Q&A with Adam Rudolph: Musical Modularity

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Adam Rudolph's latest album is Glare Of The Tiger, which he recorded with his band Moving Picture. (Photo: Courtesy Meta Records)

As much a philosopher as a musician, percussionist Adam Rudolph can deliver phrases and quotes with piercing acuity. Case in point, when it comes to generating ideas during the creative process, Rudolph talks about “shooting the arrow and then painting a bullseye around it.” When speaking of aspiration, he paraphrases a quote from the late, great Max Roach: “I’d rather be a musician than a drummer, and I’d rather be an artist than a musician.” Indeed, Rudolph the conceptualizer is anything but a “sideman,” even as he remains the quintessential collaborator.

Rudolph’s latest release, Glare Of The Tiger (Meta/MOD), comes by way of his octet Moving Pictures. Bristling with energy but balanced with moments of uncanny serenity, the album’s 11 tracks, composed and arranged by Rudolph, include several interludes that feed a narrative laced with transcendent funk grooves, virtuosic soloing, dramatic pauses and hearty ensemble passages. A double-LP version is set for future release.

Audiences in New York will be able hear yet another of Rudolph’s longstanding aggregates when his Go: Organic Orchestra performs at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music on April 8. On his website, the New York City-based group (which Rudolph conducts improvisationally) is described as “a multi-cultural, multi-generational, multi-racial chamber orchestra that combines western and non-western instrumentation.” That covers a lot of territory. It’s territory Rudolph has been familiar with ever since he embarked on a life in music from his home in Chicago in the late 1960s.

Incredibly, the Go: Organic Orchestra ranges from 18 to as many as 54 musicians. The April 8 concert will feature 23, including a string sextet, various flutes and horns, guitars, pianos and, of course, percussion and drums.

The third active group specifically designed to serve as a vehicle for Rudolph’s original compositions is his Hu: Vibrational percussion ensemble. All of his music is released on Meta Records, a label he formed in 1992.

Speaking with Rudolph, 61, certain names were recalled: Yusef Lateef, Don Cherry, Fred Anderson, Charles Moore and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet, among them. “These were my personal mentors in this oral tradition of music,” he says with much feeling. Here are more excerpts from his conversation with DownBeat.

What was the original idea that led to all these groups being formed?

As an artist, I have a lot of different interests. So, I create different ensembles to be able to compose and create and express all those different ideas.

Do you write with certain musicians in mind?

Yes. In Moving Pictures, I compose and orchestrate with particular musicians in mind. Some of them, like [drummer/percussionist] Hamid Drake, who I’ve known since 1969, and [reed player] Ralph Jones, who I started playing with in 1972 or ’73 in Detroit—we have a certain understanding. As with all the musicians in the group, how they play and interpret the material is an inspiration for me to then go ahead and compose and arrange new pieces of music, specifically for them.

[Cornetist] Graham Haynes and [guitarist] Kenny Wessel have been performing with the group since I moved back to New York [from Venice, California] in 2005. [Percussionist] James Hurt and [bassist] Damon Banks have played in my Go: Organic Orchestra for the last 12 years. And [keyboardist] Alex Marcelo, he’s also played with the Go: Organic Orchestra since 2005. We met originally working together with Yusef Lateef. He started playing with the octet about three or four years ago.

What is it about these artists that makes them special?

They’re all curious people. They all want to keep learning. They’re not just gigging. I call them the [Research & Development] people. They’re there for the love and interest of the music. When you approach music, especially live music, from the vantage point of it being a kind of spiritual awakening—in the context of the extraordinary, creative realm—it becomes this incredible lifelong journey. 

Compositionally, how do you the spread the music around?

There’s a lot of overlap in the material that I compose for the Go: Organic Orchestra and Moving Pictures. But one primary difference is that I play percussion in Moving Pictures, and in Go: Organic Orchestra I conduct. Each project feeds and inspires the other, including my duet work with Hamid and Ralph. 

Describe your creative process.

The music has to be performed in order for it to be developed. The compositions all contain a process and ways of approaching the music. Rhythm, interval systems, different kinds of orchestration. The more you play these compositions the more you can discover. Elements or parts of the compositions I’ve written are still really interesting because they’re saying to me we haven’t uncovered all of the aspects of how to work with them.

For example, there’s a bass ostinato line I wrote for [a record by my earlier band] Eternal Wind, in 1982, with what we call 9 against 6, one of my fundamental signal rhythms. It’s one of the first ones I ever wrote. It inspired me to create a new interval matrix for the score for the Go: Organic Orchestra. Another favorite is a 27-beat cycle. These signal rhythms can reappear in different guises, languages and compositions because they’re mathematical entities, orchestrated in a different way or tempo. At the same time, Yusef Lateef introduced me to a lot of very advanced ideas on how to think about intervals. 

The form of your music seems to be an evolving thing.

I’m so interested in form against form, sound against sound, that orchestral idea with forms moving against one another. Two things can happen simultaneously. The first group I heard do that successfully was the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It’s this idea of modularity. You have to find out the relationship between [the elements]. It’s like painting and mixing colors. And in time, where rhythm is developed.

To me that’s very liberating. You’re always looking at the elements and what can be reexamined or reinvented. In Indian music, there are ragas and talas. You can combine different ragas and play them in different talas. You try and keep reinventing them: What else can you find in there? That’s the spirit of R&D, research and development.

As far as keeping these groups as groups and not just projects, the logistics must be incredible.

It’s not the most practical thing to do (laughs). But, my philosophy is to shoot the arrow and paint the bullseye around it. If you have a strong, creative vision, then you have to find a way to make it manifest. It’s extremely difficult. If I was king, I’d pack up the Go: Organic Orchestra and we’d be traveling the world. We should have subsidies like the New York Philharmonic.

I know you’ve been writing a book that deals with the philosophical ideas behind the Go: Orchestra concept. What else is on the horizon?

I’ll be doing a Midwest tour with Hamid Drake in April, and in May I’ve been invited to do a collaboration with 15 musicians in Izmir, Turkey. The Go: Organic Orchestra will be doing more concerts in New York, and in the fall hopefully touring the country with Moving Pictures. And I’ve already mixed and finished this classical, through-composed music for three string quartets, a percussion quartet, a solo violinist and a chamber orchestra. No improvisation. Working title: Syntactic Adventures. It’ll be released in the fall.

You seem to be caught up in a lifelong journey.

I didn’t choose music. Music chose me. DB

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May 2017
José James
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