Jeff Cosgrove: A Personal History

by Troy Collins


Jeff Cosgrove                                                                                                                       © Joe Crocetta


Based in Middletown, located in western Maryland, rather than a bustling metropolitan center like New York City, drummer Jeff Cosgrove has nonetheless collaborated with a bevy of world-class improvisers. His unique career path boasts an array of varied ensembles, including a trio with Matthew Shipp and William Parker (Alternating Current), another with Frank Kimbrough and Martin Wind (Conversations with Owls), and a quartet dedicated to performing repertoire by the late Paul Motian (Motian Sickness). He also maintains other projects with Shipp and Mat Maneri, Scott Robinson and Ken Filiano, and rising tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger.

Growing up in the Washington, D.C. area, Cosgrove worked extensively with blues and rock bands and singer-songwriters, citing B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Phish, Wilco, Tom Waits, and Andrew Bird as formative inspirations. Jazz musicians like Motian, Elvin Jones, Joe Chambers, Ben Riley, and Roy Haynes have influenced and informed his supple drumming technique. He has also studied with drummers Andrew Cyrille, Matt Wilson, Joe Hunt, Tony Martucci, and Mike Shepherd.

Though experienced playing strict time in more conventional ensembles, Cosgrove’s own projects often indulge his interest in abstraction, where he primarily works with color and texture, rather than driving backbeats. These two diametrically opposed aspects meet on his latest recording, History Gets Ahead of the Story, an imaginative tribute to the compositions of William Parker, in the form of a classic organ trio with John Medeski and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Lederer. I interviewed Cosgrove about his stunning new album, and the current state of the art in the ongoing pandemic, during the summer of 2020.

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Troy Collins: Before we talk about your new album, History Gets Ahead of the Story, some early biographical information might be of interest to readers unfamiliar with your background. How did you get your start playing music?

Jeff Cosgrove: Well, I always liked music but there really wasn’t much music around my house. My parents would have the radio on some and they had some records, but it wasn’t really a big thing for them. They would listen to things like the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack or Jim Croce or show tunes. The biggest exposure I would have in my early years to live music was when we would go see the military parade bands, when my dad was in the Marine Corps. Also, my great-grandmother would take us as a family to see the Boston Pops a lot. She loved show tunes and she would play those records from the Broadway productions. My grandfather would take me to see music too. I was basically his travel companion to see and do the things he wanted to do that nobody else would – I was totally into it. He took me to see Ray Charles and Louie Belson, a lot of the Motown groups or whoever was coming through town that he wanted to go see. I’ve heard the stories over and over again about how I just would try to copy the sounds I heard while we were at the concerts or dance around during and after the shows. I just loved it and it didn’t matter what it was ... except opera, I could never get into opera no matter how hard my grandfather tried.

When I was in the second grade my grandfather really wanted my brother and I to play the piano. He messed around a little with the piano but couldn’t play, although he really wanted us to learn. From what I understand, his mother (my great-grandmother who died before I was born) played but never studied it. She just had a really good ear for it. We then ended up with a piano and for the next two years I tried to play and it was the second worst musical experience of trying to learn an instrument in my life. It was just bad – I didn’t want to practice, I couldn’t understand how to get my fingers to work independently, I couldn’t hear how the notes were supposed to move, reading music felt impossible, it was just a total mess and I hated it. I tried to learn to play some functional piano in college and the result was equally as bad except that I actually practiced which made it all the more frustrating.

The worst experience of my musical journey came in the fourth grade when I was eligible for elementary school band. My next-door neighbor played the tenor saxophone in school and I loved the look and sound of that instrument. It was in so much of the early music I would hear – the parade music, the pops concerts, the Motown concerts and the jazz things, and it just was a sound that really connected with me and just looked fun. I told my parents I wanted to play the saxophone and I was so excited. My parents were very steadfast with no and their reasoning was that I was not big enough to carry the tenor to and from school. They were probably right. So, I went with the clarinet and it was just not a good fit from the beginning. When I practiced and played it sounded like a cat who had swallowed a kazoo and was getting skinned alive. It was awful. Fortunately for me and everyone around me, it only lasted that school year.

Maybe it was some weird retribution for not letting me play the instrument I wanted to play or something but in the sixth grade I found the drums in elementary school band. I just loved them and I was terrible, like really awful, but I really enjoyed them. I started to take drum set lessons and loved it even more. My parents said that they would get me a drum set if I promised to practice every day – they learned to regret that, I think. I wasn’t in my first actual band until high school but I would try to play with anyone I could or just practice on my own.

In high school I got my first taste of playing in bands but I wouldn’t say that I was working on my craft in anyway. I was in a heavy metal band (again, I was awful), playing with jam/rock bands, a blues band, and jamming with friends whenever I could. I loved playing the drums in bands. Admittedly, I thought playing in bands would help me meet girls, although for me, that NEVER worked. I would take any opportunity to play that came my way and thought this is what I would do, but I didn’t really know what being a professional musician entailed.

I begrudgingly went to college and was traveling around a lot for gigs. I was never much of a student but with all the running around for gigs my first semester, I was even less so. I did get hooked up with a teacher in college who really helped with my technique and gave me more of a view of what being a fulltime musician was about. I was playing with wedding bands, rock bands, blues bands, country bands, played cowbell and timbales in a Latin band, and really started to get into playing jazz. College was the first taste I had in playing jazz and it was not a natural fit. I couldn’t swing, it was hard to keep the forms, and I just didn’t get it. The head of the music department and head of jazz both told me I was wasting the department’s time and that I was taking time away from people who could actually be musicians. I ended up with a psychology degree. There was no question of my dedication, I practiced a lot and went to every jam session of every style of music I could find. I’d play with anybody. With all of the work I was putting in and playing a lot, I don’t know if I started to burnout, but I really started to dislike playing music. I was really unhappy with my playing and it was hard to feel the joy in what I was doing but it was really difficult to put my finger on why.

Things changed in the spring of 2000 when I met and began to study with drummer Mike Shepherd who put me back on the path and changed my life. My playing really started when I connected with Mike. I’ve been really fortunate to have some amazing mentors, teachers, and people take interest in me and my music, but Mike might be the most influential. We would have these one-hour lessons on a Saturday once a week in his basement that would last hours. I never wanted to leave. We would talk about everything and smoke cigarettes as we did – he would tell me stories of playing with Barney Kessel or Maynard Ferguson or in the Navy band or sharing a stage with Buddy Rich. There would be records on and he’d point things out to me that I never would have noticed. Really it was the way he explained everything that made so much sense and I was back in love with playing the drums. It was amazing. My playing changed for the better and everyone around me started to notice.

TC: It seems you had a long journey to becoming a working musician. So, I’m curious about Mike Shepherd. Can you elaborate a little more on how he helped you regain your love for playing music? What did he teach you on a technical level that you feel you weren’t getting elsewhere?

JC: I’ll just begin by saying that what Mike gave me regarding music and life is something that if I helped a thousand people in music, I’d never feel like I could repay. There is just this spark in Mike that is infectious, and I could feel it from the first moment I met him.

When I met Mike, I was four months into healing a broken collar bone and had another three months before I would be able to do any gigs. I was pretty emotionally broken by the situation and all of the negative feedback I was hearing while in college, I just felt like I was done. He was recommended to me by the very college music professor who said I would never do anything in music. At this point, I really just thought that I would give it one more try and see if I could find some love again for playing music.

Technically, I’m not a great player ... actually, I have terrible technique which has kind of become the basis for my playing. It is the first thing that Mike took notice of and there are definitely some technical things that Mike helped me address, but music was the basis of all of our lessons/conversations. He had me focus my energy in defining the time and melody with conviction while creating the most beautiful sound I could out of each part of the drum set. That my whole body was part of the instrument and that I needed to not be so caught up in technical prowess. He was very clear about his philosophy that the ability to play blazing notes around the drums meant nothing if it didn’t sound/feel good.

Mike brought me to what he called home base. In a very nerdy drum sense, that is four on the floor on the bass drum (playing each quarter note on the bass drum so it is felt, not necessarily heard), beats two and four on the hi-hat, stick across the snare drum on beat four, and feeling the space and knowing the sound of my ride cymbal. Mike was adamant about making the band feel good. This opened everything up for me. I was able to start really grooving and holding a band together with so much more strength. My time started to get wider and more inviting. We talked about his idea of time being built from the ground up. He wanted me to have confidence in letting everyone feel my time from the bottom, not beating them over the head with it from the top end (ride cymbal), which was so freeing.

Feeling the space and breath of the melodies was another really monumental foundational piece that came from those lessons with Mike. It’s still something we talk about today. I have real trouble hearing and discerning the difference in pitches and we spent a lot of hours together addressing that. The solution was to internalize the rhythm of the melodies and the key pulses the phrase created. He would have me walk around and vocalize bebop tunes. I would walk around the town that I lived in at all hours of the day and night singing these bebop tunes. I’m sure people thought I was crazy but I really enjoyed it. Through that exercise, I began to feel the length of sound rather than the pitch it created. Mike got me to embrace spaciousness which has become a cornerstone of my playing.

As all of these tools started to come together with a lot of practice and time and encouragement from Mike, I began to enjoy what I was creating and doing with the drums. I could offer intensity, subtly, joy, and I could start to help other players feel good when they played with me. Mike showed me the way back on to the path of what I loved about the drums and music. I didn’t need to prove anything and that was so validating, and it’s still validating.

Mike was also very supportive and validated my need to not play in any school-based ensembles. I was playing a lot of gigs with different kinds of groups, and other students, and as I stepped away from those college ensembles, I felt so free. He could see and feel all the negativity that I internalized from those ensembles and how it was really detrimental to my spirit. Mike would tell me, “your playing isn’t for everyone but people said that about Elvin Jones and look at him!”

Shortly after I turned 24, which was certainly a while ago, Mike gave me a set of his drums. They are a set of 1970’s Slingerland drums that are by far the most personal instrument I have. Whenever I play them, they sing and make me think of him. I love those drums not just because of their sentimental value, which again, is huge, but for their sound. They are a beautiful instrument that inspires me every time I sit behind them. Everyone who hears them or plays them has the same feeling when they sit behind them which is really exciting too. Oddly enough, Mike got the drums from another great drummer that I studied with as well, Tony Martucci who was also hugely influential on me. I didn’t know until after Mike gave me the drums that he had traded Tony a cymbal (which I got from Tony) for the drums. It’s funny how things like that come together but there is a reason for everything in life.

TC: How do you approach drumming in situations where texture and color is more important than time-keeping? Are there any precedents (artists, techniques, etc.) you’re inspired or influenced by?

JC: In many ways, I find a textural form of drumming to be much more natural to me. Hearing the length of the sound and the space, along with how the sounds meld and interact to be very in tune with my musical values. I think I’m a little idiosyncratic in that regard. This is probably why I was never all that successful in more structured musical environments. Color and texture are what has drawn me into this music and helped me develop my style of drumming. It’s not to say that I don’t have the ability to play in time-keeping scenarios, or don’t enjoy that kind of playing, I very much do enjoy it, but I love a more textural approach. There is a lot of joy that fills me up when I’m able to make music where we honor the sound we are producing and feeling the music build together. It goes back to what I was saying earlier which is understanding the sound produced by the band and how I fit into that for the whole.

The gateway for me into this very textural approach to playing was Paul Motian, but there were several players that I really stole from – Han Bennink, Joey Baron, Milford Graves, Jeff Ballard, Max Roach. The first record I heard Motian on was Keith Jarrett’s At the Deer Head Inn. This is while I was in college, and I was given a cassette copy with no player info on it. Just the way that Paul put that ride cymbal. His playing to me was equal parts jazz-traditional, classical percussionist, compositional, and steeped in the sound that was being created by and around him. I was hooked on Motian’s approach and started to dig into his catalog as a leader, which are some of my favorite jazz records. The way he allowed the space to happen and could hear the ends of each note he produced really excited me. Although he can play very fast and flashy if needed, he really felt more open than that.

Andrew Cyrille is someone who has really helped me open and accept my proclivities of playing more texturally. I actually met Andrew over the phone before I had ever heard his music or knew who he was. His sound and approach struck me as very different than Motian’s, but I connected to in very much the same way. He was steeped in the tradition of jazz and classical yet also drew from African and Caribbean percussion/groove in his approach with an air of freedom. In our lessons, from listening to his recordings and when I would see him perform live, I could hear how he was approaching each piece in the same way, but not formulaic. He was showing me how to get to the core of musical values.

Matt Wilson and Tony Martucci are the other two that I followed very closely in how to open up to a more textural approach. They both stressed a commitment to the sound and intent behind creating a sound. They really talked about building a melody within the moment from inside me. How to use the drums as a conversational instrument, not solely as a time-keeping one. They both gave me the confidence to start trusting myself while playing texturally and find other musicians that played the way I was looking to get to.

One of the biggest musical techniques I employ when playing texturally is playing my bass drum on all quarter notes, very soft/feathered. This goes back to what I learned from Mike Shepherd. It creates a home feeling for everyone who is creating this sound together. It sounds very counter-intuitive to play something so based on time when playing texturally but the length and feeling of those bass drum notes adds so much intention to my playing and comfort for the other musicians. The subtle vibration gives the texture a little lift, which is the best way I can describe it. The other technique I work is understanding the length of sound of what I play in relation to what is being played. Letting the sound of my fellow musicians pass through me to be part of that energy flow. Extending what I do into that frequency. Hearing notes to the end is really important to me and it is what allows me to be part of the total sound.

TC: Since you’ve brought up the subject of groove and the importance of making a band feel good playing music together, let’s talk about History Gets Ahead of the Story. How did this session come about?

JC: I’ll start off by saying that in college I discovered three bands that really opened my eyes and excited me about what could be possible – Medeski, Martin & Wood, The William Parker Quartet and The Matt Wilson Quartet (Jeff Lederer plays tenor in the band). I just dug the music and the players in those ensembles, and it helped me start to focus on what was important to me in the music I was starting to venture into.

Flash forward to 2015 and the last gigs with my trio featuring Matthew Shipp and William Parker. I knew that this trio was ending, which had been huge in my development, and I was trying to figure out what to do next. The last two nights we played together were in Baltimore, MD, and Richmond, VA, and we had a lot of time to talk and hang before the gigs, between sets, and after the gigs. Listening to Matthew and William tell stories about being in David S. Ware’s band, their musical adventures together, and their inside jokes of almost 30 years, it gave me so much connection to the music of these two masters and musical heroes of mine. The night of the last gig in Richmond, I spent some time with Matthew before the performance talking through some ideas of what we might evolve a trio into, of which we had no idea only that we did not want it to be a conventional piano/bass/drums trio. It was still unclear what we would do. I had brought up the idea of doing something with our trio to honor William, but I wasn’t sure what that was – playing his music or something. Matthew was very clear, and very right, that we needed to showcase what we do, which was playing free. He didn’t want to be in a repertoire band, he wanted to keep playing our music that we created collectively and build on the connection we had built.

William and I had spoken on and off over the years about his quartet with Lewis Barns, Rob Brown, and Hamid Drake and how much that music had resonated with me. In Richmond, after our last night playing together, I asked him about sending me some of those charts. I didn’t know what I would do with them necessarily, but the music really meant a lot to my musical development and I knew there was something that needed to be said and done with that music for me. He sent me about 15 charts from the band and I started to play them locally with some friends and just wasn’t hearing what I knew was there. I was very locked into what I knew of the band and the tunes. It was really hard to break away from hearing that quartet’s voice. Hamid Drake is a huge influence on me but his playing style is drastically different from my own and I found myself trying to do what he did.

While I have known Jeff Lederer since the early 2000s through Matt Wilson, we played together for the first time in 2017. The first time he came down to stay at my house and play some gigs we began to talk about projects. I love the way Jeff puts together a project – they are unique, focused, and tell a story. As we were sitting at a gig in Shepherdstown, WV, I talked to Jeff about what to do with these quartet charts I had from William. Jeff is the director of the Visionary Youth Orchestra, which is part of the Vision Festival which was founded by William and his wife Patricia. Jeff was telling me about an organ trio session he had done with Matt Wilson that was just sitting and I was telling him I had never played with an organist and the lightbulb went off. Why try to replicate or replace William, the compositions could and should stand on their own and not be overshadowed by William’s individual bass playing. As we drove to our final gig that weekend, I said I would love to do William’s music as an organ trio and would he be interested? He said yes!

The next step was to get an organ player for the project and Jeff quickly suggested John. They played together on Matt Wilson’s Gathering Call. Matt gave me John’s information and shockingly enough, he wrote back quickly and said he was very interested. I’m sure he probably called Jeff and Matt to have them vouch for me. We talked on the phone a couple of times and exchanged some emails but John was in. We had a couple of reschedules but we finally hit the studio together at the end of November 2018. I drove up to Saugerties, NY to Applehead studios and things were ready to roll.

At this point, the three major bands I was influenced by in college had come colliding together. I had been played with William and had a record out (Alternating Current, 2014) and one finished to be released the next year (Near Disaster, 2019). Jeff and I had played a handful of gigs together and that was incredible. Then in the same month in 2018, I start playing some gigs with Rob Brown (he joined my trio with Matthew Shipp) and I record with John Medeski playing William’s music! I’m still kind of in shock over all of this.

The session for History Gets Ahead of the Story came together pretty quickly. We had two days in the studio which was a huge luxury, I got to use my drums (also a huge luxury), and Jeff and John are dynamos on their instruments, and Applehead had us dialed in so quickly it was unbelievable. I have this weird quirk when I record pre-written tunes, I record them in alphabetical order for some reason. It is a little OCD but it seems to work for me to keep a session organized and moving. We had 14 tunes – 3 of Jeff’s, 2 of mine, one of Matt Wilson’s, and 8 of William’s. There were no arrangements set ahead of time, we just experimented, and everybody had ideas of what we should try and we would just do a take. Sometimes it seemed perfect and sometimes we would play an idea on a tune and it was clear it didn’t work. Jeff Lederer’s superpower is on the fly arrangement ideas, along with his incredible sound.

TC: Considering how successful History Gets Ahead of the Story is, I’m curious, are you a fan of organ trio’s? Were there any that particularly inspired this instrumentation and approach (other than MM&W), considering Medeski was specifically asked to participate as an organist, rather than say, a pianist?

JC: I love organ groups, and the sound of the organ, really. There is something gritty and unfinished about the sound of that instrument and it just speaks to me. A lot of the blues bands I would listen to when I was younger, and bands I would see around the DC area, had organs and it just sounds cool. I had never played with an organ before this record and one thing that I noticed, and maybe this is John’s playing, but how wide the sound of the organ is. John could hold a key and there is no decay in the sound until the key is released and the bottom end of the organ adds this thickness. The sound is both vertical and horizontal somehow. It’s never really something I put that much thought into before this record, other than just liking the sound.

Some of my favorite organ driven records that I drew from were Larry Young’s Unity and Into Something – Elvin + Larry Young! Definitely Jimmy Smith & Wes Montgomery The Dynamic Duo. Jimmy Smith’s The Sermon is one I’ve listened to a lot. It’s a record I would listen to over and over again with Mike Shepherd – it was one of Mike’s favorite records and I dug pretty deep into that one. Any of the Larry Goldings/Peter Bernstein/Bill Stewart recordings. I would go see that band live a lot and the sound just drew me in. Dr. Lonnie Smith’s Turning Point with Idris Muhammad or Jungle Soul with Allison Miller. Matt Wilson’s Arts & Crafts records too. B.B. King’s records I drew from a lot as well.

It’s funny to think about an instrumental approach for this record and bringing up MM&W because I didn’t even pull from that sound, other than having John. While I love MM&W, there is less breath in that music than what John presents on the organ on History Gets Ahead of the Story. Maybe it is because he is covering two parts (bass and piano parts) and there is a separation, creating less clutter. I like the idea of space in music and the organ created the space that I heard in my head. This is going to sound hokey, but I feel like the music asked me and allowed me to feel the organ within the context of those pieces.

I certainly thought about presenting this music with a pianist, and John is a beautiful pianist, but I didn’t want to get locked into the idea of needing a bass player with the underlying groove that exists within these tunes. I had even thought about trying some of these tunes with Matthew Shipp and Rob Brown because of their strong association with William but decided against it. It might be the way that I hear this music and to me, the piano is too short of a sound for what I was going for. I love playing in piano trios too, it might be my favorite format to play in. Getting to play and record with the piano players I do, it made me very sure that this record needed something that was not that.

TC: I find tribute albums that highlight the compositional acumen of its dedicatee – but do not feature their chosen instrument – to be the most rewarding. History Gets Ahead of the Story is a solid entry in that tradition. Were there ever plans to tour this material? I realize (as of the time of this interview), we’re still in the midst of the first wave of a global pandemic, but I’m curious if there were ever discussions during recording about taking this music out on the road?

JC: Yes, there were/are absolutely plans to do some live gigs with this band and material. The pandemic certainly put a crimp into those ideas as all of my performances for the rest of this year have been cancelled – with this group, as well as other groups that I perform with. Scheduling with John and Jeff can also be tough to coordinate because they are both so busy with their own projects, but the plan is as soon as we can start doing some gigs, we will!

I really want to hear what this band sounds like live. So much changes and grows in music when you get to perform it in front of an audience. I feed off how an audience responds to the sounds that are put out. They are definitely an extension of the music – they are participants as well. Not being able to play live has been a difficult and disappointing thing to come to grips with during the current pandemic. I totally understand it, but it is still hard at times to accept and deal with.

TC: As a gigging musician, how are you faring during the pandemic and subsequent lockdown?

JC: I’ve fared pretty well during the lockdown. It has been tough with no gigs to speak of and making music in a whole new way has been awkward. There have been moments where it has been difficult to find the motivation to practice which is something that I very much enjoy under normal circumstances. I’ve been able to certainly find ways to occupy my time – studying composition, listening to a lot of music, catching up with friends (music and non-music) but there is definitely something missing without getting to play music or see music live. I miss it a lot.

A close friend of mine, who is an amazing heavy music drummer/musician, and I have been having this ongoing conversation for about 6 or 7 months now about being a music fan verses being a musician. We have a lot of these philosophical-type discussions as we run and it is not just about music, it is pretty funny actually. He said something as the pandemic was unfolding and we are starting to lock down that prompted a much larger discussion between us. That was that if he had to choose, he would give up being a performer/musician before he could give up seeing and experiencing music. It took me some time to wrap my head around it, but it sunk in how much joy and positive energy, regardless of style, that I take from music. How disappointed I am to not get that very personal connection I get with live performance. The energy is different experiencing the sound and presence of music being performed that I don’t get even from my favorite records.

I miss performing and am still struggling with the idea of what will happen with live music for me and all musicians, as well as fans of live music once we come out of this pandemic. What will the music scene be as our society is reshaped? I don’t really get an emotional connection to the music watching a live stream. Over the July 4th weekend, I watched Joe Lovano/Ben Street/Andrew Cyrille on the Village Vanguard live stream and the musicianship was high, I love the way those three play together, I really dug the tunes they played but there was something missing for me – it was the energy of the audience. As a performer and fan of live music, I miss that connection to the people there that support that music, how their energy becomes part of the music. How a great performer connects with the people around them. The music and performance changes and takes on a life of its own based on the crowd.

I think back on some of my own experiences with records and live music. B.B. King is one of my all-time favorite musicians and I remember very clearly hearing him on record for the first time. And I liked it, it was different – his voice, the way he played the guitar. A year later I saw him live for the first time and I’ll never forget how the energy of him walking out on stage changed me. He walked out in a flame print tuxedo with Lucille and played one note, just holding it there. I LOVED B.B. King from that moment on but can’t really explain what happened and how that emotional response became tattooed onto my psyche. I have a framed picture of him in my living room and whenever I look at it, I am brought back to that 17 year-old kid experiencing the energy, the show, the love and the joy that he put out into the audience that night. There are certainly other experiences I have had that are similar with music and the feelings that are the most impactful in the full experience of music – whether being a part of it on stage or being part of it as an audience member.

I guess time will tell how we all fare in live music. There are definitely less venues around than there were 10 years ago and many more will close up as a result of economic issues related to the pandemic. I definitely have high hopes on what will happen next but I for one could use some live music right now.

TC: I agree, wholeheartedly. With no live performances for the foreseeable future, and studio recording being problematic, what are your plans for making music in the near future?

JC: That’s a real tough one. I’ve been writing a lot of music lately and thinking through project ideas but coming up with a new way to make and share music is going to take some ingenuity. For me, the biggest starting point is knowing what I don’t want to do. I am not really interested in investing in a recording setup and trying to piecemeal together recordings. There are some musicians who are really amazing at capturing their own sound and being able to edit it together with others, that is just not me. I have so much I want to learn on the drums and about composition, and I’m not tech savvy at all. Learning how to set up my room for ample sound recording, then working with a Pro Tools or Logic recording interface just does not sound appealing at all.

I have been thinking about working up some pieces for a solo drum performance. There was a stretch of three or four years where I was doing two or three solo performances a year but that was about 10 years ago now. It was a really interesting challenge and allowed my playing to take on a new aspect. The difference then was that most of my pieces were very free which was very cool but there was not a lot of diversity within the set. Ideally, I’d like to experiment and come up with a solid 55-minute set that has variety and emotion. It can have more structured pieces, free pieces, but have a set that tells a story. Many of my favorite drummers are excellent at creating emotional and captivating solo performances – Andrew Cyrille, Matt Wilson, Joey Baron, Milford Graves, Susie Ibarra, Tony Martucci, Steve Olson. I find a lot of enjoyment from listening to them take me on a journey through the drums. An ulterior motive for me is that I don’t find myself to be a strong soloist. I get very self-conscious about the playing aspect and my ability to connect emotionally.

Making and creating music in this new environment will certainly be a challenge but it also gives me time to focus. This time of captivity helps me identify how to connect the emotions I feel and want to convey through my music. I want to try an impromptu concert in a park with a couple of friends, or a solo performance. Maybe try something in the cul-de-sac at the end of my driveway. This is an opportunity to experiment and get comfortable in the unknown. While it can be a little scary to venture into the idea of making music in this time, it is also inspiring.

TC: I have to admit, the idea of an endless series of solo improvised performances, due to our current predicament, leaves me wanting. The primary joy of listening to improvisation, at least from my listening perspective, is hearing (and especially seeing, live in person) the communication between musicians. In other words, it takes two to tango.

Granted, there have been (and always will be), plenty of masterful solo performances. Historically, it would be difficult to fault a Cecil Taylor or Max Roach recital, for example, but I find the connection between musicians the thing that attracts me to this music. Meaning, for all the solo performances currently out there, available to be seen on a digital screen, I’ve yet to be truly moved by any, no matter how creative the artist. Most of the problem lies in the interface, which is cold and one-sided.

That said, I’m curious who you would play with live at this time, with so many restrictions in place?

JC: I completely hear what you are saying and definitely agree. There is something that is created in improvisational music with the communication between two or more musicians. For me, I’ll even take it a step further and say that there needs to be an audience to react to it. It is very difficult to create that energy and emotion as a solo performer. That is where the challenge comes in for me. Trying to connect and find that emotion within myself that syncs up with an audience in a solo context. It is difficult for me to draw from my emotions, especially by myself. I would much rather perform and play with other musicians as it allows me to feel safe with my emotions while hitchhiking on theirs. Also, I get bored having conversations with myself in everyday life and it is a real challenge when on a bandstand all alone.

That said, there are definitely some musicians I hope to find a way to put together something during this time. Matthew Shipp and Rob Brown are two that I would like to be able to play with more. That band is really starting to come together and find its voice. I don’t know that it is something that I am ready to record only because I very much feed off the energy of Matthew and Rob and the audience when that band plays live. The connection and musical language that they have together is really something that draws me in. There is a different kind of power and momentum when we play together that does not exist in my other projects. My playing definitely takes on a new character after we have made some music and I don’t know exactly how to describe it. We play these single piece sets, which in itself is a challenge, to improvise and keep a piece moving for 60+ minutes at a time that is captivating. This is a group I’d like to try to expand into a quintet potentially as well – adding Mat Maneri/viola and Andrew Cyrille/drums. It would be difficult to pull this off given the current state of things, the trio and the quintet, but I can daydream.

I would like to put together a duo performance with pianist Dave Burrell. He’s someone I have really been inspired by for a long time now. Dave is one of the masters of improvisational music and he is not getting any younger. His trio record with Andrew Cyrille and William Parker is a recording I listened to pretty steadily for about two years and the duo with Billy Martin is another in his deep catalog that I really dig. The owner of An Die Musik in Baltimore has been trying to help me put something together with Dave for a while now and maybe we could do one of the streaming performances. Dave is in Philadelphia and me out in the sticks in MD, it might just work. It would also be fun to play in a trio with Dave, adding my long-time bassist friend Mark Lysher. Mark has a very open, uncluttered sound which I think would bring out something different in Dave. Plus, that room and piano are perfect for Dave.

One of the people I am most excited to play with as soon as possible and I think we could make happen is with saxophonist/multi-reedist John Dierker. He’s a Baltimore based musician who is just an inspiring player and great guy to hang with. We have played together in a few different situations locally, mostly duo, and there is something about John’s playing that is so inviting. He is deeply steeped in the tradition but not bound by it in any way. In whatever wacky direction I go, he’s always right there with me and vice versa. John is someone that should be talked about way more than he is. He just exudes this beautiful tone on his horn. Just writing about playing with John actually gave me an idea of some concerts in the park and that I should start with a duo performance with him!

Another project I would like to try is another recording with Scott Robinson on saxophones and Ken Filiano on bass. It could be something at Scott’s ScienSonic Laboratories where we could be distanced in a controlled environment. Plus, we would have access to all of Scott’s unique instruments and sounds. When we did our first record, we had never played together before, we put some very specific constraints on – like only allowing Scott to use his tenor and only about four hours to record – and it would be interesting to see what we do under different surroundings and more time to experiment. The Scott/Ken group has very much turned into a band as well. Now that we have played some gigs together and tried some different things in a live environment, I am very excited about the opportunity to do something more with these great musicians.

TC: What can we expect next from you? I realize the pandemic has halted everyone’s plans, but do you have any recordings in the can that might be coming out in the near future?

JC: I’ve got three things in the can that I am trying to figure out what to do with. They are all live recordings and each a little different from the other. The question is, do I release them all at once or at specific intervals within 2021? I was talking with a close friend of mine the other day about them and he was telling me that I need to metaphorically clear the creative decks of all old projects before I can really dive into something new.

The first one (not necessarily in release order) will be entitled Welcome Home. It’s a trio date from a bar/restaurant in Shepherdstown, WV, featuring Jeff Lederer on tenor/clarinet and Mark Lysher on bass. It was the first time that we played together as a trio and the sound was good and the night was a blast. Actually, Jeff chased around a patron playing his clarinet at her ... it was a thing. We didn’t set out to make a releasable live recording of that night, it just kind of happened. A friend of mine who I didn’t realize was super into recording offered to record us as we were having an off handed conversation one day. I just love the bass sound he got on Mark and he was able to capture Jeff’s energy and sound incredibly, too. It’s kind of a mix of improvisations, some standards, and just cutting loose.

The second one will be titled Two Jeffs and it features Jeff, me, and Mark joined with percussionist Tom Teasley. Tom brought something unique out of each of us which makes this recording different from the other performance with Jeff/Mark. This one is definitely more standard-y but the band feels more locked in sonically. It’s groovier, I guess. It is also the first time I had ever recorded with a percussionist – although, I’ve known Tom for years. There is a version of “Summertime” which has a very heavy drum/percussion vibe which I just love. We recorded at Rust Library in Leesburg, VA, which has invited me down for some very fun performances. This one and the other live record with Lederer have been sitting for a little bit and it will be nice to have them out in the universe.

The final recording is with Noah Preminger on saxophone and Kim Cass on bass, also recorded at Rust Library in Leesburg, VA. We haven’t settled on a title yet but I’m sure something will come to us. I’ve played with Noah and Kim for a while now but this would be the first thing we recorded/released. This one will be the first recording of all my music. Noah was on me about these gigs and that I needed to write a bunch of music. He said he was only coming down if I wrote a bunch of tunes for us to play. In true me fashion, I got them all done three days before I got to my house prior to the gigs. Honestly, it was scary to put together a recording of all my material. I think putting this out will give me a little more push of confidence to put more of my compositions center stage.

I’m excited about what is to come, whatever that will be and however it comes about.

© Troy Collins

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