His new solo album, PaNOptic, gives listeners—especially drummers—the opportunity to commune with the mind, heart, and soul of Rudy Royston, perhaps more fully than ever before.

Modern Drummer has often praised the marvelous first-call jazz drummer Rudy Royston for meeting each musical situation head-on, freshly responding without cliché whether performing with longtime associates Bill Frisell, Dave Douglas, and Rudresh Mahanthappa, or on countless freelance gigs. Now, on the digital-only release PaNOptic, Rudy has only himself to “converse” with. The result is a highly personal statement unlike a typical drum solo album.

The artist’s successful intention was to create drumset pieces that “feel like completed songs within themselves” and “could be experienced in succession as a whole.” The hour-long release was culled from a single, three-hour, no-overdub, completely impromptu session. Twenty-three tracks are divided into four thematic sections drawing inspiration from poetry, cherished music, influential musicians, and a “sacred music” segment evoking Rudy’s roots in the Pentecostal church.

Some numbers lie more in the usual drum solo vein with their breathtaking energy and technique—especially the tributes to drumming icons such as Max, Elvin, and Jack DeJohnette. But in contrast, many tracks are surprisingly subtle and minimal, exploring textures that conjure meditative moods. Inventive, evocative, and emotional, it’s a work that only drummers can fully appreciate. And that’s meant as a compliment in the best sense. Rudy revealed.

MD: You decided that now would be the ideal time to release this recording, partly due to the pandemic. And you’ve dedicated your proceeds to the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund. There is a personal connection here as the crisis has obviously affected you as a performing artist and you’ve also experienced a loss in your family.

Rudy: I’d had this recording in the can for some years, and I was just waiting for a right time to release it. When this pandemic came on, all of us, particularly in the performing arts, experienced a massive and instant loss of work and a sudden assault on the very essence of our work: performing for and in front of group gatherings. The loss of work was shocking and just scary. I started applying for all kinds of grants and charitable help.

Soon after, I started to receive a great deal of help from charitable organizations and musicians/artists grants. The relief I felt was so encouraging and comforting, I just wanted to have a way to give that back to others who may have needs as I did. This recording came to mind, and I took the idea to Greenleaf Music and Dave Douglas was totally onboard with us, using this recording to assist others impacted by the pandemic. I was considering which charity to partner with when my ex-brother-in-law came down with COVID-19 and in a matter of days died from the virus. It was during this time of grief and loss and uncertainty that MusiCares sent me a check in the mail. That was confirmation for me; they were the ones I wanted to go with.

MD: In so many ways, PaNOptic is certainly not typical of a “drum solo album,” particularly because some of the numbers are so subdued, such as “foolish,” “coMe,” and even “ciTy buS StOp.” In a sense, these are the types of solos you might not likely get a chance to play in live performances.

Rudy: Yes, this is certainly true, because this is not a “drum solo” album; it’s a “solo drums” recording. The last thing I wanted to do was make a record of consecutive drum solos. I wanted to play songs, paint pictures, explore textures, play melodies, harmonies, and rhythms the same way other instruments on solo recordings have done. Songs like “foolish” and “ciTy buS StOp” are not tunes for drums, they’re just tunes—exploring textures and moods, melody, moments, and scenes; the closest we drummers can get to this in a typical gig situation is maybe during an open drum solo. It’s not often we think about listening to a solo drum record the same way we would enjoy a solo piano or guitar or even saxophone recording. These are songs, not solos.

MD: You’re best known in the jazz context. But you’ve cited that a great deal of the control and expression in your drumming—and particularly on this recording—comes from your classical training.

Rudy: You can hear my classical training in the clarity in most of my playing. Sometimes I feel like it’s too clean, but certainly the technique of playing off of the surface of the drums and cymbals, pulling the sound out of the drums, is a big classical influence. Using staccato/legato strokes, blending of different colors and textures, like a rolling melody handed off from one side of the orchestra to the other, bass to cello to oboe and finally to the flute…. That sort of exploration of texture and color from one tone of the kit to the next, that mindset of total orchestration is always present with me; hearing the drums as an orchestra of sounds to blend together rather than one sonic drumset. The first minute of “Jack, fIgHt oR FligHT,” concentrates on the smooth transitions of themes and colors—using the kit as a stylized orchestra.

MD: You have a love of poetry, which was an important part of your college studies. Much of this record is inspired by poetry, and certainly in a more literal sense on the numbers “We Real Cool” and “defeRRed.”

Rudy: There is a rhythm in poetry—certainly in the case of Langston Hughes. But there is also composition, the material of a poem feeding off of itself to give the poem its character, the pursuit of mastering the use of language to communicate meaning deeper than the words themselves. Music does the same for me. How to use the elements of musical language to inspire and touch and be connected with others is something so sanguine, something that is the essence of who we all are as human beings, that it is the challenge. In the case of “defeRRed,” a pleasant dream, deferring, is slowly becoming agitated, disturbed, just about to morph into something else. I decided to end the tune at that point…to defer it and leave us to ponder the questions Langston asks in the poem “A Dream Deferred.”

MD: The recording was impromptu and totally you. Did it feel like a landmark? Was it ultimately liberating?

Rudy: Man, it was both a landmark and liberating. I finally had time to, in a more official place, explore ideas without any responsibility to others in the band. I was just there and open to do what I pleased. That is part of the reason I didn’t want any electronics or loops. I would become responsible in a way to those elements. Just time alone with drums and cymbals and organic sound was very liberating. It was a bit of a landmark for me because I could for the first time affirm that my concept, my conceptions and sound ideas, were actually legitimate. I didn’t have to doubt if what I was wanting to accomplish with expressing ideas and emotions was something real or imagined.

Jeff Potter