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Bright Moments With Andrew Cyrille

The master drummer remembers a selection of his most important recordings

Andrew Cyrille (photo: Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos)
Andrew Cyrille (photo: Jack Vartoogian/ FrontRowPhotos)
Andrew Cyrille records with Cecil Taylor at the Van Gelder Studio in 1966
Andrew Cyrille and Bill McHenry at the Village Vanguard, where their duo rapport developed
Cyrille with Richard Teitelbaum, Ben Street and Bill Frisell (from left), his new band of previous collaborators

It only takes a minute of conversation to realize that drummer-composer Andrew Cyrille thinks in a web of free associations as broad and imagistic as his eclectic network of collaborators might suggest.

At 76, the Brooklyn-born, Montclair-based avant-garde luminary recently released The Declaration of Musical Independence, his first album for ECM as a leader, and Proximity (Sunnyside), a duo session with tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, both albums continuing his legacy as a master of rhythmic call-and-response. On the former, Cyrille forms a new quartet of longtime associates: guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Ben Street and electronics pioneer Richard Teitelbaum. The album’s subtle textures and free-floating cymbal work distill a varied career spanning hundreds of dates, from postbop to free improvisation and all the way back to Coleman Hawkins. To Cyrille, it’s all in there.

Proximity emerged from a 2014 duo collaboration with McHenry at the Village Vanguard. It builds on a relatively uncommon orchestration explored most famously by John Coltrane and Rashied Ali on Interstellar Space, but Cyrille is a veteran, having already recorded a handful of duos with Jimmy Lyons, Greg Osby and others. The album’s taut 12 tracks clock in at under 40 minutes, with originals, compositions by Muhal Richard Abrams and Famoudou Don Moye and a jocular adaption of Lead Belly’s “Green Corn.” The final six-second track, which consists entirely of Cyrille saying “To be continued,” signifies not only the possibility of a volume two but also a metaphor for resisting finite conclusions-tradition as a form of ellipsis.

In advance of its release, Cyrille spent an afternoon thinking about some of his most influential recordings and a history of political engagement and omnivorous tastes. “Culture is the sum total of the living experiences passed down from one generation to another,” he told me. As an elder statesman of the avant-garde, Cyrille reflected on his musical inheritance and what he has passed on.

The two-and-a-half-hour conversation that yielded this article included some poignant asides that had to be left out, including memories of John Carter, whom Cyrille called “one of the greatest clarinet players I ever heard”; getting rides home in Sonny Rollins’ Karmann Ghia sports car from the Village Vanguard, where Rollins and Cecil Taylor shared a double-bill in the ’60s; and how Cyrille convinced Kenny Clarke to participate in Pieces of Time, a 1984 percussion-only album with Clarke, Famoudou Don Moye and Milford Graves. “There are so many chapters in the life of this music,” Cyrille explained. And he is a part of so many of them.


Coleman Hawkins
The Hawk Relaxes
(Prestige/Moodsville, 1961)
Hawkins, tenor saxophone; Kenny Burrell, guitar; Ronnell Bright, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Cyrille, drums

From Coleman Hawkins I learned to be relaxed and to have a certain amount of confidence in what I was doing. There was not very much conversation that went on between us; we’d just met each other at the recording studio. I was very grateful to be in the right place at the right time when the recording date was offered to me, and it turned out to be a classic for me. I must have been about 21 years old.

At certain periods in life, you’re the baby in the band. It’s almost like being a rookie, because I had never played with Coleman Hawkins before. I had only heard him on the radio, and there was some amount of anxiety, the fact that I was playing for this great man and all of these other illustrious musicians. Ronnell Bright at that time was working with Sarah Vaughan.

I was just hoping that I did everything well enough for them to play with me and not say I wasn’t making it. [If they’d said] they needed another drummer, I would have been crushed. I mean, that happens on occasion. You just have to learn to get up and keep on going, but fortunately that didn’t happen to me on that session.


Walt Dickerson
To My Queen
(Prestige/New Jazz, 1962)
Dickerson, vibraphone; Andrew Hill, piano; George Tucker, bass; Cyrille, drums

I met Walt because I used to hang out with Philly Joe Jones. Philly Joe comes from Philadelphia, as does Walt, and when Walt came to New York-he had been living in California-he asked Philly Joe about recommending a drummer, and he recommended me. So I met Walt over the telephone, and This Is Walt Dickerson became one of my first record dates.

On “To My Queen,” which was a suite that he dedicated to his wife, Liz, there was a crescendo that I played with mallets that would take us from one section to the next. To me, Walt was a genius who never got his due as far as the press was concerned, and due to not being heard live by many people.

He used very soft rubber-tipped mallets, so you could hear him as predominantly as necessary on recordings, but it was hard to hear him in an acoustic setting. A lot of the other vibes players, like Milt Jackson, Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo and Terry Gibbs, played with much harder mallet heads. Walt would also cut the stems so they weren’t full-length mallets. That was the sound he wanted to get, and it also helped him with speed; he was one of the fastest vibists I ever heard.


Cecil Taylor
Unit Structures
(Blue Note, 1966)
Taylor, piano, bells; Eddie Gale, trumpet; Jimmy Lyons, alto saxophone; Makanda Ken McIntyre, alto saxophone, oboe, bass clarinet; Henry Grimes, bass; Alan Silva, bass; Cyrille, drums

I met Cecil Taylor when I was 17 or 18 years old, studying up at the Hartnett [Conservatory]. We’d see each other on the street. Cecil had done some things already, because he’s older than I am by a decade, but we’d see each other in places. So I had met Cecil about eight years before Unit Structures came out.

During the 11-year association we had on a continual basis, maybe once or twice I’d say, “What do you want me to play here?” And he’d say, “Play 5 against 3,” or whatever. But it was never anything that he would listen to and say, “No, I don’t like that. Do this, do that. Do something else.” Across the board, he would just say, “Do what drummers do. You know what drummers do.”

He would give the other instrumentalists notes and things for them to play, but he would never give anything to me. So what I had to rely on was the information that I had accumulated over the years, from the time I had begun playing in the marching band in grade school, the bands that I had played with in high school and then in college. I had done all sorts of things, playing for parties, bar mitzvahs, polkas, learning it in Brooklyn where I grew up, playing with so many different musicians and playing in so many different social variations-Illinois Jacquet, Nellie Lutcher, Mary Lou Williams, Babatunde Olatunji from Nigeria.


So when Cecil presented the music, I just had to go into my laboratory, so to speak, or into my library, and say, “Oh, I think this will fit with this. I think that will fit with that.” And that’s how you hear what you hear on Unit Structures. I had a palette of colors, or rhythms, certain things that came from musics that I had been playing and that some of the things that Cecil was doing reminded me of. So I brought that to the table, and as far as he and all of the other musicians were concerned, it worked.

He would say he would “absorb” the music. Absorption means that the liquid goes through the membrane; adsorption means that the liquid remains outside the membrane. The absorption is what was interesting to him, so the music would move through him and then he would deal with it on that level. He would tell us-me and Jimmy Lyons-that it was our music. It wasn’t just his music; it was our music.

Marion Brown
Afternoon of a Georgia Faun

(ECM, 1970)
Brown, alto saxophone, zomari, percussion; Anthony Braxton, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet, contrabass clarinet, musette, flute, percussion; Bennie Maupin, tenor saxophone, alto flute, bass clarinet, acorn, bells, wood flute, percussion; Gayle Palmore, vocals, piano, percussion; Chick Corea, piano, bells, gong, percussion; Jack Gregg, bass, percussion; Cyrille, Larry Curtis, William Green, percussion; Billy Malone, African drums; Jeanne Lee, vocals, percussion


The first time I went to Canada was with Marion. Jeanne Lee was on that gig, and we played in Toronto. John Norris and Bill Smith from CODA magazine, which was [based] in Toronto, invited Marion, and Marion asked me if I wanted to go. When we got back, ECM asked Marion to do that recording when ECM was in its naissance, so we made the record Afternoon of a Georgia Faun.

At that time, a lot of the people that became big stars were young folks in our 20s-Bennie Maupin, Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton. A lot of us had never really played with each other before. Everybody had a responsibility for what they contributed, and we tried to blend so it didn’t come out like the tower of babel.

We went in there with the intention to communicate, understand, and to do what was necessary so the people we were playing with felt good. And that’s what we got. So in that way, it became a classic also.


Andrew Cyrille & Milford Graves
Dialogue of the Drums
(IPS, 1974)
Cyrille, Graves: percussion

In the early ’70s, Milford Graves, Rashied Ali and I appeared on a television show on NBC called Positively Black. But prior to that, I knew Milford when both of us were teenagers playing dances in Jamaica, Queens, with a trombone-player buddy of mine named John Gordon, whom I met at Juilliard in [the late ’50s].

The union rules were for musicians to play 40 minutes on and 20 off. But for the dancers, the people had to continue to be entertained, so we’d play 40 minutes, then another band would come on and play. The other band at that time had Milford Graves, who was playing timbales. Maybe we saw each other and waved. Later, I was doing a gig in Harlem with Sam Rivers, and Milford and Don Pullen played before or after us. I don’t think we said anything to each other; they had gone before we came offstage.

Milford was doing something different, and I was moving in the direction of playing arrhythmically, and we had some [shared] feelings about what the Africans had given to the music. Eventually I was at Antioch College with Cecil, and we were invited to do something at Columbia University. Cecil asked me whether I wanted to do a solo or whether I wanted to do something else, so of course I thought about Milford.


Andrew Cyrille & Maono
Metamusicians’ Stomp
(Black Saint, 1978)
Cyrille, drums, percussion, foot; Ted Daniel, trumpet, flugelhorn, wood flute, foot; David S. Ware, tenor saxophone, flute, foot; Nick DiGeronimo, bass, foot

Artists relate to things in nature, and sometimes it’s very hard to pinpoint things in a more physically tangible way. How do you play leaves blowing in the wind or on a tree? How do you transfer that to music? Anyway, the stomp was a kind of dance that was going on perhaps in the ’30s and ’40s. But literally, I also thought of the musicians stomping their feet on a metrical beat of the song.

I had heard David Ware with an orchestra that Cecil had put together for a George Wein-produced Newport concert at Carnegie Hall. David was a member of the reed section, and he impressed me. I asked him if he wanted to be a part of this group that I was putting together called Maono, and he said sure. So we got together and went on the road, did a tour in Europe.

Metamusicians’ Stomp came from that collaboration with him, Ted Daniel and Nick DiGeronimo, so that was another memorable occasion. They were dedicated and committed, and they brought what they had to the table.


Butch Morris
Dust to Dust
(New World, 1991)
Morris, conductor; J.A. Deane, trombone, electronics; Vickey Bodner, English horn; Marty Ehrlich, clarinet; John Purcell, oboe; Janet Grice, bassoon; Jason Hwang, violin; Jean-Paul Bourelly, guitar; Zeena Parkins, harp; Wayne Horvitz, keyboards, electronics; Myra Melford, piano; Brian Carrott, vibraphone; Cyrille, drums

A lot of the musicians on that recording I had not known before I played with them, like Zeena Parkins, who plays the harp, but I met Butch way before that recording. When I first met Butch, he was playing cornet. I had a gig somewhere, and I decided to do a duet, so I asked Butch. I have a cassette tape somewhere in this house of a duet with me and Butch Morris. There were a lot of musicians at the concert-David Murray, George Lewis, maybe Henry Threadgill. From that concert on, we were musical friends. So when he was putting an orchestra together and recording for New World Records, he asked me. By that time, though, Butch was not playing the cornet as much. When you talk about Butch’s “Conduction,” he had ways of demonstrating a kind of body language for certain things that he wanted with the music, certain expressions, like dynamics, or, for instance, sometimes he wanted emphases on a particular passage. For example, he may have wanted the harpist to play something or the oboist to play a contrapuntal line against the rest of the band. It was very expressive, and of course he would explain to us what certain things meant before we played the music.

It’s almost like when leaders express themselves through a certain instrument. Butch was like an instrumentalist conducting the band, but using his body as the instrument.


Trio 3 & Vijay Iyer
(Intakt, 2014)
Oliver Lake, alto saxophone; Iyer, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Cyrille, drums

The formation of Trio 3 goes back about 20 years. Reggie Workman had a group back then called Top Shelf, and he would get these opportunities to play at homeless shelters. We also played jails, because there are opportunities for musicians to do that kind of social work for people who are not able to go to clubs or concerts and are in fixed situations.

Eventually we did a recording for Reggie called Synthesis, with Marilyn Crispell, on Leo Records from England. It was Reggie, myself, Oliver Lake and Marilyn. After that, the three of us got together and did a gig or two. We decided to form a co-op group, and it was based on the premise that there would be no leader-the leader was the music.

As a matter of fact, we’re preparing to do another recording next week on Intakt, a Swiss label. It’s the label that Vijay Iyer was on with us. The next recording will be done without another instrumentalist-just the three of us. It’s not that we don’t put our own groups together or have our own organizations, but when we want to go home, we can go back to Trio 3.


Vijay is a brilliant musician. … He wanted to do what it was that we wanted, and he was very respectful of the age difference, and of the fact that I had been out here doing things before he came on the scene. He’d ask me questions about the scene at certain times, and certain people whom I had played with and he probably knew about through reading or listening. We did a few gigs in the city, and he was the featured piano player, and we will use him again when he is available. We [also] played his music, like the “Suite for Trayvon (and Thousands More),” and we worked on it diligently, assiduously.

Andrew Cyrille & Bill McHenry
(Sunnyside, 2016)
Cyrille, drums; McHenry, tenor saxophone

At the Vanguard, that was a week when some of the personnel [in McHenry’s quartet] had to do some other stuff, so we just did a duet one night, and the album’s producer, Max Koslow, wanted it to be documented. [Ed. note: The album was recorded subsequently for Koslow’s Brain Schism Productions.]


It’s the same as doing a duet with a piano player, a drummer or a trumpet player. Milford Graves did one with David Murray, Real Deal. I did two duo recordings with Jimmy Lyons in the ’80s, Something in Return and Burnt Offering, and then I did another one with Greg Osby, Low Blue Flame. I never recorded anything with Frank Wright, except some stuff I had done in the ’80s at Soundscape, Verna Gillis’ place. I did a duet with Henry Threadgill, and a concert with David Murray in Canada, also with trombonist Craig Harris.

It’s nothing unusual-Sonny Rollins with Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach and Archie Shepp. You just listen and you play the music with whoever your partner is.

Andrew Cyrille
The Declaration of Musical Independence
(ECM, 2016)
Cyrille, drums, percussion; Bill Frisell, guitar; Richard Teitelbaum, synthesizer, piano; Ben Street, bass


This is the first album with this quartet, but the textures that I proposed came from the fact I’ve played with all the participants. Frisell and I did a duet at the Stone and performed with Jakob Bro. I’ve done a lot of stuff with Ben Street with David Virelles and the Danish pianist-composer Søren Kjærgaard. Richard Teitelbaum and I go back the longest.

Richard does synthesized music, and I just find myself playing organic, acoustic drums with these electronic sounds. Richard and I came together through Leroy Jenkins, the violinist from Chicago. We did a record years ago for Tomato Records called Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival of America with George Lewis, and we did a recording called Double Clutch in the ’80s. After that, I used to see Richard in West Berlin before the wall came down, and he had gotten a grant to do some work there. Recently, we did one with Elliott Sharp at Roulette, and before that he and I did a duet at Symphony Space. We had also done some things with Braxton.

Anyway, all four of us came together and we did the recording in Brooklyn. I wanted everybody to contribute something with their own minds and pens, and that’s how we got the music.


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Originally Published