Adam Rudolph: Seeking The Creative Soul

Adam Rudolph

Adam Rudolph is one mellow dude. Beneath that calm exterior, however, lie the instincts of a jungle cat.

Rudolph’s soft beard, ethnic attire, and warm eyes keep easy company with an urbane, jazzy diction, his way in the world fostered by an unlikely upbringing in 1960s Chicago, where jazz, blues, and the avant-garde mingled with the new music coming from every corner of the planet. It’s an upbringing that’s taken him all over the place, and had him studying, living, and working in spots as diverse as Oberlin College in Ohio, Ghana, Los Angeles (via Sweden), Brooklyn, and now near South Orange, New Jersey, a spot he’s been calling home for almost three years.

The Tireless Mr. Rudolph

Wherever he is, Rudolph is always working, hot on the world’s trail of all things musical. Overlapping the week prior to when this story was turned in, for example, this hand-drumming spinning top had just returned from a weekend at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, where he played in duet with the legendary reed and flute player Yusef Lateef for his 90th birthday, at Grace Cathedral; flew home the next day where he spent Sunday and Monday mailing out copies from online orders of his rhythm book Pure Rhythm (Advance Music) and his new Meta CD releases Yeyi (with Ralph Jones) and Towards The Unknown, his concerto for Lateef featuring his Organic Orchestra strings and percussion concerto (with chamber orchestra).

At the same time, he prepared a new Organic Orchestra score, “Ostinatos Of Circularity,” for the New York City Organic Orchestra, the group playing Mondays at Roulette in Manhattan during the month of November. Also, he worked on scores for the Organic Orchestra concept, which he taught and performed with the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble at Dartmouth College the following week.

All the while, as he put it, “I practiced my hand drums.”

That Tuesday, he practiced more with his hand drums and prepared charts and rehearsed with Moving Pictures, the group working on his new compositions. The next day, he had a concert with Moving Pictures at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge club, and on Thursday he drove to Dartmouth with Ralph Jones to give an evening workshop with the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble. Friday was dedicated to returning home and having lunch with Lateef in Amherst. Saturday was a Yeyi CD release concert at the Nublu Jazz Festival back in New York City, while Sunday was about rhythm section rehearsals with the New York City Organic Orchestra, which did its regular Monday-night gig at Roulette the following night. Those in attendance witnessed Rudolph conducting 42 musicians!

Tuesday through Saturday of that second week, Rudolph did his residency at Dartmouth, where, during his free time, he worked on his upcoming book, tentatively titled Process And Prototype. The week culminated in a Saturday concert by the Organic Orchestra with students and a performance with a percussion trio of his rhythm concepts, featuring Brahim Fribgane and James Hurt, both of whom are percussionists with the Organic Orchestra.

That was most of what took place during just two fertile weeks of creative activity. No wonder he has so many credits next to his name.

The Prototypical Artist

And that’s what Rudolph’s been doing for lo these many years as a musician, conductor, composer, and bandleader.

From that abbreviated itinerary listed above, one can gather a handful of autobiographical items, one of which has to do with the groups Rudolph’s been leading for a while now, the mainstays being his Moving Pictures and Organic Orchestra ensembles. These groups and others that he has any say with are driven by a musical intellect that is always searching, reaching for newer and more profound musical truths. The intellectual air sometimes can become quite rarified.

“What I am currently researching,” says Rudolph, “is how cosmologies from various cultures inform music itself. Also what is spirit manifest as sound? What is the personal and collective wellspring of creative music?


"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.”

The Unifying Principle

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.”

The Arrow & The Bull’s-Eye

“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.


"Now that I’ve moved to New York," he says, "I’m lucky to be doing enough things with enough people to be financially okay. Being a percussionist now is being a really valid part of a lot of musical situations. What I meant by that bull’s-eye statement was you have to be creative not just in your music but in your life, and think about how to make it work. I’m doing this combination of teaching residencies, subbing at NYU. I do some sideman things, not a lot. I’d rather be doing my group all the time. It varies more widely than the stock market itself." [laughs]

When Rudolph is asked about his own gigs versus doing other gigs, he notes, “Last spring we went on tour with my Moving Pictures; I got two grants from Chamber Music America and other projects where, for like a month, I was focused on my music. I want to take Moving Pictures to Europe ... that’s my heart and soul. As a percussionist, as a composer, philosophically, everything gets projected through to that. It’s not like I want to be a bandleader, but I have a concept.

"Being a hand drummer has been a mixed blessing in a lot of ways," he reflects. "Every band doesn’t have a hand drummer. So, in a way, you do have to automatically think about other things, other ways to make money. So I go into teaching, or these corporate drum circles, or whatever.

But the other thing that’s been very cool to me about being a hand drummer — what I love about it — your role in the group isn’t so predetermined. It’s kind of hard for people to break out of the orchestration of this music. Yusef Lateef told me it was that way back in the ’50s. Who decided that you had to have drums, bass, and piano to play music? And play a certain way? It’s like saying, ‘I’m only going to eat Granny Smith apples and that’s it.’ So, as a percussionist, I wasn’t ever fitting into the ensemble with a particular kind of role or function. That’s always been really liberating, but it’s also made me sort of like … you’re kind of an outsider, and yet sort of in the jazz world."

Making the understatement of this interview, Rudolph tags it all when he concludes, "Being a percussionist and being sort of outside of things has allowed me to move into another way of thinking."

Rudolph's Rig

Adam Rudolph

Drums: Valje (mid-'60s vintage)
1 12" x 30" Tumba with thick goatskin
2 12.5" x 30" Tumba with thick cowhide
3 12.5" x 24" Djembe (Ivory Coast) with antelope skin
4 11.5" x 30" Conga with thin cowhide
5 7.5" x 10.5" Dumbek (Jordan)
6 18.5" x 9" Contemporanea Zabumba (Brazil)
7 4"—5" Tarijas (Morocco) with goatskin

A 15.5" cymbal (Turkey)

B Tea Tin (India)
C Iron Bells (Nigeria)

Adam Rudolph also uses Tama hardware.