During the past half-century, drummer Andrew Cyrille has held down some of the most varied and diﬃcult gigs in jazz, including an 11 year association with Cecil Taylor. Andy Hamilton meets the master musician to talk about his concepts of rhythm and revolution. Photography by Chris Mottalini
Andrew Cyrille is a thinker whose strong opinions on jazz and improvisation are expressed with a vigour, passion and openness that belie his 70 years. The same energy and thoughtfulness sustained his groundbreaking musical partnership with pianist Cecil Taylor, which began in the mid-1960s. Working with Taylor opened up possibilities for Cyrille that have helped make him one of the most wide-ranging drummers and percussionists in contemporary jazz and Improv. The structured nature of much free jazz is one of the neglected twists in the history of the music – for Taylor, ecstasy was tempered by coolness and precision, a synthesis Cyrille totally understood and accepted. That duality is found also in the work of the AACM from the late 60s onwards, whose members Cyrille subsequently worked with, and it’s still audible in the latter’s music. It’s evident on Irène Schweizer-Andrew Cyrille, an early Intakt recording from 1988 – a collaboration reprised in this year’s Berne Concert from the same label. Schweizer shares Taylor’s pellucid staccato touch, and in a duo setting, Cyrille’s ‘call and response’ can be heard with great clarity. These incandescent improvisations show the disciplined freedom that’s a defining motif of the percussionist’s career.
The nature of free jazz is one of the themes of our discussion when we meet up near the close of the 2008 Saalfelden Festival in Austria. I catch up with Cyrille at the soundcheck for Dave Douglas’s striking recreation of Don Cherry’s Symphony For Improvisers, which features Hamid Drake as a second
percussionist. Later, we record an interview at the group’s lavishly appointed hotel, high in the Austrian Alps – the European festival circuit can be fairly luxurious, especially when compared with scuffling for infrequent low paid gigs in New York during the emergence of the 1960s avant garde. Cyrille began his career during that very creative period in jazz. He has worked with some of its greatest names but his 11 year stint as Cecil Taylor’s drummer, whose group he joined in 1964, stands out. Taylor allowed him to form his own voice, Cyrille explains. “He gave me the licence to feel I could play with anybody on this planet. I feel that I can go any place in this world, and play with anybody. And after the collaboration, most of the people will say, ‘Yeah’. I’m not going to ask for any more than that.” The pair first met in the late 1950s, through trumpet player Ted Curson, when Cyrille was about 18 and in high school (he was born in 1939). The drummer had begun working with a number of well-known players, including Illinois Jacquet, Kenny Dorham and Freddie Hubbard. So when, in 1964, Taylor was rehearsing at Hartnett Studios, Manhattan for a gig at Brandeis University and drummer Sunny Murray didn’t show up, he called Cyrille over from another part of the school. “That’s how it began – and it lasted for 11 continuous years!” exclaims Cyrille. Except for a concert in Pittsburgh, early on, when Milford Graves subbed, he worked with the pianist on every gig during that span. Accompanying bebop pianist Mary Lou Williams early in his career, Cyrille would say, “Mary Lou, I’d like to play the ride beat a different way”. And she’d reply that if he did, he’d never get any work. Luckily, playing the beat that way was just what Cecil was looking for – but as Williams predicted, work with him wasn’t plentiful. “Sometimes we’d only work two or three times a year!” Cyrille recalls. “I was doing other things – shows, dance classes, gigs with other musicians. When Cecil had a job, he would call me and I’d get a sub for whatever I was doing.” Cecil was top priority, he says, “in terms of having my eye on a prize in terms of making a contribution to ‘jazz’
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