Jazz drummers play many roles. They adapt to material, styles, and instrumentations — not to mention volumes — that can vary widely. The best drummers bring their own personalities to the music even as they mirror the character of the material and the other musicians playing it. Consider drummer Rudy Royston, who leads his trio with saxophonist Jon Irabagon and bassist Thomson Kneeland at Gig Performance Space on Saturday, Dec. 10. Royston’s made his reputation with musicians whose work, even at its simplest, is known for extremes of style and expression. He’s a colleague of Dave Douglas, the one-of-a-kind trumpeter, composer, and Guggenheim Fellow known for diverse projects and jazz activism. Royston also has a long association with Bill Frisell, the strange and wonderful guitarist whose recordings have embraced everything from horse-and-buggy Americana to surf music — Royston is heard on Frisell’s recent collection of classic film music, When You Wish Upon a Star. Royston’s work with adventurous saxophonists, including Irabagon, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and JD Allen — often in trios without piano — is a marvel of shading and color masquerading as complex timekeeping. Royston’s 2012 SFé Jazz appearance with the aggressive Allen saw him speaking directly to Allen’s stream of consciousness, sometimes developing a sound that rumbled under it, often creating percussive harmonic effects even as he crisply set the tempo.
In a phone call from his home in New Jersey, Royston told Pasatiempo that working with different musicians is like speaking different languages. The words and phrasing might not be the same, but the meaning and the emotions they carry are. “What all these groups have in common is that sort of nonjudgmental searching for a way to have a conversation inside the music. We’re all concerned about playing the music not from a gimmicky perspective, but finding things we can explore, without pressure to stick to form. Playing with [Frisell] is always a total conversation, listening to each other, finding ways to communicate inside the vamp.”
Not surprisingly, Royston’s recently released second album as a leader is a trio album with Irabagon on saxophones. The two first worked together, with bassist Yasushi Nakamura, at Bar Next Door in New York’s Greenwich Village. “There was an immediate realization that we had a similar disposition to what we were playing,” Royston enthused. “Oh man, there was a connection and energy. We knew.” Irabagon has played with Royston in trumpeter Douglas’ quintet — on 2015’s Brazen Heart and its recent follow-up, Brazen Heart Live At Jazz Standard — and has included the drummer on his own recordings — Behind the Sky on Irabagon’s Irabbagast label. He agrees that musical communication is what brings together individualists of the sort they play with. “All of these great musicians, especially someone like Rudy, have listened and participated in so much music that they can react in a millisecond to whatever is going on around them,” Irabagon wrote in an email while touring in Austria with drummer Barry Altschul’s trio. “In some situations, that means the styles or genres can completely shift not only from song to song, but section to section. Rudy is incredible in that he has such a depth of knowledge as well as a confidence and an ease of moving in and out of different feels, making it easy to play with him, as well as a constant challenge to stay in the moment.”
Born in Fort Worth and raised in Denver, Royston grew up with certain musical advantages. “I was the youngest [of five children], and my brothers were always listening to all kinds of music. I never knew that there was a music I shouldn’t like. There were no good types or bad types. It was all just this one big thing.” Royston said the constant mix of jazz, hip-hop, and funk also included pop, soul, and rock from the 1960s, as well as country music. Another advantage that guided Royston’s path: His father was the head of shipping at a local manufacturer of percussion instruments and brought home an array of bongos, rhythm sticks, tambourines, and other things for the future drummer to beat on. Royston admits to supplementing his percussion kit with the family cups and plates.
A band teacher provided a major breakthrough, introducing him to Wynton Marsalis’ Marsalis Standard Time, Vol. I, explaining polyrhythms and other facets of the music to the young acolyte. As a high school sophomore, Royston attended the Telluride Jazz Festival’s student musicians program, studying with drummers Ed Soph and Duffy Jackson. “That was it for me,” he said. “That and being around other kids who were super serious about the music. It was a whole different world. It all came back to the whole realization about having the freedom in your own input in the tune. That was good — the notion I needed. Drums in.”
Particularly influential in the Denver area was internationally known trumpeter-educator Ron Miles, also a veteran of work with Frisell. “I first played with him in a room in the basement of a tavern in Boulder. It had this little out-of-tune piano, and I came in all excited and didn’t know what I was doing. I was just a kid. And he says, ‘Let’s just play. Let’s just play.’ I had no idea what to play. But as soon as we got going, it opened my ears. I have to listen around. It’s not as if there’s nothing to play. If you’re listening, there’s a bunch to play, saying stuff, steering tones and colors and themes in the grand scheme of a bigger picture. And when it’s time, leave it and do something else.”
Royston graduated from the University of Denver with a degree in poetry and music and later earned teaching credentials. He taught elementary school band for seven years and middle school for four, all the while playing gigs, checking out his mentors, and wondering if he could cut it full time as a musician. “Every year as a teacher, I was better. I thought, you’re getting good at this, but you also think you want to play. Go to New York for a while.” He moved in 2006, with his wife, the pianist Shamie (Fuller) Royston, and their young child. He spent some time — a period he describes as part “poverty and anxiety” — casting around for work, until enrolling in graduate studies at Rutgers University. There he studied with drummer Victor Lewis, a much-recorded veteran of work with Woody Shaw, Stan Getz, Carla Bley, and others. “You’ve got to wonder why Victor isn’t crowned the world’s greatest drummer,” Royston marveled. “It’s all about the music with him. It’s about finding a way to bring life and color to it while not abandoning the time and the feel.” Word of Royston’s abilities spread, and it wasn’t long before he was asked to substitute for Nasheet Waits in Douglas’ Brass Ecstasy project. His first gig with the band was at New York’s fabled Village Vanguard nightclub.
The association with Douglas has been fruitful. His Greenleaf Music label released Royston’s septet recording, 303 (the area code for Denver), in 2014. It showcased Royston’s work as a smart, surprising composer. “To me, composing is a necessary focus. It helps me not be a drummer. It’s sort of everything, come together. Writing a tune forces you to be in touch with the music, the melody, focusing on how the idea of the melody translates through the drums and the rest of the band.” Rise of Orion, released last month, is a stripped-down version of the Royston philosophy. Royston calls it “a good trio record, kind of meaty. There’s some burning stuff on it, some quieter, beautiful stuff, some pop kind of stuff. Who am I? I’m a guy who’s checking out everything.”
What’s next to check out? Royston’s currently preparing music for an ensemble that features accordion, cello, saxophone, and bass. “There’s not an emphasis on the drums at all,” he explained. ◀