DUO PALINDROM 2002. INTAKT CD 088 / 2004



Interview with Andrew Cyrille by Ted Panken

Andrew Cyrille. Photo by Dominik Huber


Ted Panken: Let's discuss the dynamics of your pieces on the two albums. You recorded "The Loop" on a solo album in the '70s.

Andrew Cyrille: The first time I played "The Loop" in public was in duet with Butch Morris many years ago, when he and David Murray first came to New York. The loop, to me, is like a figure-8 laying on its side, like the infinity sign. You go back and you go forth, back and forth. It goes, DINK-duht-duht-DANK, DINK-duht-duht-DANK. Then on top of that, I improvise a rhythm with the drumsticks on the drumset, stating the basic rhythm on the hi-hat and bass drum, with that feeling of looping. I explained that to Anthony, and asked him to improvise something within this concept.

I recorded "Water, Water, Water" with Mor Thiam on "Ode To The Living Tree." The concept came from the feeling of being on Gorie Island, which was a slave point of embarkation in Senegal. I thought of those people moving through the door of no-return, getting on those ships, and being in those places of confinement. I thought about being in one of those slave holds, and the buoyancy of the ship moving up and down on the water. The code is a 6/8 Ghanaian beat, and I supported it with independent rhythms with the sock cymbal in the left and the bass drum.

Ted Panken: "The Navigator" is from a quartet you did with Sonelius Smith for Soul Note.

Andrew Cyrille: I wanted a rhythm that projected some kind of march, and that was a section from the beginning of "The Navigator." It's very interesting about me and water. I'm not sure what it all means. I'm a water sign, as they say, but I don't necessarily believe in that kind of stuff.

"Dr. Licks" is a brand-new piece, a sketch that comes out of notes I wrote to some drum licks. Anthony brought some information to it, and played it very well. We had to practice it a few times, because the way I wrote it was relatively difficult. I'd have to use my brain to play the music again, even though it's my tune.

Ted Panken: What's your performing history with Anthony Braxton?

Andrew Cyrille: We did a recording in 1988 on Tristano music [Hat Hut] with Jon Raskin, bassist Cecil McBee, and pianist Dred Scott. But I first met Braxton in Paris when I went there with Cecil Taylor in 1969. Maybe it was during that BYG Festival business, when all the musicians were in Paris, and I recorded with Grachan Moncur and Jimmy Lyons, and did the solo album "What About." I met Braxton in the street, he introduced himself, and we started to get to know each other. I'd been hanging out with Philly Joe Jones, who told me, "Yeah, man, I knew Braxton could play. You know how I knew? I watched the way his fingers moved." And we laughed. But I looked up to Joe, and his endorsement made me consider Anthony.

As the years went by, I checked out Braxton occasionally. I remember once someone put out the word that he'd said something derogatory about drummers, and I went up to him at the old Five Spot and asked him about it. He said, "Me? No, man. I play with drummers all the time. Drummers are some of my favorite people." You know how he talks. Later on, I heard his duet recording with Max Roach. On a number of occasions, he told me that I was one of his favorite drummers and that one day he'd like to do a duet with me and also with Roy Haynes. I don't know if he ever did one with Roy, but here I am, number two.

Ted Panken: What was your early sense of the dynamics of his music? How would you describe his musical personality?

Andrew Cyrille: A lot of times what defines great musicians isn't necessarily the melodies, or even the harmonies they play, but the rhythm. And the way Anthony assigned rhythm seemed a little different pointillistic, you might call it. In other words, BEEP bop, BOOP. Buh-bu-bup. Buh-bup. But when we played Lennie Tristano's music, which were more or less straight-up-and-down bebop lines like "Lennie's Pennies," based on "Pennies From Heaven," then he came into another light. His playing wasn't pointillistic and staccato, but legato.

Ted Panken: Meaning he adopted various approaches depending on the context.

Andrew Cyrille: Exactly. Which is the sign of a great musician, somebody who is flexible and has studied and learned the language.

Ted Panken: In a broader sense, what was your impression when you encountered the AACM guys 35 years ago? Perhaps more than any other New York musician of your period, you embraced the aesthetic that they were articulating when they moved east. Between 1964 and 1975, Cecil Taylor was into pretty much a take no prisoners attitude a very different aesthetic.

Andrew Cyrille: Cecil is one of the great people in my musical life, and he let me know that I could do anything with anybody, any time I wanted to. I've never stopped learning. I love to explore different ideas with people and see what I can do with those ideas on the drums. Muhal Richard Abrams asked me to participate in his concerts. I took Henry Threadgill and Fred Hopkins to Europe after Steve McCall quit Air. I worked with Wadada Leo Smith, and with George Lewis and Leroy Jenkins and Richard Teitelbaum, who all were in touch with each other.

Earlier, I'd met Chicago musicians like Julian Priester and also John Gilmore, whom I'd worked with in Olatunji's band. On a couple of occasions way back when I played with Sun Ra and the Arkestra. As a matter of fact, Sun Ra used to come to my house when I was living in Brooklyn; he and [vibraphonist] Walt Dickerson would show up early in the morning. I did some gigs in Brooklyn with Clifford Jordan, and with Charles Davis, who lived around the corner from me. So when the second wave came in, hey, I had feet in the bebop and in the avant-garde camps. But I also knew that to do something different from other drummers, it had to be conceptually acceptable to a lot of those AACM people or to someone like John Carter. I had to bring this stuff to life. A lot of that music is written. But the page isn't playing the music, it's the person.

Ted Panken: Are there different challenges for you in dealing with, let's say, the less pulse oriented forms of drum music? Did you have to develop new techniques or a different vocabulary?

Andrew Cyrille: That's an interesting question. Most of the time, I think about myself as using pieces of the language that I have learned from seeing and hearing the traditional greats, like Jo Jones, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones and Baby Dodds or Frankie Dunlop and Rufus Jones in the big bands. Buddy Rich, to some degree, who was a speed merchant.

Ted Panken: That came in handy with Cecil!

Andrew Cyrille: Well, that's right! When I was working with Illinois Jacquet, he had Jo Jones in his head, and I had to give him some of it. On "Robbins Nest" and "Flying Home," certain things would happen that brought forth certain climaxes things that you might say were scientifically proven! They reached certain peaks, made certain descents, and returned to those peaks. You had to know what to do. Of course, I was young and didn't know a lot about Jo Jones, and sometimes I got frustrated because I couldn't give Jacquet everything he wanted all the time. Then, again, I don't necessarily think that I had to, because I was trying to find my own place and do my own stuff, which maybe he didn't like. He was stronger than I was. He was the bandleader, and I was finding my way. But still, he hired me.

Anyway, I can use all the stuff I've learned in the things I do today, even playing in 2/2 way back with Nellie Lutcher. So for instance, if I'm doing a duet with Braxton or Greg Osby, I might think of playing with a two-feeling for a part, or maybe even the whole, and maybe stretch the meter. Then it's up to THEM to deal with what I'm putting down. So it isn't that I don't use my techniques or vocabulary. But I might use them differently.

Ted Panken: Do you approach the interactive aspect of playing drums differently in different configurations?

Andrew Cyrille: It depends upon the music. The composer dictates my information on what to do. If David Murray's Big Band is playing Billy Strayhorn's "Passion Flower" and Carmen Bradford is singing, I've got to play in a way that allows them to deliver something in the Ellington mode. I do that with everything, regardless of the concept.

Ted Panken: A lot of pianists say they think of the piano as an orchestra. Do you think of the drumkit as an orchestra?

Andrew Cyrille: You could very well say that. The set has so many different parts, and you can get so many combinations out of the different pieces of sound you can find within those parts, and generate the sounds in a way that isn't what some people might consider noise. I guess it has to do with the drummer's attitude, too. If you think it's noise, then perhaps you won't make any music. But if you think it's music, then it's a different story.

Another thing you've got to remember is that the "jazz drummer" and the Rock and Fusion people, too comes out of a metrical sense of time, and the rhythms the Africans play are a lot of the basis of the feeling that jazz musicians play off of, like the shuffle beat. For example, many jazz pieces still are written off the rhythmic motif called the quarter-note, and I'd say that damn near 85 % of all the music written in jazz is based on the dotted eighth and sixteenth beat.

Ted Panken: So 30 years ago, when you're making "Akisakila" with Cecil Taylor, your patterns and responses are constructed off these very elemental building blocks from African music.

Andrew Cyrille: Precisely. And from those building blocks you can thrust a certain kind of feeling or many kinds of feelings. When I worked with Mary Lou Williams, I said to her, "Gee, Mary Lou, I'd like to play the ride beat differently and still play the music." She said, "Well, if you did that, a lot of people wouldn't hire you." So if I'm playing BANG-DING-A-BANG, DING-A-BANG with Jacquet, and then I say, BANG-DING-A-DANG, and let a couple of beats go and no space, or say, BANG-DING-A-BANG, BANG, DING-A-BANG, DINGABANG-DINGABANG, DANG-DANG, DINGABANG, DANG-DANG, DINGABANG, he'll say, "What the fuck are you doing, man?! Swing!"

All I'm saying is that certain things will elicit certain responses. Musicians deal with emotions; you can make people feel certain ways by the notes and scales you play. It's the same with the drums. If I want you to march, I'll play a march. If I want you to waltz, I'll play something in 3/4. Then I can augment or contract. I can play rhythm just like we're having a conversation. I'm not talking to you in 4/4 meter, one-two-three-four, here-I-go-Ted, you-can-hear-me-talking...

Ted Panken: It's not iambic pentameter.

Andrew Cyrille: Right. So sometimes when I'm playing music, I think in the same way as when I speak to you. But I'm still using the words I've learned. Maybe I can go in the dictionary, find out the meaning of another word and bring it into my vocabulary. But it just further clarifies what I'm trying to say.

Ted Panken: When we did the Blindfold Test for Downbeat a few years ago, I presented you a Braxton-Max Roach piece. You said, "Most of Max's rhythms are very clear. They're distinct and anchored. How he thinks of some of those original rhythms, and executes them with such clarity and weight, using motives and theme-and-variation construction, is amazing." It seems that in this recital, more or less, you play from that perspective. After Max and Braxton, I presented you a Cecil Taylor-Tony Oxley duo. You said: "The drummer sounded as though he was matching Cecil's panorama of sound colors and textures and dynamics, rather than playing his own contrasting rhythm, as, say, a Max Roach would. So there wasn't very much push-and-pull, the polarity that sometimes generates electricity, which brings forth another kind of magic and generates another kind of feeling. I think usually in improvisation, a lot of the invention comes from people playing their own rhythms and motifs in keeping with whatever their concept of the music is." You described two different aesthetics in discussing these separate duets, and it seems very much that you're in the former camp.

Andrew Cyrille: Yes, I would say so. To me, very often Tony plays these glisses of rhythms. Which is cool. But sometimes, too, you could take pieces of those glisses and make certain rhythms from them. I can't say that's all Tony does. But my general impression is that this is how he plays at least with Cecil. Maybe when he was working with Bill Evans years ago

Ted Panken: Well, when it was time to play time, he played time, and when it was time to play with Cecil...

Andrew Cyrille: But time can also be pointillistic. And he doesn't do that. He plays glissando time. People use these terms, and I come up with them sometimes, too. It's difficult to explain sound and feeling in words. All of us are human beings, and we have to try to relate whatever we do to our bodies on this planet! So we can't get too far out, but sometimes we can make analogies as to what we think and feel, from whence these ideas come. So you come up with stuff like "liquid time." Liquid time to me would be like water, where you get motion, but not separation. Think about a river or the ocean. Don't you see motion? Don't you see rhythm? But is it divided?

Ted Panken: You can extrapolate Max Roach's theme-and-variation-on-a-design approach to rhythm and Tony Oxley's glissandos, or washes of color, as representating Afro-diasporic and Modernist European approaches to improvising. But these streams have converged during the last thirty years in great part because of the willingness of the AACM musicians to embrace the forms and structures of Euro-Modernism, and evolution of Europe's own free jazz community. Do you have any reflections on how these developments might be manifested in this performance by you and Anthony Braxton?

Andrew Cyrille: As an African-American, I'm very much European, too, because this is what we learned, this is our culture this is another piece of who we are. For example, David Murray participated in the last thing I did with Irène Schweizer. How in the world can Irène Schweizer, me and someone like David Murray get together and play on a stage if we don't inherit certain things from each other's culture? Does it have to be so cut-and-dried? You say Europe, you say Africa, you say America. Well, yeah, you'd have the polarity when musicians from Africa and from Europe did not play together. But as we have evolved...

Ted Panken: But Stockhausen didn't think about using the sound of Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane; Pierre Boulez didn't use Hank Jones or Oscar Peterson to improvise within a piece. Those are very different attitudes towards what music is. But that convergence is embodied within the AACM or Cecil Taylor. It is a kind of paradigm shift.

Andrew Cyrille: But you see, all these things are works in progress. How do I know that Boulez won't call me up and say, "Come on, Andrew, play some drums" for one or another thing? It's an evolutionary process. Some people want to see what will happen when they put, say, acid and a base together. Sometimes nothing will happen, sometimes you get an explosion, sometimes you get a fantastic hybrid or mutation. People say, "Yeah, we should have thought about that all the time," but sometimes it's just an accidental combination. I can get together with people who come from another cultural base than I do, and at this point of the evolution of civilization and the planet, I'm influencing them and they're influencing me.

Ted Panken: So as the world gets smaller, these kinds of interactions become more common and less exotic.

Andrew Cyrille: That's right. It's less exotic than before. Maybe if I went to play with some Amazonian Indians, some different stuff would come out.

Ted Panken: Peter Kowald was interested in taking folk musicians out of their local contexts, and creating a broad dialogue from their discrete vocabularies.

Andrew Cyrille: There's only one human race, for the simple reason that we all can have offspring with anybody on the planet. So conceptually, the same thing could be possible in terms of culture! Braxton and the guys from Chicago dealt with some European forms into which they filtered some Africanisms, so to speak: That's what jazz has always been anyway. From the spirituals through the gospels... Well, maybe the gospels were a little different. But take those harmonies by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They're singing some of those European hymns about Jesus and God. Each generation has experienced this reprocessing according to the dynamics of the time in which they live. Some times are better than others.

Ted Panken: We've spoken a lot about concept, but not much about feeling. And obviously, the way you play in an improvisation pertains directly to the way you feel. You'll feel one way with Cecil Taylor and another way with Oliver Lake and Reggie Workman. You'll feel another way with Mark Dresser and Marty Ehrlich, another way with John Carter, another way with Muhal or Irène Schweizer, another way with Richard Teitelbaum, another way with Vladimir Tarasov, and another way with David Murray. How does it feel to play with Braxton?

Andrew Cyrille: It feels good! I can't say it feels bad!

Ted Panken: But let's address the distinctions that make the difference, even though they all made you feel good.

Andrew Cyrille: I always have to look at the way I get to how I feel. Then I have to understand what we mean when we're talking about feelings. Feelings usually come from some experience. You feel good or you feel bad. When you hear a sound, your brain says, "Gee, this is going through my body," because sound travels through the skin and it's a physical feeling.

In a musical sense, I have to find out what's on the page. Let's put it this way. Braxton gives me a score, and he's playing one line, I'm playing the other line, and then we come to a part that contains what you might call a sketch, where he puts these lines and figures, and he says, "Play whatever you think or feel about this." Let's say the symbols on the page are venetian blinds. I'm thinking, "Well, what do I feel about venetian blinds, and how can I interpret venetian blinds on the drumset?" I can go from left-to-right and right-to-left, left-to-right to right-to-left, left-to-right to right-to-left, and I can do that, say, from snare drum to tom-tom, from snare drum to tom-tom, back-and-forth and back-and-forth and back-and-forth. And just from that motion, a motion like a windshield wiper blade, I'll be able to get a sound. I'll get some kind of rhythm. Now, how does that make me feel? Does it make me feel good? Yeah, it could, if I'm doing it and I'm not flubbing, and the flow is very clear to me. You gave me another idea in terms of a rhythm: OOM-BOOM, OOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM; I could do it slower or I could do it faster looking at the Venetian blinds. What Anthony does in relationship to what I do also makes me feel a certain way. When he's playing, I might think, "Where is he going with this? How can I play this to make him move into another area or feel he wants to create something with what I've given him before we move on." That happens on the record. Sometimes he'll imitate me, play back verbatim the rhythms I played. It's interesting and it's cute, and it makes me laugh. So in that light, it makes me feel good. Look, it's like asking somebody if the cup is half-empty or half-filled, and I don't want to start talking about what I don't like, because it ain't about that. All I can say about how it felt to do the thing with Anthony in relationship to John Carter is that it has to do with what they cooked up for me to eat and taste and digest. Both relate to each other, even though they may be on opposite sides of the pendulum. What else can I say than that I feel good?! I thought it was a grand recording. Some magical things happen. Some things that come out of the tradition, where you have theme-and-variation, but I feel that other things weren't quoted or stated in past presentations. It's a great project and I think it will stand the test of time.

Conducted and edited by Ted Panken, New York 2003. © Intakt Records