Corey Fonville on ‘The Power, The Love, The Struggle, The Beauty’

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Richmond, Virginia-based drummer Corey Fonville is set for a spate of March tour dates in France with trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah.

(Photo: Courtesy Vic Firth)

More than a percussionist, Corey Fonville is a conjurer. When he plays, Fonville channels the spirit of his ancestors and the musical essence of those who birthed jazz, funk and soul. A young drummer barreling through the first decade of his career, he’s seemingly been anointed by the sounds of previous generations.

“Elvin Jones is my all-time favorite jazz drummer,” Fonville said in December, fresh off the road from a set in Providence, Rhode Island. “Somebody like him, you can hear the struggle in his playing, you can hear the pain and the yearning. You can hear the love and the wonder, too. ... He played with so much power but also finesse. I try to use that same energy when I play drums—being reminded of where you come from and where you’re going, of what your people went through and who we are now. In my playing, I want you to hear all of that: the power, the love, the struggle, the beauty.”

Fonville first garnered widespread attention as a member of Butcher Brown, a fusion and r&b quintet based in Richmond, Virginia. Known for its effortlessly soulful groove, Butcher Brown’s star continues to rise; they toured with saxophonist Kamasi Washington this past fall.

“It was a starting point into a new journey, a new arena,” said Fonville. He continues performing with Butcher Brown amid an increasingly busy schedule full of collaborative projects with a cadre of high-profile artists. But Fonville said he never would forget how it was during the band’s early days.

“Our first album, All Purpose Music, came out October 2014. I can’t say that I listen to that album now at all, because there’s so much other stuff that we are all creating,” he said. “But when I listen to it, I get nostalgic, because you know and remember that time; you know what was in your heart as you were playing. That feeling of, ‘We can do anything.’ That optimism hasn’t gone anywhere; we still have that feeling when we get together. It’s even more concrete at this point.”

The drummer, originally from Virginia Beach, has come a long way since then, his innate talent shaped in the creative crucible of the commonwealth.

“I’m very proud to be from Virginia,” Fonville said. “To me, what’s special about it is, I sort of felt like the state was an underdog in the music scene for a long time. Then there was the question of identity; we weren’t the Deep South, but we were definitely not the North. We had to figure out our own lane.”

The past several decades gave rise to a slew of Virginia-born artists who “changed the game completely,” Fonville said. “Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Pharrell, D’Angelo: We had this whole set of artists who are complete trendsetters. There’s no sound like theirs.” Artists who have spent time there—like singer/songwriter Natalie Prass and jazz pianist/composer Justin Kauflin—keep putting Virginia on the map, Fonville said.

But Louisiana, too, is a state that holds deep meaning for the drummer.

“The New Orleans lineage has been following me a little bit,” he said, laughing. “Trumpet players from N’awlins: We just get along, we just vibe.”

He references performers like Grammy-winning trumpeter, composer and writer Nicholas Payton, who Fonville first met as a student at the Brubeck Institute.

“[Payton] studied with us for a week, he coached us in ensemble and was just dropping gems,” Fonville said. “We played a show with him the last day, and I stayed in contact. When I finished school that year, his team reached out to me; that was my first real show, playing with a professional artist.”

Fonville embarked on his first European tour with Payton, and contributed, along with other members of Butcher Brown, to the bandleader’s 2014 album, Numbers. Another Louisiana performer that Fonville counts as a brother is Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, the trumpet-playing jazz provocateur whom the drummer helped record 2017’s The Centennial Trilogy.

“I’ve known Corey since 2007,” said aTunde Adjuah, recalling when the pair met at the Grammy awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Scott was a featured musical guest and his first album, Rewind That, had been nominated for an award. Fonville was playing drums in the Grammy Jazz Band, an opportunity he earned as a standout student at The Governor’s School for the Arts in Virginia Beach.

“I was immediately captivated by Corey’s playing, and his personality and character. He was sort of fearless from the beginning,” aTunde Adjuah said. “He had so much character and personality, so you knew he was destined for greatness.” Soon after, when Fonville wasn’t yet 20 years old, the trumpeter invited him to join his band.

“Corey is a deeply rhythmic drummer,” said aTunde Adjuah, who added that Fonville naturally knows how to catch every accent and land every phrase. “A lot of people in my camp are deeply rhythmic. But Corey is one of those people whose skill is such that he can mix all the different cultures and rhythms that developed in the [African] Diaspora in a cohesive way. ... Stretch Music would not exist without Corey Fonville.”

aTunde Adjuah’s upcoming Ancestral Recall, due out in March, also prominently features the drummer. And following gigs in Richmond and a late-night set at New York’s Blue Note club with Butcher Brown, Fonville sets sail with aTunde Adjuah from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, to play Blue Note at Sea. In March, they’ll perform a string of shows in France. Though his français is limited, Fonville isn’t fazed.

“Music speaks to everyone, because music is universal. I can get on stage with someone, anywhere in the world, and even if we don’t speak the same language we can communicate through the music.” DB



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