"Right now," the always-curious creator says, “I am seeking — as an artist who composes, improvises, and plays hand drums and percussion — to generate new creative processes that yield prototypical art expressions, which in turn contain archetypal sound images.”
If that’s a bit too big a mindful to get your head around, perhaps a listening tour would help. Two recent projects of Rudolph’s go a long way toward providing meat to the bones of those words of his about “prototypical art expressions” and “archetypal sound images.” Check out two discs Rudolph did with fellow artists Ralph Jones and Yusef Lateef, respectively. They bespeak a mother lode of ideas and expressions that contain Rudolph’s musical aesthetic. The aforementioned Yeyi is a collaboration with reed and flute player Jones, while Towards The Unknown is Rudolph’s most recent work with Lateef (both on Rudolph’s Meta Records label).
Yeyi, defined as “a wordless psalm of prototypical vibrations,” is a collection of ten pieces that was “performed in a continuous flow as a living dialogic narrative of sonic images and language forms punctuated by the coloration of silences.” Rudolph’s notes add that “track markers are for reference only.” In other words, Yeyi plays like a suite, where pauses are those “colorations of silences.” The music — composed by both artists and with titles such as “Dream Inflected,” “Celestial Space,” and “Leaf Writing” — is both rhythmic and melodic, with spontaneity and sonic surprises obvious hallmarks.
Towards The Unknown is made up of two sections: Rudolph’s “Concerto For Brother Yusef” (Rudolph conducting his Organic Orchestra) and Lateef’s “Percussion Concerto (For Adam Rudolph)” with the S.E.M. Ensemble. Both works feature both artists in the context of the orchestras, the music symphonic in character and definitely indicative of Rudolph’s methods as a creative artist. In some ways, Towards The Unknown plays like a symphonic equivalent of Yeyi.
Both recordings are fascinating portrayals of music played with intent but also performed “in the moment,” Rudolph’s musical maxims first and foremost the priorities. “I consider myself a composer/performer, composer/improviser,” he says, “and what I do as a composer informs what I do as a percussionist. And the evolution of my voice and language on hand drums also has an impact on how I think about composition. More and more, as time goes on, I’m focusing more on my projects that involve my compositional approach.”
It’s Rudolph’s compositional approach that sings in dialog with his work as a hand drummer who leads and collaborates. “My father has an incredible record collection,” Rudolph recalls about his early days growing up in Chicago. “He’s a huge lover of music, and during the ’60s he took me to hear Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, Mongo Santamaria, and Stan Getz. At the time I was learning traditional drumming, but I was also interested in the idea of developing a language on the hand drums that could play contemporary music. It was an intuition; there weren’t a lot of people doing that. I felt that it was a wide-open arena.
“I did play drum set for a while. But I would look at Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, and I would think, ‘Man, what is somebody gonna do beyond that?’ And then I looked at hand drums, and at that time, in the early ’70s, I could see that it was a wide-open arena to develop a prototypical language, a syncretic language on the hand drums to play creative music. So that was it, but it was intuitive. I was 14, 15 years old.”
Years later, while living in Ghana, Rudolph went to the Dogon and cliff dwellers in Mali, where, coming from another culture, he saw he could only go so far. "On the one hand," he says, "you study the particulars of a tradition — Bata drumming, and tabla, and others — and you have to look at the underlying principles of how the rhythm is organized, what’s underneath it, what’s the unifying principle, what’s the concept behind it. Then you can make some extrapolations and think about those things for yourself in terms of developing your own voice. You only have to hear one note to know it’s Elvin Jones or Roy Haynes. That was always my goal." Referring to Dogon and Mali, he mentions the concept of mi: “It’s that inner spirit of the person projected through the voice of the instrument and how he wants that in his playing.
"I’ve developed a very high level of prototypical virtuosity language on my hand drum setup," Rudolph notes. “One of the things I love about being a percussionist is you create your own instrumental palette. What I play is four hand drums standing up, and I have a djembe, which is in the set. I use thinner skins on my congas because I can apply the finger technique that I learned from tabla. So I’ve developed my own technique of playing, which is a combination of finger technique like you might have in tabla and full-hand technique like you would find in Cuban or West African drumming.”
Stepping back from the idea of labels, Rudolph mentions an overriding principle: “As Max Roach said, ‘I’d rather be a musician than a drummer, and I’d rather be an artist than a musician.’ In that way, I’m not fascinated by percussion for percussion’s sake. So, I’ve had to develop my own way of playing my hand drums to play the music I was composing and thinking about doing. And I’ve been really lucky that the collaborations that I’ve done have been with elder musicians who I’ve learned so much from. I would consider them mentors. For example, starting with Fred Anderson, the Contemporary Jazz Quintet, Don Cherry, Big Black, and the most important would be Yusef Lateef, who I met in 1988. He completely opened the door for me as an artist, as a composer, and as a person.”
“My philosophy about work,” Rudolph surmises, “is you shoot the arrow and you paint the bull’s-eye around it. What does that mean? For me, the way I do what I do is, my creative impulse, my intuition, started me out on this path. I didn’t even know what was going on, at 14, 15, being a hand-drummer; it wasn’t much a part of the music then. But it was the intuition, the creative impulse of what you feel you have a desire to do as a player or as a composer; then you have to find a way to do it.
“In the early ’80s,” he continues, “I was living in L.A., doing studio work, and then I quit it, did some teaching. I didn’t want to be a journeyman musician. It was a choice. I drew the line. In the ’90s I started a company called Rhythms Of Collaboration, which I still have, doing drum circles for corporations. With that I was able to underwrite a lot of my own creative programs, my own creative ideas.