The Internal Dialogue of Adam Cruz

The never-ending process

Ben Street, Danilo Perez and Adam Cruz
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Adam Cruz
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Though the second set isn’t scheduled to begin for another 25 minutes, a line already has formed outside the entrance of New York’s Village Vanguard, crowding the sidewalk, blocking the foot traffic on 7th Avenue South. Around five minutes to show time, Adam Cruz appears from around the corner, grinning, greeting each familiar face with wide-eyed effervescence and genuine elation. Anyone can tell he’s excited to play.

Inside, voices hush in anticipation. For 90 minutes, they continue to hush.

On the bandstand, behind a meticulously tuned kit, Cruz’s wide eyes narrow in heavy concentration. He moves from smoldering shuffle to burning bop tune in trancelike meditation. Listen. Assess. React. Listen. Assess. React. Unequivocally, he possesses an intuition for playing the moment. As time moves, and notes fly by, his instincts take control. More snare. Leave space. Less space. A master of his instrument, he works in constant service to the music, and the music continues to mystify him with every stroke of the brush.

Cruz maintains he wasn’t born with these instincts. On the contrary, he consciously has devoted his artistic development to the unending pursuit of understanding through experimentation and discovery, in music and in life.

“[It’s] a never-ending process,” he says.

“One of the most challenging things about [playing], and that goes along, maybe, with the nature of being a musician in today’s paradigm, even if you’re in a band that’s pretty steady and has been together for years, it’s not like you’re working with that band only for months at a time and doing nothing else; we’re always playing with different people. So, [you] might feel like [you] strike upon the right balance (the right proportion of forces in terms of how much [you’re] giving and taking in a certain context), and you start to realize the energy and chemistry with the people you’re playing with, and you’re like, ‘OK, this works when he does that,’ or, ‘It works when I go this way,’ at least tonight! Tomorrow night, it might not. You start to intuit these things. But the real challenge is then, the next week, you’re with a whole other set of people and everything you just learned may or may not apply and you’re completely starting from zero again. That’s what I find the most challenging these days, switching up between bands and trying to accelerate my system to know what’s needed, faster.”

Embracing the spontaneity of live performance, Cruz has unlocked a key component to help him “accelerate his system” when he barely has time to catch his breath.

“For me, it has a lot of do with cultivating sensitivity so that you can read the spirit of the intention of the composition, maybe, you know, ‘What is this, here?’ But you can also read the kind of energy and vibration between you and another player, ‘What’s needed?'”

Cruz keeps collaborative company with some of the most prolific and defining voices in modern music. He recalls the time he spent touring duo with Charlie Hunter: “He’s a ball to play with. [He] had a custom instrument designed; it’s an eight-string guitar, but it has three bass strings and five guitar strings, so he’s always playing bass and guitar-that’s what he does. It’s really astounding, the degree of independence that he has achieved between playing bass and soloing on guitar at the same time. And he has such a deep groove and an understanding of so much American music that I learned from him. He’s so deeply into James Jamerson and James Brown and Motown and a lot of different blues guitarists and artists he made me aware of. I learned a lot, and it was really great to get into the dimension of his way of playing.”

On recording with Danilo Perez: “Danilo’s very conceptual; he has a strong vision of what he’s looking for and he’s very experimental. He’ll ask the bass drums or the horn players, ‘Let’s try this, let’s try that. OK, what if you stop here. OK, I’m hearing something different, what if you do this?’ We’re constantly trying out things. I’d also say, Danilo is really like a drummer in certain ways, so a lot of the innovations and the things he’s trying have to do with creating new kinds of rhythms or things with overlapping meters [and so forth].”

On recording with Tom Harrell: “It was interesting and exhilarating working with Tom on that project last week. Tom doesn’t say anything about your playing, or what he wants you to do; you just play and, it is what it is. It’s totally on me to interpret [the compositions] how I hear [them] in the moment.

“Not listening to any playbacks, and him not giving any direction was a wonderful challenge in the sense that you really have to exercise a certain amount of faith and trust when you’re not listening back, and the bandleader’s not telling you, ‘Oh that was great,’ or, ‘Maybe a little more like this.’ We’re just all in this together, and we’ll see what it is in the end.”

On comping choices when playing without piano or guitar: “I feel a different kind of responsibility for orchestration when there’s no piano or guitar. Whereas, with piano or guitar, there’s a shared territory, and there’s a certain give and take with the soloist. When it’s just you and the soloist and the bass, I feel a different kind of responsibility to orchestrate the textures and to make those choices about space and density, so it’s just different. You feel like everything’s become more apparent. Because the drum kit has different components, my feet and my hands, highs and lows within the kit, sometimes I might find there’s a little more space for internal dialogue, like, ‘Oh, there’s this thing happening between my snare drum and bass drum, maybe I’ll cycle this idea a little bit.’ Which, also could happen when there’s another comper, of course, but you might be getting to those kinds of things in a little [bit of a] quicker way, or a more transparent way; it’s just so clear that that space is there to do that.”

On textural choices that relate to instrumentation: “I introduced some cymbals playing with Tom last week. Because we were playing without piano and without guitar, I felt like there was more sonic space for me to investigate or experiment with. So I had, actually it was the first time I ever used it, what they call a China cymbal that has a little bit of a different overtone or effect, and I thought it would be nice to use that cymbal with Tom. Or, a drummer could sometimes use rivets in the cymbals, and the rivets would make the cymbal sort of spread out and cover the space a little more. And it’s not just textual choices. I look at texture- a part of texture is the dynamics; so that’s kind of a big thing. I find myself questioning just how hard I’m going to hit the drums, depending on whom I’m [playing] with, because that just creates a whole other feeling. If I’m playing with the Mingus Big Band, there’s a certain way I attack the drums, versus when I’m playing with Tom Harrell or Danilo or Ed Simon. So in that sense, the context greatly influences where I’m going to go.”

On tuning: “For me, the tuning is the philosophy of finding a space where the drum resonates the most and feels like it’s in its most natural state. I’ll tune differently depending on the room. If you go to a big hall, or you’re in a little club, or just the acoustics of a room- if there’s a low ceiling, [that] will really influence the directions I’m going to pull the drums in.”

Playing with so many, starkly different musical personalities, both in the studio and on the bandstand, Adam Cruz has come to appreciate the importance of symbiotic trust between bandleader and combo player.

“One of the things I’ve learned, and I feel like it’s taken me too long to learn this, but I’ve finally learned, is not to get too fundamentalist about what’s being said to you. Oftentimes, I’ve realized, the band leaders- they themselves are not totally sure what they want; they just want to experiment and they want to be surprised by you. But they know [the composition] is not ‘there yet,’ somehow, so they have to say some words. But words are never really what the music is, and I’ve been in situations where you find yourself [misinterpreting], like, ‘Oh, okay, I’ll do this,’ but it’s not really what they’re asking. Maybe you got too literal about it. It’s important to be able to trust your own instincts-trust your own relationship to the material. Listen to them, but be able to put it in perspective [and] don’t get too literal about what’s being asked.”

While accurate interpretation (and subsequent execution) of suggestions plays a significant role in fostering that sacred trust, the relationship between bandleader and combo player doesn’t depend on effective communication alone. Adam asserts that part of that trust depends on each player’s willingness to work cooperatively, and elicit as much enjoyment in each other as possible.

“If somebody needs some particular thing in the drums, you don’t have to look at it like you’re doing it for them, only. You’re doing this thing so that they’ll play notes, and play ideas and phrases that are inspired and coming from the well source in them, and then you feel fulfilled. I tell this to a lot of students; you want to look to be able to make yourself happy when you’re playing. Usually some part of you knows what’s needed to find the ecstasy the music will give you. It could be a question of playing less or more, of leaving space so you can hear, or [taking] in what a soloist is doing or what the piano comping is doing. At another moment it could be, ‘Oh, this space here is for me to do something.’ It’s more your intuition, than it is answered intellectually, and it’s going for a spirit in the music that is something shared and collective and [it’s] a certain kind of joy of experience that you’re going for. So just kind of carrying that value, you might not always be feeling it completely [strongly], but carrying the value and the intention that that’s what you’re after. And if you’re honest and true, you’ll find your way there.”

When the discussion turns to exploring the idea of playing different styles of music as a means of enhancing a player’s musicianship, once again, Cruz narrows his eyes in contemplation. “Well, I don’t know,” he confesses.

“For me personally, you know, that’s how it’s just needed to be. Because of my background, it makes sense. But in general, I try to do as little categorization in music and style as possible, you know? It kind of, in essence, doesn’t really feel like that’s what it’s about. When we create boundaries, what comes next is we start thinking about things like, ‘Well this is better, and this is worse,’ or ‘This is a higher form and this is a lower form.’ If somebody feels their calling and their love and passion is playing some James Brown kind of stuff their whole life, you can get a world of fulfillment, [and] a satisfaction in all kinds of shades and colors and variations within that world. Someone [could be] attracted to music that’s more ambient, or more classical, or more spacious, you know- there are all these different kinds of ‘styles,’ but I also feel like there’s a notion that the one is in the many and the many is in the one. I feel kind of strongly about that. So you could take one so-called style and spend a lifetime with it, and what it could teach you would never end. But you could also study and be involved in what we call different ‘styles’ of music and you could constantly be finding connections between them, and that could be a way that you could find fulfillment. I guess, to me, what’s really important is to be able to discern in yourself what feels really true for you at that time in your life, at that moment, what’s really resonating, where your attraction really is strong, and just trying to live authentically to that. Try to find accord with where you’re vibrating- where your love is. I try to live that way.”

On the inherent limitations of terminology: “There’s language we use, and certain categories we might choose, perhaps with less consideration at times, and I’m totally generous about that, and understand because we’re just trying to find a way to communicate. But, at the same time, it’s good to get closer to a more precise language of what we mean. But that precision has to come from awareness of all the different ways of thinking about music, or different ways of just playing, and people’s interfacing with music in so many different ways; eventually, you’ll just start to naturally see that the terms you’re using are too limiting. So it’s just good to question it.”

On the challenge of maintaining authenticity of sound: “That’s a good question. That’s a question that’s bigger than music for me. There definitely has been a lot of struggle for me in terms of identity,” he admits.

“Having a mixed ethnic/racial heritage can sometimes be a confusing experience. I guess I feel like the path has been, for me, to try to transform my own perspective and attitude towards myself, from one that perhaps, when I was much younger, used to see my mixture as a sort of dilution or limitation, ‘I’m not really totally that, and I’m not really totally this, so who am I?’ Not really feeling the strength of what a more singular kind of identity might give [someone]. But, I’ve been trying to change that to a perspective that’s more celebratory: I am this and I am that; I have the background of my dad’s strong relationship to Latin music and Afro-Cuban understanding of clave, but I also have the things that come from my mother’s heritage. [I try] to see them as all strengths, rather than seeing them as, ‘oh, I don’t know what to make of it all.’ But that’s a process for me, I guess, and I’m still learning about that.”

On playing music that’s less accessible to the average listener: “There’s music that’s presented, very much, in a way that [makes] you want to tap your foot; [it’s] very clear and audience friendly, in a certain way, right? But, you know, I’m thinking a lot about this kind of stuff these days, and I’m still processing it, sort of. There is a way that the role of the drums in contemporary jazz is changing, and not just the drums, but the drums in particular. And I think your question is implying how there’s less of a traditional role and more like what you could call orchestrated. So [there’s] the idea that the drums are not, these days as much, are not going to [play] the role of timekeeper. And that may be where you’re challenging your audience a little more, and maybe trying to cultivate more trust, like, ‘There’s time here, but you have to come in a little bit and find it.'”

Clarifying his understanding of accessibility, a subjective concept whose definition often eludes even veteran players, Adam offers an unusually direct way of explaining the idea of audience perception, as well as communication within the combo. “I guess a very streetwise, obvious way of saying it would be to say, ‘I can’t feel the beat!’ And it could be a swing beat; it could be a 1950s Blue Note record beat or it could be a Michael Jackson beat, but there’s a beat that’s explicit and clear. And I guess a lot of music that we call jazz today is not maybe demanding that, or constructing that. I guess you originally were saying, in my playing you hear me sometimes playing ‘the beat’ and sometimes getting away from it, right? [Laughs audibly] I know it sounds silly, but it’s a little more literal of what we’re talking about! [Laughs] I mean, I just thought of it myself, now. So anyway, that’s a fun choice to be having and a fun decision to be in the process of making, just knowing that you’re liberated to not necessarily have to ‘play the beat.’ It took me awhile to trust that it’s going to be OK, that it’s going to be accepted, that no one’s going to say, ‘Hey! Play that beat again!’ Haha. And you have to trust the other guys to be strong enough not to need that [beat], so it’s a practical thing, I realized, too, as we’ve talked. A lot of that decision making has to do with this second point about the other [players]. And that’s not so conscious, but it’s great to make it conscious now. [You’re] making that decision, oftentimes, based on need and service [and] that your role as a drummer is knowing maybe this person could use the feel, or a little more clarity, or explicitness in where beat is. And then you could also be playing with someone who feels like, well actually, now it feels like I’m giving too much explicitness; the beat is getting in their way, you know what I mean? [Laughs] ‘We don’t need this here, why are we doing it?’ And so, in great part, that’s being determined by what feels needed for that context.”

For many players, the notion of “the tradition” remains an intensely personal concept, and hotly debated topic, eliciting every possible response from contemplation to reverence to rebellion to dismissive indignation. Adam’s concept of the tradition, like so many of his musical perspectives, reverberates with enduring understanding, appreciation and inclusion.

“I try to see it all as part of the tradition,” he says.

“Especially today, you know, we’ve been through so much with music, and it’s all part of the tradition. The idea is to find those things [within] the tradition that resonate with you, that have meaning for you and to keep them alive, through being in the moment.”

He clarifies, “I guess the way I like to see tradition is something broader. There’s a certain kind of ancient feeling- or practices in this music. There’s such a strong root in Africa, so, to me, in a broader sense, [within the tradition] there’s Brazilian music, there’s Afro-Cuban music and clave, there’s New Orleans second line, there’s what happened in the big bands and swing, and then there’s Parliament-Funkadelic, too. Those are all part of a tradition by being part of a certain kind of feeling and the way we put together rhythm- rhythm and harmony. And the feeling of elation from a dance beat, a swinging dance beat- the feeling of elation you get from clave, and the kind of beautiful proportion that the different percussion parts swing and all of this- and the rhythmic feeling that comes from all those things is part of our tradition. I tend to think that there are certain eternals in music, like some kind of principles, certain kinds of rhythmic formulas that feel good, and they’ve always felt good. Like when you put 2 against 3 [plays on his chest] just something about doing that opens up some mystery, you know? For me, anyway- so I’m just trying to explore and understand and study those principles in music- in harmony, too.

“Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of music out there today that doesn’t honor that, particularly the rhythmic feeling of the music, which can be maintained even if you’re not ‘playing a beat.’ And I guess that’s what I always want to make sure I’m trying to honor. I don’t have to think about it too much because it’s part of my life, I’m always thinking about that; it’s what I love about music.”

Stunned silent, after a moment the Vanguard audience erupts in applause and cheering as Adam Cruz closes the second set with a bold sweep of his China cymbal. That signature smile returns to his face as he rises in reverence and appreciation. After the hellos and good byes and the hearty handshakes, he slings his cymbal bag across his back and heads downtown to another club, pursuing the divine possibility of even further exploration and discovery.