There are lots of fabulous jazz drummers working today, some of them legendary. I can name 50 greats before coming up for air. But the number of percussionists who can hold an audience for an entire solo concert is much smaller.
Andrew Cyrille, who turns 80 years old next month, is both legendary and a riveting soloist. On Friday, September 27, the applause of 90 patrons went on and on and on, as he filled the New Africa House Theater at UMass with melody, anecdotes and of course, rhythm.
The concert was co-produced by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares and the UMass Fine Arts Center’s Augusta Savage Gallery. Cyrille’s concert was the culminating event in the Gallery’s fabulous week of live performances curated by Terry Jenoure.
The Brooklyn-born icon has a long history of drum-only endeavors. His 1969 debut recording, What About? (BYG), is a solo effort. His second album, Dialogue of the Drums (IPS, 1974), is a duet with fellow percussionist Milford Graves. The very first Solos & Duos Series concert I produced at UMass in 2002 was Cyrille alone.
Cyrille made opening remarks in front of his kit, then began to play the instrument from that side, hitting bass drum, hardware and then the rest of it, as he slowly made his way around to his throne.
Over the course of his 70-minute recital, he paid tribute to past masters Kenny Clarke and Max Roach. Clarke, who was the house drummer at Minton’s in the 1940s, is one of the unsung architects of bebop. On “Laurent,” written by Klook as he was known, Cyrille played squarely in the jazz tradition, sizzling on his ride cymbals. His original, “Drum Song for Leadbelly,” played mostly on snare and rims, was an extroverted composition that marched and danced with an early 20th century nod. Both songs are found on Pieces of Time (Soul Note, 1994), a project Cyrille put together with Famadou Don Moye, Milford Graves and Kenny Clarke.
The evening consisted of discreet compositions, each with distinct rhythmic and melodic intent. The riffs and phrases that defined each piece were full of groove and melody, and allowed us to marvel at all the tangents and variations he spun. He played a brand-new Ludwig kit, with two rack toms, donated by the company; Bob Weiner lent us extra cymbals, putting five at his disposal. Cyrille took advantage of it all.
The drummer is at a very good point in his career. His lifetime of achievement was marked at the Vision Festival in June, where he joined with Wadada Leo Smith, Peter Brötzmann, Kidd Jordan, Tomeka Reid, Brandon Ross, Milford Graves, Lisa Sokolov, along with poets, dancers and visual artists, in eight different ensembles over one evening. He is now recording for ECM, one of the last major jazz labels still standing. His two recent well-received releases, The Declaration of Musical Independence (2016) and Lebroba (2018), both featuring Bill Frisell, has introduced him to new audiences. He is getting good gigs and still enjoys teaching at the New School (Benny Woodard from South Hadley was one of his more serious students.)
Cyrille, who had extensive dealings with Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, ended the evening with “For Girls Dancing,” an original inspired by his study of African music. True to its name, it was buoyant, infectious and life affirming, ending the concert on the highest of notes.