Drum Composers Series Pt. 2: Adam Cruz

Photo by: Shelagh Murphy

Drummer Adam Cruz released the aptly titled Milestone (Sunnyside) this past spring.  A striking debut, Cruz re-introduces himself as not just a deftly talented drummer, but an impressive composer.  Milestone is comprised of eight original compositions and a fantastic ensemble to interpret them, with saxophonists Miguel Zenón, Steve Wilson and Chris Potter, pianist Ed Simon, guitarist Steve Cardenas, and bassist Ben Street.  An album with a superb amount of depth and freshness, Milestone has (conceptually-speaking) been years in the making.  But in life and in music, timing is everything, and perhaps for Cruz, it is most distinctly illustrated in his outing as a bandleader.  For what seems like a long overdue venture is actually right on schedule; a project culminating life experience, introspection, awakening, and a gentle push from those closest to him.

With a career spanning over twenty years now, and over forty album credits as a sideman, the New York native has already earned his rightful place among the company of jazz music’s most exceptional modern drummers.  Regarding his decision to compose, he references one of his earlier pivotal moments, which followed his relatively short run in pianist Chick Corea’s band. “[It had] less to do with piano per se, and even less maybe, to do with music,” explains Cruz.   “But just more of a psychological point I was at, I think.  So after I did that run with Chick, which was just a little over a year, there was a bit more of a space in my life professionally. It was before I started with Danilo and  I wasn’t steady with anyone at that moment, so I felt compelled to look deeper at that time, like hmmm, what am I doing here with music, with my drumming, my writing?  And just kind of realizing that composition was a major way I’d like to express myself.  In the late 90s, I felt I had to invest myself more in that direction; kind of a self-awareness that came up.  Because maybe up until that time, it was just more like simply ‘playing gigs.’  And so when that gig [with Chick] finished I felt that kind of a vista, a space…like now what?  So I looked a little more inside and realized this was something I wanted to develop more, with composition.  And so little by little I started to put my feet in that direction.”

A gutsy, haunting and pensive album, Milestone exhibits a musical cohesiveness so evident, and no doubt rooted in the longstanding relationships between Cruz and his band mates.  That closeness also gave Cruz a trusted push to go for what was now calling him.  “The earlier pieces I had written, I didn’t feel that there was a particular sound of identity that made them…I would say it was just a little more run of the mill by my own standards and didn’t have…identity is the word.  I didn’t feel something coming through like I did with these pieces.  Up until the last minute, I wasn’t sure how well they were gonna work, but when we had the first rehearsal, a year before recording, I was really pleased.  I said okay, there is something here.  And then the encouragement of the band.  Everyone was really supportive of the music and revealed that to me so there was an instinct that said now’s the time.  And I wanted it to be with people I feel a certain relationship with and have a certain friendship with.  So Steve Wilson for instance, and also Miguel and Ed Simon in part, are all people whose bands I’ve played in.  I think when you have a relationship with somebody rather than bringing somebody in who’s maybe a great player but you haven’t played with much and is gonna do a great job on a record date…for me, I was trying to get somewhat of a band feeling and when you have the relationship, there’s a certain depth you perceive in bands like that.  So I was trying to honor a band aesthetic from the start.  That, and my own intuition of what would work well.”

Cruz and bassist Ben Street have had the longest union.  Together they are two-thirds of Danilo Perez’ trio, recently hitting the decade mark as a band.  His time with Danilo was, among many things, a major source of support for Cruz’ decision to write.  “Sometimes as a drummer, one can have a complex about harmony, and when you’re putting the notes together,” reveals Cruz.  “I remember reading something that [Jeff] “Tain” [Watts] had said.  Something that I really related to.  He was talking to Kenny Kirkland about writing, and he was wondering if like, is this okay, making certain harmonic moves?  Kenny just said trust your ears, trust your instinct.  That kind of happened with me and Danilo.  Danilo encouraged me not to think so much about nomenclature or harmony in a certain kind of fixed way but to assemble the notes and look for sounds before you know what you’re naming them and trust what you’re hearing, and that opened a lot for me because as a drummer you have to learn how to trust that.  Because we’re coming from a non-melodic instrument so for me, it took some time.  I think that’s part of why it took so long also.  Just trusting my own instinct and ears to what I’m doing as a composer.”

If Milestone were cinematic, it would begin with the victorious ending.  The triumph is in the air from the outset of the first song.  The songs are deeply colorful and communicative.  I haven’t heard many albums where I feel like I can almost hear the words of what these melodies may be saying.  And although the album is dark in mood (one of my favorite vibes) there are these peaks of elation, and hope and epiphany; particularly, on the album’s opening track, “Secret Life.”

One striking detail is that Cruz doesn’t seem to be proving any of the wrong points on this album.  When you listen, you know that this is a drummer’s album, but for all of the right reasons.  The drum execution is delectable, and seems to float within all of the layers of the music, rather than pounding on top of it.

“I realize that the reason that it came out with that kind of a balance is maybe because I feel like I had so much energy, and more of my private life, focused on composing and playing the piano while in my professional life, there was no evidence of that,” offers Cruz.  “I was playing drums on gigs of course, and there’s a way one can say that because of studying piano or composing that it’s coming through my drumming.  But you know I was just spending so much time writing and studying piano that I think when it came time to put the pieces together, and I felt like this is a new part of me or a new part of my artistic process that I really wanted to be focused on that dimension.  And perhaps I’d let the drums not be this center stage or that focus because I had been spending so many months — years really — with putting the notes together.  So I kind of pieced it together that way.”

Cruz’ “tailor-made” compositions further exemplify the closeness of the band.  There is thoughtfulness in all of the pieces, driven by a personal connection to the other musicians, creating one of the most synergistic albums that I’ve heard in a very long time.  “I would write first on the piano and then a little bit on Logic, and as I was hearing the parts, I was just enjoying myself imagining the players,” Cruz reflects.  There’s something about Miguel Zenón’s sound when I would listen back to my own midi recording of “Secret Life,” I thought about him on that melody, and it really made sense.  It might just be a moment when someone might jump out as an image and that would be enough for me to say ok let’s try him on the whole thing.  I also felt just having dynamic soloists like Chris Potter and Miguel Zenón …all of them really because I have these long sections that were wide open and I wanted musicians who could bring a certain sense of power but at the same time they’re all very sensitive, and tuned into what’s going on around them. They’re not gonna go off on their own so to speak but yield to what is happening in the band.”

It may be a more recent phenomenon that jazz drummers are composing, but pondering the subject, Cruz reflected on some of the drummers who have done it before, and who he is influenced by, giving me an insightful history lesson in the meantime.  “One of my favorite all time heroes is Roy Haynes, though not known for composing.  For me, ever few bars is a composition with Roy Haynes, the way he plays!  I just saw Billy Hart at the [Village] Vanguard last week, and he’s always written, and he’s one of my favorites.  I think he just did a new record too.  Victor Lewis; he’s a great composer.  He was a teacher of mine.  I took a couple lessons, I used to go see Victor play a lot when I was coming up and he has wonderful tunes, so yeah there are some exceptions.  Al Foster, who writes…Jack DeJohnette, who played piano first.  Paul Motian is a very inspiring composer as well. So yeah those are some models. There’s a tune “Sister Cheryl,” by Tony Williams which is a good tune.  He actually studied more formally in later years. I think he was trying to get a Masters [degree] in composition and was getting really into classical composition.  Before he passed I know he was studying more seriously.  That’s why it was such a tragic loss, because it looked like he was looking to expand even further.

Cruz’ cross-pollenating of music styles and aesthetics in his drumming is often an intriguing topic for many of jazz music’s analysts.  On Milestone, there are such broad strokes of diverse expression.  Songs like “Emjé” and “The Gadfly” having an undeniable and infectious Latin drive, while on songs like “Outer Reaches” Cruz is steeped in the sound of the African American tradition, playing a brilliant fury of imaginative lines, where you can hear the influence of drummers like

Photo by: Fernando Aceves

Roy Haynes.  Often regarded as a Latin drummer who plays jazz versus a “Latin jazz drummer,” I wondered about the connotation of that kind of seemingly congratulatory analysis.  “If you’re somebody who’s Latino or somebody who’s mixed or of any ethnicity really, like, you can sense those implications,” says Cruz.  “I’d like to think that if people make that distinction, it’s not necessarily about the dilution of the Latin aesthetic being a good thing, but more of an acknowledgment of a certain kind of creative process going on, a certain kind of flexibility that gets associated with jazz and is not perhaps as commonly associated with what is typically considered Latin jazz.  I think we’re living in a time when there’s a breakdown of old perceptions, and so we sometimes witness the old ways of seeing things, the old boxes that are in place.  So because you know, there might have been a time when things were a little more clear-cut.  Oh, you got a Latin date, you get this guy, you got a jazz date you get that guy, and there was some truth to that.  But in the times we live in now, the boundaries are so much more fluid and you have musicians from Latin America like David Sanchez for instance, who I play with.  Or Danilo for that matter, who are incredible jazz musicians in every way, and breaking barriers.  Miguel Zenón, for instance, or Antonio Sanchez, you know? And you have drummers like Marcus Gilmore playing with Gonzalo Rubalcaba dealing with clave and all, and David Virelles from Cuba who seriously knows his Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk.  I think that the perception perhaps of some people who write about music is not totally caught up with the reality of how fluid things are.  I’m Latino, I’m Jewish, Italian, black and white, and I grew up here around New York.  I feel just as much of a relationship to bebop and Art Blakey and Roy Haynes as to Tito Puente and Willie Bobo.  Beyond that, I think we need to realize that just in the music itself there is often more in common than there is in difference.  If I hear Roy Haynes playing a drum solo it often sounds to me like a great timbale solo.  At its source, the music at the roots, I feel like since the discovery of the New World, the codes that came with the slaves, and the music that came all over the New World is the major phenomenon.  There’s all these different branches how in Brazil the music took shape, and how in the Caribbean, The States, New Orleans.  But I think we’re getting to a point where if we look, we can see an underlying, unifying principal.  And I think musician’s today are starting to not identify as much the locality as with that principal that underlies it.”

Adam Cruz and his Milestone group play tomorrow, August 10th at the Harbor Conservatory at 1 East 104th Street.  7:30pm.  Concert is FREE.  For more details, click here .

Gil Noble: Jazz, Journalism, Lessons and Legacy

Rest in peace to the GREAT Gil Noble.  A last name such as yours could not be more befitting.  A great debt is owed you from not only the Black community, but the world.  What would journalism be without you?

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Originally posted October, 2011

After 43 years on the air, last Sunday, ABC’s Like It Is came to a sudden and saddening end.  Emmy award winning producer and host Gil Noble suffered a stroke this past July, and the fate of the program had been subsequently undetermined.  The last episode, which re-aired yesterday, was hosted by ABC newscaster Lori Stokes and featured Noble’s daughter Lisa, Bill Cosby, Danny Glover, Al Sharpton, journalists Bill McCreary and Les Payne, and New York City Councilman Charles Barron, who praised Noble’s maverick style of journalism, having profiled political prisoners like Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu Jamal.  Noble, who has interviewed some of the most prolific figures in American history, from Adam Clayton Powell, to Muhammad Ali, to Bob Marley, is known for being one of the most provocative journalists of our time.  With Noble ultimately becoming unable to return to the public affairs program, ABC has created a replacement called Here and Now, which is receiving push back from the Black community for its seemingly half-hearted development.  There is also concern that the new program, while promising to pay particular interest to topics relevant to the Black community, will not be in the same raw spirit, which is Noble’s legacy.  If that’s to be so, it’s a real shame.  There has been no other program that has given voice to the totality of Black America — politics, current and public affairs, arts, culture and more — than Like It Is.  Further, I can’t think of a journalist more progressive, introspective, and passionate than Gil Noble.  He was also the first image of a Black journalist that I had ever seen, which made an indelible impression on my conscious and subconscious young mind. Growing up watching Like It Is every Sunday was as routine as afternoon football, church, or any other traditional Sunday activity.  Being part of a household which nurtured both the arts, and social and cultural awareness, Like It Is was a reflection of my real life lessons and experiences, particularly as it pertained to jazz.

Noble, an accomplished pianist who initially pursued a career in music, is an avid jazz lover.  He has been on the Board of Directors and involved with Jazz Foundation of America for many years, and he frequently showcased jazz musicians on his program. Unlike the comically short and incomprehensive interview segments that are so typical when it comes to jazz profiles on television, Noble would dedicate his entire program to the likes of Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Abbey Lincoln, Dr. Billy Taylor, Lena Horne, Max Roach, Carmen McRae, Erroll Garner, and Wynton Marsalis.  His narratives, in-depth and introspective, helped develop my broad view of how jazz musicians could be perceived beyond my own personal understanding.  Noble presented jazz in journalism from a vantage unlike anyone else.  He was not only a student and lover of jazz music but a strong advocate for young people having a solid education on the subject.

During his interview with jazz pioneer Sarah Vaughan, she takes him on a tour of her Newark, New Jersey home town, which included a stop by her elementary school.  The children playing in the school yard of the building gravitate toward the cameras, and chat it up with the host and his subject.  As they begin to walk away, Noble stops in his tracks and addresses the students through the school’s gate.  “Do you know who this lady is?,” he asks.  He then responds to the rounds of flat “No’s” with, “No?  That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?” Noble’s blunt yet eloquent scrutiny was his signature.  As he walks away he underscores, “If you don’t know who she is, when you go back to class, ask your music teacher who she is, and why she never told you about her.”

I may have been fortunate to have been exposed to the arts and jazz from a child, therefore enjoying the reinforcement on television, but it was not until adulthood that I realized how immensely crucial and precious this program was for that one example alone.  That the likes of this type of education was reaching a network television audience every week remains monumental.  So you can understand my elation to make his acquaintance about five years ago.

When trumpeter Charles Tolliver was preparing to release his big band album, With Love, he had a distinct vision for his project, down to the liner notes, which he implored Gil Noble to write.  Tolliver, who got his professional start through his friend and mentor, saxophonist Jackie McLean, wanted to pay homage in a personal way.  Noble grew up with McLean in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, and they were best friends from childhood on.  Tolliver thought it would be most fitting and honorable if Noble would pen the notes for his Blue Note debut (which he did, beautifully).

Working on this album with Tolliver, I remember that blustery day, trekking up to ABC in the Lincoln Center vicinity to talk details with Mr. Noble and Mr. Tolliver.  There were full circle moments to go around that day, for both Tolliver and myself.  For me, meeting the man who inspired my perspective about jazz coverage in mainstream media, would prove life-changing.

We sat in a waiting area initially, and then we were brought into Noble’s office.  We waited about ten minutes for him to join us, during which time I timidly perused his immense library of books.  The room was adorned with African artifacts, artwork and posters, including the famed photo of 52nd Street nightlife in New York City, which was the hub for bebop in the 1940s.  When he entered the room, my stomach dropped.  He is a tall man, but his presence was ten times that of his height, though his demeanor is intensely quiet, similar to his on-air persona.  He sat disarmingly relaxed behind his desk, and Tolliver and I opened the conversation.

We talked about music, and Charles’ project, but mostly about Jackie.  J-Mac, as he was nicknamed, had just passed away, and I could see the sadness in Noble’s eyes as he spoke of him.  The loss of his best friend was obviously hard, and the vacancy in Noble’s heart was transparent.  Noble talked about their childhood, their adventures together as teenagers, and he spoke specifically about the way drugs plagued the lives and careers of so many jazz musicians, and how McLean, who suffered from and conquered drug addiction, educated him about the music industry, as it related to the fragility of growing up Black in that era.  It was a conversation that I will never, ever, ever forget.  Getting a one-one-one education from someone as brilliant and wise as Noble, in the presence of a jazz master in Charles Tolliver, discussing a jazz giant in Jackie McLean was an experience I don’t think many are fortunate to have.  Yet now more than ever, these experiences are crucial. The climate of mainstream jazz journalism (and especially criticism) today is not only broadly monochromatic and misguidedly audacious, as usual, but technological advances give voice to virtually anyone who feels like being an authority on jazz, which isn’t always a good thing.  (Examples: Writers who haven’t lived as many years as some artists have had professional careers making proclamations about who is and isn’t innovative, or telling off the Black community of jazz musicians, blaming them for why they are being left out of the dialogue.)

[Taking a deep breath].

Additionally, writers seem to be writing for other writers, rather than using their platforms to work in tandem with the music and nurture a community at large which — fathom this — actually gives a damn.  The dangerous duo of ego and lack of diversity remains the affliction that keeps journalism in jazz from reaching full potential.  Too many journalists in jazz have traditionally put themselves in front of the artists, and ahead of the music. Moreover, there is still a severe lack of proportion when it comes to editorial and coverage of African American jazz musicians.  This subject itself highlights the unfortunate division within jazz as it pertains to race, with Blacks and Whites largely on total opposite ends on the matter. However, if the spectrum of journalists reflected the diversity of the musicians playing this music, we would have a much better representation of the music overall. Balance is crucial, and autonomy in jazz journalism is ridiculous.

What watching Gil Noble all of these years, and having that candid and personal conversation with him has taught me is infinite.  But in more specific terms, what it taught me is that as a writer, especially a writer of color, I have to be passionate about truth.

Your allowance of my elaboration, please.

Tim Soter/WireImage

The beauty of being a writer, or of performing any artistic expression, is freedom.  In that freedom, there is the allowance to see, hear, feel and interpret things as one wishes.  It is truly liberating, and as a writer, I am the last one to impose the gall that I so detest in journalism on other writers.  In other words, “Do you.”  But what I am saying is that as a Black person, writing about a Black art form, which is mainly analyzed, critiqued and examined through the scope of White men, I have a duty beyond being poetic or incitable. There is another level of responsibility, and here lies the essence of Noble’s genius.  His depictions of artists were always supported with a social contextualization (let’s go back to his doubling-back to those students with that message about Sarah Vaughan).  Jazz is one art form that cannot be written about it a bubble, because it is distinctively intertwined with a culture.  Why this is a concept that is resisted and resented in journalism is bewildering to me.

But thank goodness for Gil Noble.  He is my hero.  Acutely informed, with an immense amount of integrity and creativity, he has laid the groundwork that I can only hope to aspire to build upon.  His passion for jazz and politics, and his ability to create a television program which successfully married these subjects for all audiences, for decades, is most inspiring.  Most importantly, his convictions spoke through his journalism, but his journalism did not speak through his convictions.  He didn’t have to spend time identifying who he is to his audience…it’s eloquently obvious in everything he produced.  That’s class.

It is my hope that Like It Is will remain on the air somehow (perhaps through syndication, a-hem, a-hem, BET and TV1, step up).  Most importantly, I hope his wish for the program’s archives to be utilized in schools comes to fruition. It is a sorely needed narrative.

Interestingly, Like It Is debuted just two months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and was largely inspired by this event.  The last broadcast of Like It Is aired on the same day as Dr. King’s memorial dedication.