This fearless drummer refuses to let anything get between him and his musical goals—not hard work, not the naysayers…not even the sonic limitations of the traditional drumkit. And that boldness is on stunning display on his debut album as a leader.
Whatever you do, please don’t ask Rudy Royston to play the drums—at least not in the way some people think about the job.
“If I have to play a drummer’s role, holding down the groove, I cannot do it,” Royston says. “I’m miserable if I have to do that. I’m hearing the percussionist in my head, I’m hearing other melodies—and I have to be able to play some of that. It’s a discipline for me to just lay down a groove. I can do it, but it’s not easy.”
An explosive drummer who, when freed from strict timekeeping duty, can sound like Jack DeJohnette and Roy Haynes in a head-on collision with Dennis Chambers, Royston is an expert illustrator whose broad percussion background and unique imagination provide him with an enormous range of sound and color, rhythm and power.
Royston’s debut album as a leader, 303, shows his broad range of musical influences with a skilled septet including guitarist Nir Felder, bassists Mimi Jones and Yasushi Nakamura—who often play on the same track—pianist Sam Harris, and saxophonist Jon Irabagon. A trained percussionist first and a drummer second, Royston is also a poet (literally), which perhaps furthers his lyrical drumming. 303 ranges from serene Debussy-like pieces to covers of Radiohead and Mozart to the title track, a dense arrangement that’s almost classical in scope, and burning in performance.
Royston, who grew up in Denver—his album is named for the area code where he was raised—studied jazz performance, marching percussion, and classical percussion at the University of Northern Colorado, the Metropolitan State College of Denver (now the Metropolitan State University of Denver), and the University of Denver, where he received bachelor of arts degrees in music and poetry. Upon arriving in New York via Rutgers University in 2006, Royston bulleted his way into the city’s intense music scene, performing and/or recording with Bill Frisell, Les McCann, David Gilmore, Jason Moran, JD Allen, Sean Jones, Jeremy Pelt, Greg Osby, Tia Fuller, Ravi Coltrane, Ralph Bowen, Bruce Barth, George Colligan, Stanley Cowell, Tom Harrell, John Ellis, Jenny Scheinman, and the Mingus Big Band.
On a recent night with guitarist Jeff McLaughlin’s trio in a small Greenwich Village club, Royston lent the classic “Stella by Starlight” a hundred different rhythmic shades, creating endless permutations on the basic swing pulse with 16th notes and triplets, half time and straight time, modulating in a way that was more about color than meter, dissecting and layering rhythms, elongating some passages and halting others, and scalding it all. Royston swung hard while tirelessly graduating the rhythm, dropping bombs and conspicuously restructuring the song’s essence. It was a lesson in drumming, but also in possibility.
Currently working on projects with Rudresh Mahanthappa, Linda Oh, Nate Wooley, and Ben Allison, Royston is looking at a future full of work requiring him to play the drums—the way he likes to play them.
MD: The way you played those permutations in “Stella by Starlight” was amazing. What’s the core of that approach? It was mind-boggling!
Rudy: [laughs] If I’d gone straight into full-on 4/4 swing right away—especially playing with a cat like Jeff , who takes longer solos—I would have played too much up front. So I planned ahead: I broke up the phrases with 16ths, actually taking little pieces of the melody and doing variations on it. So fi rst I did the half-time thing, then I broke it up and played the melody—you can hear it and feel it—and I saved the full-on 4/4 cymbal ride part. When a cat has been soloing forever, and then you go into the swing part, it brings the music to a new level.
MD: As a listener you think the full-on straight-four swing section is under way, then you realize it’s not.
Rudy: And you can do that in diff erent spots. You don’t need to always wait until the form is recognizable to start swinging. Start swinging before that, before the top of the form kicks in.
MD: Where in your evolution did you learn to do that?
Rudy: That came from playing with [trumpeter] Ron Miles in Denver. Just having that freedom to go where you want to go. And playing with Bill Frisell, making sure each moment is a musical moment. So if I go into swing early, that’s what I’m trying to do. Those four bars before the top of the [melody], that’s swinging. But if I switch something, it feels feel like something’s happened in the music, which it has. I love that freedom.
MD: You’ve played with so many people since coming to New York. When you decided to do your own CD, did your inner composer and arranger move the focus away from the drummer?
Rudy: When you’re playing other people’s music you play what their music tells you to play. It’s not about your composition. It’s about your composition within the context of their tune, but you didn’t write the tune. So I wanted my record to show the compositional side of what I do. I was getting a reputation as a powerhouse drummer. That’s cool—I’ll take that. But on my record my thing is about texture and color and vibe.
MD: You unleash the power, but there is so much variety of texture in your drumming. And it’s very gritty. What was your drumming focus on 303?
Rudy: To play all the textures and illustrate what I’m thinking on my own tunes. That’s why the tunes switch. They go from one thing to a totally different thing. My thinking is a bunch of musical thoughts and elements. My drumming is just a product of my thinking. When it’s my music I can play whatever I want. But I still have to tame it. Otherwise it’s too wild sometimes.
MD: On 303 we hear Latin tunes, groove-oriented tunes, R&B, bossa nova, swing…but the title track is where the album really takes off .
Rudy: The album gives you a taste of other kinds of music, all leading to “303.” Why can’t I go from this chill section to this killing section in a single song? “303” is also about a good melody, something you can sing. Ron Miles would have these killing melodies—those of us playing his music were counting it all out, but the audience didn’t know that. I wanted to have strong drumming and good solos all in one tune.
MD: You’re masterful at playing different dynamic levels. You keep stoking the fi re and changing it around. How did you develop that skill?
Rudy: First of all, you really have to know the sound of your drums and cymbals, what sounds bring out the energy or the textural changes in your kit. Sometimes I’ll be riding a cymbal and I’ll switch to playing the shoulder just a little bit, and that picks up the energy. It’s going from height to height to height. I might be playing at a certain level, then I slowly bring it down to where you can’t really feel it. Then the next solo begins and I bring it back up to another level. But really it just went back to the previous dynamic.
MD: Is it also about switching sources?
Rudy: It’s switching volume levels, knowing your kit, or knowing when to drop a bomb. You can swing a tune at the same dynamic level but drop five bombs or five serious cymbal crashes, and it feels like you took it to a different place. It’s all about taking the music where you want it to go instead of being a slave to your drums. You have to know your drums and make them relate what you want to say.
MD: What drummers do you admire who work dynamic levels in a similar way?
Rudy: Brian Blade does that super-well with Wayne Shorter. He will explode, then bring it back. He has a way of not playing loud and building it. Jack DeJohnette does that as well; he’s one of my favorites.
MD: You have DeJohnette’s stinging rimshot thing happening. And his permutations.
Rudy: That began for me after hearing Jeff “Tain” Watts, when he played very polyrhythmically with Wynton Marsalis in the 1980s. Tony Williams and Art Blakey too. But the permutations didn’t come from drummers. Those are just melodies that I’m hearing and being adventurous with.
MD: What is the lineage of your studying? What was your focus?
Rudy: I never studied drumset. That only happened during two Telluride Jazz Camps, with Duff y Jackson one week and Ed Soph the next. The rest of the time I studied classical percussion. When I was a kid my dad worked for Rhythm Band Incorporated, and he was always bringing percussion home. He would bring home boxes full of rhythm sticks, bongos, triangles, and stuff . I played all of it.
MD: Did your studies focus on a particular percussion instrument?
Rudy: Timpani, bass drum, snare drum…and I really dug marimba. I played a bunch of different classical marimba pieces. “Yellow After the Rain” is one that any college percussionist will know. Classical music really opened up different hues of music for me. As a percussionist you’re in the back, waiting to play your three snare drum accents, but the whole time you get to check out what’s happening in the orchestra, how the cellos are interacting with the English horn…. Weird stuff like that is amazing to take in. I also played in church while studying classical percussion, and at the time gospel music was changing toward a certain emphasis on good melody.
MD: What’s the key to breaking free of influence and creating your own style?
Rudy: I don’t mean to sound corny, but it takes courage. You have to be brave but also not take it so seriously. Some cats never try anything new, because they don’t want to sound bad. But you have to sound bad—you have to suck at something. You have to sound terrible to know how to fi x it. But some cats don’t have that sense of adventure in their playing. Have fun with it; don’t take it so seriously. And do the work.
MD: When have you done the most shedding or practice?
Rudy: The past four years here in New York. I had worked on playing a lot, but it wasn’t clean. I had to develop my language. I’d record gigs, or just remember what I sucked at on the gig, then I would get on the drums and slow down the problem. I would sing what I was actually trying to play. I’d work out the sticking and make it work until it was strong. Doing that will open up your vocabulary for the other things you have to work on. Work that one thing out, and it will connect to something else.
MD: What is your focus now?
Rudy: Authenticity. How do I play what I want to play when I want to play it? How do I control that? How can it be authentic? How can I not play what I usually play? Conceptually, that’s what I’m working on now. Technically I’m practicing applying paradiddles around the kit.
MD: What has made the biggest difference in your evolution as a drummer?
Rudy: Actually, just coming to New York in 2006—the whole change of environment and intensity going from Denver to New York. That pushed me over the edge. That changed my whole way of thinking about music. I was in grad school at Rutgers, then I would come to New York to play jam sessions at Smoke, Cleopatra’s Needle, Zinc Bar. That’s how I gauged whether I could cut it in New York.
MD: How did you navigate sitting in on New York gigs?
Rudy: At first some cats were vibing me. They’d stand over me with a look saying, What you’re playing isn’t happening, but that only motivated me. Little by little, they could see that I could play, and I began getting gigs. My first gig was actually a session, cats reading through music. I thought, This is cool, but I need to get paid! But people started calling me. Javon Jackson was my first major gig. He’s from Denver, and he knew what it was like. He comes from that Art Blakey vibe—he knew I had to make money for my family. Then a Bill Frisell gig with Ron Miles back in Denver, then Don Byron, then it took off.
MD: How do you keep your chops up?
Rudy: I run through a technical regimen, a drum corps warm-up from the Blue Knights Drum and Bugle Corps. And I work on paradiddles and diddles, and triplet exercises where you accent and tap after each [figure].
MD: After the wild ride and diversity of the album, the last tune of 303 is very atmospheric.
Rudy: I wanted the closing track to feel like a statement had been made, like adding a period. I wanted to leave the listener with something that wasn’t about the drums. I wanted to end with music.
Rudy Royston 303 /// Bill Frisell Big Sur /// JD Allen Trio Victory! /// Dave Douglas Quintet Be Still /// Steve Cardenas West of Middle /// Ron Miles Quartet Laughing Barrel /// Linda Oh Initial Here /// Ralph Bowen Total Eclipse /// Emily Braden Soul Walk /// Mike DiRubbo Chronos
Royston plays a Canopus R.F.M. series drumset, including a 6.5×14 snare, 8×10 and 8×12 toms, 14×14 and 15×16 floor toms, and a 14×18 bass drum. His Sabian cymbals include 14″ Legacy hi-hats, 16″ and 18″ HHX X-treme crashes, a 21″ Legacy ride with a rivet and a paper clip, and a 22″ Artisan Light ride (brilliant finish). He plays Vic Firth brushes, mallets, and AJ4 model sticks, and he uses Remo Coated Ambassador batter heads and Clear Ambassador resonants.
Wynton Marsalis Quartet Live at Blues Alley (Jeff “Tain” Watts) /// Brian Blade Fellowship Perceptual (Brian Blade) /// Sting Bring On the Night (Omar Hakim) /// John Coltrane A Love Supreme (Elvin Jones) /// Bob James and David Sanborn Double Vision (Steve Gadd) /// John Scofield Band Pick Hits Live (Dennis Chambers) /// Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers Live at Ronnie Scott’s (video) (Art Blakey) /// Ralph Peterson The Art of War (Ralph Peterson) /// Chick Corea Elektric Band Chick Corea Elektric Band (Dave Weckl) /// Don Cherry Symphony for Improvisers (Ed Blackwell)