Review: Rudy Royston in New York

The collective avant-groove of drummer Rudy Royston's band, 303, is dictated by the naked and the unexpected, says Patrick Flanary

Within minutes of Rudy Royston’s second set on Tuesday 28 June at the Village Vanguard in New York, the first of a six-night residency, the drummer and leader of the band 303 was already apologising. His impromptu solo brought Blade, a new song that thrived on its own suspense, to a sudden halt. “That was not how it was supposed to end,” Royston (pictured right by John Watson) admitted to the 27 people seated in the famed basement. “But—,” a smile flickered, “it just felt good.”

Feeling good for Royston, ironically, comes from his own need for discomfort, an unpredictability that drives him to navigate six musicians through uncertain terrain: the guitarist Nir Felder, the pianist Sam Harris, Jon Irabagon on alto sax, Nadje Noordhuis on trumpet and two bassists, Mimi Jones and Yasushi Nakamura. As a few straggling fans asked Royston after his earlier set, why two bass players? “Melody,” he told them, half-shrugging.

It was a revealing insight before the 10:30 show, and reflected Royston’s confidence in the “cats” he assembled to record 303, their 2014 album. Royston grew up in Denver (area code: 303), and in 2006 moved to New Jersey with his wife, the pianist Shamie Royston, and their two children. The drummer’s work with Bill Frisell and Wynton Marsalis helped establish Royston’s reputation in New York’s scene.

303 manoeuvred through an hour of material, some played for the first time, with Royston steering and every so often surrendering the driver’s seat to a fellow player. His subtle cues come more from quick smiles than from verbal direction. Within this dynamic, every member takes a solo, and every member knows their place. During Cold Moon Road Felder glided through several psychedelic minutes without ever opening his eyes. (“You gotta write that shit down,” Jones urged him after the show.)

Together, 303 construct improvised scenes, each unfolding in layers, many of them abstract, imposing statements. With fewer bodies in the audience to deflect the music, the little room roared, its acoustics stretching the band’s tension and timing to their limits.

In moments during Gangs Of New York Harris’s piano was at odds, even out of sync, with the others. It worked. He hurled curveballs, throwing his frail body into the keys as if chopping wood, somehow grounding the band without so much as a glance at anyone. At points Harris and Royston appeared locked in a friendly duel, though the two never once made eye contact.

Royston fathers this collective avant-groove, a deliberate balance between being barely there and all-in. He builds momentum in unconventional ways: rattling a metal shaker, sluggishly teasing the hi-hat with a pair of brushes. You realise this is the essence of Royston’s intuition and leadership—where the naked and the unexpected dictate his direction.

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