The third album from drummer Rudy Royston features a new chamber-like quintet playing music inspired by Royston’s upbringing in Texas. Pre-order begins August 31. Available worldwide October 26.
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Rudy Royston, first-call drummer with Bill Frisell, JD Allen, Dave Douglas and a host of other jazz greats, has honed a thoroughly engaging voice as a composer and bandleader with his compelling debut 303 (2014) and the raw and bracing trio follow-up Rise of Orion (2016). To these fine releases, both on Dave Douglas’ Greenleaf Music imprint, Royston now adds his third, Flatbed Buggy, rich in tonal contrast and mood yet steeped in the supple, enduring swing and groove that has driven his writing and playing from the start.
Right away the instrumentation is a striking departure: Royston leads a compact, almost chamber-like quintet featuring Gary Versace (accordion), John Ellis (bass clarinet/saxophones), Hank Roberts (cello) and Joe Martin (bass). “I was going for something that was more about melodies,” Royston declares. “I wanted to illustrate a story.” And indeed, the melodies flow forth on Flatbed Buggy, with rich harmony and surpassingly subtle orchestration and interplay occurring at every step as well.
Of the album title, Royston says: “Flatbed buggies to me mean country, they mean home, they mean earth. We lived in Denver but my father lived in Texas, and I would spend time in the country there. I remember riding on this kind of flatbed buggy thing when I was a child. The whole feeling that brought me … it was comforting, it was outside, this bitter shrubbery smell, my friends are there, my family’s there. So it’s about that, but the album also has to do with time: a time in my life, the beginning of things, the process of them. The buggy moving along up a road represents the movement of time. And the titles on the album really have to do with time and motion.”
The warmth and immediacy captured by Royston and the group, the unorthodox sound of the instrumental combinations themselves, marks Flatbed Buggy as a creative breakthrough. “Ron Miles is always my major influence,” the drummer offers, “because his music is so sing-able and melodically rich. I wanted that melodic quality but also moments underneath in the harmony where it was a little scratchy, a little dusty. My neighborhood in Texas was a little dusty.”
Together with the deep and woody instrumental timbres of Flatbed Buggy, there’s the way Royston keeps them continuously in play, beyond conventional jazz-combo roles: “I wanted us all to be constantly playing. I wanted us all to orchestrate or color or have a little input regardless of who is soloing. So if you check out the little stuff Hank is doing on Gary’s solos, for instance — all these neat little themes are happening. It sounds very orchestra-like for me. Some of it is written but 90 percent is those guys just interjecting their own taste into what’s going at the time
At points in the program are short, rhythmically propulsive interludes — “Bed Boppin’,” “Dirty Stetson,” “Hold My Mule” (an old church expression), “I Guess It’s Time to Go” — that serve as what Royston calls “leaps of time.” “They remind you that you’re moving forward,” he says. “I hope there’s no ending on anything: a lot of these pieces fade out, because even when we pass away things still seem to be going forward somehow.”
In particular, the thematically related “Boy…Man” and “Girl…Woman” bring the passage of time further into focus, each a musical story not only of growth and maturation but eternal life: “That’s why I fade out, because it’s not about endings. It’s not like, ‘She lived her life and then passed away.’ It’s kind of like nothing ends, not yet.”
While Flatbed Buggy presents far more than a succession of virtuosic solos, the passion and technical depth of the performances themselves — including standout improvisations from all involved — can’t go unremarked. John Ellis, among the great saxophonists of his generation, plays mainly bass clarinet throughout, achieving a remarkable sound and impact. Gary Versace, a top organist and pianist of our time, is equally stunning on accordion, bringing a reedy melodic sustain and full harmonic weight to the music. On the low strings, whether bowed or pizzicato, Hank Roberts and Joe Martin contribute a wealth of subtlety and energy as well, intersecting and digging in, never in the expected ways. And Royston, even though he lays back and never dominates here (he notes there’s only one drum solo on the record), still offers what amounts to a master class on the jazz drummer’s art.
There’s an endless amount to discover: the melodic development and final triumphant letting-loose of the opening “Soul Train”; the hint of New Orleans rhythm in “Flatbed Buggy”; the picture of innocence in a young child twirling, on “Twirler,” with a startlingly brilliant tempo shift into slow swing; or the fast, twisty bop theme and soprano sax showcase of “Bobble Head” (where that lone drum solo crops up).
Another major statement is “The Roadside,” inspired by memories of a drive through wide open space in Texas, with great expanses of weeds and wildflowers. “It was very beautiful to be in the midst of all that,” Royston says. “It was moving, it was in motion, these flowers on the side of a dirt road, sprawled everywhere. My dad loved to fish, so we were driving somewhere to some pond, in the back of the country somewhere. The piece takes you back to that moment and reminds you that no matter where you are now, you’re on a journey someplace.”
1. Soul Train (9:44)
2. Bed Bobbin’ (0:35)
3. Flatbed Buggy (5:45)
4. boy…MAN (5:43)
5. Twirler (5:24)
6. Dirty Steson (0:32)
7. Hourglass (7:15)
8. Bobblehead (5:51)
9. The Roadside Flowers (6:54)
10. Hold My Mule (0:36)
11. girl…WOMAN (11:07)
12. I Guess It‘s Time To Go (1:35)
13: I Wanted To Be Home Soon (9:26) * Bonus track, Bandcamp download only.
Rudy Royston, drums
John Ellis, bass clarinet / saxophones
Gary Versace, accordion
Hank Roberts, cello
Joe Martin, bass
Produced by Rudy Royston
Executive Producer: Dave Douglas
Engineered, edited and mixed by David Kowalski at Teaneck Sound Studios, Paramus, NJ, April 2018
Mastered by Kevin Blackler at Blackler Mastering, Brooklyn, NY, May, 2018
All songs by Rudy Royston (Rudy Royston Publishing / ASCAP)
Cover Design by Rudy Royston
Cover Buggy Photo by Isabella Oprete