Drummer Rudy Royston’s Always Listening


Rudy Royston leads his own uniquely assembled ensembles, and it’s pretty likely that you’ve heard his drumming on recordings by folks like Dave Douglas and Linda May Han Oh.

(Photo: Rudy Royston)

Growing up in Colorado, drummer Rudy Royston kept busy, playing in church four nights a week and exploring the local music landscape—everything from jazz to alternative rock.

With four older siblings who listened to “pretty much everything,” the facile and in-demand drummer was introduced to a huge variety of music as a kid. “I kind of don’t see music as what I like and what I don’t. I like everything,” Royston said, a fact evidenced by the wide range of music he’s played over the years.

He eventually earned degrees in music and poetry from the University of Denver, and then spent the next 10 years as a public-school music teacher. That stint in education coincided with a blossoming relationship with trumpeter Ron Miles, who Royston said is one of his closest friends, a “music mentor,” and someone whom he greatly admires.

Since his 2006 arrival in New York, Royston’s worked with everyone from trumpeter Dave Douglas and bassist Linda May Han Oh to saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. And during the past five years, the drummer’s released his first recordings as a leader: 303, Rise Of Orion and Flatbed Buggy—all through Douglas’ Greenleaf Music.

Royston recently spoke with DownBeat about his approach to sitting behind the kit, some recent recordings, as well as touring as a member of other’s ensembles.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve played on a lot of other musicians’ projects during your career—recently with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Linda May Han Oh. How do you prepare for these different environments?

Man, I used to do this thing, where I would just sort of inundate myself with that musicians’ music; a month or so before I would just listen to their stuff, just to get to my head in the space of what they might want or how to pull out of the music the most that I can for them. Now, not so much. Now, I just sort of trust that I’ve done that enough that it’s going to come out of me somewhere. I know Linda now, so I feel her personality and her spirit; same with Bill, so I can totally just be who I am.

It seems from your recordings that you’re a pretty interactive drummer, how do you conceive of that within a group?

You know I’ve been playing drums for 30 something, 40 years; I don’t even know. But even now, I still have to remember that “less is better.” I don’t play drums, I like to play music. I like to play melodies. I like to have conversations. So, it takes a second. I have to feel that out, like, how much can I actually play, you know? What’s the sound that we’re trying to achieve with this band? Do I want to open the swing more and get more inside, and more busy and active or am I trying to get like an Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers sort of sound or something a little newer, like a Rudresh Mahanthappa sound?

You contributed the composition “Night Glow” to the Different Flavors record. What was your experience working in a collective, rather than on someone else’s project or leading a band?

Everyone’s tunes have characteristics; they’re going to be different. You have a little bit of time, if you hadn’t rehearsed—and even if you have—to hear what this person’s vibe is in their music. So, to try to achieve that for them can be fun, you know, it’s challenging, but it’s fun. Working in that collective, we all know that it’s not our band. I kind of like those. That’s the true sound of that collective. That’s everyone being their true selves, because you don’t really have time to learn, you haven’t really played together that much.

Your most recent leader project, 2018’s Flatbed Buggy, features bass clarinet, accordion, cello, bass and you on drums. What led you to those instruments?

The instruments, I just like. I like the sound of those instruments. I like sort of warm sounds. Like, low-mid kind of sounds. I just like it a little warmer, a little deeper. That’s why I had two bass players on my very first record.

On 303?

Yeah, ’cause it’s like the highs are turned down just a little. I just like bass clarinet and cello together. It’s gonna have that real kind of nice, tenory sort of bass tone to it. But I also like those instruments, too, for this record, because I knew what it was going to be about. It’s going to be about the woods and country. So, I wanted wood instruments. Bass clarinet is made of wood, cello is wood. The accordion even, it’s made of wood, you know?

The guys, I played with them in different situations. Each one of those dudes are compositional soloists. They’re very strong in their concept of what they play, of their voice on their instrument. And they’re all giving, even as human beings. They’re all just sharing, giving personalities. I kind of wanted [Flatbed Buggy] to be something more, have a band sound, just chill and play really good music.

Do you think releasing records as a bandleader has affected your visibility in the scene?

I don’t know, man I hope so. It’s a good balance. Playing on great musicians’ records, you’re going to be seen, you’re going to be heard. I’m not that versed yet with the business of it all. I think it helps when people can see that you have your own music ... you’ve done your own project. They’ve heard you on other people’s records, but they don’t really know you until they hear you on your own. Then they get an idea of what kind of musician you actually are. And they can hear your actual personality in the music. Then they know if they really dig you or not. DB

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