AMN Interviews: Andrew Drury

AD_smile_caro_bioAndrew Drury works primarily in avant-jazz and free improvisation, with regular forays into other genres and media. He performs as a soloist, collaborates with adventurous musicians from around the world, and leads several groups that play his compositions. In addition to groups that he leads and frequent encounters with improvisers from various parts of the world he plays regularly with Jason Kao Hwang, Jessica Lurie, Reuben Radding, the Rat Race Choir, the Steve Swell Trio, TOTEM>, Nate Wooley, Jack Wright, and others.

On Jan 7, 8pm, Andrew Drury’s CONTENT PROVIDER, featuring Briggan Krauss, Ingrid Laubrock, Brandon Seabrook will have its debut performance at INTAR Theatre, 500 W 52nd St, 4th fl, New York.

Recently, Andrew took some time to answer a few questions.

Referring to you as a “drummer” is a bit of an understatement. What drives your interest in various types of percussion?

I’m truthfully very honored to be called a drummer. To be part of a continuum that has been refined to an incredible extent by people all over the world since the earliest days of homo sapiens (and maybe earlier) is one of my greatest aspirations. Drumming that affects humans on a deep, deep level and obviously there have been a lot of people doing a lot of amazing work throughout time to get it to this level. It continues to blow my mind when I hear some eighth graders rocking out on plastic buckets at a school, when I walk into a bodega in my neighborhood in Brooklyn and hear some SLAMMING merengue on a boom box, or when I listen to Jim Black, Pheeroan AkLaff, Warren Smith, Le Quan Ninh, Tatsuya Nakatani… I’m trying to be part of that.

My main thing is drum set–the other interests stem from that. Drumming keeps me sane, balanced, and happy. But over the years drumming and some curiosity about music has led me up other paths. Now I often perform using wind, bowing, and friction techniques on a single floor tom. I’ve been playing “junk” and homemade percussion instruments since the early ‘80s—that came from my interest in latin percussion and later from looking around at all the junk material that was available in abandoned lots and marginal spaces in the late ‘80s in places like Bridgeport, Connecticut. And also from being turned on at a deep level by the AACM musicians and the idea that all kinds of things make sound that can be used in music. I also make recorded sound collages for choreographers using samples and field recordings—this extends my interest in found sounds and lets me put music with dance which I love. More privately I do listening things with journal writing along the lines of some of Pauline Oliveros’ work.

Quite a bit of your recent work ends up at the extreme end of free-improv. How did you become focused on these styles?

By 7th grade I knew I wanted to drum for my career if I could. As a child I was probably exposed to a lot less music than most of my current peers. It was not a musical house initially, but in fifth grade my grandmother gave me a radio for Christmas and that gave me some cultural autonomy as well as access to pop music for the first time. In 6th grade I started drumming in the school band. Along with all the mid 70’s Top 40 music I especially liked Led Zeppelin and Earth Wind and Fire. I was also affected by the high school jazz band scene where Buddy Rich was the top dog.

Several events opened up my awareness to less conventional worlds of music (and I should say I’m a bigger fan of Zeppelin and Earth Wind and Fire than I was then). I started taking drum lessons around 8th/9th grade with an amazing drummer/teacher, Dave Coleman Sr., who was always turning me on to interesting things. He had this magic basement full of drum sets, reel to reel tapes, records, his photos and paintings of drummers. It was an intense laboratory for drum research.

One day he suggested I attend a concert at Cornish College to hear his son (Dave Jr.) play with Julian Priester and Gary Peacock—both of whom happened to teach there. I could write a long piece just about being 14 or 15, taking the ferry into Seattle and trying to find Cornish, being nervous and a little lost, arriving about 2 hours early and sitting in the empty theater listening to them rehearse… I think about that now and realize that was some deep, powerful stuff I was getting into. Anyway, during the concert Julian—who was in a kind of post-Mwandishi mode, playing a lot of sound oriented stuff over funky rhythm section ostinatos and using foot pedals—would play and play and I remember thinking “I didn’t know music could sound like that.”

It just struck me that way. I was pretty naïve about music and I didn’t know music could sound like that. That this was allowed. I sensed that anything could happen, that ultimately there are no absolutes, that everything important resides in the imagination and abilities of the musicians.

Actually I had little idea of what they were doing and I didn’t necessarily “like” quite a bit of what it sounded like. But there were enough elements that I dug a lot (cool drum beats, bass ostinatos in odd meters, Julian’s tone, Gary’s tone) that I was into it. Very into it—I thought this was the coolest stuff I’d ever seen or heard.

Also there was the wisdom and body language of Julian and Gary, the way they handled themselves on stage…they seemed to utterly lack interest in showmanship or showiness and were all about the music, utter focus on, and devotion to, the music and their instruments. It came from a place of knowledge and authenticity and it was clear to me that these were GREAT musicians making music on a level I’d never experienced. So naturally I wanted to try to follow their path.

Another experience, a pivotal experience over two consecutive nights… One night in high school some friends and I drove an hour and a half to Tacoma to hear Buddy Rich’s band play at a college. Buddy Rich was kind of the top dog in the high school big band world of 1981. We were very excited, had a ball and all with our little road trip, but something about the show didn’t grab me. I had heard him live before, tried to never miss him on the Tonight Show, and me and my friends probably bought the hype about “the world’s greatest drummer”—I was a huge fan. But maybe we were sitting too far back, or maybe it was an off night for the band. I wasn’t blown away that night.

The very next night Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition was playing in Seattle and my drum teacher suggested that I check him out. I had no idea–I’d seen this name in print but didn’t know anything about him…never heard his music and just thought his last name was kind of odd. But the music that night was so mysterious and powerful. And the depth of his groove, such expressive, creative, exploratory playing, the sense of possibility…his commitment to the music—again as with Priester and Peacock, his presence—and the commitment of the whole band (Arthur Blythe, Chico Freeman, and Peter Warren). It was all fabulous. He introduced a song—probably India—talking about Coltrane and his voice transmitted history and meaning inside it in a way other things didn’t for me at that point in my life. There was another world out there, or inside somewhere. It turned me around. From then on my interest in big bands and what they were telling me in school (and tv and elsewhere) began to wither and I became very focused on DeJohnette, Tony Williams, Max Roach (and poetry and looking at American culture and history from some new perspectives. And in 1983 I went off to college to study with Ed Blackwell who I had discovered on the radio.

Blackwell put me in touch with bebop and its continuum and he gave me a foundation on my instrument. He also evoked in me a powerful feeling that I carry constantly, he helped me clarify something essential. He was a heavy operator. Pretty much everything I do—no matter how “extreme” or rock oriented or experimental or whatever—relates back to this feeling I associate with Blackwell. I’m curious what he’d think about some of the stuff I do these days.

During college I also did a fair amount of free jazz playing with my friend David Bindman, a tenor saxophonist who I still play with today. David turned me on to Sam Rivers, Cecil Taylor, and Bill Dixon and gave me new kinds of playing opportunities—our duo (which practiced a lot and never performed) and in 1987, ‘88, and ’89 I played with him and Leo Smith (who was living nearby in New Haven). Playing with Leo changed me too. It was subtle. Playing with such a strong artist and philosopher put me in all kinds of new spaces and challenges. Once I had played with him and hung out a bit with him I started hearing in a different way.

Around 2002 or 2003 I had a gig in Vancouver with the cello player, Peggy Lee. The venue was surrounded by porn shops and destitution and you entered through an unassuming door in the back alley. My poor parents had driven up from Seattle to hear me and they must have thought I was bottoming out… (They have been great sports all along). Anyway we started setting up on stage and Peggy realized she left her pickup at home and she would have to play unamplified. I had played with several cellists by this point in my life and I had discovered that drum set and an unamplified cello were pretty much an impossible combination. The drums would dig the hole, throw the cello in the coffin, bury it, and then drive a bulldozer back and forth all over it. Disaster loomed.

I was also aware of how much more beautiful the sound of a cello is when it isn’t coming through a pickup and amp. It’s so rich with wood and those deep cello frequencies, and there’s a wildly three dimensional projection of the sound from the instrument. A pickup is a procrustean bed for all of that. So why should a cellist have to contort and diminish her sound, and limit her expressiveness and virtuosity, in order to play with a drummer? It was an absurd and unfair proposition.

Before we started playing I thought to myself “a really good musician would figure this out and make great music.” I had come a long way to play with Peggy and I was determined to try to give a go at what a hypothetical savvy, resourceful musician could do. So I abandoned conventional technique (hitting with sticks at my accustomed volume) for the most part and rubbed, shook, and scraped the drums. I used my bare hands. I used the super quiet sounds—creaks and odd resonances. I laid out. And when I used sticks and conventional technique I did it very judiciously and not for long.

The result was that I was really happy with how it went and I was convinced that this would be a valid thing to pursue further. That night set me firmly on the path of exploring “unconventional” ways of creating sounds with drums. Since then I developed my own battery of “extended techniques” using friction, breath, a bow, and some other things. It generates a pretty wild range of sounds and I’m as comfortable working with that lexicon as I am drumming with sticks.

What place does traditional composition have in your works?

Composition is as central as improvisation to me. I play. I improvise. I play compositions. I compose. That’s what I do.…in equal measure and with equal love.

I love playing other peoples’ compositions and the process of getting to know a composition, getting to figure out what is needed to make it come alive. Digging into a composed work is a great way to get to know a person and their vision, and it’s challenging imagination-wise and technique-wise. Jason Kao Hwang’s compositions for instance–I’ve worked with Jason since 2004—unfold over multiple playings in rehearsal and on stage with Jason, Taylor Ho Bynum, and Ken Filiano (the other members of his quartet) each of whom I’ve come to deeply respect, trust, and love. Jason’s compositions provide the gravity which bring us together. And it feels revelatory to go into musical territories I never could have set up on my own, ones where the group equation is disproportionately weighted by his direction. The learning process is a big part of it, and when you make it pop that’s a blast.

I myself have been composing since the mid ‘80s and there have been points where I thought I might be a better composer than drummer. I composed a lot until about 2005 when the economics of trying to lead a band, and trying to pay other people to play my compositions became overwhelming. If there was more work and more support I’m sure it would have developed in exciting ways. So for these practical reasons I started doing a lot more improvising, playing in cooperative situations, and playing in trios–as opposed to sextets that I composed for (such as the ones on my CDs, A Momentary Lapse and Polish Theater Posters).

But I’m returning to composing and bandleading and looking forward to a productive 2014. I have a new quartet with Briggan Krauss, Ingrid Laubrock, and Brandon Seabrook that is playing in New York on January 7. I’m very psyched to play and record my compositions again.

In 2013 there is still a line between improv and contemporary classical music. Does this line serve a purpose or should it be erased?

I guess it depends which lines one means. All music is folklore to me—the product of people in a place—so lines are inevitable.

I will say a couple of things about classical music culture, and I think this applies increasingly to other forms of music as they become institutionalized: I think the education process (conservatories and the hierarchies in the classical world) can be damaging and often prevents musicians from encountering other musicians and processes from a standpoint of humility, grace, and equality. There’s an arrogance, glibness, and snobbery that is crippling and I read it as a form of colonialism. Also I think a lot of musicians from classical backgrounds aren’t in their bodies and that when they improvise they lack some major resources and depth that people from other traditions have.

I do play contemporary classical music from time to time and I know there is a lot that those percussionists can do that I can’t do. Their reading, their technique, and a lot of musicianship issues are things that I would have to devote a lot of hours to practicing if I wanted to do them. I can’t do it and I respect that. So, yeah, I’d say there is definitely a line. I’m not necessarily interested in trying to erase it but I think both sides should steal ideas from each other and develop things in ways that make sense to them.

I love playing all kinds of music. I love listening to Stravinsky, Xenakis, Bach, Schumann, Schoenberg, Indian music, gamelan… But I’ve been touched especially powerfully by an African ethos, a jazz and improvisation outlook that comes from my folk—the music and lore of Ed Blackwell et al.—and I experience classical music through that lens. So there is an inevitable kind of line there.

You have projects coming up with Frank Lacy, Robert Dick, Jaap Blonk, JD Parran, and others. Can you go into detail about them?

I’m very excited right now about my new quartet, Content Provider, with saxophonists Briggan Krauss and Ingrid Laubrock, and guitarist Brandon Seabrook. Our debut performance is January 7. I just love playing and listening to these fabulous musicians and I think they’ll bring a lot of crazy energy, savvy, and surprise to my compositions. I’ve played with Briggan since 1994 in Seattle and I have long thought he’s one of the most distinctive alto saxophonists of this time. Briggan and Brandon and I started playing sessions when Brandon moved to New York about 10 years ago, and then Brandon and I did a bunch of duo playing and recording—mostly in my basement. I started crossing paths with Ingrid maybe around 2009? Again, she plays great, brings her own strong spirit into any situation, and she wrote a hell of a piece for the recent TriCentric Orchestra concert at Roulette.

Frank Lacy, Kevin Ray, and I have a cooperative trio called 1032K and we just released our first cd, That Which is Planted, on Oliver Lake’s Passin Thru label. Kevin and Frank were good friends and tried a trio before I was on the scene but they say the things took off musically when I showed up. We are a repertory trio that plays unusual repertoire that we all love: John Coltrane’s Expression (the last piece he ever recorded) and Living Space, we play four pieces by the members of Air…not just Henry Threadgill, who of course is one of the great composers, but also tunes by Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall! We have tunes by Roswell Rudd, Mingus, Sam Rivers, Hale Smith… We played at the Lincoln Center Atrium recently and been invited to some festivals in Europe so hopefully we’ll be getting out more.

Robert Dick is someone I’ve known socially for about 10 years, but only recently started playing with. I’m a huge admirer of his playing—he can do amazing things with a 6+ foot tall contrabass flute with about a four inch pipe diameter. His combinations of frequencies are very provocative to me, and I’ve been a flute fan since my early days of listening to Lew Tabackin, Frank Wess, and some Cuban music I have on cassette. Robert blew the doors off what I thought a flute could do. As I got into extended percussion techniques I thought it would be very interesting to hear what we could do together. (Denman Maroney is another musician like that and I’m glad to play with him too—in a quartet called MiND). But Robert and I are working on developing a trio, and we’re doing a house concert at my place on January 31.

Jaap Blonk. It was a special couple of days of music this fall. I first heard him in Seattle around 1996 performing solo sound poetry and some kind of performance combining music, theater, and linguistic anatomy studies and was just blown away. Then this summer my friend and colleague Dan Peck—tuba player extraordinaire!—was able to coordinate some activities with Jaap in New York and asked if I’d be interested in playing. So in November we did a couple of performances with a bunch of interesting musicians—Fay Victor, Ben Gerstein, Sean Ali, Jack Wright…

Jack Wright is one of my main collaborators and partners. We have played as a duo on a couple Europe tours and in the US we usually play in trio or quartet formats with people like Reuben Radding, Ron Stabinsky, Evan Lipson. Jack and I get deep into texture oriented improvisation and it’s always rich. No CDs yet unfortunately but there’s some good video online. We’re working on a tour in the Southeast in the second half of March.

JD Parran is a person I had listened to for years in so many different situations…James Jabbo Ware’s Me, We, and Them big band, Anthony Davis, and a zillion others. Then I got to play with him and Elliott Sharp on a gig the bassist Kevin Ray organized a couple of years ago. We connected and then we were both involved in starting the Conjure Music Collective (also with Kevin Ray). So this has led to some good playing together and some leading of workshops together and a lot of time on the phone together!

He is a great musician, a hero (as a member of BAG alone he goes into the Hall of Fame), and a lovely human. He has been to a couple of my house concerts and the one where he had his contralto clarinet and we had Josh Sinton with a contrabass clarinet, and Paul Austerlitz with his bass clarinet (and Daniel Carter and HIS clarinet) was especially outta sight.

So many other musicians and groups to mention…Jason Kao Hwang, Kyoko Kitamura, Ras Moshe, IRON DOG, TOTEM>, Yoni Kretzmer, Michael Lytle, Hans Tammen, Dafna Naphtali, Miya Masaoka and Larry Ochs….

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