Artist Feature: Drummer Devin Gray

Originally from Maine, drummer Devin Gray has been active in New York City for over a dozen years. His two main projects as a leader have been Dirigo Rataplan, a quartet with saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, trumpeter Dave Ballou, and bassist Michael Formanek, and RelativE ResonancE, a quartet with reedist Chris Speed, pianist Kris Davis, and bassist Chris Tordini. He has also been a driving figure in the collaborative experimental music performance group VAX, together with keyboardist Liz Kosack and saxophonist Patrick Breiner.

Dirigo Rataplan, derived from separate Latin and French words, translates as “leading from the beat.” The band has just released a self-titled record on Gray’s new label Rataplan Records, featuring ten exquisite tracks. The band has a record release tour in early October:

  • October 1 – Bowdoin College, Kanbar Auditorium, Brunswick, ME
  • October 2 – University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH
  • October 3 – UMA, Jewett Hall Auditorium, Augusta, ME
  • October 4 – SPACE, Portland, ME
  • October 5 – Firehouse 12, New Haven, CT
  • October 6 – An Die Musik Live, Baltimore, MD
  • October 7 – The October Revolution, Philadelphia, PA

And also a New York release and European tour in December:

  • December 1 – Greenwich House Music School, New York City
  • December 4 – Korzo, Brooklyn, NY
  • December 6 – SMAK, Ghent, Belgium
  • December 7 – The Vortex, London, UK
  • December 8 – AMR, Geneva, Switzerland
  • December 9 – Conservatory of Music, Geneva, Switzterland
  • December 10 – Villa Irniger, Zurich, Switzerland

I had an opportunity to interview Gray about his work recently.

Cisco Bradley: What has been your vision for Dirigo Rataplan?

Devin Gray: Improvising and trying to be as honest as I can with the compositions and my truest musical self to date. I’m trying to explore and stretch my knowledge in every direction because there is so much to learn and experience, there are so many ideas that I would like to see come to light. That’s just a few.

CB: How did DR come together as a band? How has it evolved? Any surprises along the way?

DG: In short, I met Dave Ballou at the Maine jazz camp when I was a student of about 14 years of age. I was already way into music and playing with my friends and in the school jazz bands but was totally blown away by what Dave and Tony Malaby and John Hebert and John O’Gallagher and Jeff Williams were up to . . . they had so much knowledge and experience in a world I knew nothing about . . . it gave me some fire!

I went to Peabody in Baltimore and Michael Formanek moved there, then Ballou casually said, “just get a regular gig” and so I did. That was trio in 2005 (I think there’s an unreleased live recording somewhere around). That’s also when I started writing because we were playing Formanek and Ballou’s music a little bit. So I first started trying to compose for that gig for them back then.

Eventually I moved to NYC in 2006 and then started playing sessions/etc w Ellery Eskelin around 2007/8. Then put the group together like that. We started playing more in NYC around 2009? And we recorded my music in 2011 and the debut record came out in 2012. To me it’s evolved nicely . . . As I always wished we could be playing more. I like the idea of bands even if it’s just whenever people can make it. I also like the idea of just improving with improvisers all over the world . . . and I will continue doing that but when it comes to my music I really want people to work on the ideas and for the concepts to be realized over time. Also my compositions are . . . kind of hard? So it’s not just hit and go all of the time, there have always been some very specific ideas that I am trying to express musical with my composing and with Dirigo Rataplan.

I am so happy with the way these guys deal with me and my music . . . it’s so important to me and they (as we all know) are incredible masters. I am really looking forward to our upcoming tours where we will get many more chances to keep working on these ideas!

Surprises along the way . . . many. But my first real learning experience was that I needed to dig really deep inside myself to make this work, mostly out of simple logistics, schedules/time/money/focus. It was really really hard back then. Now I think I’ve gotten a little bit better about it at least or more aware of what to try to expect from what can happen correctly and incorrectly in the music and just in general/dealing as a full time musician . . .

CB: Could you elaborate about the “very specific ideas” you have been exploring?

DG: Specific ideas such as feeling like I am in the right place (mostly out of comfort and trust) to express a new musical thought that I have been having or coming up with for many years and just didn’t have the strength to try.

More specifically like in the record the last piece is “Micro Dosage.” And I really am very happy with the way that was played and I can’t wait to keep trying that. I would like to do all of my music like that in a staggered free improvisation but actually thru composed position. That piece isn’t just free improv. I love open free improv but a lot of times it falls into predicted zones or expressions which i like to try to avoid or at least not predict.

“Micro dosage” is about rhythm and freedom. We all say how we want to play it in our own way. Long time musicians and band leaders like Miles Davis or Ornette Coleman have been large influences on my thinking as an artist. I like to think about how I approach musicians with my music, like here’s the idea and we go for it, no more talking. This band does that, and this piece is a strong representative of the musical qualities i search for in my life.

The approach to the ink is not to be slept on. I am looking for the highest level musician improvisors in the world to be able to play my music with. I am really aiming for SKILLS, and I feel that sometimes a lot of people somehow forget that. I am searching for advancing improvisation and composition. I want more out of the music but at the same time I am trying to cultivate as naturally as possible the truest feeling i have while performing my music for people. I am trying to convey my life and experiences through sound. In this sense, Anthony Braxton and Iannis Xenakis are also names that comes to mind as some serious ascetic influences for me.

Other times I try to just let the writing do what it wants to do. I just let it follow its own natural tendencies and try to not judge it too much unless I really can’t stand or won’t be able to live with the way it resonates in my body.

CB: Can you talk about some of the stories/meaning/etc behind individual tracks on your new record, just released on your new label?

DG: Yes, this is the first release on my new label called Rataplan Records, how fitting right? I am looking forward to the next choices with the label and seeing what’s possible in these modern times musical industry.

“Congruently.”

I think I want to express more with less, perhaps less space and time. I think a lot or the same can often be said simply. I am also into short tracks via my pop music influences and often think, why do we always have long tracks? Or maybe more importantly I’m experimenting with lengths of expression. This tune is about momentum/kinda like the NYC thing, keep running ahead.

“Rollin’ Thru Town”

I wrote this while on an off day in Switzerland during a tour where after some grueling transportation situations I finally found myself in a deck in the sun and felt relaxed after 20+ painful hours. I knew what I wanted to express. Music that was fully composed but sounds improvised. The parts are kind of like that. I am excited to see what the band does with it on the road a bunch of nights in a row. Really excited! The title is also kind of referring to that movement of just going forward. My state of being was just that: rolling thru town and just leaving some notes around, dropping down notes and rolling back out on the road. It’s kinda like tour in general. You show up where you’re playing, and just give notes and sound and music, give all you can and then keep it moving.

“Trends of Trending”

Think seriously about this. Like how cultures are just blending, mono culture, an insane amount in the USA. But also in the world. What’s that word? Globalization?

How is everyone seemingly finding out about the exact same things all the time? A simple classical example: I remember going to Europe years ago and being so surprised to see 7-11, Subway sandwiches, Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, etc everywhere. Why? Why are you copying everything? Especially when music happens: do not copy. If jazz is about copying then I failed myself with flying colors, thankfully.

I mean for politics and for the greater good/cause/awareness, yes trending can be good. But all this BS about people just doing the first thing they see and following the crowd, that’s not what I got into music for. It’s one of the reasons why I write my own music, all those years of studying other music? And you don’t / “can’t” write any of your own? Are you serious? ?  That scares me man. Where are your thoughts? High or low, good or bad. It’s like being an American who doesn’t want Trump in office but also doesn’t vote: hello? I try to expect more from myself and from people, I want to dig deeper. Please don’t copy the newest trend, it’s rotting your brain.

“Texicate”

I am still fascinated with the internet and modern ways of communicating with each other (humans and robots). But I’d rather it be humans in a room experiencing (giving and taking) direct and thoughtful communications. This phrase is about texting/communicating. Texicate about it. I relate it to music and improvised music, just talk, let it out, say what you need to say, I’m here, I’ll hear it.

“The Wire”

Direct reference to the David Simon’s HBO show (one of my all time faves). But most important the wanting to bring awareness to the roughness of the streets and unfairness & inequality of the racial divide that from my view is still in full bloom down there and it hurts me to see. I moved to Baltimore from white Maine. Right into downtown Black Baltimore and the way I was raised, I didn’t even get it. I was out walkin’ the streets without even flinching an eye. Because why? Why should it matter? Treat everyone the same, but that’s not been the situation in a lot of America’s history.

That’s the situation there. Here. Still. I hope to try to bring awareness to the divide and real lack of understanding of many people but somehow I think the wealthy white are still living with guilt. Especially as they become more wealthy. I mean come on, get off yer high horses and help people, the disparity is causing a shit load of problems here. It’s in the air you can feel it.

Now, Europe is also having similar issues with race and integration with refugees through globalization and the dealings of their right wing parties…

“Quantum Cryptology”

Slower perhaps more intimate approach. I love melody so much. I think melody is so important to me because rhythm and sound came to me first so “easily” but not so much harmony and melody, meaning the inner details of harmony and of music in general. I think about composition kind of like an old camera lens, where you really have to focus on each shot before you take it, because each subject is very different, with light and depth and color and all of those great qualities we try to balance when we are creating something meaningful. I am actually proud of the melodies on this record and I stand by them because they are my life and my experiences.

“What We Learn from Cities”

Again, melody with mixed tempos, super juxtaposed material.

“The Feeling of Healing”

This piece is a dedication to an old Maine teacher and friend of mine, Steve Grover. He passed away while I was in tour in Germany the summer we recorded this and in the studio his name came up and it was all really sad. Steve was an encyclopedia of music and jazz. He was there for me in not just musical ways but also friendship and life advice for many years. It started out as a fan then teacher then friendship. I will cherish and remember all of the time we spent together playing and hanging. We even did a few really fun duet gigs in Maine.

Steve was a great drummer/composer/educator in the state of Maine for his whole life. He died young (60) and his compositions are gems of the jazz world. He played with so many great players and it’s how I was first introduced to Dave Ballou, thru Steve’s music, because of Boston and Berkeley and all of these ties. Steve was a serious student of the music all the way to the end, constantly composing and practicing and making new records and project of his music. Quite a large influence early on.

I think I went to take a lesson with him as soon as I could drive at age 16. It was about 45 mins away and I loved taking that trip and listening to things all the way up and back. He gave me energy and knowledge and wisdom for this music. I am in debt to him forever. Now the music we play on the track. I could or could not say is directly related to that story but in his spirit of improvisation and exploration it’s all in there. I also really like how the band plays in this vibe as well, they can play anything.

“Intrepid Travelers”

This is an ode or rather a tribute to all the road warriors out there, making those 6.30 am flights and 10 hour train rides to make the gig. I also am experimenting with free counterpoint and polyphony in the composition. I think about layers of harmony. 3 part harmony plus me, a challenging situation for me as a drummer to try to shape it all. Formanek takes a nice solo. It’s almost a somber and optimistic composition. Though perhaps I’m suggesting to stay away from the 7 am flights …

“Micro Dosage”

This is perhaps my favorite musical track. This is what I want my music to be more like.

CB: How did you get on the path to being a musician?

DG: My neighbors in Maine had/have (still) a band that I could hear rehearsing from my house. The drummer would practice all the time. He was amazing and still is. He told me to practice my rudiments when I was like 8, I didn’t, but now I am! Just hearing the sound of drums blasting out loud in the neighborhood makes my ears go crazy still to this day . . . sound . . . it’s so great. I’m pretty sure I could listen to music all day every day and be fine with it.

Fortunately I get to play and make music very often. I just kept and keep thinking about what I want to do with my life and my time and I really just want to keep doing music as much as possible, quite simple actually. Oh and also eating really good food and being around amazing people and art all the time . . . I guess music is a good conduit for that.

CB: What impact did moving to NYC have on you?

DG: There are SO many influences over the 12 years I’ve been here it’s crazy. First, energy, and tempo. The speed in which things can, or do not, or should and aren’t moving is still endlessly fascinating to me. Not just the trains, and not only in the hustle, but it comes down to the micro tempos that everyone is living in and experiencing VERY differently and then there are a lot of them we experience at the same time.

Everyone is subjected to a lot of the same. You aren’t special. You have to deal with what’s in front of you. If that means dark shit then so be it. Or the most amazing and inspiring things right next to that in a flash: it’s about juxtaposition.

Dont judge. Wait. Have EVEN more patience. If you rush everything (especially music and art) I don’t think that’s a good thing.

I also like to try to stay as open to everything as possible. Why not go to that insane roof top party in midtown with 1k bottle service that your friend is buying for you, and then go to the Jazz Gallery and check out Kris Davis, then do a dive bar in Bushwick and dig the avant emo punk band on tour from Korea and on and on . . . and on and on . . . I mean what other town and roll fully like that? I haven’t found it yet.

I love trying to check out as much stuff as possible, even if it’s in the same thread like “jazz” concerts or whatever it is. I really don’t like how QUICKLY I see a lot of people making judgments. I like to experience things and let them grow on me and then maybe make some decisions. I think a lot of New Yorkers and artist possess these types of experiences and views. Then there’s also the opposite which is knowing EXACTLY what you want/like/go for.

But I don’t always feel the need to express my opinion all the time out loud. I mean listen to the music, it’s all in there and if it’s not, go to EVERY gig and check it out. Learn something. I think I’m slightly addicted to the NYC day to day experience. It’s always wild and unpredictable if you keep an open mind that is (easier said than done).

I mean I’ve been back from Europe for 3 weeks and I’ve seen insane shit. Kind of sad, makes me reflect about America. Like what are we doing here? The way we, or rather capitalism treats people, wow.

CB: Who/what was most influential in shaping your aesthetics as an artist?

DG: Yikes, really hard. There have been so many amazing people in my life. I am so thankful for this and it continues . . .

Aesthetics: not sure i want to answer directly to that but heavy early influences were the great poet Paul Lichter, saxophonist Tony Malaby, and Gary Thomas’ approaches to melody harmony and rhythm. I think starting to play and tour in Europe back in 2004 really changed my views on the world and opened my eyes to what America/jazz was from a VERY different perspective. I think that’s why I feel funny sometimes about how some people are approaching the tradition still here. I mean don’t get me wrong I absolutely love the tradition. I couldn’t wait to get to my jazz band rehearsals that started at 6:50 am in middle and high school…seriously… how much fun is playing music? Amazing.

Other answers could include living in Baltimore, NYC, and Berlin.

CB: What musicians and/or recordings have been most influential on you?

DG: Woo, this is really really hard. How about just 5 musicians and 5 records that are coming to my mind right now on this day while I ride this Q train and type this on my phone? It’s for sure all over the place which is something I really like about music, why not listen to it all? I think having many influences is a big part of the way I think about/practice and do music in my life. Being open to what I think is great at that time in my life is important to me.

Musicians:

  1. Joe Henderson
  2. Peter Brotzmann
  3. Jason Moran
  4. Cecil Taylor
  5. Gerald Cleaver
  6. Roy Haynes

Recordings:

  1. Ornette Coleman – Science Fiction
  2. Tim Berne – Science Friction
  3. Eric Dolphy – Far Cry
  4. Evan Parker/Paul Bley/Barre Phillips – Time Will Tell
  5. Death Grips – The Money Store
  6. The Necks – Mindset

Cover photo credit: Shelley Thomas

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