Childhood memories come with their own music.
Beginning around the age of two or three, drummer-composer Rudy Royston traveled from his home in Denver to Fort Worth, where his father lived. His father’s family had a plot of land far outside the city, and they would spend much of their time there, staying in the property’s little house. “It was just a shack, really,” said Royston, adding that a highlight of that time were rides in the neighbor’s creaky, mule-drawn wagon. “I could never sleep in that house because it had a million crickets singing all night.”
Dusty roads, tent revivals, crickets, and other impressions from his rural Texas childhood go into Royston’s recent album, Flatbed Buggy — his third. The dozen tunes, all composed by Royston, are performed by cello, bass, bass clarinet, accordion, and drums. The group takes its name from the album title (the cover photo, of course, is of a rickety flatbed buggy). Flatbed Buggy appears Thursday, April 4, at Gig Performance Space and Friday, April 5, at the Outpost in Albuquerque.
Royston was a major figure on the Denver jazz scene for a time, playing funk and gospel as well as appearing with internationally recognized musicians, including pianist Art Lande and the trumpeter Ron Miles. A 2006 move to the East Coast, where he studied jazz percussion with esteemed drummer Victor Lewis at Rutgers, brought him to the attention and the bands of some of New York’s most important musicians, including clarinetist Don Byron, trumpeter Tom Harrell, and the saxophonists J.D. Allen, Javon Jackson, and Ravi Coltrane. Most jazz fans know him for his associations with celebrated guitarist Bill Frisell and trumpeter Dave Douglas. His stock as a composer and bandleader has taken off with his two recordings for Douglas’ Greenleaf Music label, 2013’s 303 (the Denver area code) and 2016’s Rise of Orion.
Royston said the inspiration for doing an entire project based on those summers came as he was working a date with Flatbed Buggy’s cellist, Hank Roberts. “Hank and I were doing a gig together around the time I was writing ‘The Roadside Flowers’ [heard on Flatbed Buggy] and I wanted that feeling that the cello gives, that earthy sound,” Royston said in a phone call from his home in New Jersey. “And I thought, why not do something original, something that’s not from a typical jazz band, to get that country feel? At one point, I even thought adding pedal steel guitar would be cool.” The bass clarinet of John Ellis, an instrument not readily associated with country music, fits into the earthy philosophy. “It’s woodsy. It’s forestry, the sound of the forest.” The accordion, played by Gary Versace, is critical to the group’s aura, adding harmonious accompaniment and surprisingly snappy percussive effects.
“It’s the feeling,” Royston said. “It supplied the sonority I was looking for.” Powering it all are Royston’s various rhythms, which range from the insistent clip-clop of a trotting horse to an infectious funk. The drummer details his timekeeping with constant effects from rims and cymbals, and accents that come from his toms and bass drum.
The inspiration for “The Roadside Flowers” (“They were really just shrubs along the side of the road,” confessed Royston, “but beautiful”) came from those mule-drawn buggy trips in Texas. “This guy we knew would give us rides to his pig farm down the road, through the forests, past the little wildflowers and the shrubbery.” One tune, “boy ... MAN,” reflects seriously on the passage of growing up. “It was meant to have that bluesy Texas feeling, and Hank’s melody kind of developed out of that and it went from there.”
Dividing the longer pieces on the recording are three shorter pieces, each just over 30 seconds long, that add a sort of imaginative visual quality to the album. “Bed Bobbin’” recalls what it was like to bounce around in the bed of the buggy, while “Dirty Stetson” is a rollicking portrayal of the hat worn by the buggy driver. “Hold My Mule” suggests the futility of bringing a stubborn animal to a stop. “All three are based on the same riff, just played a different way and with somebody different taking the lead. They’re vignettes, things that came into play while I was brainstorming about my life in Texas at the time. I think of them as portals, the black holes that suck you through time and on to the next thing.”
For all the music’s detail, ambition, and interplay, it’s surprisingly accessible. “That’s because of the melodies,” Royston said. “For me, that trumps everything. I’m a drummer. All those metric modulations that I do, that’s cool. It’s cool to have harmonic things going on with the cello, bass, and accordion. But it’s something I learned working with Ron [Miles]. No matter how complex his music was, you could actually sing it. The melody is what attracts you to a song. For me, it’s the thing that makes me have that mini-swoon moment. It’s a treasure.”
A long association with Bill Frisell, a guitarist who has frequently employed horse-and-buggy rhythms and country inspirations in his music, provided a model for the approach Royston favors. “Bill wants a constant conversation going on in the band. That’s why everyone [on Flatbed Buggy] is always playing, always contributing little themes and directions. I got that from Bill. I’m proud of the music I wrote, but [the musicians] are the ones who made it, who created it from their personalities. I lucked out putting these guys together.”
He suggested that the music, taken together, is like one long story. “There’s a beginning and an end, but everything in between is about the journey. I wanted the music to feel like it’s always moving, but wanted it to be like life — joyful, profound and a bit whimsical.” ◀
▼ Rudy Royston’s Flatbed Buggy with John Ellis, Hank Roberts, Gary Versace, and Joe Martin
7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 4
Gig Performance Space, 1808 Second St.
$22, 505-886-1251, gigsantafe.com
▼ 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 5
Outpost Performance Space, 210 Yale Blvd. SE, Albuquerque
$20-$25, 505-268-0044, outpostspace.org