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.