Much has been made of his being the grandson of drum god Roy Haynes. And not without reason—he received his formative lessons at Mr. Snap Crackle and Pop’s knee. But he’s indisputably defined his own space on the jazz landscape as well, aggressively looking to the future while obsessively drawing inspiration from the original sources of our art.
When your grandfather is one of the most revered jazz drummers of all time, the notion “better get it in your soul” is something that happens naturally, like drinking water. Thirty-two-year-old Marcus Gilmore comes from a musical family, Roy Haynes being only the most celebrated member.
When Marcus was ten, Roy gave him one of his natural-finish Ludwig drumsets. Marcus had been driving his family mad with his incessant bongo playing, so his parents knew the time was right. The youngster had been asking Grandpa for the Ludwig set for many years, since his third birthday to be exact. Through his years at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, summer music camps, and early professional gigs, the big Ludwig set and drumming became Marcus’s focus.
Twenty-odd years later, Marcus Gilmore has created a singular drumming language that draws on his grandfather’s flowing and acerbic style, the multidirectional inventions of Jack DeJohnette and Rashied Ali, and the intricate rhythms of Lenny White, all joined to the esoteric metric mysteries of one of his primary mentors, Milford Graves.
Whether holding down the drum chair with jazz icon Chick Corea or gigging with one of the dozens of musicians who’ve employed him live and in the studio—beginning with 2005’s Reimagining by famed pianist Vijay Iyer—Gilmore embellishes everything he plays with his unique style. When focusing on Gilmore, no one rhythm is central, but all rhythms are essential, multi-directionally permeating his drums and cymbals like a wave built on spiraling, forward-motion groove-tentacles.
A recent duo performance with saxophonist Miguel Zenon found Gilmore on a small Craviotto set augmented by Sunhouse Sensory Percussion, various prototype Zildjian cymbals, and unusual percussion devices that Gilmore placed on or removed from various drums at will. The music drove fast and furious, bubbling over with fl owing Afro-Cuban rhythms adorned with guttural, punch-like drum accents.
Gilmore’s long-term solo projects, Actions Speak and Silouhwav, are coming to fruition. Joining him on Actions Speak’s debut recording are Berniss Travis, bass; David Virelles, keyboards; Chick Corea, piano; Lionel Loueke, guitar; and Jasmine Mitchell, vocals. A 21st century polyglot of sounds and music, the album (which includes a cover of Max Roach’s “Garvey’s Ghost”) weaves a deep course through funky programmed sounds, experimental tableaus, solo drumming, sci-fi narratives, intense drumming redolent at times of ’90s drum ’n’ bass, velvety synth sounds, raw and uncategorizable rhythms performed over simple drum machine patterns, George Duke–worthy fusion, and lush soundscapes infused with Marcus’s knotty and sinuous drumming.
Some of Gilmore’s best work can be found in the rosters of the ECM and Pi record labels, including Steve Coleman’s Weaving Symbolics and Synovial Joints, Chick Corea’s The Vigil, Gilad Hekselman’s Hearts Wide Open, This Just In, and Homes, the Vijay Iyer Trio’s Accelerando and Break Stuff, Chris Potter’s The Dreamer Is the Dream, Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s Avatar and XXI Century, the Mark Turner Quartet’s Lathe of Heaven, and Ambrose Akinmusire’s recent Origami Harvest. And 2019 sees records by Chick Corea, Noah Preminger, Tayler McFerrin, and BIGYUKI.
MD: Your drumming shimmers, sparkles; it’s almost pointillist, like a painting technique. You create a flowing rhythmic tapestry in every recording. What’s your general rhythmic concept?
Marcus: It’s stream of consciousness. I’ve always seen the drums as a melodic instrument, because we have multiple limbs and we’re able to create continuous melodies. [And drums can be] harmonic, because there’s layers involved using our right foot, left foot, right hand, and left hand. So it’s more or less stream of consciousness, but always in the context of the music.
MD: The other night with Miguel Zenón your drumming recalled a merging of Elvin Jones and Jeff Watts, with some graceful European jazz guy, Jon Christensen perhaps—all those full-set percussive sounds. What goes into achieving that?
Marcus: Practice. Ultimately, I like having different modes to go into, like musical modes. In all the musical situations I’m part of there’s an underlying spirit that’s similar with all of them. So even though the music I played last night with Miguel is not necessarily the same as if I was playing in a band with non-stop straight groove and no fills, there’s still a connectedness between the two things. That’s how I’m able to go from one situation to the next. It’s all music.
MD: Your drumming refers to some of the older cats, such as your grandfather, Lenny White, Elvin Jones, and a European free jazz spirit like Louis Moholo or Han Bennink—but you’re always playing yourself. You create a unique role in every situation, with real freedom. You’ll play a traditional jazz ride cymbal beat, but always with that constant forward motion energy from multi-directional drumming, as with Rashied Ali or Jack DeJohnette.
Marcus: I was exposed to certain music, and to specific musicians such as Rashied Ali and definitely Milford Graves. He’s also a local hero for me because we’re from the same neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens. Milford is a true renaissance man; he takes his approach to the music through all the different disciplines. He’s a scientist, he deals with plant life. He deals with the heartbeat, he’s a cardiologist. He’s a martial artist. He does everything with a certain creative spirit. I’ve been influenced by him in a literal way, but also in a conceptual way, in how he approaches his life. The elders I look up to have a certain creative openness that I’m really attracted to and have a natural affinity for.
MD: How did you apply that “creative openness”?
Marcus: It was something that I’d already tapped into but didn’t realize. Once I met Milford, it made so much sense. Then I wanted to dig deeper. It wasn’t until I met people like Milford that I understood, and he’s also very articulate. Once I had that kind of information, I realized, Oh, that’s where I’m coming from. Prior to that I’d never thought about it that deeply.
MD: What specific things?
Marcus: A lot of Milford’s playing deals with rhythm, but not in a very metric way—it’s non-metric, a lot of waves. It’s still melodic, even more so because it’s very linguistic. Milford doesn’t even really play snares. He keeps the snares off . His drumming sounds very melodic and very lyrical. It sounds like a language.
MD: And that’s what you’ve done. You have your own language. There are so many variations and shadings and gradations in your drumming, which allude to funk and free jazz and bop and multidirectional drumming. How else did Milford influence you?
Marcus: The way he studies life, how he studies plants and different species, he sees the connectedness in everything. It’s always a lesson when I visit Milford. You’re learning more about yourself from other things that are just existing. We never have to talk about drums necessarily, we can talk about anything. I learn a lot from him.
MD: How did you develop your beautiful touch on the set?
Marcus: I try to get the optimal tone out of the instrument. There are very literal things I do to bend the notes: sometimes I choke [the head] for a second to create some type of tension, then release it. I’ve always been into tone. I want to bring out the natural vibrations of the instrument. I hear melodies even though I’m a drummer. In the West we think of the drums as a non-melodic instrument, but I’ve never seen it like that. I’ve been fortunate to be around legends and people I look up to who knew that that wasn’t true.
MD: Which legends?
Marcus: My grandfather, Roy Haynes, is definitely one of them. Just to be around that type of greatness and wisdom, just seeing him play was enough. I got so much out of all the different elements of his playing. I was three or four the first time I remember seeing him play.
Nature Meets Nurture
MD: When did you start playing?
Marcus: When I was ten. Piano and hand drums were my first instruments, when I was about four. My mom got me bongos. I had a natural affinity for them. My parents had a gospel group in the ’70s and early ’80s called New Creation. My older sisters were musical, and we all sang in church. One of my sisters went to Juilliard. I listened to everything. I also was very much into Tony Williams and Elvin Jones and my grandfather. I came up with all of it.
MD: What were the first rhythms you played on your drums?
Marcus: I free-styled in the beginning because I was so excited. My dad always wanted to be a drummer, so he would play a pocket on my kit. I was trying to get different ride cymbal beats together and learn how to play solos. I studied Elvin Jones on Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil, and the Tony Williams Lifetime. I watched a lot of DCI videos and videos of Papa Jo Jones, Max Roach, and Buddy Rich. I’d specifically watch Buddy for the solos and his technique; he was uncanny with his speed. My dad was also really into Dennis Chambers, so I got into him very early on, and Omar Hakim.
MD: Did you study privately in high school?
Marcus: My mom found out about this program at Juilliard for young musicians, so I auditioned. That’s where I learned to read music notation and studied European classical music. I started there when I was ten. It was called the Music Advancement Program, or MAP.
MD: You had full scholarships to Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music. After high school, did you complete your degrees at Juilliard and then Manhattan School of Music?
Marcus: No, I didn’t go to Juilliard. My mom wanted me to, but I didn’t go. So I never got the degree. Juilliard wasn’t for me, and I went to Manhattan but didn’t finish. By that point I’d been doing professional gigs. I’d been traveling with a lot of gigs that people know me for now. I got my feet wet at fifteen touring with Steve Coleman; there are recordings I did with him, such as Weaving Symbolics, when I was seventeen.
MD: You got one of your grandfather’s drumkits when you were ten?
Marcus: Yes, and it was a blessing. I had to convince my grandfather that I was actually serious about it. I’d been asking for it for years, and it finally came through on my tenth birthday. Once I got bongos and began checking out more music, I knew I wanted to play drums for the rest of my life. The kit he gave me was one of his natural-finish Ludwig kits from the ’80s. There’s a photo of that set in the Village Vanguard. He had these old cases that had stamps from all over the world. The kit was really enchanted.
MD: Do you remember when Roy first heard you play?
Marcus: First he played the Ludwig kit for like ten minutes. It was amazing! The head on the snare drum was smooth and I couldn’t get a sound with the brushes. But he sat down and somehow made it work. That’s when I learned that anything is possible. Then he left and I played until I had to stop. That’s basically all I did for a while. I would do my homework first so I could play, so I could practice.
MD: What books did you go through as a youngster?
Marcus: My private teacher hipped me to some Tony Williams records. He’d studied with Tony, who said, “There’s only three rudiments: singles, doubles, and fl ams. Everything else is a combination of that.” He showed me the official rudiments, so I practiced them, but mostly paradiddles, singles, doubles, and fl ams. In the beginning I’d play as long as I could, until my family said, “You gotta stop!” I’d play for like six hours, with a ten-minute break for water.
MD: Did you focus on specific things within those hours?
Marcus: Singles, doubles, moving different melodies around the kit. I would try to transcribe things, anything I heard that was cool, or I would play along to specific Elvin Jones solos. I never got to see Tony, but I did get to see Max Roach up close, and I saw Elvin and my grandfather play back to back at a JVC Jazz Festival in Bryant Park. That was definitely life changing. That was the first time I met Elvin. I would try to go to all of my grandfather’s gigs in the mid to late ’90s. Seeing Elvin and my grandfather play back to back made me realize how great they can make this music, but also how different they were. But the level of musicianship was so high. I realized it’s a pretty open platform. Really, you can do anything if the musicality and level of musicianship is there, as long as you have that musical element. Anything can work. Anything is possible.
MD: Did you study your grandfather’s albums, like Out of the Afternoon or Now He Sings, Now He Sobs with Chick Corea?
Marcus: I sure did. Out of the Afternoon was one of my favorites because I love Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Now He Sings, Now He Sobs is another favorite. And Charlie Parker’s Bird at St. Nicks. The Amazing Bud Powell, that one is incredible. And Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso and Thelonious in Action. Everybody knows how great Roy Haynes is and how important he is to the music, to the legacy, to the culture, but a lot of people in positions of power were slow to acknowledge that. If it wasn’t for him just living so long, I wonder if they would have ever given him his due while he was still alive.
MD: So much of this is in your blood, and then you were exposed to the music so early. What were some of your other early professional gigs?
Marcus: My first professional gig was with the Cadillacs, the doo-wop group from the ’50s. My dad played tenor on the gig. Apparently there was another band on the circuit, another guy with his son playing drums, and I’m pretty sure it was Questlove.
Get a Grip
MD: You play using matched grip most of the time. Why is that?
Marcus: I don’t think about it too much. I play traditional grip sometimes, but often I don’t. When I grew up watching all the older guys, I thought, I have to play traditional because that’s what they’re doing. But now I just do what feels right. So sometimes traditional grip, sometimes not. Playing matched, it’s just a feeling that I like. And a lot of guys play matched grip, too. My grandfather does it a lot when he’s soloing. Jack DeJohnette has been doing it for a while now.
MD: In your formative years, what gave you the biggest growth spurt? What made the biggest difference in your technique?
Marcus: I spent a lot of time by myself studying the music and finding a way to relate to what made sense to me. And I got to play with musicians that were so much more established than me, such as Steve Coleman and Clark Terry. I went on the road with both of them when I was fifteen. Steve also had drummers Sean Rickman and Dafnis Prieto then. Steve wanted me to play a gig at his residency at [New York club] Tonic, so I went to check out the vibe. I got to see Sean and Dafnis, and it was amazing, it was all really new for me. It was great to see that, and then getting a chance to participate made a big difference.
MD: Regarding records, did you play along with them? How did you relate to them and find your own style?
Marcus: I played with Tony Williams’ albums, such as Life Time. And I played with John Coltrane’s records with Elvin Jones. And I liked the Atlantic records with Art Taylor, Coltrane’s Sound and Giant Steps. Those really spoke to me in a very harmonic and lyrical way, and I loved the band. I started listening to all that stuff at a very early age, before I got my kit. I was listening to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme when I was seven. I was legitimately into it and really checking it out.
MD: Were there certain books or specific exercises that helped with your technique?
Marcus: Charley Wilcoxon’s Modern Rudimental Swing Solos. I did the other books at Manhattan, but wasn’t really into it. I developed my reading skills at summer music camps like Encore. I did those through junior high and high school. I was doing the European [classical] thing, but also jazz.
MD: What techniques were hard for you to grasp?
Marcus: Nothing is hard. It may be challenging, but you just put in the work. The idea of playing specific rhythms with different limbs was challenging. But I ate it up because I was really into it and I saw the potential. Seeing certain guys that were known for that, like Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, who had the clave and independence, I felt how powerful that was. I was attracted to that even though it was challenging.
I definitely checked out a lot of Afro-Cuban musicians through Steve Coleman. He was very much into the diaspora, and what was happening with African-American people in America. But then at the same time he was very curious about certain traditions that were maintained with the Afro-Cubans and the music in Haiti, and Afro-Brazilian music. Steve was the first one to play me folkloric music. He went all over the world studying native cultures. I’m on Steve’s albums Weaving Symbolics, The Mancy of Sound, and Synovial Joints.
MD: Is Wilcoxon something you shedded heavily? Did you try to master those pieces?
Marcus: Not so much. It was really only a few compositions that I got into, “Three Camps” being one. I played “Rolling in Rhythm” for a recital. There’s a few of them that I really spent time on, but I can’t say that I spent a lot of time on the books. I like being able to read in musical situations—sometimes you have to—but I think it’s more important to get the information directly from the source rather than going through a book.
Q: What techniques were hard for you to grasp?
A: Nothing is hard. It may be challenging, but you just put in the work.
MD: And how would you do that?
Marcus: A lot of ways…if somebody is still around and you’re fortunate enough to get a chance to see them play. Before YouTube, I would check out the archives at libraries to see what I could find. I probably listened to almost every recording at the Queens public library, at least all the jazz ones. I was really curious. There are certain tools you can use to get to the music, but often people get caught up in the tools and they don’t get to the actual music.
MD: Did you play much straight-ahead jazz with musicians beyond Clark Terry?
Marcus: Yeah, of course. I was doing these summer programs, and some had big bands or combos. That’s actually how I met a lot of musicians. I did those in my sophomore, junior, and senior years. That’s how I met Justin Brown. One year he was in the combo and I was doing the big band.
MD: What do you practice now?
Marcus: These days a lot of my practicing is away from the kit. I’m always thinking about some kind of rhythm. I can practice independence things away from the kit, because that doesn’t necessarily require me to be on the drumset. For hand strength or specific ideas, I’ll take things slow. I did that with everything: play it as slowly as possible, then slowly increase the tempo.
MD: What’s something you might practice off the drums for independence?
Marcus: You can play a halftime backbeat. Something like a slow 4/4, two quarter notes in the bass drum and then the third quarter note on the snare, the fourth quarter note is a rest. Then play a rhythm with your right hand that’s double time or triple time if you’re doing 16th notes. Let’s say it’s a dotted 8th note going to a 16th note. And then another dotted 8th note going to another 16th note. Then an 8th note rest. And then the same thing over and over and over. You can add a hi-hat part with your left foot, a quarter note on the hi-hat, then two 8th notes, an 8th-note rest, then another 8th note, and a quarter note rest.
Craviotto, Zildjian, Sunhouse
MD: Your setup featured in this MD story was photographed at Chick Corea’s Mad Hatter Studios in Los Angeles.
Marcus: Yes, while I was recording Antidote, the upcoming album by Chick Corea and the Spanish Heart Band. It’s a concerto for nine pieces, with hefty orchestration. I sight-read the charts, though Chick prefers that we don’t. He wanted me to memorize the music so my head wouldn’t be buried in charts during the recording. The arrangements were changing every day, so I read the charts and listened to the demos. When we get on the road I’ll flesh it out.
MD: Is this the same kit you play live?
Marcus: This is similar to the kit I would play live. Sometimes I use a Rototom next to the floor tom. I like to have the contrast of the lower-sounding floor tom with the higher-pitched drum next to it. And it’s close to the ride cymbal because sometimes I’ll play a similar pattern on that Rototom to what I would play on a ride cymbal. I also have a 10×14 Craviotto snare and a 6.5×14 copper Craviotto snare.
I like my snares to have internal mufflers. I like to be able to keep a snare more open or have it more dampened if I want. And when you have an internal muffler it dampens it but it also puts pressure on the head, which I like. It’s a different sound, it’s more punchy. If you’re playing above the muffler it will feel different, but I generally don’t play in that area. The rebound isn’t that different.
I use the 10×14 snare drum a lot; even tuned up high, it has its own character, and a lot of body to it. The larger body gives the tone a lot of depth, whether it’s tuned high or low. And it has Craviotto’s baseball-bat edges. They’re rounded, which makes the drum more punchy. I sometimes use Ambassador X single-ply heads. They’re like Ambassadors but a little thicker. And I like to play Pearl Eliminator bass drum pedals sometimes.
MD: You’re developing a line of cymbals with Zildjian’s director of cymbal innovation, Paul Francis.
Marcus: Yes. I got extra hammering on the 15″ hi-hats to bring out a more complex and darker tonal characteristic. The alloy is based on the K line. With Chick I always play a flat ride in the setup. That sound is a part of the music. Chick loves the flat ride, and my grandfather made it popular. It was his idea, then it became part of Chick’s identity.
I knew I wanted a cymbal bigger than the 20″, but not a 22″, so we made a 22″ and a 21″. I wanted a flat ride that was a little bit heavier. Paul hammered it at the factory, then when I got it home and it cooled down, I still liked it but it wasn’t perfect. Then I asked Paul to shave off some of the metal from the top and bottom, and I fell in love with it. It’s my favorite flat ride. And I love the 18″ crash—it sounds like water.
MD: What was the predominant approach to your debut album?
Marcus: I’m just trying to create sincere music that shows where I’m coming from. Some people ask, “Is it jazz?” But I’m not even thinking about that. I just want it to be the most genuine music I can make at this moment of my life.
MD: Did you feature Sunhouse Sensory Percussion on the album?
Marcus: Semi-regularly, after trying to get into it. There’s a learning curve, but it’s always worth the time, because once you learn how to do specific things it becomes a stronger tool. It takes time. And every time you want to do something, there’s a new update, and you have to find your way around it. But the updates give you a little more power so you can be more nuanced with it.
MD: Your group is called Actions Speak, and there’s another group, Silouhwav.
Marcus: And a solo project with drums and sensors. And a duo project with vocalist Silkka that’s called Moment in Time. I don’t really use the sensors so much in Actions Speak. It can go there electronically, but it’s more acoustic, usually piano and upright bass. There’s percussion in Actions Speak but not in Silouhwav. I also have a duo with dancer Savion Glover.
MD: You’re so busy, but do you have longterm goals for your career?
Marcus: I’d love to travel more with my ensembles and compose for different types of ensembles, orchestras, vocalists, percussion ensembles…. I would love to just write more music and travel with it, maybe some cinematic-type stuff. I like all the early Spike Lee soundtracks because I’m a fan of his father, Bill Lee, who wrote the soundtracks. I like a lot of independent films these days. Way more creative. I’m a fan of all the Twilight Zones. I’ve always been intrigued by orchestrations.
MD: Who else?
Marcus: I’m a big fan of Oliver Nelson. I didn’t realize how much film work he did toward the end of his life—so many pieces of music, and he only lived to forty-three. I didn’t know he accomplished so much in that way. I like Alfred Hitchcock’s film scores. Herbie Hancock’s soundtracks for Death Wish and The Spook Who Sat by the Door. I like their sound, it’s larger orchestrations. So it’s the composer’s concept realized in larger ensembles.
MD: What accounts for the dance-like feel in your drumming?
Marcus: I’ve always had a natural affinity for how rhythm relates to dance and also how it relates to contemporary culture, which is modern-day MCs. And the ancient art of griots and storytelling and the musical aspect of that and how it’s tied into the drums. I’m a big fan of the MC Pharoahe Monch. All these things have influenced me and are part of my sound.
A. 6.5×14 snare drum
B. 8×12 tom
C. 7.5×10 tom
D. 14×14 fl oor tom
E. 14×20 bass drum (12×20 and 12×18 alternates)
1. Prototype 7″ K hi-hats (based on Zil Bel)
2. Prototype 15″ K hi-hats
3. Prototype 20″ K crash-ride
4. Prototype 21″ K fl at ride
5. Prototype 18″ K crash
Heads: Remo Coated Ambassadors or Ambassador X tom and snare batters, Ambassador Clear or Diplomat Clear tom resonants, Ambassador Hazy snare side, and Ambassador Fiberskyn on the front of the bass drum.
Sticks: Innovative Percussion Marcus Gilmore Signature sticks (between 7A and 5A), brushes, and mallets
Electronics: Sunhouse Sensory Percussion with Resident Audio interface, Zoom products.
Hardware: DW bass drum pedal, Yamaha stands
Readers in the New York area: Marcus Gilmore and his band are playing the Jazz Standard on June 12. For more information, click here.