Striking Melodies: Marcus Gilmore Speaks

While Marcus Gilmore is perhaps best-known as the go-to drummer for the likes of Chick Corea, Vijay Iyer, Mark Turner, Ambrose Akinmusire, and many others, he has in recent years cultivated a fascinating solo drum practice, often incorporating electronics. Jazz Speaks recently caught up with Gilmore to discuss these solo projects, his broader view of […]

Marcus Gilmore

Photo courtesy of the artist.

While Marcus Gilmore is perhaps best-known as the go-to drummer for the likes of Chick Corea, Vijay Iyer, Mark Turner, Ambrose Akinmusire, and many others, he has in recent years cultivated a fascinating solo drum practice, often incorporating electronics. Jazz Speaks recently caught up with Gilmore to discuss these solo projects, his broader view of percussion instruments within music as a whole, and his thoughts on cross-collaborative art. 

The Jazz Gallery: Have you found yourself more or less incentivized to make music during the coronavirus shutdown?

Marcus Gilmore: I have been continuing to make music but I am not necessarily making more music. Normally, I would be playing gigs but, obviously, I can’t do that right now. So, there is definitely an overall decrease in quantity. But I am still continuing to write and record music. It does feel like I might be recording a little more than usual. There hasn’t been a full album recording session, at least not yet. Instead, it has been singles and songs for different people. Projects that are more singular, not like 10 compositions to make a complete album. 

TJG: Many people are familiar with your work as a sideman but you also have some interesting solo drum projects like Silhouwav or your version of David Virelles’ Excerpts of Nube, often also incorporating electronics. What has inspired you to take this less traditional route?

MG: I guess it is a non-traditional route, but there is quite a bit of history of drummers doing solo works. Max [Roach] was doing it in the ’50s and ’60s. At that time, it was even rarer. But today, there are so many different elements and components you can add to any particular instrument or setting. There is a lot available to musicians to allow them to add additional elements to our music or our concepts.

I have done solo performances previously, but adding electronics has taken them to a whole different place. The electronics came from working with a friend of mine who is also a drummer. I’ve known him for years; we went to high school together. He is behind the company that I like to use when I incorporate electronics with my solo performances or even performances with ensembles. Anyway, he reached out to me several years ago to tell me he was going to start a program for drums and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. As soon as I was able to try out his program and investigate it, I saw how I could incorporate it into my music.

I never have a shortage of musical ideas but that doesn’t always readily translate to reality. This particular set up and machinery make it possible for me to do a lot of the things that I had imagined for a while. Once it became an accessible instrument to use, I kind of jumped right on it. At some point, I realized that these different elements could sometimes make it sound like I was playing with a much larger group than just myself. So I became really curious about how to emphasize this aspect in my solo performances.

There is no Silhouwav album per se that I plan to release. I do have an album coming out that has a lot of different things on it that I have been working on in the last few years. There are a lot of people involved and it is not just one ensemble. It takes ideas from my solo works, but there is no solo album in the pipeline. I did do a tour about a year and a half ago that wasn’t exactly Silhouwav but a combination of things.

TJG: As far as making new sounds through the use of electronics, one thing people would notice is how the pieces are overtly melodic or harmonic. There is a long history of musicians who have viewed the drums as more than a rhythmic instrument. What are your thoughts on this?

MG: The drums have always been a melodic and harmonic instrument. From what I’ve seen and researched, in most parts of the world, drums are viewed as more than just rhythmic instruments. Many different cultures throughout history seem to realize that the instrument is very much melodic and harmonic. Of course, there are different types of drums. Maybe certain drums might have clearer melodic or harmonic content than others. But it ultimately comes down to how it is played. 

Many African cultures tune their drums to specific notes. For instance, the talking drum used in certain parts of Senegal or Nigeria is very tonal. Some other drums aren’t quite as tonal but are still very linguistic. But when you are discussing linguistics, you are essentially dealing with melody as the two are inseparable. In Asia, I don’t know so much about how Japanese culture uses taiko drums or how Chinese music uses drums. But Indian music definitely uses the drums as a melodic and tonal instrument. India’s national instrument is the tabla and it is as tonal as any other drum I have heard in my life. So you have these ideas in Asia and Africa of the drums as more than a rhythmic instrument. I am not too familiar with the indigenous music of Australia. 

The idea that drums are not melodic or harmonic is a newer concept that has emerged over only the last few hundred years in Western culture. The focus on rudiments and modern-day snare drums in Europe definitely has not emphasized the instrument’s role as a melodic tool. Seeing as a lot of countries in the West are colonized by Europeans I feel like it goes hand in hand with that culture. 

Though it seems like now many in the West are starting to realize that drums are more than solely rhythmic instruments. I am fortunate that I come from a musical family with a long tradition and culture of seeing the instrument as a very melodic instrument so I had great examples at a very early age. I have always had examples of people who didn’t see limits on the instrument. So I’ve spent most of my life thinking of the drums as a melodic and harmonic instrument and I’ve heard that from more people than I have heard it is primarily rhythmic.

TJG: Speaking of the tabla, you recently had a mentoring relationship with the great Zakir Hussain. What did you take away from that experience?

MG: I learned a lot of things from working with Zakir. Sometimes a person like Zakir can be very literal, talking about specific things. But even when he has specific things to say, he would say what he had to say and that was it. It was never a long-winded speech or explanation. It was very seamless and natural and organic. 

The way I learned growing up was mostly through observation and that is how it was with Zakir. I am amazed at not just his timing on the drums but his time management skills in general. He is so busy and involved in so many initiatives but still finds time for family. That alone is pretty incredible actually. I also checked out his specific process for composing and rituals and how he carries himself when he travels all of which I find to be very informative and I’ve benefited from it for sure. 

The opportunity to have this experience was also incredible just because of how it came to be. It was sponsored by Rolex and the type of support they provided is very rare. Not to call names out but you see so many multi-billion dollar corporations in the US and they almost never have an arts initiative. But being from Switzerland, Rolex was part of the European emphasis on arts initiatives. Why don’t we have more support like that here? There is so much art coming from the states but there is almost no support for it. It is insane. We are making American music with just so little financial support for it.

TJG: In the past, you have had presented performances with tap dancer Savion Glover, including some dates at The Jazz Gallery. How do you view the relationship between music and other forms of art? 

MG: I have always made cross-disciplinary art, even as far back as when I was in high school. I went to an art school that had instrumentalists, vocalists, dancers, and visual artists. There was a lot of collaboration. I never really stopped being involved in these kinds of projects but it feels like at some point getting involved in certain circles began happening less. 

Throughout the years, Savion has been the primary dancer I have been working with. But in terms of visual artists, I still try to maintain a community with visual artists and videographers. I am happy to say I have somehow managed to stay in touch with a lot of them and continue to work on things with them. I am hoping to do more music with film and also with dance, for sure.

I am open to all of it. In reality, music has more in common with these other forms of art than it differs from them. They are all connected. Music, to me, can accompany anything. It is a universal thing. Art is universal as well, but as a musician, I of course feel strongest about music. Music is powerful because it can inspire your imagination on its own but can also be used to interact with visuals. As far as dance, it can have its own audio component as well. Savion is visually focused but also very audible too. If you think about it, he is actually a percussionist.

TJG: It is interesting you identify him as a percussionist. You have also worked with some of today’s best pianists, everyone from Chick Corea to Vijay Iyer. Of course, the piano uses mallets to strike strings. Do you see a special relationship between the piano and percussion instruments?

MG: The piano is a percussion instrument. Actually, I started playing piano before I played drums because growing up we had a piano in my house. I touched the piano before I touched the drums. And, when I was very young I went to a program at Juilliard to learn how to read music. In the percussion room, there was a piano because they said it was a percussion instrument. So, I have never really viewed the piano as not being a percussion instrument. I know there are strings, so you can say it is a string instrument as well, but it is the mallet striking the strings that makes sound. So it is primarily a percussion instrument to me.

TJG: Switching gears a bit, what can you tell me about your first time at the Jazz Gallery?

MG: [laughing] The first time I went to the Gallery was actually to pick up my grandfather’s cymbals. I was with my mom, so I wasn’t by myself. I think it was around late 2002 because I already played with Steve [Coleman] by then, though I think it was the same year. My grandfather was on tour with the Birds of a Feather band and, for some reason, the cymbals didn’t come back with him. Somehow [Roy] Hargrove was able to arrange for them to be sent to the Gallery for my mom and me to pick them up. So, that was my first time at the Gallery [laughing].

TJG: Not a lot of people can say that 

MG: Nope. But after that, if my memory serves me correctly, I believe the next time I went was for a jam session. It would have been either later that year or in 2003. They had jam sessions for maybe a little under a year. They were great. Everybody was there. Even if it was only five people there it would be a small group of the dopest musicians. I had some great experiences with that.

I have many memories of the Gallery, especially from when it was on Hudson street [The Jazz Gallery moved from 290 Hudson Street to its current location at 1160 Broadway in 2014]. A lot of great memories. 

The first time I ever played with my own band was at the Gallery in 2005. It was with David Bryant, Gregoire Maret, and get this— Dayna Stephens on bass. [laughing]. Around that same time, I was also part of The Jazz Gallery’s mentoring series, a generational thing where they pair up a legendary artist with a younger one. I was matched with Chico Hamilton and his band. I came in to sit in on a few songs and also spent some time at his house to watch his band rehearse. It was really beautiful.

TJG: The Jazz Gallery is not physically open at this time but has remained very active online. On June 6th, as part of their “Lockdown Sessions,” you will be presenting a new solo performance piece. What can you tell us about it?

MG: I will perform for about fifteen minutes. I think I will just keep it to the drum set. It will probably be a primarily acoustic thing. That is pretty much all I know for now [laughing]. We’ll see. 

Different Branches: Ambrose Akinmusire Speaks

Over the course of his career, Ambrose Akinmusire has complicated traditional labels and categories, collaborating with artists as wide-ranging as Brad Mehldau, Kendrick Lamar, Mary Halvorson, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, and Steve Coleman. The diversity of his musicianship is also apparent in his albums as a leader, including the forthcoming on the tender spot of every […]

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Over the course of his career, Ambrose Akinmusire has complicated traditional labels and categories, collaborating with artists as wide-ranging as Brad Mehldau, Kendrick Lamar, Mary Halvorson, Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, and Steve Coleman. The diversity of his musicianship is also apparent in his albums as a leader, including the forthcoming on the tender spot of every calloused moment out on Blue Note Records in June.

We caught up with Akinmusire to discuss this forthcoming release, the role music can play in healing, and his memories of both Roy Hargrove and the early moments of his career at The Jazz Gallery.

The Jazz Gallery: How are you handling everything that is going on with the Coronavirus? Is it particularly motivating or demotivating you in making music?

Ambrose Akinmusire: I’m pretty self-inspired. Also, since I don’t live in New York or LA, I am used to not hearing that much music and not being inspired by my external environment. So the current pandemic does not change things for my day to day life that much. At the same time, it is forcing me to reevaluate my community and value relationships with people a little more. If we want to talk about how it has impacted me and if I know anyone who passed away, yeah. I was very close to Wallace Roney and a few other people who have died, not necessarily from COVID-19 itself, but who were sort of side-swiped from this.

TJG:  Do you think the current pandemic will have on your music going forward? 

AA: I think all art represents the circumstances in which it is created, even when the artist is not necessarily aware of its impact. If you look at the music before, during, and after the Vietnam War, you can sort of sense and feel the war’s impact. Same thing with World War II. It is always in the music somewhere.

TJG: You’ve significantly addressed racism and police brutality in your music. A number of reports have shown that the coronavirus has disproportionately hit people of color. Do you think this ties into some of the messages on your prior works?

AA: It does and it doesn’t. What I am trying to do is connect what is happening today with the past, both musically and socially. When people talk about racism, they have a tendency to focus on a statement like “Black Lives Matter” and treat it as a present thing. And it is, but it is also a continuation of what came before. I am interested in connecting the present to the past so that when future generations look back, they can see how they are all connected. You see the problem and a culture that is trying to find solutions to it. The important thing is to continue the narrative. Many of the same problems that existed before are still here and have never gone anywhere. Black music and black art has always been about that.

In some ways, I see my job as similar to that of a journalist. That is, to observe these things, distill them, and put them into art. To come up with a concoction that can help heal people. I also think that culturally that is how music works best. If you think about the blues, you are talking about resilience. You are taking a shitty situation and having the audacity to go forward.

TJG: To make something of it?

AA: Yeah, to have even just a pinhole of optimism in a shitty situation. It is also related to your other question of police brutality and all these things. I am really trying to find some optimism in everything. It is like the last part of the blues; you know “My baby left me and she’s not coming back.  My baby left me and she’s gone forever. My baby left me but tomorrow I am going to get a new baby.” That last part is my focus.

TJG: Which in a way leads to your new album on the tender spot of every calloused moment (Blue Note) which is coming out in June.  It seems more blues-based than your prior recordings. It does not just fixate on negative things but instead seems to take a realistic view that mixes what is great and what is horrible.

AA: Yeah. I have been thinking a lot these days on how to express the blues. When we think of the blues, we think of Muddy Waters or certain sonic aspects of the music. What I am really interested in though is the feeling that happens right before you play one of these cliché things and how to express that feeling in the context of today. As Ambrose Akinmusire—born to a Nigerian father and a mother from Mississippi and raised in Oakland—my experience won’t sound like BB King’s. You know? What we are dealing with is completely different and it’s trying to figure out how to create that.

TJG: The song “Tide of Hyacinth” features Jesus Diaz singing in Yoruba. What inspired you to include vocals in that language and the less traditional choice of having a Cuban musician provide this part? 

AA: My father speaks Yoruba. So I grew up with the sounds of that language in my head. So it was actually one of the most natural things I could do. We played that song a lot of times and when we would get to that section, I would hear this voice. I don’t speak Yoruba anymore and I didn’t know what it was. I told the band that I heard someone singing over it but it was in a different language or something. I kept experimenting with things and put on some stuff from Nigeria and realized that is what I was looking for. I recently played cowbell at a ceremony led by Jesus Diaz and it made me remember that he was a master at singing in that way. It really just sounds like the music I grew up listening to every day.

TJG: Most people would identify you as a trumpet player. But one of the more interesting things about the newest album is that there are two tracks where you don’t play trumpet at all. What inspired you to switch to the Fender Rhodes on these? Were trumpeters who have performed on both—Miles Davis or Nicholas Payton, for instance—an influence on this choice?

AA: No, not at all. Actually, on Origami Harvest (Blue Note), I took the keyboard solo on “Americana.” I’ve been playing piano at least 8 or 9 years longer than trumpet. So it is natural. For me, the trumpet is just an instrument that I happen to play. A lot of times, when I get commissions to do things, I have a hard time hearing the trumpet in it. Because it is not my favorite instrument actually.

TJG: If it is not your favorite, then why focus on the trumpet?

AA: To be able to better express myself. It is my main instrument, but I try my best to play it more like my favorite instruments: a cello or the female voice. I play piano on the album just because it sounded like it should be on there.

TJG: Similar to expanding beyond a particular instrument, you play a wide range of music from hip-hop to avant-garde. Do you find that people try to confine what you do or put you into some sort of box of a jazz musician?

AA: I can answer that in so many different ways. From the perspective of whether people put me into a box, yeah I am sure they do. But do I care? No, I don’t [laughing]. I really don’t care about what people are thinking I should or shouldn’t do or what I can or can’t do. I am really just trying to be as open as possible. I am playing what the music says to play. And to do so with the people the music says to play with, whether it be Mary Halvorson, my quartet, Bill Frisell, Wolfgang Muthspiel, Kendrick Lamar, Nappy Nina, or whoever. It is just music. It is just what the music tells me to do.  If the music says play a bunch of trumpet, I will do that. But if it tells me not to, I would instead do that. It is not so deep to me.

At the same time, I think it is natural for artists to expand their views on what it is they do. I think unfortunately in jazz a lot of our heroes or masters died young so we didn’t really get to see them really expand. But look at artists who lived a little bit longer. If you look at Duke and take his first record and put it alongside the Latin Suite or him playing with Trane. Or think about Dizzy and where he first came out compared to where he stopped with the all-star bands with Arturo Sandoval. It is a wide range. Or take someone like Herbie or Sonny Rollins who also had a wide range. Unfortunately in a lot of jazz education, we focus on a 7 to 8 year period of music and pretend like these masters didn’t expand. I think it is natural for them to expand. Because of technology, we can see everything all at once now and that the masters were always expanding. So I think maybe that has influenced a lot of what it is. Even if you look at the stuff that was happening in LA in the 1970s when Quincy [Jones] went out there and started bringing Freddie [Hubbard] and George Duke and others and they were doing these soundtracks and collaborating with pop people, it was the same sort of thing going on.

TJG: Your albums titles are always fantastic and an art in and of themselves. on the tender spot of every calloused moment (Blue Note) is no exception. How do you come up with your titles?

AA: I am going to keep that one as a secret [laughing]. What I can tell you is that it is a long process of brainstorming. First by myself then I access my amazing circle of people and we brainstorm together. If I am being honest, it is usually just boiled down titles. Like after I settle on twenty titles, I try to boil them into one thing. But all my titles also express who I am in my life at that time, my views on the world, and what I am dealing with internally.

TJG: I noticed one of the tracks is named in honor of Roy Hargrove who, in addition to being a brilliant artist was also one of The Jazz Gallery’s co-founders. How did you first meet Roy and what influence did he have on your music or you personally?

AA: There are so many entries into that conversation about Roy. I met him at least twenty-three years ago. We had different relationships over those years. I will say that he was the first jazz musician I heard that I felt I could relate to. Being from North Oakland growing up in the inner city and the Baptist church and during the crack era of the 1980s, there are certain sonic elements that are part of your environment. When I heard Roy play the first time, he presented the sounds of all of those things. I immediately fell in love. I had heard other musicians of course, but that was the first time I felt that I really wanted to commit to expressing myself in an improvised fashion.

Wynton Marsalis gets a lot of credit for what happened to jazz in the 1980s and 1990s and bringing other musicians up. I really believe what he was to those decades, Roy Hargrove was in many ways to the 2000s. We all looked up to him. We all played any time he was around. He was also very accessible. He was always at the jam sessions and leading by example. A few times, when I had gigs at The Jazz Gallery, I would see Roy’s shadow in the back and we would often end up in a trumpet battle. And, when we did, he would kick my ass. That was the thing, you had to be on your shit. You didn’t know if Roy would show up. But you did know that when he did you would have a battle on your hands.

He just really lived the music. Even to the end as he was slowing down a little bit, he was still out there really playing. He is special to me. Without him, I wouldn’t be playing this music. I don’t know what I would be doing, but I definitely would not be playing this music.

TJG: Do you see a connection between your work with hip hop artists over the years—on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope), with Kool AD on Origami Harvest (Blue Note), and others—to Roy’s music with the Soulquarians and his RH Factor?

AA: I think what Roy knew was that it is all the same. Black music is ultimately all the same as it is all born from the same place. It is like a tree with branches. The branches may look slightly different but it is ultimately one tree. If you look at the 1970s with Herbie and the Headhunters, Weather Report, and all those things that were happening and then listen to hip hop coming out of the 1980s, it all makes sense. It is a natural progression. I think Roy was so great on those projects because he was so great at all the other stuff, playing blues and all types of black music. So, I think that is kind of what I am trying to get at too. I am just playing black music, I am just playing music. I am not dividing up into categories. So, for me, I could write a whole essay showing similarities in the music of D’Angelo and Bobby Timmons. Or Mahalia Jackson and Summer Walker. Or Johnny Hartman and Frank Ocean. I can see the links between them.

TJG: What can you tell me about the first time you visited The Jazz Gallery?

AA: I believe the first time I played there was with Yosvanny Terry. After the performance, Rio Sakairi asked me if I wanted to bring my own group. My first gig as a leader at the Gallery was with Tim Greene, Robert Glasper, John Sullivan on bass, and Jonathan Blake on drums. Though I had done gigs as a leader in the Bay Area before, it was my first as a leader in New York. I played there a few other times as well.

TJG: What is your most memorable moment at The Jazz Gallery? 

AA: I’m not sure I can narrow it down to a particular memory as there are so many vivid ones.

Overall, the Gallery created a community of artists. It was a place for everyone to communicate and I am sure these interactions generated a lot of interesting projects. The community was also multi-generational. I was one of the younger people and you’d see Jason Moran and Vijay [Iyer] and other cats there that I’d listened to on recordings. I remember just walking in there with the feeling of not knowing who you were going to see. But you always knew the music was going to be killing.

Then there was the Gallery’s amazing programming. For a while, they had a duo piano series. But one of the most interesting was Roy’s trumpet series where he would basically play with whoever his favorite trumpet players were at the moment. If you read through the list today, you would notice he picked a lot of musicians who are on the scene now; me, Jonathan Finlayson, Darren Barrett, Keyon Harrold, and Avishai Cohen were all among those selected. The series was partly trumpet battles with Roy but also learning experiences. Roy would mentor you and show you what it took to play on his level. You would stand next to him and watch him play some of the most amazing shit that you have ever heard. Even Nicholas Payton did a concert with Roy there. My two heroes were going at it! Nick played so hard that night it was ridiculous.

For a year or two, the Gallery also used to host jam sessions. Sometimes the rhythm section would be Gregory Hutchinson or Nasheet [Waits] on drums, Eric McPherson on bass, and Jason or Vijay on piano. I mean, that would be your house rhythm section [laughing]. It was fucking amazing. The music was sort of everything other than swing or bebop that was out there. It was completely other shit that was happening. And, honestly, everybody was there; Glasper was there and Bilal would come. Anyone that was sort of on the scene and considered creative was in that space during that time period. I guarantee it affected them and helped them musically. I remember hearing the craziest stuff and the jamming musicians would be hitting! You weren’t just up there playing a couple of chords. People were putting their all into it, up there sweating and hitting to really try to fully express themselves.

In terms of my developing as an artist or musician, these times at The Jazz Gallery were probably one of the most formative periods in my life. I have a lot of fond memories of the Gallery. I am very thankful they were around and that Rio gave me a chance. I am also grateful they are still around. I am sure a lot of my peers and contemporaries who had the same opportunities in that space are as well.