Rudy Royston is a first-call drummer whose first two recordings as a leader (303 and Rise of Orion, also on Greenleaf) were strong examples of a leading-edge new-millennium jazz. His new album, Flatbed Buggy, is a complete surprise. It is an immersion in nostalgia, a celebration of his country roots.
Royston grew up in Denver but often visited his father in Texas. Some of his most enduring childhood memories are tied to the “dusty” backcountry. Flatbed Buggy translates those memories into bittersweet melodies and alluring country rhythms, and entrusts them to a chamber-jazz quintet of unusual instrumentation. The slightly nasal strains of Hank Roberts’ cello and the reedy sighs of Gary Versace’s accordion are central to this album’s down-home ambience, and also to its harmonic richness. The other players are John Ellis, mostly on bass clarinet, and Joe Martin on bass. The haunting ensemble sonorities are somehow both strange and familiar, as if they already exist, not only in Royston’s subconscious but in ours.
Every player is a compelling soloist. In the hands of artists like Versace and Roberts, an accordion can uniquely tug at the heart (“Girl…Woman”) and a cello can whip up a hoedown (“Soul Train”). But Flatbed Buggy is a project more orchestral than individual. Apparently many of the album’s intricate arrangements, with their shifting internal counterlines and voicings, are spontaneous. Most pieces are like “Hourglass”: Whoever’s out front, four others shadow with complementary or contrasting input. Royston, like most current jazz musicians, writes his own material. It would have been interesting to hear this band apply its special sonic language to a country song or two from the vast Americana canon.