d talk to him about music and things like that.
Now, Philly Joe Jones was another situation. I wanted to expand my information and contacts. I remember going to a Miles Davis concert when I was in high school—I think it was at Town Hall—and there was Philly Joe Jones in Miles’ band. And I just remember he started doing some stuff with the brushes that totally knocked me out. I’d never seen anything like that. I said, “I gotta meet this guy and find out what’s going on—where do you get this stuff from?”
As a footnote, later in a film I saw Big Sid Catlett doing some of the same things Philly Joe was doing, and Sid came before Philly Joe, playing with Louis Armstrong and others, so I knew this was where Joe got the way he played brushes. The only difference was Sid was playing in a much larger, hyperbolic fashion than Joe. But Joe was magical with what he was doing.
So I found a way to meet Joe, and we developed kind of a master-apprentice relationship. Joe used to borrow my drums sometimes—not all the time, but once in a while, on a few dates he played. There’s a recording date he did with Bud Powell and Sam Jones called Time Waits: The Amazing Bud Powell, and on that recording he was using my drums, and I was in the studio while they were making the record. And I’d go see him at the Café Bohemia with Miles and when he played other places, and he’d give me some lessons—I’d go over to his house. So in a sense, even though he was much older than me, we became friends, as much as a seventeen-year-old could become friends with an established star jazz musician. Joe was so influential on so many drummers, me included.
MD: You’ve taught for years, including your current course on improvisation at the New School. As a teacher, what do you hope to impart to your students?
Andrew: The first thing is that I want them to be able to realize what they want to do. I want to help them find out and access within themselves what it is they want to say and what they are about.
I’m not interested in clones. I’m not interested in people playing the way I play. I give suggestions if a student asks or if I notice that they have problems getting from one thing to another. And I impart to them the experiences I’ve had over the years, like recording with Coleman Hawkins, Bill Barron, Booker Ervin, Cecil, or Olatunji. So when something comes up, I’ll explain from my own experience. And again, mambos, calypsos, bossa novas, sambas, tangos— all those rhythms mean something, and they project a certain feeling and ideal in the way they’re being played. And then at the same time students come in with their own compositions and I get to help them—we work through it together with the other students. So with my guidance, everybody gets something from each other.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Cyrille plays a Ludwig set featuring an 18″ bass drum, two 8.5×12 toms, a 14×14 floor tom, and a 5×14 hammered brass or Black Beauty snare. His Zildjian cymbals include 14″ New Beat hi-hats, a 20″ A Ping ride, an 18″ K Flat ride, an 18″ A Medium Thin crash, and two 10″ K splashes.